Artificial Intelligence & The Polycrisis

May 5, 2023

Editor & Author’s Preface:

This piece doesn’t explain itself much, nor argue effectively (with citations and footnotes), but speaks to those who have already come to understand the situation in — at least — the basic shape I have. To do otherwise would require months of work, if not years. So this is a distilled essay for those who are waking up from the trance I’ve been awakening from.  But many of us are waking up now. It is meant to open a conversation, not to provide a full explanation or argument. It will help if the reader has viewed this presentation: The A.I. Dilemma – March 9, 2023 – YouTube But if you have not viewed this presentation, it’s okay to watch and listen after having read my highly distilled essay.

First, let me explain what I mean when I say “polycrisis,” as not everyone means precisely the same thing by this term. I increasingly say “polycrisis” when invoking a larger (more comprehensive) framing on topics such as climate change / global warming, the biodiversity crisis, our emerging global economic and political crises, etc. We can discuss any of these matters in some degree of independence or isolation from one another, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that conceptualizing and treating any of these in isolation results in a fundamentally inadequate—and ultimately mistaken—understanding of any of these. I find it profoundly useful to contemplate “the polycrisis” in relation to process-relational ontology and epistemology—which is to say in terms of a singular event comprised of multiple simultaneous, interconnected and entwined events. The many events can be understood as a single event. This is roughly to say that the polycrisis is best understood as an historical event which, when seen holistically, is a singular event less than it is merely many discrete events.

It is not a matter of chance or happenstance that the rather extreme and dangerous biodiversity crisis has reached an emergency level of unfolding catastrophe at the very same historical moment as the climate crisis. These two are best understood as facets of the very same historical event — an event often characterized as planetary ecological overshoot. And while these two facets are of crucial importance in this time in history, they are merely two of a long laundry list of factors or facets of a single ecological crisis. These parts are entangled in a whole, as are all of the others.

As an eco-cultural philosopher, I have specialized in an emerging field of inquiry which seeks to understand the ecological crises of our historical moment in relation to culture—which is to say cultural history and evolution.

Having contemplated the anthropogenic ecological crisis in this way over many years has resulted in my gradual development of a paradigmatic orientation to the polycrisis, which I presently understand mainly as a political crisis for all of humanity and the whole of our living Earth. It’s a crisis of all life on Earth—all species. Full stop.

The political crisis of our time — the polycrisis — is, I think, best understood as a crisis of education. But to fully grasp what I mean here would require a radical reframing of the term “education”. That’s a task ahead for us to contemplate and discuss. I will not attempt to flesh out all of the reasons for this framing in this essay. My purpose in this essay is mainly to hint at the paradigm I’m now employing as a philosopher of culture. The scholarly and journalistic task ahead isn’t for me alone, but for all of us together. My aim is to hint at why a non-violent, non-insurrectionary revolution is now entirely necessary and urgent.

By “political” I mean simply “decision making in groups”. Unlike many, I do not restrict the political dimension of our lives to that which happens in governments. Only some decision-making in groups happens within governments, per se. (This gives me some hope!) And I would say that in the very near future the popular notion of “politics” which constrains “the political” to that which happens within governments will become obviously obsolete to the majority of humans on Earth. That is, this framing of “politics” has truly reached—and exceeded—the limits of its usefulness.

“Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

For those of us who have been paying attention to recent extraordinary “advancements” in artificial intelligence, it is becoming increasingly clear that current AI technology isn’t merely a new “advancement” in technology. Rather, the exponentially explosive expansion of AI capabilities and capacities stands as a potential disruption of human culture unlike any which the world has experienced before. Even many of the experts in AI who invented this new technology are warning us that the disruptive potential of AI is flatly dangerous, and puts us all into an entirely novel collective risk situation—, the likes of which the world has never before seen.

There is almost no way to exaggerate how utterly novel and extraordinary the trajectory of current AI technology “advancement” is in a cultural historical context. In recent days, I almost feel as if I’m dwelling within a science fiction novel or movie! It’s a movie or novel so strange and unnerving that it sometimes feels as if an alien species has landed on Earth, en masse, from some distant galaxy. Imagine a scenario in which flying saucers (or something like these) are hovering over all of the world’s capital buildings. It’s that strange. It’s that portentous. It’s that risky and dangerous. But, worse still, the arrival of this AI challenge to our adaptive capacities is occurring precisely at the historical moment in which all of the other facets of the polycrisis are reaching a kind of historical crescendo or apogee.


