Monday, September 11, 2017

Advice for the apocalypse
I’m finally reading Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play which coined the word “robot,” from the old word “robota,” the labor that a serf owed his lord, the courvée).

The robots in the play aren’t exactly what we think of as machines—rather, they’re made out of some alternative sort of pseudo-living stuff.

But they’re conceived very much like machines. Their inventor wanted to recreate a human in every detail, but his nephew made a business out of it by leaving out everything that was considered unnecessary for work: no emotions, no interest in arts or culture, just a strong and skilled set of hands with a memory beyond the imaginings of the human mind.

The prologue gives the history and the “science” of the play, set in some indefinite future, several decades out from 1920 when Čapek was writing it.

Act I is 10 years later, and the robots are rising up. They’d been armed by humans to fight their wars for them, and now they’ve turned on their masters. On the island where the robots are made, the few men who run the factory are aware of the dire events in the wider world, but they’re trying to keep the information from Helena, the wife of Domin, who runs the factory.

She nonetheless senses something is going wrong, and she summons Alquist, the construction chief at R.U.R. He comes to her room somewhat embarrassed for his work clothes and hands covered with lime and brick dust from having been at work.

HELENA: Oh, tell me, is something going on?

ALQUIST: Nothing really. Just progress.

HELENA: Alquist, I know something terrible is happening. I’m so anxious—Builder! What do you do when you’re anxious?

ALQUIST: Masonry. I take off my construction-chief jacket and climb up on the scaffolding—

HELENA: Oh, for years now you haven’t been anywhere except on the scaffolding.

ALQUIST: Because for years now I haven't stopped being anxious.

HELENA: From what?

ALQUIST: From all this progress. It gives me vertigo.

HELENA: And you don’t have vertigo on the scaffolding?

ALQUIST: No. You don’t know how good it feels on your palms when you weigh a brick in your hand, place it, and knock it in—

HELENA: Just your palms?

ALQUIST: Well, your soul too. I think it’s better to place one brick than to draw up outsized plans. I’m already an old man, Helena; I’ve got my hobbies.

HELENA: Those aren’t hobbies, Alquist.

ALQUIST: You’re right. I’m horribly reactionary, Mrs. Helena. I don’t like this progress even one little bit.

HELENA: Like Nána. [her maid]

ALQUIST: Yes, like Nána. Does Nána have a prayer book?

HELENA: Yes, a big fat one.

ALQUIST: And does it have prayers for various things that come up in life? For thunderstorms? For disease?

HELENA: For temptation, for floods—

ALQUIST: But nothing for progress?

HELENA: I think not.

ALQUIST: That’s a shame.

HELENA: Would you like to pray?

ALQUIST: I do pray.


ALQUIST: Roughly like this: “Lord God, thank you for having made me tired. God, enlighten Domin and all those who are lost; destroy their works and help people to return to care and to labor; keep the human race from destruction; do not let them be damaged in soul or body; rid us of the Robots, and protect Mrs. Helena, amen.”

HELENA: Alquist, do you really believe?

ALQUIST: I don’t know; I’m not too sure about that.

HELENA: And yet you pray.

ALQUIST: Yes, it’s better than thinking about things.

HELENA: And that’s enough for you?

ALQUIST: For the peace of my soul … it can suffice.

HELENA: And if you had already seen the destruction of the human … race—

ALQUIST: I already see it.

HELENA: —so you’ll climb onto the scaffolding and lay bricks, or what?

ALQUIST: So I’ll lay bricks, pray, and wait for a miracle. There’s nothing more that can be done, Mrs. Helena.

HELENA: For saving people?

ALQUIST: For my soul’s rest.

In the wake of Harvey and in the face of Irma, with large portions of the western U.S. on fire, and massive flooding elsewhere in the world, I know people who have concluded that we’ve crossed the Rubicon—we’ve destabilized the climate enough that there’s no going back.

Further increases in destructive weather will destabilize social structures enough to bring on civilizational collapse. If enough positive feedback loops kick in—like liberating methane from the permafrost—we get several degrees C of warming, and the possible extinction of humanity.

Čapek wasn’t thinking of global warming, but his Alquist has as good a recipe as any if the more pessimistic views of climate change are correct.

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