What we seek to save when we seek to save the world
Why yes, the answer involves a 2x2
This essay is part of the Protocol Narratives series
The idea of “saving the world” seems at once sophomoric and significant to me. It is a clumsy thought, but one that is earnestly and restlessly entertained by vast and energetic segments of the population in a way that can actually shape global events. It is usually easier to see what savior types are trying to save the world from, than what that world actually is, or how precisely the threat is supposed to destroy it. The threats that provoke savior responses are generally more legible than the worlds that the saviors seek to save, or the mechanisms of destruction.
I tried asking people on Farcaster and Bluesky what exactly they were trying to save when they talked of saving the world, and got a variety of interesting and illuminating answers. Based on those, I made up a 2x2 to classify the notions of worlds-to-save that people seem to have. The two axes are biological scope and temporal scope.
Biological scope is the range of living beings included as subjects in the definition of world. Loosely speaking, it is the we in a construction like we must act to save our world. One person cannot constitute a world because one person is too mortal. Even a few is not enough. It takes more than a few individual living beings to make a self-perpetuating world-size we. If you have too few individuals in the we, the second dimension of temporal scope becomes degenerate.
Temporal scope is the range of time over which any act of world-saving seeks to preserve a historical consciousness associated with the biological scope. Worlds exist in time more than they do in space.
Temporal scope is a subtle dimension. A temporally narrow concern for the world that does not extend past the lifespan boundaries of the currently living is somewhat incoherent. Since all that lives must die anyway, it is hard to see why death-by-world-scale-crisis makes any difference. A world only acquires the kind of value that calls for “saving” if it has a historical consciousness of itself as having an indefinitely extended past and future. This means including the dead and the unborn in the calculus somehow. This is a perfectly valid way to attend to concerns that might otherwise be ignored. After all, many physics problems are solved by invoking fictive constructs like “virtual work” for computational convenience, and mathematics is full of things like imaginary numbers that play roles in solving perfectly real problems. There is no reason to hold the problem of constructing a historical consciousness to different standards.
For biologically expansive scopes of world that extend beyond human life, humans must play the role of harboring the historical consciousness that makes the world worth saving. Elephants and orcas can maintain a local historical consciousness spanning perhaps a few generations, but most life entirely lacks the capacity to think of itself as part of a historically imagined world that might occasionally be in need of saving. The individual dinosaur in the Jurassic did not have any significant capacity to distinguish between its own survival and that of its species (do not try to take a velociraptor’s eggs though). The idea of a mass extinction would not have been comprehensible to even the brightest dinosaur. There were no dinosaur historians, and there was no end of history for dinosaurs, except in the imagination of humans. All the dinosaurs that happened to be living at a particular time just died (except for the ones that reinvented themselves as birds I suppose; though I doubt those bird-brains have any historical trauma about their ancestors being wiped out by the asteroid).
Two more prefatory comments before we get to the 2x2:
First, worlds-to-save rarely actually extend to the limits of the literal world of even human affairs, let alone the entirety of the physical planet. Worlds-to-save are not quite what some theorists refer to as planetarities. Still, world is an appropriate term because biological and temporal scope are typically large enough that they organize understandings of what is either not accommodated at all, or only accommodated in very coarse ways. Often some obvious missing bits are deliberately left out because they are modeled as part of the threat. Sometimes, the flip side of a desire to save a particular world is a genocidal impulse that seeks to destroy another world.
Second, there are also such things as worlds past saving. Indigenous worlds and knowledge systems are examples. While there are brave attempts to include the tragic remnants as living traditions within more robustly present worlds, they mostly lack the potency to truly re-enter the larger save-the-world circus. But what they do offer is actual examples of what worlds that weren’t saved look like. The typical fate of an unsaved world is shrinkage to sub-world status. Failure to save a particular world, despite the apocalyptic imaginings of the saviors, is rarely the same thing as planetary doom. The planet can survive the disappearance of most worlds it sustains, much as a physical computer can survive the crash of most virtual machines running on it.
Constructing a 2x2 out of the biological and temporal scope dimensions we get the following view of worlds-to-save, with representative savior types who strive to save them.
The four quadrants identify four kinds of worlds that people seem to implicitly have in mind when they express a desire to save the world. And based on the kind of world they mean, they identify themselves as particular kinds of saviors.
