The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One

Steve Fuller on the Proactionary Principle, Environmentalism, and Interstellar Flight


Nearly four decades ago, the Iranian futurist FM-2030 coined ‘up-wingers’ to describe those who believed the most insurmountable problems could be solved by human innovation. Today, the environmental movement is beginning to align along the ‘up-down’ axis that was first postulated by FM-2030, with ‘up-wingers’ believing in the boundlessness of technological creativity and ‘down-wingers’ wary of the inherent limits of ‘nature.’ In this interview with Breakthrough, Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, discusses the emerging ideological axis and how it pertains to solving today’s wicked problems like climate change. Key to the discussion is an understanding of the precautionary principle and the proactionary principle.

October 21, 2014 | Breakthrough Staff,

Cryogenically preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the transhumanist Fereidoun Esfandiary – “dead” since 2000 – might better speak to the future of politics than today’s prognosticators. The leader of a loose group of futurists and thinkers in the 1970s, FM-2030 (as he dubbed himself) believed that humankind’s full potential could be unlocked by advances in science and technology.

Hostility came from Western intellectuals and romantics, who saw modernization and progress as equal to alienation, dehumanization, and estrangement from nature. “Up-Wingers” on the other hand, as FM-2030 coined in his manifesto, “[accepts] no human predicament as permanent no tragedy as irreversible no goals unattainable.”

More than 40 years later, future-oriented “Up-Wingers” and traditionalist “Down-Wingers” are beginning to emerge as a new political axis replacing the traditional left and right spectrum, argues Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick.

Fuller was one of the first sociologists to undertake research in the field of social epistemology, broadly defined as an interdisciplinary field that explores how the pursuit of knowledge ought to be organized. He founded the first journal of social epistemology in 1987 and also wrote the first book devoted to the topic.

According to Fuller, the implications of this Up-Down transformation are broad, particularly for our understanding of the environment. A ‘down-wing’ segment of the environmental movement now passionately advocates for the necessity to curtail the human lifestyle so as to leave a smaller footprint on the planet. Meanwhile, ‘up-wingers’ believe in the boundlessness of technological innovation and are wary of suggested “inherent” limits to nature.

Breakthrough talked with Fuller to explore the values of Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers, and how this new political landscape is playing out in the real world. The following is part one of the interview. Click here for part two

You’ve argued elsewhere that today’s Left and Right are poised for radical change. How so?

Any sophisticated observer of politics already knows that the Left and the Right are houses divided against themselves. On the one hand, the Left consists of an uneasy alliance of top-down technocrats and bottom-up communitarians; on the other, the Right is defined by the tension between past-facing traditionalists and future-facing libertarians.

The “90-degree revolution” I foresee is that the communitarians and the traditionalists will team up to form the ‘down-winging’ Green pole, while the technocrats and the libertarians will join forces to form the ‘up-winging’ Black pole. My new book The Proactionary Imperative, coauthored with Veronika Lipinska, explores how the shift from ‘Left-Right’ to ‘Up-Down’ took place. The geometry of the political imagery implies that the Left and the Right are each divided and then re-combined to form the Up and the Down.

Where does the idea of an Up-Down divide come from?

The Up-Down divide is due to a late Cold War Iranian futurist who called himself ‘FM-2030’ and now resides in a frozen demise at the Arizona cryonics mecca, Alcor, in the hope of being someday resurrected, presumably without the pancreatic cancer of which he died in 2000. FM-2030 was very impressed by the advances made in telecommunications and space travel in the middle third of the 20th century, which led him to believe that truly progressive thinkers should envisage the cosmos as humanity’s canvas. So if the earth is overpopulated, we simply settle in other celestial bodies, and if we need resources, we simply exploit the relevant ones in outer space. Up-wingers are open to the prospect of humans becoming radical shape-shifters to the same extent as we have already shown ourselves to be radical thought-shifters. Transhumanists have characteristically given this idea a libertarian spin: ‘morphological freedom.’

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) certainly puts one in the right frame of mind to think about such matters, but another such project (with which I am personally associated) is called Icarus Interstellar. It aims to launch a spaceship by 2100 with an indefinitely renewable environment for humans and other earthly creatures to navigate the cosmos.

Why is the Up-Wing pole associated with the color black?

The phrase ‘Black Sky Thinking’ was introduced about 10 years ago by James Wilsdon, then director of research at Tony Blair’s favorite think tank, Demos. It was meant as a play on ‘blue sky thinking,’ the pursuit of research without regard to immediate practical payoff, which in economic terms amounts to a speculative capital investment, as when one purchases land in the hope – but not the certainty – that it will reap benefits, say, in the case of oil drilling. Unlike what Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science,’ blue sky thinkers aren’t limited to the pursuit of paradigm-based puzzles for their own sake. On the contrary, they are invited to start from counter-paradigmatic assumptions and then play out the consequences. Black sky thinking takes this argument to the next level – namely, that we might wish to operate with radically different assumptions not only about the world but also ourselves. In other words, if we literally want to be ‘universal players,’ then we need to determine the environmental requirements for the sort of beings with which we would identify and/or want to keep as company throughout the cosmos.

