timothy morton

Timothy Morton, Professor of English (Literature and the Environment), University of California. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays. Most resent publication: The Ecological Thought. Blog: Ecology Without Nature, http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There! Global Warming and Ideology

It's obvious why Republicans in the USA are in denial about global warming. Accepting the truth would mean that reality isn't wired for libertarianism or individualism or rigid hierarchies. There are two styles of denial. One is an injunction: “Global warming is happening, but just let Nature/evolution take its course.” This implies that we have no responsibility for suffering beings and changing ecosystems. It also invokes an automated process (Nature) that we should not interfere with—an invisible hand, hardwired into reality “over there” beyond our intentions, beyond society modeled as a social contract between freely agreeing individuals. The other style denies totality: “It snowed in Boise, Idaho last week: it's not warming where I am, so global warming is bogus.”

These two styles exhibit Freud's “borrowed kettle” logic: there are too many reasons to deny global warming, reasons that contradict each other. “Global warming is happening, and we should just let Nature take its course”; “Global warming isn't happening, so stop whining about it.” There's also a third style, between denial and acceptance: “Okay, it's happening, but there's no proof that we caused it.”

What can we learn from this denial? The perceived threat is (channeling Oscar Wilde) far more than merely real—it's also a fantasmic threat. Accepting global warming means giving up fantasies that we are individuals agreeing on a level playing field to have a social contract; that capitalism is an automated process that must continue without intervention of even a mildly social-democratic kind (viz. the “Tea Parties” against President Obama's resetting of the US tax code to Clinton era specifications). These two halves of reactionary sentiment are already intrinsically at odds with one another—one concerns agreements freely chosen, the other concerns an automated process you must leave alone. The global warming view involves inverting both halves of the sentiment. Society is not an agreement between pre-social individuals but an already existing totality for which we are directly responsible.

The political and scientific answers to the “snow in Boise Idaho” meme are the same. Weather is not climate. Climate is a derivative of weather. It takes terabytes of RAM to model (we must rely on external information processing machines, another problem for individualism). Like momentum, a derivative of velocity, you can't point to it, but it exists. It doesn't matter if it snowed in Boise Idaho, just as it doesn't matter if a truck that's about to run you down is slowing down or speeding up. If it has enough momentum to kill you, it will, unless you move out of the way. If a little girl steps in front of that truck, you are obliged to rescue her, for the simple reason that you can see her. Simply because we are sentient—let's set the bar low to ensure that even snails and the snailiest of us are also responsible—we are obliged to work on global warming. No proof is required that we caused it—looking for absolute proof inhibits any response.

This leads us to a deeper problem. Pointing to the snow in Boise Idaho becomes a mystifying, fetishistic operation. Something seemingly real and cold and wet is less real, and pointing to it is less realistic, than something we can't directly sense. Reality as such has been upgraded: phenomena you can see and hear and palpate are suddenly less real than ones you can't. This has a horrifying effect on our sense of reality as such, which has depended on a background called Nature or lifeworld or biology. When there's no background, there's no foreground.

We have about five minutes for Schadenfreude as we watch the right struggling with this, then we realize we are also spinning in the void. When there is no world, there is no ontology. We can't nestle in our nice holistic burrow once we've defeated the evil individualists. There's no burrow, therefore no nestling. While our world is melting, our idea of what “really” and “real” mean also melts.

The melting world induces panic. Again, it's paradoxical. While we absolutely have complete responsibility for global warming and must act now to curb emissions, we also confront fantasies about “acting now.” Ideological injunctions to act NOW inhibit coming to terms with ecology, in Percy Shelley's wonderful words, to “imagine that which we know.” We are out of phase with contemporary science. When in this the bicentenary year of Darwin's birth I have weekly arguments with humanists who don't have a clue about what evolution is or even vaguely to have accepted it—some proudly spurn it like an unappealing pair of socks—we have a problem.

Along with figuring out what implications science has for society and so on, humanists should be asking scientists to do things for us. We should create websites that list experiments we need. My top suggestion would be exploring the question, “Is consciousness intentional?” Negative results would provide a reason not to hurt life forms. If consciousness were not some high up bonus prize for being elaborately wired, but low down, a default mode that came bundled with the software, then worms are conscious in every meaningful sense. A worm could become a Buddha, as a worm. Or what if consciousness were profoundly intersubjective? (Another blow to individualism.)

