Thinking About Thinking About the Environment
Tim Morton has a wonderful new term used to denote objects – I think solely of humanity’s creation or at least influence – that have such scales that they defy any self-oriented or “common sense” response, phenomena such as Global Warming or plutonium-239:
We have indeed created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it’s good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I’m going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they’re massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience. In this sense, hyperobjects are like those tubes of toothpaste that say they contain 10% extra: there’s more to hyperobjects than ordinary objects.
We get the picture. We need a name for the kinds of objects of our analysis that are just too huge in effect to form a proper ethical affective response to the facts of their lasting and global production. The term hyperobjects works something like the warning “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”. And I understand the ethical dimension out of which the term comes:
This means that we need some other basis for making decisions about a future to which we have no real sense of connection. We must urgently construct some non-self ethics and politics to deal with these pernicious hyperobjects. No self-interest theory, no matter how modified (to include my relatives, my nearest and dearest, my cat, my great grandchildren’s hamster’s vet) is going to cut it.
What I call into question is rather the essentially pernicious nature of these hyperobjects, the framing of them as necessarily destructive and dangerous, as if ethical responses merely, or predominately deal with dangers alone. As a Spinozist I am forced to appreciate that no object, not even hyperobjects, are necessarily pernicious. As a post-modern fellow I understand that these hyper-human quality of these Invasionary objects – like asteroids or space ships from outer space – plays into the ideological joys of environmentalist alarm. Human beings have foolishly awakened powers of destruction that go far beyond their childish hands – I too enjoy this picture of the world, a favorite of mine was the theory that the Super Collider would unzip the fabric of the entire Universe, talk about a hyperobject.
This it to say that when we are dealing with hyperobjects, we are dealing with more than one factor that flows out of the very “hyper-“, “mind-blowing” nature of their scale. It is not just that hyperobjects exceed our ability to adequately respond to them, and I agree that common sense by the very virtue of its common scale picturing is insufficient, its that the hyper- aspect also provides a screen for all kinds of additional fantasy projection, the way that we regularly fill in our picture of the world with our fears and intensities. We not only can bury our head in the sand before their magnitude (using Stalin’s difference between a statistic and a tragedy), but we can also project our excessive much onto these hyperobject screens, reading them as essentially pernicious.
I might also add that when creating a contrast between hyperobject awareness (such as that possessed by scientists, environmentalists and now term-empowered ecophilosophers), and “common sense” Populists/Rightists who cannot see the magnitude of these objects due to their myopia, the rhetoric does possess a concerted provincial vs. cosmopolitan flavor. Anti-environmentalists are just locked into too small a time scale, they cannot transcend the province of human history to see how vast the object that is hurtling towards them is.
But what I suggest is that if there is going to be a Real political response to these Godzilla-sized hyperobjects that threaten to trample our Tokyo, recall the context of Godzilla, that is, if there is going to be a genuine manufacture of consent (to flip the rhetoric of the phrase into a positive), it must embrace the affective reality of values inherent with the common sense perspective. Just as leftists are broadcasting catastrophe onto large scale objects, others are experiencing real, human-level concern for intra-societal issues, and I suggest that the two of these are interdependent expressions of the same reality. Found within the myopia of common sense reactivity is an armory of human potentials for action and affect that if harnessed would bring great resource to the questions and problems of hyperobjects. It is incorrect and self-defeating to treat those the contest the crisis of hyperobjects as merely lost souls in need of instruments, as we are tempted to do. Oppositional thinking just does not suffice.
The aspect of hyperobjects I most concerned about, and I have mentioned it, is the problematic way that they are seen as having an essentially pernicious nature. If we are going to count as hyperobjects anything that has a time scale or effect far beyond the human life are we not to ask: Is there such a thing as a positive, beneficent hyperobject? Are there not non-pernicious hyperobjects that involve the active influence of our own human presence, hyperobjects to be affirmed, pursued and defended from decay? This involves I think a more nuanced reading of the human role in the ecosphere, one which does not trade solely on the footprint analogy of disturbance and destruction.