Where do you see evidence of a Left-Right to Up-Down realignment?

This ideological realignment is already beginning to happen. A recent issue of The Atlantic features an article by Tara Burton entitled, ‘The Pope’s Radical Environmentalism,’ which elaborates a position that superficially looks progressive but really aims for no more (and no less) than a restoration of some presumed ‘natural order’ through the rhetoric of ‘mutual dependency.’ In contrast, the Breakthrough Institute is ideally poised to broker the new technocrat-libertarian alliance that is emerging orthogonally to the pontiff’s.

Are there signs that this realignment is shaping distinct political groups?

Getting the relevant elites to forge an ‘up-winged’ manifesto is one thing; turning it into a promising electoral prospect is another matter entirely. Rich libertarians in Silicon Valley are venturing more boldly beyond the jurisdiction of states, while the legitimacy of progressive technocrats remains beholden to the unions and the special interests that claim to speak for the ‘poor.’ Obama’s bailout of the US automobile industry to secure a victory in the 2012 presidential election is a case in point. Had the state withdrawn subsidies and let the industry die a free market death, many jobs would have been lost in the short term but finally a generalized financial incentive would have been provided for both the public and private sectors to develop electric cars and, more generally to think creatively about personal transport.

At its core, the Up Wing seems to fundamentally oppose the dominance of the precautionary principle, where the aversion to risk and potential harm to people and the environment guides policy. What are the principle’s drawbacks?

The main problem with the precautionary principle is its default tendency to regard the environment in ‘steady state’ terms. In this respect, the principle remains captive to its early 19th-century roots in scientific forestry, which took as its maxim that each generation should leave its successor with comparable – if not the same – resources as that generation itself enjoyed (eg, the same number of trees). What makes this maxim so wrong is its patronizing attitude toward the next human generation, presuming that it would harbor an overriding wish to start life with the same basic resources as their parents possessed.

On the contrary, most innovation has emerged in environments where the available resources were deemed incapable of meeting what the ascendant generation regarded as present and future needs. In this respect, necessity remains very much the mother of invention, such that the precautionary impulse to minimize risk is bound to arrest, if not shrink the capacity for human self-improvement. Welfare states have generally aimed to prepare its citizens to face future challenges via sophisticated schemes of incentives, taxes, and outright invasive and coercive policies, especially in health and education, which often were aggressively nationalized. In other words, the state’s own actions were anything but precautionary. To depict the welfare state as offering a ‘safety net’ to risk-averse citizens may have been a great soft-sell public relations strategy in the aftermath of World War II, but it misrepresents the welfare state in both its ends and its means, which are much more ‘proactionary’ than precautionary.

In which domains are the failings of the precautionary principle most evident?

The failings of the precautionary principle are twofold. The first is that it masks the true workings of power, as precautionaries exercising power are allowed to offload responsibility to some external threat – the revenge of ‘Nature,’ if you will – that is said to force unpalatable decisions that end up constraining people’s lives. To be clear: I have no principled objection to the coercive exercise of power as long as a positive goal is proposed in terms of which the power-monger can then be judged.

The second failing is a bit more metaphysical. Although the precautionary principle claims to be true to evolutionary theory, the spirit of the principle runs counter to it by refusing to accept the normalcy of change – including disruptive change. (While proactionaries clearly have issues with the fatalism of strict Darwinism, they fully embrace the broader evolutionary worldview.) Thus, the European Union’s regular invocations of the precautionary principle puts ‘innovation’ on the back foot as a potential threat to some presumed ‘normal’ or even ‘natural’ European lifestyle; hence, the current fad for practitioners and (of course!) researchers in ‘responsible innovation.’

How does this play out in the real world?

This failing leads to the absurd, virtually superstitious attempts to curtail the introduction of ‘genetically modified organisms’ into the food system, even though human-based selective breeding has been genetically modifying organisms from a wide range of species since the dawn of civilization. The only difference is that now we know more about the relevant genetic processes and hence are better than ever able to monitor the consequences of any interventions. Thus, the proactionary concludes: if we did so well in a state of comparative ignorance, imagine how much better we might do, were we allowed to act on the basis of our superior knowledge!

The proactionary principle says that humanity is better served by people embracing risk as an opportunity than fearing it as a threat, the default position of the precautionary principle. The proactionary principle is closer to ‘No pain, no gain,’ which is to say, there are acceptable – perhaps even unavoidable – costs to get to a ‘better’ place, however that is defined. Where precautionaries are inclined to see irreversible loss, proactionaries think in terms of compensation for damages. Put this way, it may seem that the proactionary principle encourages recklessness. However, proactionaries turn the charge around, arguing that failure to change in a changing world (even if we are the source of most of those changes) is itself a formula for species extinction.