Many believe that theory is the opposite of practice. I've been accused of not wanting to help Katrina victims because I'm too busy theorizing. “Your ideas are all very well for a lazy Sunday afternoon, but here in the real world, what are we actually going to do?” Yet one thing I want to do is break down the distinction between Sunday afternoon and every other day, and in the name of putting a bit of Sunday afternoon into Monday morning, rather than making Sunday a workday. That's what I get paid to do.

The injunction to act now is based on preserving a Nature that never existed: this has real effects that may result in more powerful catastrophe as we tilt at non-existent windmills. I'm not saying let's not look after animals because they're not really natural. I'm trying to find a reason to look after all beings precisely because they're not natural.

When you think about ecology, your world becomes much larger and therefore more groundless. Yet it also becomes much more intimate. We've got others—rather, they have us—literally under our skin. We have legs and arms, just like lobsters. Those limbs contain cells, just like amoebae. Those cells contain bacterial symbionts (mitochondria), just like plants (chloroplasts). The symbionts contain DNA. DNA contains viral code insertions that are indistinguishable from “authentic” DNA. We're used to the idea that there is no authentic human-flavored DNA. We share 98% with chimps and 35% with daffodils. But it gets worse. There is no authentic DNA flavored DNA. ERV-3 is a viral insertion that may code for immunosuppressive properties of the placental barrier. You are reading this because a virus in your mum's DNA made her body not allergic to you. So it's not just that a rabbit by any other name would twitch its nose as sweetly: all the way down, there is no rabbit as such. Looking for the rabbit will be like Basil Fawlty looking for the duck in an episode of Fawlty Towers: however much he pulls it open, it's always going to be a trifle, not duck à l'orange. And talking of rabbits and ducks, we can never be fully sure of who we're dealing with.

Ecological coexistence consists of what I call strange strangers. These beings are ineradicably, irreducibly strange, strange in their strangeness, strange all the way down, surprisingly surprising. I can't in good faith use the word animal anymore, and “nonhumans” won't work either—we are strange strangers too. “Life forms” sounds nice, but some of these strangers aren't strictly alive. In order to have DNA, you have to have RNA. In order to have RNA, you need ribosomes. And in order to have ribosomes, you need DNA …  So there must have been a paradoxical “pre-living life,” such as Sol Spiegelman's RNA World, in which RNA type molecules coexist with a non-organic replicator such as a certain silicate crystal—yes, maybe your great times x grandmother really was a silicon chip. A virus is a macromolecular crystal that tells RNA to make copies of it. If a virus is alive, in any meaningful sense, then so is a computer virus. The more we know about strange strangers, the stranger they become. Are they alive? What is life? Are they intelligent? What is intelligence? Are they people? Are we people?

Darwin shows that distinguishing a species from its variants, even one species from another, is strictly impossible. When you add to that the reason for evolution—randomly mutating DNA—you discover that the environment is nothing other than the phenotypical expression of the genomes of various life forms. A beaver's dam is as much an expression of the beaver's DNA as the beaver's nose. Ditto the spider's web. Ditto oxygen (the excretion of anaerobic bacteria). There is no environment as such—it's all life forms all the way down. Life forms don't just shape the planet, they are the planet. And it's not easy to draw the line between where their domain stops and the non-life domain takes over. Where is the edge of this mesh? The Earth's gravitational field? The Sun? The Solar System? (This is more than just wondering whether organic macromolecules are extraterrestrial, which they very well might have been.)

These DNA expressions are highly varied and if they don't kill you, you can keep them. This is called satisficing, which is the cheapest route to DNA replication. Sexual display is a major factor in evolution, not the so-called survival of the fittest. I have a reddish beard because a few million years ago someone thought that kind of thing was sexy. Whichever way you cut it, strange strangers subvert our binary categories: between life and non-life, between “races” and sexualities, between utility and aesthetic display. The human race does not abstractly “want” to survive—only macromolecular replicators “want” to do that. We can't base our environmentalism on “saving the human race”—nothing in our being, from DNA up, supports it.