Ask any expert on psychological trauma to explain or define psychological trauma in a single word, and 94% (a guess and estimate) will ponder a moment and say… overwhelm. But what is overwhelm? Overwhelm is a condition — be it chronic or acute — in which one’s adaptive capacities are stretched to a breaking point (chronic or acute). Overwhelm — and trauma — are not merely an event occurring for individuals. Oftentimes overwhelm and trauma are collective on a vast scale of populations. World Wars one and two were in this collective sense traumatic. They overwhelmed our collective capacities to adjust and adapt. But we made our way through these collective traumas, and we all carry the weight—the burden—as survivors. Even those of us who were not present at the time are living in a field of trauma from the days of the Great Wars. But it wasn’t long after those wars concluded (ostensibly) that we found ourselves in the present polycrisis — which itself is overwhelming and inevitably traumatizing. Capitalist industrialism has been traumatizing from its inception. So as I write this, inevitably, I’m writing as one carrying a burden of trauma. We all are. But we’re just getting started! And the current iteration of AI arrived on our doorstep just when we needed it most! (Sadly.)

When I say “just when we needed it most” I’m half bitterly ironic and half straightforward and precise—, sincere. We needed this! We could not have had our necessary revolution without it. But to know what I mean, dear reader, you’ll have to begin to get the hint I’ve been hinting at. I’m hinting at the paradigm which underlies and explains why non-violent and non-insurrectionary revolution isn’t optional — why it cannot be avoided or evaded. How it makes its large scale perspectival sense. Why it is perfectly reasonable and rational to revolt against The Machine.

No machine has ever been so powerful as the emerging AI machine. That is its allure. That’s what’s driving it! It is driven to do the same thing as all machines have done so far in history. It has provided us (or some of us) with an extension of our powers. But please understand that all of history is a history of a singular system: a system of power-over, of domination, of dominion, of control. All power is ultimately political power, which is ultimately decision-making power. And all power tends to orient in one of two ways. That is, all power either empowers us all or it empowers a few.

So far, through what we call “history,” power over others (be they human or otherwise) has been the principal form of political (decision-making) power. This, indeed, is what we have long meant by “political power”. Political power, through history, has mainly been understood through a paradigm of political power oriented around and toward accumulation, concentration, centralization and hoarding of power — which I call “centripetal” power. Centripetal power systems are modelled on hierarchies of access to powerThis is what led us into the polycrisis. It was inevitable from within its own paradigm. Power is the means by which one accumulates, concentrates and centralizes power. And in this centripetal paradigm of concentration and centralization of power, power is used to accumulate yet more power into a centralized “us” in relation to a “them.”

Technology has been a principal means of access to power since the beginning, but technological modernism has dramatically extended the ancient capacity of the centripetal power system which has ancient roots in the capacity to make fire, domesticate plants and animals, make tools, and eventually craft machines.

AI technology—like most all technologies—has been, will continue to be … used in service to the hierarchical system of power-over (dominion, empire, control, dominion) until it is not. Until it is not, AI will extend and expand the power of the already powerful—whether as “wealth” or otherwise. (A careful examination of wealth-as-power reveals “wealth” as a form of decision-making power, and nothing else.)

[Personally, I think AI is both ultimately unnecessary and unhelpful, even if it were to be in the hands of those who serve centrifugal power against power hoarding dominators. I believe it cannot be made to serve mutuality of empowerment.]

The opposite of centripetal power, of course, is centrifugal power. Centripetal power asks “How can I use this power to overpower, dominate, control, oppress … so that I (or “we”) can better exploit “the other”? (Others) The answer to this question in modern times has been reducible to a single word: ownership — a word synonymous with property (under the cover of “the private sphere”) This is the kind of power which the billionaires have. And who pays the bills for AI “development”. Billionaires do—, and their corporations.

Centripetal power dynamics is driven by the desire of extraction, accumulation, empire, domination, dominion, concentration, hoarding.

Centrifugal power is driven by the desire to enter into relationship — which I sometimes call simply “community”. Centrifugal power seeks to empower others, not to exploit them, use them, treat them as an extractive resource. It treats the more-than-human (David Abram) world in much the same way. It seeks to empower life to be free, alive, flourishing, self-determining.

AI arrives on our doorstep just now (sadly) because it had to. It had to arrive to wake us up from our collective trance around technology, which is to say our collective trance around relationship, ownership and power. Our task is to take the hint. It will not be easy. Nothing like this has ever happened before. We may pull out of this nosedive, but only by the skin of our teeth.

The Paradigm

In my overwhelm, have I begun to make the paradigm I’m thinking within just a little more clear? I’m trying to hint at why AI has landed in our world at the very least opportune time. Its arrival on our doorstep just now will make adapting and adjusting to the previous iterations of the polycrisis of dominion and empire all the more adaptively challenging. Odds are, it will break us, sadly. We’re not up to the task, because we’re operating within the wrong paradigm — a paradigm of politics which is centered on accumulating power, not distributing it. AI offers economic and political advantages to those who would use it to manipulate, control, exploit, dominate… and build the empire of hierarchical exploitation. It is gasoline on an already exiting fire which has already overtaken our world.

* * *

The revolution is love.

Love is the revolution.



Teaser photo credit: This file is from the Open Clip Art Library, which released it explicitly into the public domain (see here).

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: AI, building resilient societies, polycrisis