Global Warming and Network Think

On August 26th, 2014, in the lead-up to the United Nations summit scheduled for the following month, the New York Times carried a story on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest draft ...

On August 26th, 2014, in the lead-up to the United Nations summit scheduled for the following month, the New York Times carried a story on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest draft report on risks associated with runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases. Dramatic photographs accompanying the article showed receding ice cover in Greenland, the result of 2012’s “extreme melt” event, and rising seas in Kiribati, a Pacific island nation that, its president predicts, will become uninhabitable in the next 30 to 60 years. The article reported the IPCC’s bleak forecast and call for immediate action to reduce global emissions.1

That same day the Times published a second, seemingly unrelated piece. This article reported on a new study that found social media discourages political debate. Heavy social media users were half as likely to express dissenting opinions on controversial topics, both online and off. While millions share fragments of political commentary from Slate or the Huffington Post, they tend to communicate only with others of like mind and to avoid speaking up on divisive subjects. The Internet, columnist Claire Cain Miller summed up, has “diminished rather than enhanced political participation.” We can hardly consider the results of one study reported in the Times conclusive. But it may be that even as we face a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, our new communications infrastructure is leading people away from action.2

How can philosophers help us find a way forward in this crisis? That may seem like an odd question. Surely, what to do about global warming is less a philosophical problem than a matter of political will: we must come together to fight for a livable planet. Yet the failure of the climate initiatives of the last quarter century to slow the rate of emissions makes clear that a simple call to arms won’t do. First we must ask why the problem has so far proved intractable.

As a philosophical problem, global warming raises ethical and epistemological, as well as political, questions. For ethics, the first questions are: who is responsible, and to whom? Do the rich countries with high emissions bear an obligation to compensate or make allowances for developing countries? Is the fossil fuel industry the true villain, or are we all responsible for our unsustainable consumption? If we are all culpable, to how many future generations do we bear responsibility? To which other inhabitants of the planet? In Reason in a Dark Time, environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson raises these and other compelling questions and seeks tools for making judgments.

As a philosophical problem, global warming raises ethical and epistemological, as well as political, questions.

The epistemological questions are no less vexing. How can we understand climate change as an object? What are the physical and temporal boundaries of the crisis? Every major storm or unusually hot day now makes one wonder whether this is it. But there is no real way to know the movements of such an amorphous enemy. Global warming could creep forward, escalating current trends, or it could unleash sudden disaster.3 Timothy Morton’s fascinating yet problematic Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World takes on this paradoxical situation. Morton’s speculative arguments, written in abstract and sometimes poetic prose, place Hyperobjects at the opposite pole stylistically from Jamieson’s practical-minded book, yet the two appear to agree on some basic points (to which I will return below).

Without political direction or a common agenda—and political institutions have failed, perhaps more completely and catastrophically with global warming than with any other human problem—the ethical and epistemological questions must ultimately lead back to the fundamentals of politics. What forms of collective and individual action are needed and what kind of polity or political institutions will be able to galvanize them? As early as the 1950s, scientists warned that humans might be damaging the world’s climate irrevocably, and policy makers heard them. Jamieson quotes President Lyndon Johnson, who stated with alarm in 1965 that the present generation had “altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale.” Environmental issues once roused lawmakers to bipartisan efforts in the United States. It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Not until the Reagan era did the environment become a sharply divisive issue between left and right. Now, however, environmental policy lies so entangled in partisan disputes that solutions are unlikely to come from the most powerful American institutions. Jamieson points out that there is no talk of a “War on Global Warming” like the “War on Poverty” or the “War on Drugs.”

Some who recognize the gravity of the problem believe it can be understood in economic terms. Estimating the long-term costs of ongoing carbon emissions, economists have come up with a variety of models that they claim point the way to just and rational climate policy. Yet these economic models can never be adequate to their task, Jamieson argues, because they cannot account for noneconomic goods. What commodity value do we attach to biodiversity? How much suffering would you inflict on your grandchildren in order to maintain your present level of comfort? Too many essential questions lie outside economic calculation and exchange to make a cost-benefit analysis very useful.

A moral calculus, rather than a strictly political or economic one, governs our response to global warming. Consider this thought experiment: what if global warming were found to be caused by sunspots? Perversely, the political effect in the US might be positive. Many politically right-leaning people reject evidence of anthropogenic climate change because the warnings come from people they dismiss as left-wing anticapitalists; they would no longer have this horse to whip. As sea levels rose and coastal flooding increased, large-scale efforts, like building seawalls, might be launched with bipartisan support. Still, such efforts would be limited to the US. If the causes were exogenous, it is difficult to imagine even liberals mobilizing to save other countries—Bangladesh, say—from rising seas. That would be their problem. It is because global warming is anthropogenic that those of us who live in the major carbon-emitting countries bear a moral responsibility to save others, not only ourselves.

The moral calculus extends beyond humans. What makes us care about the extinction or potential extinction of countless species of plants and animals in the present environmental crisis?4 It could be argued that the suffering caused to individual animals by climate change—the polar bears stranded on ice flows, to take the most poster-ready example—is no greater than the suffering that awaits most of them in a mutually devouring nature, “red in tooth and claw,” in Tennyson’s phrase. Some anthropocentric utilitarians might add that humans would be little affected by the loss of many of these species. Yet intuitively, one senses that causing mass extinction is a kind of criminal act. Just as we do not condone killing your neighbor to benefit your family, and condemn wars fought for plunder and profit, we recoil from the thought that these animals are dying as a result of humans’ self-interested pursuit of greater comfort and pleasure. If global warming were caused by sunspots rather than by ourselves, we would not feel the same way about species loss. Nature is in constant flux. The disappearance of certain species, if it were due to nonhuman causes, would be an unfortunate evolutionary event, not a moral problem demanding human intervention.