A brief tour of the quadrants:
Deep temporal scope combined with a narrow biological scope gives us civilizations for worlds, ethnocentrists as saviors. Those who worry about the Decline of the West, or celebrate the Rise of China, talk of sanatana dharma in India, or favor the phrase barbarians at the gates, are typically of this disposition. For ethnocentrists, saving the world often reduces to preserving a race or ethnicity (or a narrow set of races and ethnicities), along with the associated civilizational heritage. The End of the World is imagined in collapse-of-civilization terms. Failure is represented by visions (often architectural) of ruins of high civilizational achievement, or the juxtaposition of supposed current degeneracy and past high-watermark achievements.
Shallow temporal scope combined with a broad biological scope gives us technological modernity for a world, and cosmopolitans for saviors. A shallow temporal scope does not imply lack of historical imagination or curiosity. It merely means less of history being marked for saving. For cosmopolitans, saving the world often reduces to preserving and expanding contemporary technological potentialities into the future. In a way, the contemporary technological landscape is viewed as being a sufficiently accurate summary state of all that’s worth saving of history. The End of the World is imagined in terms of rapid loss of scientific knowledge and technological capabilities. Failure is imagined in terms of ignorance of human remnants.
Shallow temporal scope combined with narrow biological scope gives us a world defined by a stable landscape of modern nations (usually with a preferred nation or nations in the lead), and patriots for saviors. For patriots, saving the world often reduces to preserving or expanding their own nation’s presence and stature in the geopolitical landscape, and keeping both relative national decline and global stateless anarchy at bay. The End of the World is imagined in terms of descent to stateless anarchy. Failure is imagined as a Hobbesian condition of endemic (but not necessarily primitive or ignorant) warfare.
And finally, the most fragile kind of world you can imagine trying to save: one with both a broad biological scope, and a deep temporal scope. This is the world as wildernesses. I call saviors in this quadrant Gaians, since James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is an example of the most ambitious constructs of this sort. The fact that it is labeled a hypothesis tells you how fragile this idea of a world is, and how nebulous the notion of saving it must necessarily be. A Gaian historical consciousness is some mix of geological deep-time consciousness, a wilderness/natural-history consciousness, and a human historical consciousness. The End of the World is imagined in terms of ecological devastation and reduction of the planet to conditions incapable of sustaining most life. Failure is imagined in terms of forced extreme adaptation behaviors for the remnants of life. A rather unique version of this kind of world-saving impulse is one that contemplates species-suicide: viewing humans as the threat the world must be saved from. Saving the world in this vision requires eliminating humanity so the world can heal and recover. The “nature is healing” meme during the pandemic was a glimpse of this vision.
These are the four pure types. Apocalyptic visions in movies usually combine them to varying degrees.
Some worlds-to-be-saved awkwardly span the quadrants. Ethno-nationalists conflate longer and shorter temporal scopes, and must deal with the tensions that result from trying to save a civilization and an exemplar nation within it at the same time. Ecomodernists must span cosmopolitan and Gaian quadrants. Those of a naive anthropological disposition often attempt to span multiple ethnocentricities at once, often fetishizing a stasis of unchanging essentialist pluralism (“intersectionality” is in some ways a kind of static poly-ethnocentricity). Certain sorts of nationalists attempt to conceive of technological modernity in non-cosmopolitan, 19th-century ways, and their (rather charmingly wishful) idea of saving their worlds is to reduce dependence om global trade and globalized knowledge economies through tariffs and development of indigenous production capacities.
I am not a world-saving type, but my grudging tolerance for savior types has increased somewhat over the years. I’ve concluded they’re an annoying but essential human variety, and the damage they do can be contained if there are enough skeptics and cynics in the mix.
I find myself primarily rooting for those in the technological modernity quadrant, and secondarily for those in the wildernesses quadrant. I find myself resisting the entire left half, but I’ve made my peace with their presence on the world-saving stage. I’m a cosmopolitan with Gaian tendencies.
Cosmopolitanism is perhaps best understood as a view of the world in terms of its contemporary potentialities rather than its historical origins. As such, it is primarily defined by its relationships to science and technology, rather than ideas of racial, ethnic, national, or political historical consciousness. The historical consciousness of cosmopolitanism is always oriented towards where the world can go, over where it has been.
