Climate change has doomed us – now what on earth should we do about it?

Between war, global warming and bacon sandwiches, we are inexorably striding towards the apocalypse lurking just around the corner. A new collection of essays suggests we need a different way of thinking about ourselves and the everything that is not ourselves 

Andy Martin
Saturday 11 August 2018 10:02
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I was recently at the Grand Hyatt hotel, next to Grand Central station in New York, for a convention. Very grand for sure. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go and stay there, not unless you want to freeze. August outside, December inside. The architectural equivalent of a baked alaska. No melting ice cream, but whenever I walked in through the front door I had to don winter clothes, a scarf and a hat.

It was like going from King’s Landing to Winterfell or the “Wall” in a split second. I seriously want to ask Grand Hyatt what the hell they think they’re doing. Because, apart from the fact that some people were leaving the Grand Hyatt with a dash of pneumonia, they are also heating up the planet. AC overkill. And that is just one hotel in the middle of New York. Now multiply that by all the hotel chains across America and the world.

It will be obvious that I hate air conditioning. However, with the dawn of yet another scorcher in NYC, I have resorted to switching on the AC in my apartment with some notion of preventing my brain from being completely fried. Which brings us to the central logic of global warming.

Along with millions of others, I am just trying to stay cool. I am not trying to destroy the planet. But we are inadvertently having that effect. It’s not murder, it may not even be manslaughter, but there is a logic, a mechanism at work, that transcends individual intentions.

As with driving a car, where the simple idea is to get from A to B (possibly with some degree of style or speed), you probably don’t intend to cause pollution. You just can’t help it. So it is with AC: you get colder and the planet gets hotter. We are caught up in an inexorable equation.

You might as well blame Newton for causing the apple to land on his head. Or the cue ball for dropping into the pocket. That was not the plan. No one ever said: “Hey, what if we dig black stuff out of the ground, set fire to it, and thereby melt glaciers and the Arctic ice cap, thus wiping out polar bears and Inuits?” And yet these things are connected by intricate thermodynamic laws and feedback loops all the same.

What seems to be at fault in climate change denial is an overinflated concept of intentionality. As if everything had to be intended, to have an author or Creator behind it.

No one could ever accuse Roy Scranton of denial: he is a climate change oracle. He is a crusading unintentionalist. No one – apart possibly from Dr No and Blofeld – is Machiavellian enough to think of blowing up the whole planet, and yet apocalypse is now.

As he writes in his new collection of essays, We’re Doomed. Now What?, “The Anthropocene is an apocalypse, but an apocalypse that has already been revealed and is already happening, though not all at once and not all the same.”

We have a huge impact on the planet, whether we like it or not

Optimism and pessimism don’t even come into it, we’re already in a “death spiral”. He anticipates the imminent collapse of agriculture, the “extinction of the human species”, or at least the end of fossil-fuelled civilisation as we know it. On the other hand, he’s just had a daughter. So he hasn’t completely given up. And talking of giving up, he acknowledges that logically we all ought to be vegans, but he still likes bacon for breakfast. And he drives a car and flies a lot of air miles too. He feels as guilty as anyone else. Or as innocent.

Scranton has an unusual backstory. He started out as a hippy-anarchist-poet-weirdo dropout (I am adopting his terms). Then he dropped into the US army in search of adventure, authenticity and masculinity, and served in Iraq and other places from 2002-2006. Then he went to college, wrote a novel, an essay, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and now teaches English at the University of Notre Dame.

He looks more scholar than veteran, with grey hair and John Lennon glasses, but he writes like a warrior. Militant, forceful, unstoppable. But with a dash of battlefield poet. He sees an inevitable fusion of climate change and war. He ought to know, having been there, armed to the teeth with an M16 and a grenade launcher, driving a Humvee around Baghdad. War, he argues, is normal.

“We have little reason to hope that our long history of war and murder might someday come to an end.” And beyond all the causes, what we are fighting over is the right to use up what’s left of the planet. Whoever wins, everybody loses in the end.

We’re Doomed. Now What? reads like a dark re-shoot of James Lovelock’s “Gaia” hypothesis. Lovelock was a British scientist who ended up with his own laboratory in California, studying the possibility of life on Mars. Conversely he finds himself wondering why Earth was not already a dead planet. We’re breathing exhaust gases from other beings, and they’re breathing ours.

Scranton would say, yes, but we produce more exhaust – CO2 and methane – than any other creatures. But Lovelock argued that the planet, understood as a “superorganism” – Gaia – was a self-correcting society or “democracy”, in which all the constituent members act together, collectively, in a kind of mass symbiosis, to achieve homeostasis – even if that might involve the death of most of humanity (the so-called “revenge of Gaia”).

Recently Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, has taken up Lovelock’s arguments in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Latour sees Lovelock as the Galileo of our day, overthrowing some of our simplistic ideas of the way the world is stuck together, and showing how interwoven everything is.

