September 2nd, 2017

A few years ago, when I moved from walkable Cleveland Heights (No. 6) to the unwalkable North Royalton (No. 108), I faced a challenge in my life. I was doubling the amount of gasoline I purchased each week because, where I previously dealt with drive times of 10-15 minutes to see my students, I suddenly faced a daily commute that, depending upon traffic, could involve 80-120 minutes each day.

That sucks on several levels: I’m not crazy about driving the same route twice a day, my car is subjected to additional stresses with the coinciding increases in maintenance costs, driving in often heavy traffic raises my personal stress levels and, while I do my best to listen to downloaded books or listen to informative radio, that time represents as much as 12.5 percent of my waking day, or in an analogy I like to use, some 120 precious pieces of gold.

Alex Blasdel, writing in ‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene for The Guardian, takes my angst global.

Blasdel, in profiling philosopher Timothy Morton, writes:

“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” [Morton] 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”.

All of which has led Morton to champion the term The Anthropocene—a proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment—first coined by the Nobel-winning Dutch Chemist Paul Crutzen.

Blasdel continues:

Planetary changes had increasingly led journalists to set their environmental reporting in the context of geohistory – atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million? Not seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago – and the Anthropocene became a useful shorthand for placing human activity in the perspective of geological deep time. For Morton, who had recently begun writing about it, it captured his concern with the way beings of different kinds, including humans, depend on each other for their existence—a fact the various calamities of the Anthropocene drove home.

The natural leap is to talk about Global Warming, Climate Change and the myriad of other ecological catastrophes just on the even horizon. Morton, however, takes a different path.

Morton stakes out a more iconoclastic position. Instead of raising the ecological alarm like some Paul Revere of the apocalypse, he advocates what he calls “dark ecology,” which holds that the much-feared catastrophe has, in fact, already occurred.

Morton means not only that irreversible global warming is under way, but also something more wide-reaching. “We Mesopotamians”—as he calls the past 400 or so generations of humans living in agricultural and industrial societies—thought that we were simply manipulating other entities (by farming and engineering, and so on) in a vacuum, as if we were lab technicians and they were in some kind of giant petri dish called “nature” or “the environment”. In the Anthropocene, Morton says, we must wake up to the fact that we never stood apart from or controlled the non-human things on the planet, but have always been thoroughly bound up with them. We can’t even burn, throw or flush things away without them coming back to us in some form, such as harmful pollution. Our most cherished ideas about nature and the environment—that they are separate from us, and relatively stable—have been destroyed.

[No news on how Morton, who holds the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University (just southwest from downtown Houston), has fared during Hurricane Harvey]

Morton isn’t a guru, he’s just a guy with ideas. Some dislike what he suggest, others revel. Writing about a lecture delivered by Morton, Blasdel writes:

Even as someone with an interest in Morton’s work, I soon felt bored and distracted. The man standing next to me, an American scholar with an acerbic sense of humour, rolled his eyes and whispered a comment to the effect of “What is this bullshit?”

Despite Morton’s popularity, this isn’t an uncommon response to his work. The Morton detractors with whom I spoke accused him of misunderstanding contemporary science, like quantum mechanics and set theory, and then claiming his distortions as support for his wild ideas. They shared a broad critique that reminded me of the sceptical adage, “If you open your mind too far, your brains will fall out.” The slurry of interesting ideas in Morton’s work doesn’t hold together under scrutiny, they say. The philosopher Ray Brassier, who was once associated with OOO, has charged Morton and his blogging confrères with generating “an online orgy of stupidity”.

Other critics, especially on the left, complain that Morton’s conception of the Anthropocene glosses over issues of race, class, gender and colonialism by blaming the entire species for the damage inflicted by a privileged minority. The focus on the human enshrined in the term Anthropocene is a particular target for critics. By referring to humans as a unified whole, they argue that Morton effaces distinctions between the affluent west and the other members of humanity, many of whom were living in a state of ecological catastrophe long before the notion of the Anthropocene became trendy on campuses in Europe and North America. Others say that Morton’s notion of politics is too woolly, or that the last thing we need when facing ecological challenges are abstract musings about the nature of objects.

Morton’s defenders, however, see him as something of a Ralph Waldo Emerson for the Anthropocene: his writing has value, even if it doesn’t always stand up to philosophical scrutiny.

Blasdel concludes:

“Don’t hide under a rock, for heaven’s sake,” Morton had said to me at one point. “Go out in the street and start making any and as many kinds of political affiliations with as many kinds of beings, human or otherwise, that you possibly can, with a view to creating a more non-violent and just, for everybody, ecological world.” It was hard to argue with those aims. We can’t debate with other species, but the Anthropocene makes it clear that we need to include their wellbeing among our goals.

Morton’s own political emphasis seemed to change after the election. Wind-powered house parties and interspecies reading groups were out. Now, the whole point, he said, was “to freakin’ crush these fascists over and over and over again”.

Recycling my bottles, cans and paper won’t get me (or any of us) out of this.

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