Keeping Cool: Lessons of Low-Tech Thermoregulation for the Climate Change Era

July 28, 2021

9:30am Virtual


Date / Time: 
Wednesday, July 28, 2021
9:30 am PDT | 12:30 pm EDT | 5:30 pm BST


About the Event:
A virtual conversation with anthropologist and former Berggruen Fellow Josh Berson, artist and researcher Simon Penny, and Berggruen Institute Vice President of Programs Nils Gilman as they explore climate adaptations and mitigations beyond batteries, grids, and electric vehicles.

From historic Tasmania to the present day, The Human Scaffold shows us how humans have long used non-technological adaptations to survive in low and high temperatures and makes the case for the urgency and necessity of these types of responses today. As the effects of climate change become greater and more frequent, how might behavior patterns, social organizations, psychology, and personal relationships shift, and can political or policy systems ever consider civilizational well-being in terms beyond physical stuff? Berson, Penny, and Gilman will address these and other questions in exploring the human side of our response to the climate crisis.

This discussion inaugurated “The Human Scaffold,” a virtual event series exploring different aspects of Berson’s recent book of the same name–the second title in the Berggruen Institute and UC Press’ “Great Transformations” book series. Future events will include discussions with designer Elizabeth Chin on the value of viewing breathing as a skillful activity and with entrepreneurship scholar Vaughn Tan on the mind games we play with physical stuff that drive the need for economic growth.

About the Book:
Humanity has precipitated a planetary crisis of resource consumption—a crisis of stuff. So ingrained is our stuff-centric view that we can barely imagine a way out beyond substituting a new portmanteau of material things for the one we have today.

In The Human Scaffold, anthropologist Josh Berson offers a new theory of adaptation to environmental change. Drawing on niche construction, evolutionary game theory, and the enactive view of cognition, Berson considers cases in the archaeology of adaptation in which technology in the conventional sense was virtually absent. Far from representing anomalies, these cases exemplify an enduring feature of human behavior that has implications for our own fate.

The time has come to ask what the environmental crisis demands of us not as consumers but as biological beings. The Human Scaffold offers a starting point.

About the Speakers:
Josh Berson is an anthropologist whose work explores the ecology of sentient behavior over epochs ranging from the momentary to the geological. He has held appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, among other places, and is the author of Computable Bodies (2015), The Meat Question (2019), and The Human Scaffold (2021).

Simon Penny is an Australian artist and researcher, trained as a sculptor, since 1990 based in the US. In the 1990s, as professor of art and robotics and Carnegie Mellon, he built a number of artworks that applied computing to the task of creating embodied interactions. In this time, he established the interdisciplinary master’s program Arts Computation Engineering. His monograph, Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art and Embodiment, appeared with MIT Press in 2017. Current projects include Orthogonal, an experimental sailcraft based on Indigenous Pacific design traditions, and Greensteam, an exploration of sustainable small-scale steam power. In 2020, with Tom Fisher (University of Nottingham), he established the Industrial Crafts Research Network. Penny is professor of Art, Music, and Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. To learn more, please visit

Nils Gilman is the Vice President of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, in which capacity he leads the Institute’s research program, directs its resident fellowship program, and is also Deputy Editor of Noema Magazine. He has previously worked as Associate Chancellor at the University of California Berkeley, as Research Director and scenario planning consultant at the Monitor Group and Global Business Network, and at various enterprise software companies including and BEA Systems. Gilman has won the Sidney Award (for long-form journalism) from the New York Times and an Albie Award (for international political economy) from The Washington Post. He is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (2004) and Deviant Globalization: Black Market Economy in the 21st Century (2011) as well as numerous articles on intellectual history and political economy. He holds a B.A. M.A. and Ph.D. in History from U.C. Berkeley.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.