“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Slavoj Zizek is at it again in the new film from Astra Taylor, Examined Life. He presents a trenchant view of ecology without nature from a garbage dump in London...

Happy Buddhist new year everybody: it's Earth Ox time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Response ability

We are responsible for global warming. Formally responsible. Whether we caused it or not. Whether we can ever prove that we caused it or not. We are responsible for global warming simply because we are sentient. No more elaborate reason is required.

If you believe a more elaborate reason is required, consider the following examples.

When you see a child about to be hit by a car, do you say “I'm not directly responsible for her death, so I won't help her”? When your house is burning down, do you say “Well, I didn't start the fire, so I'm not responsible for putting it out”?

The big difference is that unlike the girl and the house, you can't see climate. Climate isn't weather. You can see weather. But you can't see climate, in the same way that you can't see momentum but you can see velocity. Climate can just about be seen by very powerful computers using terabytes of RAM. So just because it snowed near you recently it doesn't mean that global warming isn't happening.

This is tough: taking responsibility for something you can't see. But it's no tougher than taking responsibility for say, not killing—you don't have to come up with a reason, you just do it, and figure out why later. That's why it's called an ethical decision. It doesn't have to be proved or justified. You just do it. (This doesn't mean that your act is unconscious. I'm far from saying just do what you feel is right. It means that you act spontaneously and consciously. See below.)

Global warming denial, funnily enough, depends upon and contributes to an idea of Nature that isn't that different from the child in the street or the burning house. It's different from me, it's over there—in some fundamental way, it's not my concern.

Part of assuming direct responsibility for global warming will be letting go of the idea of Nature, an ideological barrier to realizing how everything is interconnected.

Feel free to cut and paste and post on every global warming denial page you find.

Global warming deniers currently have us in a headlock. It's like a man with a gun to someone's head, saying “Give me a good reason not to shoot this guy.” Do you give a good reason (It's right, it feels good, there's a symbiotic web in which we are immersed and you are damaging it, you are upsetting a natural balance...) or, assuming you are strong enough, do you just grab the gun?

All the reasons in the world aren't reason enough, from a certain point of view. (This is why Kierkegaard says the ethical position is an upgrade from the aesthetic one—in the aesthetic one, you do things because they feel nice or because they look nice. In the ethical one, niceness—or even rational soundness, which is perhaps also a kind of aesthetic order—doesn't matter.)

One implication of my argument is that it's possible to be fully conscious and totally spontaneous, at the same time and for the same reasons. This is why I profoundly disagree with Gregory Bateson, who asserts that the only good decisions are unconscious ones (sounds sinisterly like “The only good woman is a dead one”). It has to do with our very different interpretations of a key moment in Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. More on this later.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It's the entropy, stupid

I just finished the absolute best videoconference to Exeter and Falmouth in the UK. Thanks Nick Groom and all the rest of the crew. Three campuses, all video-linked, all listening and asking questions live!

I have to get a right-wing meme off my chest. On the Huffington Post, someone was venting about the Toyota Prius (I own one) and solar (ditto). S/he was claiming that since making them uses more energy than they save, there's no point to them. Sorry I can't find the link (it was a comment on a Huffington Post entry). But the observation is now a widespread meme. “It will take lifetimes to recoup all the energy lost in making them in the first place, so what's the point?”

If you do Economics 101 you learn about Sunk Capital, which is basically stuff you don't have to worry about, because it's been paid for in some way already. In this basic sense, the reactionary argument against ecological products is absurd. (At least my Prius tries to save energy, unlike a Hummer.) But there's something far deeper at work...

Here it is—if you want to exit the known Universe, Mr(s). Reactionary, go ahead (that would be fine with me). But can you think of anything that puts out more energy than you put into it? Have you ever, for instance, seen a shattered glass reassemble before your eyes? You haven't? You mean to say you live in a Universe where time goes one way, because of entropy? You mean to say that everything in the Universe is a big waste of energy?

The point is, how quickly do you want your energy to be wasted? Since it's going to be wasted in any case, do you want to slow the wasting down, or not?

It hadn't occurred to me before, but there really is a profound worldview and a politics in statements about energy-wasting electric hybrid cars, etc. (In the same way that ideology often consists in prescriptions disguised as descriptions, viz. any racist or sexist statement you can think of means “Down with [that race or gender]!”)

What worldview? Well, it's kind of like Neil Young: “It's better to burn out than fade away.” So ultimately it would be better to waste all the Earth's energy in a colossal explosion, as soon as possible. Let's explode all the hydrogen bombs, now!

I'm with John Lennon on this, who would much rather have faded away than burnt out (shame he was shot).

If your criterion for ecological products is that they must save more energy than what goes into making them, you should emigrate immediately to another Universe.

Even saying that eco-products should only waste energy in the most efficient manner imaginable is an incredibly tall order. Cue a lot of Bush stuff about waiting for the ideal technology to show up and save us. So down with solar, in the mean time!

Entropy: love it or leave it, I guess.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Here you can see my ugly mug talking about the role of art and creativity in the face of climate change, with ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant, literary scholar Robert Watson, and historian Michael Osborne. The symposium (at Berkeley) was hosted by poet Robert Hass. You can also get it on iTunes in the store if you search for “Creativity in the Face of Climate Change.” It's on UCTV.