Saturday, June 17, 2017
The Philosopher Prophet of the Anthropocene
An intriguing article in The Guardian about a young man, Timothy Morton, described as the first philosopher for our new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.
Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.
The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning “human”, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we can’t imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. That’s 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.
The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.
One of Morton’s most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. It’s there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are.
“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” he writes. “And it creeps up on you.” Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, “let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet”. But “harm to Earth is precisely what is happening”. Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, “everything is interconnected”.