Hurricane Irma will happen again – so we need the answers to some difficult questions about global politics

What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while large sub-Saharan regions become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of populations be organised? And what if a new gigantic volcanic eruption makes the whole of an island uninhabitable – where will the people of that island move?

Slavoj Zizek
Tuesday 12 September 2017 11:47 BST
The Sunrise Motel remains flooded after Hurricane Irma hit the area on September 11, 2017 in East Naples, Florida
The Sunrise Motel remains flooded after Hurricane Irma hit the area on September 11, 2017 in East Naples, Florida (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Reading and watching reports on the devastating effect of Hurricane Irma this week, I was reminded of Trisolaris, a strange planet from The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin’s sci-fi masterpiece.

A scientist is drawn into a virtual reality game called “Three Body” in which players find themselves on the alien planet Trisolaris whose three suns rise and set at strange and unpredictable intervals: sometimes far too far away and horribly cold, sometimes far too close and destructively hot, and sometimes not seen for long periods of time.

Life is a constant struggle against apparently unpredictable elements. Despite that, players slowly find ways to build civilisations and attempt to predict the strange cycles of heat and cold.

Do phenomena like Irma not demonstrate that our Earth itself is gradually turning into Trisolaris? Devastating hurricanes, droughts and floods warming – do they all not indicate that we are witnessing something the only appropriate name for which is “the end of nature”? “Nature” is to be understood here in the traditional sense of a regular rhythm of seasons, the reliable background of human history, something on which we can count to always be there.

It is difficult for an outsider to imagine how it feels when a vast domain of densely populated land disappears underwater, so that millions are deprived of the very basic coordinates of their life-world: the land with its fields, but also with its cultural monuments, is no longer there, so that, although in the midst of water, they are in a way like fishes out of water – it is as if the environs thousands of generations were taking as the most obvious foundation of their lives start to crack.

Similar catastrophes were, of course, known for centuries, some even from the very prehistory of humanity. What is new today is that, since we live in a “disenchanted” post-religious era, such catastrophes can no longer be rendered meaningful as part of a larger natural cycle or as an expression of divine wrath.

This is how, back in 1906, William James described his reaction to an earthquake: “Emotion consisted wholly of glee, and admiration. Glee at the vividness which such an abstract idea as 'earthquake' could take on when verified concretely and translated into sensible reality ... and admiration at the way in which the frail little wooden house could hold itself together in spite of such a shaking. I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” How far we are here from the shattering of the very foundations of one's life-world!

Nature is more and more in disorder, not because it overwhelms our cognitive capacities but primarily because we are not able to master the effects of our own interventions into its course – who knows what the ultimate consequences of our biogenetic engineering or of global warming will be?

The surprise comes from ourselves, it concerns the opacity of how we ourselves fit into the picture: the impenetrable stain in the picture is not some cosmic mystery like a mysterious explosion of a supernova: the stain are we ourselves, our collective activity. This is what we call “Anthropocene”: a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we, humans, cannot any longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity.

We have to accept that we live on a “Spaceship Earth”, responsible and accountable for its conditions. At the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our enviroment is necessary once we realise this: we should become modest agents collaborating with our environs, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of stability, with no inherent formula which guarantees our safety.

Does this mean that we should assume a defensive approach and search for a new limit, a return to (or, rather, the invention of) some new balance? This is what the predominant ecology proposes us to do, and the same task is pursued by bioethics with regard to biotechnology: biotechnology pursues new possibilities of scientific interventions (genetic manipulations, cloning and so on), and bioethics endeavours to impose moral limitations on what biotechnology enables us to do.

As such, bioethics is not immanent to scientific practice: it intervenes into this practice from the outside, imposing external morality onto it. One can even say that bioethics is the betrayal of the aims of scientific endeavour, the aims which say: “Do not compromise your scientific desire; follow inexorably its path.” Such attempts at limitation fail because they ignore the fact that there is no objective limit: we are discovering that the object itself – nature – is not stable.

Sceptics like to point out the limitation of our knowledge about what goes on in nature – however, this limitation in no way implies that we should not exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, since the situation is profoundly unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming do not signal that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.

Can we then use capitalism itself against this threat? Although capitalism can easily turn ecology into a new field of capitalist investment and competition, the very nature of the risk involved fundamentally precludes a market solution – why?

Capitalism only works in precise social conditions: it implies the trust into the objectivised mechanism of the market’s “invisible hand” which, as a kind of Cunning of Reason, guarantees that the competition of individual egotisms works for the common good. However, we are in the midst of a radical change: what looms on the horizon today is the unheard-of possibility that a subjective intervention will trigger an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophy, and so on. For the first time in human history, the act of a single socio-political agent effectively can alter and even interrupt the global historical and even natural process.

Huge waterspout witnessed following Irma

Jean-Pierre Dupuy refers to the theory of complex systems which accounts for their two opposite features: their robust stable character and their extreme vulnerability. These systems can accommodate themselves to great disturbances, integrate them and find new balance and stability – up to a certain threshold (a “tipping point”) above which a small disturbance can cause a total catastrophe and lead to the establishment of a totally different order.

For long centuries, humanity did not have to worry about the impact on the enviroment of its productive activities – nature was able to accommodate itself to deforestation, to the use of coal and oil, and so on. However, one cannot be sure if, today, we are not approaching a tipping point – one really cannot be sure, since such points can be clearly perceived only once it is already too late, in retrospect.

Apropos of the urgency to do something about today's threat of different ecological catastrophes: either we take this threat seriously and decide today to do things which, if the catastrophe will not occur, will appear ridiculous; or we do nothing and lose everything in the case of catastrophe. The worst case scenario would be to take a "middle ground" solution with a limited amount of measures – in this case, we will fail as there is no middle ground in reality. In such a situation, the talk about anticipation, precaution and risk control tends to become meaningless.

This is why there is something deceptively reassuring in the readiness of the theorists of anthropocene to blame us, humans, for the threats to our environment: we like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, then it all depends on us. We pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives. What is really difficult for us (at least for us in the West) to accept is that we are also (to some unknown degree) impotent observers who can only sit and watch what their fate will be.

Hurricane Irma devastates Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island home

To avoid such a situation, we are prone to engage in a frantic obsessive activity, recycle old paper, buy organic food, whatever, just so that we can be sure that we are doing something, making our contribution – like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome.

The main lesson to be learned is therefore that humankind should get ready to live in a more flexible or nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may impose the need for unheard — of large scale social tranformations.

Let us say that a new gigantic volcanic eruption makes the whole of an island uninhabitable – where will the people of that island move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land or just be dispersed around the world?

What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while large sub-Saharan regions become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of populations be organised?

When similar things happened in the past, social changes occurred in a wild and spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect would be catastrophic in today's conditions, with arms of mass destruction available to all nations.

One thing is clear: national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new levels of global cooperation invented. And what about the immense changes in economy and consummation due to new weather patterns or shortages of water and energy sources? Through what processes of decision will such changes be decided and executed? It’s time to answer these difficult questions

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