Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Editorial in Today's Danish Politiken (in English)

Here is the original.

IPCC: The Intraplanetary League of Concerned Critters
Timothy Morton

On any given day we receive a lot of data about the climate through the media. On any given day during COP21, we're going to receive a whole lot more.

We know the routine. A spokesperson for the scientists sits behind a table and delivers the scary news. And it's the way most articles in most papers are written. They unleash thunderstorms of information such as: “50%!” “100 000!” “2.7 degrees!” “Ten more species of mammal!” (I'm just making up these numbers. You get the picture.) And it's definitely how NGOs seem to operate. The routine is everywhere.

How do we live all this data? How can we be ecological?

This isn't a trivial problem. It's not like we get the numbers from the void then sprinkle some nice human-meaning candy on them. To have the numbers in the first place, you have to be a scientist who cares about global warming. (NB: I call it global warming not “climate change”—right-wing global warming deniers in the USA shouldn't scare us into diluting it.) You have to care enough to set up the experiments, run the numbers, risk the floods of hostile emails (even I get them, and I'm in the Humanities.)

So…how do you care at all? How do you attune to ecological things in the first place, enough to find all this data, let alone absorb it? I can hardly care about what to get at the supermarket next week, let alone what polar bears need two decades from now. Or what humans will need two centuries from now.

In philosophy world, this is what we call logical priority. Living ecological knowledge is logically prior to finding out ecological facts. And there's a huge problem: information dump mode isn't helping us to live our ecological knowledge. In fact, it's really damaging.

Why? First of all, anyone with a pulse knows how oppressive information dumps can be: all those numbers, they change every day, they are signals from a horribly damaged world, they make us go numb, and sometimes they push us further into denial or defiance. It's like someone shaking you and yelling, “Your mom is dead, dammit! Snap out of it!”

How do you truly work with people in the denial phase of grief, grief that we have already lost our (sense of a familiar) world? We are all waking up inside a nightmare that is already happening. The world has already ended. The catastrophe has already occurred.

But information dump mode has the unintended consequence of making us feel like the traumatic event hasn't happened yet.

Let me be clear: I'm not arguing that scientists shouldn't warn us about future consequences of burning more fossil fuels. Or that things couldn't get much, much worse.

It's just that in my line of work, you get to see how sentences—even something as neutral seeming as “one plus one equals two”—always have a color, a flavor, some kind of DNA of their very own. Ideas come bundled with attitudes towards them, just like cans of soda come with ways of opening them, or beer comes in irritating new plastic packs you have to figure out how to handle.

Scientists aren't generally aware that the sentences they say aren't just happening in a void. This isn't their fault. It's because of scientism, which is very different from science itself. Scientism is a belief. For example, it's scientistic, not scientific, to say that medium-sized things like horses are reducible to smaller things like atoms, in such a way that atoms are more real than horses. Science isn't allowed to say what's more real than what. Science is about examining patterns in data. That's why scientists rely on statistics. You can't just go around saying “This causes that”—it's not scientific. You have to say “This is 97% likely to cause that.” Which gives the deniers a way out—they can claim that you are being fuzzy. But you aren't. It's the bald assertion that has no backup except for threats of torture or execution (paging the Spanish Inquisition). Deniers want to party like it's 1749, before modern science began, before philosophy (thanks Hume and Kant) figured all this out. Unfortunately, so does scientism.

Most of us aren't ready to live modern science, then, let alone global warming science. And by modern I mean stuff that happened in the last two hundred years. We have a lot of catching up to do.

So…ideas don't just drop out of the sky, they have colors and flavors and textures and ways of having them. In the USA they call “welfare” what used to be called “benefits” in the UK—until the current Conservative government took control. They knew that changing the term to “welfare” meant that to have the idea “correctly,” you have to have an attitude of contempt to the recipients. I can't believe that even the BBC hasn't noticed this powerful shift in how British people live their politics and economics.

What is the flavor of information dump mode? Think of it this way. People who suffer from post-traumatic stress have terrible recurring nightmares. The fact that they recur must mean that there is some gain to having them. It's very plausible that post-traumatic stress sufferers are trying to “anticipate” their trauma with 20/20 hindsight. In other words, the sufferer's dream is there to install her or him, in fantasy, at a point just before the trauma happened, so that horrifying fright (finding yourself in the middle of a traumatic situation) can be replaced by less horrifying anxiety: in this case, a lower-level fear of something that is about to happen—but hasn't happened yet.

Can you see why information dump mode isn't helping? We don't need to feel anxious about global warming. We need to feel frightened. If we feel anxious, we haven't even started to go through the trauma yet. We aren't yet living ecological truth. It's almost as if we have a choice. We can choose to be scared, or not, because it's as if the catastrophe hasn't happened yet. All those facts and all those warnings of imminent disaster are weirdly having exactly the opposite effect than the one the deliverers of the information are intending!

In this utilitarian scientistic age where we just plough ahead without remembering why studying things like philosophy and literature might be very important, we have lost track of how to talk with one another, and even more significantly, how to listen. So we say stuff without thinking about the consequences.

Eco-information dumping has negative consequences. I bet this even effects policy makers: they are human too, so we are told. I even wonder whether they really need all those numbers to make effective policies. We talk about how they need it to “sell” the policies. But then the salesmanship also happens in information dump mode. So we are all making a nice buffer against being ecological—by shouting at each other that it's terribly important to be ecological!