Maybe the classic retort of Galileo to the Pope, “And yet it moves” – referring to the Earth going around the sun rather than the other way around – can provide a common denominator here. Certain things move, or are moved, irrespective of human wishes. We have a huge impact on the planet, whether we like it or not. We anthropoi of the “anthropocene” now have a geological force. Within our local biosphere, we are like a rock, or an asteroid hitting it at immense speed.

All of which suggests we need a different way of thinking about ourselves and the everything that is not ourselves. While also toning down the “selves” part of that last sentence too.

We need an enhanced sense of totality, and a diminished sense of intentionality. Try to think of a transitive sentence and I bet you’ll tend to think of something like, “Julia kicked the football”. Or, if you’re Shakespeare, you might say, “I kissed thee ’ere I killed thee” (Othello to Desdemona). The distinction between Julia and the football or Othello and his wife is obvious.

The whole point of western philosophy from Descartes on was to emphasise the difference. I am not you. I am not this saucepan (for example). The self exists in supreme isolation – a state of alienation – from the rest of the world. It seems almost undeniable. And there are probably good evolutionary reasons why we might think that way: it probably kept us alive longer, for one thing. Now it could equally well kill us.

One of the useful concepts that comes up in Scranton’s book (due to Timothy Morton) is that of the “hyperobject”. Consider oil. Is that an object, a thing? Sort of. But I am wearing oil products, I am driving oil, I am breathing oil (whether I like it or not). It’s under my feet and in the air around me. I can’t exactly point to it or kick it like a football. It’s highly distributed, pervasive, more like a kind of gas (which of course is exactly what it is, in one of its many forms).

Or, in a similar way, consider such “hyperobjects” as carbon, or water, or nature. Or the Earth. It’s not like a house. I don’t just live in it or on it. I am it. It’s a totality of living beings, us included. We are more than involved, we’re committed. We don’t have an out (not yet anyway).

Roy Scranton writes like a warrior. Militant, forceful, unstoppable 

It follows that language itself has to evolve. As Wittgenstein said, the limits of my language are the limits of my world. Language needs to get more Gaian. Every now and then in We’re Doomed there is the sense of Scranton bumping up against the limits of language, of him trying to say the unsayable.

He sometimes thinks ungenerously of colleagues (we probably all do, he is just more explicit about it than most), criticising them for “specious metaphysics and giddying gibberish”, thinkers arguing against the idea of “humanity” as a category of thought, as if we were not in fact a species among other species, a species that happens to be killing off other species in a planet-wide mass extinction event.

Camus never finished reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. If he had he would have come across a passage about skiing, summarising the whole of Sartre’s philosophy, in which he argues that skiing is, in effect, the skier versus the mountain. That the skier would like to be like the mountain, in the sense of being a timeless archetype, but he never quite can be, the difference is fundamental.

The skier belongs to the realm of consciousness (“for itself”) while the mountain is rock solid, nothing but the “in-itself”. Camus took a radically different line, encapsulated in a single sentence in his notebooks: “I am the tree.” Sartre loathed the biosphere. Camus – and this is the core of the quarrel between them – identified with light, smoke, ocean, and trees. He even has one of his characters (Meursault) trying to be like a stone. In the anthropocene, we are all part of the geology.

Scranton says that the “lesson” of ecology is “every wolf is a deer, every deer is a deer tick, every deer tick is a human, every human is a blade of grass”.

Language is a taxonomic engine that works to segregate and differentiate. We love to label. We give ourselves names to distinguish ourselves from anyone else. From around the time of Napoleon onwards, we have romanticised the self. In all its imperiousness. Maybe we have to get over ourselves finally. By the same token, nation states, locked in as they are to a naive concept of individualism, need to be supplemented by collaborative, transnational structures.

Poets and writers are as well placed as any scientist to draw out the interconnectedness of things. They obey a metaphoric principle, fusing together – mentally – what is seemingly apart. “The earth is blue like an orange,” as Eluard said. The rhetoric of war is antithetical, insisting on disparity and opposition. And in the notion of the hero it inflates selfhood to an insane degree.

Roy Scranton brings this out in We’re Doomed. Now What? I can think of one other writer who does something similar. In War and Peace Tolstoy demythified the emperor Napoleon, who liked to think of himself as the origin and cause of history, whereas “of all the blind tools of history [the generals] were the most enslaved and involuntary”.

Napoleon is never going to say, “I am a tree”. But then he is condemned to being, like many another megalomaniac of our day, the tail that thinks it is wagging the dog. Or, as Scranton neatly puts it, “any individual me or you is but a transient expression of dirt and electricity, energy and matter, a moment on a rock in space”.

‘We’re Doomed. Now What?’ is published by Soho Press. ‘Facing Gaia, Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime’ is published by Polity

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