The main weakness of cosmopolitanism is relative blindness to aspects of nature that are not well-modeled by the orchestra of contemporary technological potentialiaties represented by economy. Even an evolving economy that gradually prices in its negative externalities is fundamentally a reductive understanding of a world. This is why the world-as-wildernesses quadrant feels like a necessary foil to me. It centers aspects of reality that are worth saving without reference to any instrumental capacities or vulnerability to “externalities” within economic understandings. I like the Gaian impulse to construct a historical consciousness out of natural history, down to the bedrock of geological history, rather than a civilizational one. While I’m skeptical of the more literal-minded versions of the idea, which seek to construct the planet as a sentient living entity, I’m fully onboard with the allegorical versions.
Worlds constructed with biologically narrow scopes (which I’d define as somewhere between family/kinship groups to ethnicities and races, with perhaps a few animal species of cultural significance included, but always falling short of including all of humanity, let alone all of the biosphere) have all sorts of analytical problems that makes them intellectually fragile. But my main problem with them is that they are boringly impoverished to the point of deadness. Even if I could, with careful construction, make them “work” as worlds-to-save, and imagine sustainable futures where they are the entirety of the world, I don’t see the point.
But apparently, a significant portion of humanity disagrees with me on this front. Many are attracted to the idea that their world-to-save can expand to become all that is; replacing a messy, illegible pluralism with a gloriously insipid and legible monoculture that reigns supreme with a firm, dead hand. I suspect the very intellectual fragility of these worlds is part of their appeal, much as fragility is part of the appeal of house-of-cards games.
I suppose I have the opposite bias. I think, for a candidate world-to-save to be actually worth saving, its history must harbor inexhaustible mysteries. A world whose past is not mysterious has a future that is not interesting. If a world is exhausted of its historical mysteries, biological and/or temporal scope must be expanded to remystify and re-enchant it. This is one reason cosmopolitanism and the world-as-technological-modernity appeal to me. Its history is fundamentally mysterious in a way civilizational or national histories are not. And this is because the historical consciousness of technological modernity is, in my opinion, pre-civilizational in a way that is much closer to natural history than civilization ever gets. We do not quite know how technological modernity came to be. Therefore we do not quite know where it can go. It is an idea of the world-to-save as a demiurge-to-save. A thing with an inscrutable mind of its own that has a complete summary memory of its past embodied by its current materiality, even if we can’t quite penetrate its mysteries.
Adding an element of Gaian wilderness to this understanding of the world deepens both the mystery and the potentiality. The world as a slightly wild pre-civilizational demiurge is a particularly interesting one to try and save. To those with more civilized notions of worlds-to-save, this is a slightly monstrous, barbarian understanding of world. It is also a conception of world that is perhaps robust enough that it does not require much saving, and is in fact a big part of what threatens other conceptions of worlds.
In fact, an appropriate goal for those who believe in this kind of world is not so much to save it, as to rewild it enough that it does not require saving. Technology was once a wild, pre-civilizational, barbarian force, and perhaps it can and should be once again.
This makes people like me part of the barbarian threat others are trying to save their worlds from. We are the barbarians at the gates. I’m reminded of the famous monologue from Breaking Bad:
I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!
We can imagine a comparable line spoken by a rewilded demiurge:
I am not in danger, civilized human. I am the danger. A civilized human opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I am the wild demiurge that knocks.
If you see shades of accelerationist thought in this vision, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I think accelerationism, of both Right and Left flavors, is mostly a kind of incoherent nihilism alloyed with a disorganized reactionary attachment to conventional ideas of worlds-as-civilizations. But there is a seed of the right kind of world-saving instinct in there.
For a cosmopolitan with Gaian tendencies, to save the modern world is to rewild and grow the global web of already slightly wild technological capabilities. Along with all the knowledge and resources — globally distributed in ways that cannot be cleanly factored across nations, civilizations, and other collective narcissisms — that is required to drive that web sustainably. And in the process, perhaps letting notions of civilization — including wishful notions of regulating and governing technology in “human centric” ways — fall by the wayside if they lack the vitality and imagination to accommodate technological modernity.