Project Cassandra

The idea behind Project Cassandra is simple: “using novels to try to pinpoint the world’s next conflicts.” The write-up on The Guardian by Philip Oltermann is well worth reading before reading the following.

What really stood out to me about the story wasn’t whether it would ‘work’ or not. It seems clear that there is a real value in using novels to understand societies’ fault lines. Novelists have themselves been saying so for some time. The rest of us have just not taken them seriously. We sort of understand how some novels resonate in our world – think of Orwell’s 1984 as the obvious example – but we’re still, most of us anyway, attached to a strict separation of what is ‘objective’ and what is ‘subjective’ when it comes to human affairs. This is partly due to the fact that it benefits dominant economic models invested in notions of homo economic and the myth of ‘perfect rationality’, but that’s a story for another time.

Project Cassandra was discontinued in winter 2020 because the German defense ministry had other priorities. Project Cassandra’s ‘failure’ to provide immediate return on investments is in itself, ironically, an example of why Cassandra, the mythical Trojan priestess, “speaking always truths, never grasped as true”, continues to be a relevant figure in our world. Scientists, academics, writers, artists and others have been forced to ‘prove’ their relevance to our hegemonic capitalist imagination. Can your knowledge benefit the military as the military sees fit? It might get funding. Can this serve a political campaign? Can you show some ‘return on investment’ to those funding you? You might get a one-year extension. Knowledge is regularly undervalued because our institutions rarely value knowledge.

Project Cassandra had already shown some ‘return on investment’. They showed that events such as the Algerian uprising of 2019 and the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020 were preceded by years of literary signs, and not just. We know, for example, or at least sociologists and other observers have known for some time, that the conflict and genocide in Bosnia was preceded by a decline in interfaith marriages. We also know that interfaith marriages were more common in pre-2003 Iraq. We know today that the Lebanese establishment – and especially its religious and sectarian leaders – are the most vocal opponents of civil marriage, which most Lebanese are in favor of, because civil marriage would reduce the likelihood of civil wars, and they need the possibility of civil wars to remain real. We know that Israel’s most extreme Zionists are also the ones most opposed to Jewish-Palestinian marriages.

Why, then, is it such a surprise that many novelists are able to ‘sense’ what is ‘to come’? The future comes after the present, so understanding the present better helps us get some sense of what may happen in the future. It’s not that complicated. The irony here is that military establishments like the German one are invested in making everyone believe that they are in the business of ‘gathering intelligence’. What counts as intelligence, however, is up to them. Saving our living world in order to have better-than-apocalyptic futures does not count as intelligence. Living well does not count as intelligence. Being emotionally mature, having resilient communities, caring for one another – those traditionally feminine traits – does not count as intelligence.

It’s worth looking at the details of what the German military establishment wanted out of Project Cassandra. Here’s what a cited defense ministry official said in The Guardian piece: “Predicting a conflict a year, or a year and a half in advance, that’s something our systems were already capable of. Cassandra promised to register disturbances five to seven years in advance – that was something new.”

Project Cassandra had funding from early 2018 to late 2020. This means that the researchers didn’t even have time to show whether they could ‘register disturbances five to seven years in advance’. It would realistically take a decade or even two of such research to show a ‘return on investment’. But the ministry, the one in the business of ‘intelligence gathering’, simply deemed it not worth it to gather intelligence that they did not know how to interpret. They asked Project Cassandra to provide them with data points. By doing so, they already reduced the value a research project which clearly required more patience and more time. They needed researchers to dumb it down for the military to understand.

We are now in the midst of arguably the worst crisis to ever fall upon our species – global warming – and we are the cause of it. We know that we need to know more, much more, about what exactly we are doing, how we are doing it, and how we can mitigate the worst outcomes.

For a Project Cassandra to be a functional project, it needs to be multiplied, and the multiple Cassandras of our world need international cooperation, perhaps some UN or UN-like structure, similar to how the European Environment Agency (EEA) functions but on a more global scale, and maybe more decentralised.

And speaking of the EEA, I recently finished an essay for Shado Mag (out soon) on postgrowth which included this amazing paragraph by the EEA: “Economic growth is closely linked to increases in production, consumption and resource use and has detrimental effects on the natural environment and human health. It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale; therefore, societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability.”

In other words, we need to move towards a postgrowth society. We’ve known this for some time, but the knowledge isn’t distributed widely due to the same obstacles that Project Cassandra faced. Given the scale of what we are faced with, it is time we learned to listen to the Cassandras of our world. And unlike the mythical Cassandra, today’s Cassandras are equipped with facts and with knowledge. Those in power are sometimes equipped with some of the former but rarely with the latter, because power rarely requires long-term thinking. You only need to know what you need to know to prolong your reign or mandate and last until the next relevant date (elections, successions etc). Military projects often have longer mandates, but rarely of the scale that would justify using the word intelligence.

The irony is that Project Cassandra proved its value when the German defense ministry did not have the required intelligence to understand what the project was gathering. As Jurgen Wertheimer, the man who set up Project Cassandra, said, prophets and seers have always been charged of insanity. Oltermann’s piece includes the example of Clytaemestra saying that Cassandra ‘lost her wits’ in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”. That Cassandra predicted ‘the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise’ changed very little.

Those that said she had lost her wits were no doubt confident that they still had theirs. Like them, those in the business of ‘gathering intelligence’ today are no doubt convinced of the superiority of their work. In reality, they are often unable to gather intelligence because they work in institutions structurally incapable of gathering intelligence which could make these institutions uncomfortable, inconvenient, and maybe even obsolete.