Nor, however, can we just sit back and let evolution do its thing. In this respect Deep Ecology, which sees humans as a viral blip in the big Gaian picture, is only laissez faire capitalism in a neo-fascist ideological form. We are responsible because we are sentient. So at the same time as we are compelled to act, we are losing our reasons to act. This is the issue—how to “get it on” in a world that is crumbling both without and within (in “reality” and in “thought”). How to desire at a moment when that desire is compromised? Here's my answer, which I call dark ecology because it sounds moody and depressed and hopeless and weird, and I'm a moody depressed weird kind of a guy. Let's take a cue from sentience as ethical obligation: we must because we are (sentient). We must base ecological action on ethics, not aesthetics. Ecological action will never feel good and the non-world will never seem elegant, since we are not embedded in a lifeworld and will never get our bearings sufficiently to achieve the appropriate aesthetic distance from which to experience that refined pleasure. Hedonistic forms of consequentialism—ideas that ecological concern makes us or others feel better—won't work. Ecological politics has been barking up the wrong tree, trying to make people feel something different. “If only we could see things differently” translates into “I will not act unless suitably stimulated and soothed by a picture of reality built to my pre-existing specifications.”

This looks more like Kantian ethics than authoritarian aesthetic compulsion. Kantian duty gets its cue from a quasi-aesthetic experience that Kant calls sublimity, so we haven't totally abolished the aesthetic. We can't escape the experiential dimension of existence. Yet dark ecology banishes Kantian aesthetics, too, if we mean being able to spit out disgusting things. We can't spit out the disgusting ecological real: it's too close for comfort. It's a weird, perverse aesthetics that includes the ugly and the horrifying. This also means not swapping our dualism and our mechanism for what seems nicer, such as vitalism or monism. We must make do with the nasty stuff on our plate. That includes consciousness, which puts me in a paradoxical relationship with other beings—there is always an ironic gap between strange strangers. Being ecological doesn't mean losing our sense of irony. Irony is not just a slogan on a cool t-shirt, it's the way coexistence feels. Don't just do something, sit there. But in the mean time, sitting there will upgrade your version of doing and of sitting.

Dark ecology is a paradoxical aesthetic that slips from our conceptual grasp. This openness serves as startup software for politics: it doesn't tell you what to do, but it opens your mind so you can think clearly about what to do. That we can actually use our minds to transcend our material conditions is why the Kantian sublime is so utterly different from Edmund Burke's version. Burke's sublime is solid and awesome and powerful—there's no arguing with it, you simply capitulate to it. His models are monarchy and mountains. There's too much of this sublime in ecological aesthetics. It's seductive to imagine a force bigger than global capitalism finally sweeping it away—the “revenge of Gaia” (James Lovelock). But what if this thought comes from within capitalism itself? What if capitalism itself relied on fantasies of apocalypse in order to keep reproducing itself? What if Nature as such, the idea of a radical outside of the social system, was a capitalist fantasy, even the capitalist fantasy?

If ecology does away with Nature, then it's not simply the new mode in which to think capitalism (full respect to green companies, like the one that just installed my solar panels). Ecology and ecological thinking is not exhausted by capitalism. Postcapitalist ecology is possible, because ecology goes beyond instrumental reason and commodification, and compels us to imagine ways of coexisting transcending mere reactions to capitalism, such as vague celebrations of “community” found in environmental writing. Ecological thinking means imagining collectives, not communities. You don't choose a community, you just find yourself within it. A collective, on the other hand, is chosen, like how a therapy patient “owns” her or his attitude. Collectivity is committing to a given situation that is always open to the radical otherness of the strange stranger—a nonexclusive open-ended group. At least one collective demand could not be packaged and sold back to collectivists: the demand to be a collective as such, being open to the possibility that our collective coexistence is undecided and unfinished, spilling over the boundaries of pre-defined social structures. This probably means that chimps and cows can and should be members of unions, doesn't it? Yikes. It also means that capitalist ideology and instrumental technoscience don't exhaust what materiality means.

In announcing the “death of environmentalism,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute are doing a Fukuyama: proclaiming that history is at an end, with the capitalist form as its final destination. While their argument superficially resembles mine, claiming that a reified product called “the environment” is impeding meaningful ecological politics, Nordhaus and Schellenberger limit our scope to a narrow chink in a pre-existing prison window, reducing ecological thinking to realpolitik. The injunction to get on with it and deal with the social conditions we have can easily become another inhibition. The rhetoric of sustainability becomes a weapon in the hands of global corporations. The current social situation becomes a thing of Nature—a plastic object you must maintain. This social situation is totally autonomous from you—it's an “emergent” feature like a wave that doesn't concern you as a mere droplet of water.

Ecological thinking should not stop forging ahead, thinking unthinkable things and demanding the impossible. It must hold open the possibility of a future radically different from the reality we appear to be stuck in.