There has to be another way.

Think about it like this. Those of us who know we need to do something don't need any more information dumps. (Sure it's nice to have up-to-date facts, but maybe we can find them out a different way.) Those of us who refuse to acknowledge that we need to do something really don't need any more information dumps.

What the deniers need is to be joined. Information dumping is an aggression mode that sends another unintended message: the dumper is trying to replace your beliefs with hers or his. Some atheists will get very angry with me at this point, because I'm sort of saying that the war of escalating facts vs. denial happens in part because the fact delivery people refuse to notice that their delivery mode exactly resembles clinging to a belief.

Perhaps there are two kinds of people in this world: those who know they believe, and those who say that they don't. Anyway, the problem is never exactly what you believe, it's how you believe, and your beliefs about belief. Do you think that believing means clinging tightly to something and slamming the table when the other guy doesn't agree? Then I'm afraid that whatever you are saying is in evangelical belief mode. (Richard Dawkins, you can get mad at me now. But just realize that if you do, you'll be proving my point.)

Instead of looking at the statistics and the drowning polar bears, how about doing something seemingly counter-intuitive? How about turning the camera around the other way? Let's talk about being frightened. Let's talk about being numb. How to act when you feel scared and numb and overwhelmed, and quite frankly and quite often, bored?

When someone says, “I'm bored,” it usually means “I'm critical” or “I'm resisting.” If you meditate, you know that exploring boredom can be quite…interesting. Instead we are trying to reject where we're at, as if there's something wrong with having emotions—unless they are the “right” ones.
For example, what happened to laughter? I believe that laughter is equivalent to thinking something new—something pops up that you didn't expect, that maybe you kind of knew at the back of your head, but you don't know that you know it already. That's funny. Why should we be ecological in tragedy mode only? Isn't comedy a much better model for nonviolent coexistence? Comedy certainly allows a great deal more different types of emotion. And ecological awareness is kind of funny. You rely on so many non-you organisms, living right in your digestive system. In 10 000BCE some of us tried to avoid global warming by settling down and eventually creating…worse global warming. (That's the super short history of the last 12 000 years. Come on, it's almost funny, isn't it?) So we're vulnerable and we rely on nonhumans and we get twisted up in things: big deal.

In order to laugh, you have to be ready: you have to be listening. Either literally listening, like listening to a comedian as she plays with comic timing, teasing out that thing you already know. Or listening in a metaphorical sense, being contemplative, allowing things to happen.
Listening mode is the exact opposite of information dump mode. Better: information dump mode is a small, distorted island in a gigantic ocean called listening. You have to be listening already to get dumped on, even though it's obviously not very pleasant when it happens. So let's tune up our listening powers.

There are two words for a listening-power tuning specialist: artist and humanist.

We need people like artists and musicians and writers and humanists to do the press conferences. I propose a new IPCC: the Intraplanetary League of Concerned Critters. We will shadow the official press conferences. We will wear animal hats, like the wolf ones you can buy in Norway. We won't do any information dumps. Instead, we will try to walk you through an experience that is equivalent to having accepted global warming as a reality. We will join you. We will make you smile. We won't force you to be contemplative, because that can be done in “dump” mode too. We will simply create a nice atmosphere that is equivalent to listening, attending, attuning.
For their brilliant work in helping us to attend to nonhuman beings, I nominate Björk and Olafur Eliasson to kick off the first IPCC meeting.
Actually of course, you can start your own chapter of the IPCC right now. Get together with some friends, maybe even involve your dog or your parrot or your cat, get behind a table somewhere in public and just start doing a press conference. You can even dump all kinds of information too: “I'm really scared about the bees”; “Can you believe the price of a liter of gasoline these days?”; “I'm so embarrassed that I'm actually quite bored of ecological facts”; “I really like your animal hat.”

Stop trying to persuade people. Per-suasion actually means “thoroughly softening.” That sounds nice.

Just remember: you are in charge. You have the controls. Don't wait for another single shred of evidence. Don't stand there like a deer in the headlights waiting for a disaster that has already happened. We are already dead: what a relief! There's no need to be scared. It has already happened. We really are in a nightmare: there's no need to check anymore. Stop the handwringing. Smile a little bit.

Then perhaps you will be able to cry, for real.


D. E.M. said...

If you don't need to keep checking, then you can attend to and detach from the anxiety the ostensible need for checking rests on and produces. Then you can focus on wonder, weirdness, and girls in swan dresses. So true.

John said...

My friend, a cat person wrote:

Why no League, observers ask? Because we are run by cats, the concerned critters respond.

But cats just look at something and then don't do anything about it, other than mark it with their claws and scent to make sure everyone knows everything in their territory is theirs, the observers reply.

Critters reply: Cats are only interested in their human servants when those servants are using their opposable thumbs to do something interesting, such as open a cat of cat food. Begone, if you are here to do anything else.


So I say, let us become dog people. They wear affective metaphorical responses on their sleeves.

Also, is there really an alternative to the nasty ordered hierarchy of ecofascism in a time of species extinction crisis? All times for 2 billion years have been time of species extinction crisis you say. Bravo But lets subtract humans and their technology mediating crap.I am not arguing for ecofascism but want the possibility of alternatives explained.

D. E.M. said...

I think it's to proceed through grief and to think ecologically without (or aware of) the enacted repetition compulsions of our species' systems.....