Timothy Morton and the Anthropocene
Morton’s work is about the knowledge and implications of our interdependence with other beings– which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our “core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is”.
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.
Morton’s theories are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet – a phase that Morton and many others now call the “Anthropocene”.
For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. 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.
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.
Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.
“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”.
Imagine geologists from a future civilisation examining the layers of rock that are in the slow process of forming today. That civilisation will see evidence of our sudden (in geological terms) impact on the planet – including fossilised plastics and layers both of carbon, from burning carbon fuels, and of radioactive particles, from nuclear testing and explosions.
Others say the blame for the despoliation of the Earth should be laid at the feet not of humanity in general, but of (predominantly white, western and male) capitalism. Several alternative designations have been minted, including “Capitalocene”, but none has caught on. They don’t have the disquieting existential ring of Anthropocene, which stresses both our culpability and our fragility as humans.
In 2016, the epoch was formally endorsed by a working group within the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper of geological time. As a tentative start date, they chose the year 1950, when one of the clearest markers of human activity shows up globally in the earth’s crust: plutonium isotopes from widespread nuclear testing.
Morton 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.
The chief reason that we are waking up to our entanglement with the world we have been destroying, Morton says, is our encounter with the reality of hyperobjects – the term he coined to describe things such as ecosystems and black holes, which are “massively distributed in time and space” compared to individual humans- and we are now bumping up against them consciously for the first time. Global warming might have first appeared to us as a bit of funny local weather, then as a series of independent manifestations (an unusually torrential flood here, a deadly heatwave there), but now we see it as a unified phenomenon, of which extreme weather events and the disruption of the old seasons are only elements. We can experience hyperobjects on a local scale but can never fully get our heads around the concept-it is literally unthinkable change.
This leads Morton to one of his most sweeping claims: that the Anthropocene is forcing a revolution in human thought. Advances in science are now underscoring how “enmeshed” we are with other beings – from the microbes that account for roughly half the cells in our bodies, to our reliance for survival on the Earth’s electromagnetic heat shield. At the same time, hyperobjects, in their unwieldy enormity, alert us to the absolute boundaries of science, and therefore the limits of human mastery. Science can only take us so far. This means changing our relationship with the other entities in the universe – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – from one of exploitation through science to one of solidarity in ignorance. If we fail to do this, we will continue to wreak havoc on the planet. In contrast to utopian fantasies that we will be saved by the rise of artificial intelligence or some other new technology, the Anthropocene teaches us that we can’t transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them. That might sound gloomy, but Morton glimpses in it a liberation. If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us, we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself.
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.
“Let’s put some house music on,” Morton said at the end of one of our longest conversations. “Even if it’s true that we really are screwed, let’s not spend the rest of our lives on this planet telling ourselves how screwed we are.”
What should we do instead?
“Shake hands with a hedgehog and disco.”