Where do you see today's environmentalism falling on your Green-Black spectrum?

Most environmentalism nowadays is clearly ‘Green’ in that it imagines the Earth – often personified as Nature – as the ultimate limit to human aspirations. Thus, self-identified ‘environmentalists’ rarely consider 1) that we might quite radically re-engineer ourselves or the planet to flourish more than we already have, even granting the inevitability of substantial climate change (ie, transhumanist projects ranging from genetic enhancement to geoengineering); 2) that we might manufacture eco-based environments, including ones fit for human habitation, for export purposes across the cosmos (à la Icarus Interstellar); 3) that biodiversity is a functional not an intrinsic value of nature.

What do you mean by that last point?

Greens have hijacked several key terms of ecological discourse, including ‘future generations’ and ‘biodiversity,’ stressing their precarious side, which in turn underwrites a precautionary attitude toward global governance. In the case of ‘biodiversity,’ I largely agree with Bjørn Lomborg in The Sceptical Environmentalist, when he polemicized against the value premises contained in E.O. Wilson’s popularization of the term. From a strictly Darwinian standpoint, species come and go over time, which means that genetic material is routinely recycled, resulting in a variety of new species, each adapted to its environment.

In that case, there will always be ‘biodiversity,’ regardless of whatever specific (even large) contribution that Homo sapiens may make to species extinction: it is simply an outcome of what Darwin’s theory predicts. But Wilson clearly intends a greater sense of moral urgency. More than sheer biology is at play – perhaps even a pagan version of Original Sin, whereby humans are seen as especially responsible for the extinction of other species, if only because we know so much more about the evolutionary process. But again, from a strictly Darwinian standpoint, it is difficult to see the problem here: Homo sapiens will simply do what it does given what it knows, as all species do, and Nature will respond accordingly – end of story.

How should someone interested in the environment with a ‘Black’ orientation respond to the moral urgency that Wilson attaches to biodiversity?

First, admit upfront that – contra Darwin – humans are indeed special, at least due to the power and knowledge we have over evolution. This opening move is necessary to undermine the ‘Dark Enlightenment’ thinking of Nick Land, who basically believes that global warming should be allowed to take its Darwinian course, culling Homo sapiens in the manner of a (super)organism shedding itself of a disease. Thus, the sense of moral urgency attached to biodiversity needs to shift from protecting non-humans to empowering humans. In the history of Christianity, it was specifically instructional. Thus, when the great 18th century chemist and dissenting Christian minister Joseph Priestley discovered photosynthesis, it was his interest in designing more efficient industrial processes that led him to appreciate the energy transfers that spontaneously occurred across species in nature.

Second, get clear about the sources of value in biodiversity, which I would say are two: 1) the genetic material of particular species, which then needs to be preserved; 2) the actual life trajectories of their specific members of those species, which then need to be recorded. Taken together they provide a vast storehouse of information and inspiration, which has been already exploited under the general rubric of ‘biomimetics,’ the use of organisms and organic processes as models for human endeavors. However, the relevant acts of ‘preservation’ and ‘recording’ that speak to the functional value of biodiversity would actually be compatible with species extinction, just as long as that process is reversible -- that is, a species could become ‘de-extinct,’ to use the phrase of Harvard medical geneticist George Church for a process that in more religious times might have been called ‘resurrection.’ This point is likely to prove increasingly salient in projects such as Icarus Interstellar that envisage a post-Earth yet human-friendly environment. In effect, one could have life-forms ‘on tap.’

How did you become interested in environmental debates?

I became interested in these debates because environmentalism has long harbored the most intellectually respectable form of misanthropy, whereby humans are portrayed as corrupting, exploiting, torturing, and overburdening this non-human thing called ‘Nature.’ Although many politically oriented environmentalists – so-called ‘Greens’ – advocate views consonant with the classical ‘Red’ Left, nevertheless their bottom-line message is that humans must curtail not only their everyday living but also their long-term aspirations, which is very anti-Red. Indeed, I see such environmentalists as retaining the Christian concept of Original Sin but without the anthropocentric deity offering humans the hope of redemption. Of course, I don’t believe that all ‘environmentalists’ hold such markedly misanthropic views, but you asked what first attracted me to these debates. To get a sense where such views are heading in their most extreme form, I suggest you Google ‘Dark Enlightenment’ and its leading thinker, the Shanghai-based British philosopher, Nick Land. He takes deep ecology to the next – and very scary – level.

Steve Fuller holds the Auguste Comte Chair of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of many books, most recently The Proactionary Imperative, coauthored with Veronika Lipinska. 

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