A horse in LGBTP colours

Species shame: We’re all Walter Huangs now

Distraction on an Olympic scale is our default position as climate emergency accelerates

It was a curious tragedy that proved difficult to resolve because it took place in the 21st century’s Wild West, the intersection of technology with humankind.

On March 23, 2018, Walter Huang, an Apple engineer, was in his Tesla SUV on his way to work when the vehicle accelerated from 62mph to 70mph eight seconds before crashing into a California freeway barrier. Huang died from died from multiple blunt-force injuries in the incident.

The Tesla was equipped with the company’s semi-autonomous autopilot driving system and autonomous braking technology, but the vehicle’s autopilot didn’t detect driver-applied steering wheel torque for the last three minutes and 41 seconds before the crash.

The driver was an avid gamer and game developer. A review of cell phone records and data retrieved from his Apple iPhone 8 Plus showed a game application was active and was the frontmost open application on his phone during his trip to work. Huang was using a company-supplied phone, but his employer, Apple Inc, did not have a policy prohibiting smartphone use while driving. The US’ National Transportation Safety Board report concluded that the driver’s lack of evasive action, combined with data indicating the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel, was consistent with a person distracted by a portable electronic device.

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It’s an unfortunate story and the autopilot was partly to blame. NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil concluded: “The focus isn’t Tesla’s technology, the focus is on what led to this crash and how do we prevent it from happening again.”

How indeed. I mention this story because the frozen moments before the crash were, for Walter Huang, pretty much where everyone on Earth is today in the face of the climate emergency. For some, the tragedy has happened. Others are no longer in any doubt that it’s due their way any time soon. And the video game that perhaps fatally distracted Walter Huang is today’s industrialised distraction mechanism — this week it’s the Olympics.

During this curious interlude where we’ve left the road but haven’t hit the buffers I’ve been suffering from species shame, a particular type of affliction which occurs when a level of disgust, outrage and despair about human behaviour is reached. The conditions for this affliction to occur are more and more obvious at every turn. Why have citizens across the globe started wearing masks? We did weird things to animals. Why are so many species being extincted? We’re killing them. Why is the ground burning, why are the glaciers melting, why is the water poisoned, why is the air polluted? We’re destroying their life support systems. Even the very Gulf Stream is on the verge of collapse

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We know all these things, but the 2021 Olympics in Japan is dominating the news cycles and taking our eye off the really important things, like survival, in the same way as Walter Huang was apparently so immersed in playing a video game that he didn’t find time to put his foot on the brake pedal in the run-in to his death crash. Or is that too unkind to him — what if, for instance, he went into shock when the car suddenly started accelerating, and the message to slam the brake on didn’t get through? Maybe that’s where many of us are with climate change too. If we’re not too busy being distracted to notice the unfolding horror around us, we’re dumbstruck by the awesome hugeness of what is unfolding in front of our eyes. Perhaps it could be both — but whichever it was, we’ve taken our eye off the ball in exactly the same way as Walter Huang took his hands off the steering wheel.

So, we’re missing, ignoring or otherwise incapable of resolving the manner and means of our own decline and my body has responded by coming down with a bad case of species shame. It’s quite distressing. Sometimes I wonder if there might be a treatment, after all, they found a treatment for people who feel they’ve born into an incorrectly gendered body, and now you can transition to an alternative gender. What if you could transition into another species, how would that work? It might be possible — indeed, a fish with a human set of teeth was recently reeled in, so it must have crossed nature’s mind, surely? I hear they’re running short of koala bears in Australia?

Please don’t be thinking I’m trivialising the situation: I’m trying to find solutions — treatments. In fact, I’ve written about ahumanism before, and transhumanism is a term already in use, although the idea there is to become more than human, and I’m talking about becoming other than human.

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It’s not going to work out well, I sense, this species shame thing — it can’t possibly have any other best-case outcome than an ongoing sense of disappointment that humanity hasn’t been able to contribute much to other species on Earth other than factory farming, the slaughterhouse, the deprivation of habitats and then their extinction. I’m just like you, we’re all Walter Huang’s now — in a semi-automatic car, on semi-autopilot, with the accelerator jammed to the floorboard, not knowing what to do to make it stop. The only difference is that although we’re coming off the road, we haven’t hit the crash barrier yet. What if we could find the wherewithal to follow the screamingly obvious action — taking our foot off the accelerator and jamming it on the brake, how would that work?

We’re all made up of atoms floating around, configuring and reconfiguring, being configured and reconfigured, and we’ve now reached a moment of decision.

Do we carry as we were, tinkering around the edges of reforming the global economy, pleading for aid for those on the front line of climate change, for jobs that address the reality of the climate emergency, for wealth that is currently being hoarded or spent on projects that make a mockery of actual life for billions of people on Earth?

You don’t need to worry: species shame isn’t about being ashamed of you. I’m not going to trawl through my social media accounts and delete or unfollow anyone who is an enthusiastic supporter of what humanity currently represents. I wouldn’t wish species shame on anyone, it’s something you feel, a sort of disturbance in the water, in the Force, and once you’ve got it, it’s hard to know how to regain any sort of equilibrium. The only cure would be the immediate realisation that we’re in the last few seconds (in galactic terms) of our journey, and there’s only one thing that can save us, and that is to Put On The Brakes.

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Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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Mike Scialom

Mike Scialom

Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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