How much suffering would you inflict on your grandchildren in order to maintain your present level of comfort?

Yet the vast spatial and temporal scale of climate change shows the limits of applying everyday ethical thinking in this fashion. The complex and multivariate effects it encompasses, and the fact that it will affect generations of beings who themselves will be products of climate change, make simple extrapolations from our experience insufficient. The problem will require not merely an extension, but a revision of commonsense morality.

Human history is filled with examples of broad moral revolutions. Jamieson points to the emergence of capitalism, which required both rulers and ruled to accept the idea of an invisible hand miraculously transforming greed into a source of good. To give another example, moral repugnance toward violence in European societies grew between the 16th and 19th centuries, transforming prevailing attitudes about the treatment of criminals and cats as well as neighbors (although 20th-century horrors remind us that morality can be revised in a retrograde direction as well).5

Nature appreciation itself grew out of a novel sense of moral responsibility. When white Americans first encountered the great sequoias of California, the planet’s largest and among its oldest living things, their first response was to rejoice at the bonanza and start cutting them down. The outrage that followed in the press signaled a new attitude toward wilderness. The national park system grew from this newly discovered moral obligation to steward the land.6

The first photographs of earth from space in the 1960s are often said to have attended another shift, one simultaneously moral and epistemological. The photographs united humanity through common awareness of our fragile and finite planet. “Spaceship Earth,” it was called at the time. This new awareness rallied activists against threats to the environment. The first celebration of Earth Day, in 1970, saw roughly 20 million Americans gather across the country.

Yet, despite the powerful criticisms directed against modern society and technology that became mainstream in the 1960s and ’70s, naive techno-utopianism characterized some branches of the environmental movement in the same years. Inspired by the ideas of cybernetics and by popular visionaries like Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, many environmentalists found hope in the thought that everything was, in the words of information technology guru Ted Nelson, “deeply intertwingled.”

As Fred Turner has shown in a study of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, network thinking tied postwar big science to post-1960s back-to-the-land environmentalism and from there to digital utopianism.7 Network structures appealed intrinsically as the means to understand a complex world and, at the same time, as a libertarian challenge to traditional hierarchies of knowledge and political power. Communities of people tied horizontally and sharing ideas were imagined to be like coevolving organisms in an ecosystem, or like circuits in a computer. All tended toward “mutual optimization.”8

As the recognition of global warming became widespread in the 1990s, the earth’s beautiful interconnectedness took on a sinister aspect. Humans were no longer merely passengers on spaceship earth; we had reengineered it, creating feedback loops with possibly disastrous consequences. From the beginning of the millennium, scholars began using the term “Anthropocene” to identify a new geological epoch initiated by human manipulation of the lithosphere and biosphere.

Humans were no longer merely passengers on spaceship earth; we had reengineered it, creating feedback loops with possibly disastrous consequences.

Morton’s Hyperobjects exemplifies this post-1990s one-world dystopianism. A hyperobject surrounds us and permeates us at the same time. His three prime examples of the category are evolution (by which he means the work of Richard Dawkins-style “selfish genes,” which use us as the vehicles to reproduce themselves), nuclear radiation, and global warming. Certain hyperobjects have always been part of the world, but, today, human technologies and interventions in nature have rendered them inescapable. Because of disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011, and, most of all, because of the growing evidence of human-instigated climate change, hyperobjects now impinge on our consciousness so insistently that we have entered, in Morton’s judgment, “the age of hyperobjects,” an age in which human intention is dwarfed by the actions of the environmental forces we have unleashed.

Morton points to two landmark events in the unfolding of the Anthropocene: the invention of the steam engine, which began the massive transfer of long-buried carbon from the earth’s crust to the atmosphere, and the first use of nuclear weapons, which launched what he calls “The Great Acceleration.” With these critical technological transitions, the human saga morphed into geological history. Today there is no turning back. “Non-human beings are responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking,” he writes.

Morton started his career as a scholar of the English romantics, and a quotation from Shelley appears at the head of Part I, but Hyperobjects explicitly abjures evocations of the sublime. Hyperobjects are impossible to comprehend in their totality (indeed, this is true of all objects in the theory of “Object Oriented Ontology” that Morton espouses), but they are finite. “Infinity,” Morton writes, “is far easier to cope with.” Metaphysics offers more comfort than the real physics of very large but finite quantities, like the cumulative mass of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and very long time spans, like the half-life of plutonium.

This recognition of finitude might lead one toward the kind of applied environmental ethics that Jamieson pursues, but that is not Morton’s game. Instead he attempts to illuminate his object—the “hyperobject”—tropologically, through a torrent of vivid metaphors, similes, and speculations about the real world. The most concrete examples he analyzes of what might be called “acting on a hyperobject awareness” he finds in art and music (these are also among the most interesting passages of the book). Yet this is not a book only for the student of aesthetics. We live by metaphors, and a potent idea like the hyperobject, even if it is a rhetorical trope that eludes precise definition, might nevertheless help us rethink our present predicament.

The trope of the hyperobject does two things for us. First, it reminds us that there is no outside to a problem as deeply interconnected and enveloping as global warming—no place to which we can make it go away, and no point at which we can stand apart to gain objective distance. Second, it asks us to contemplate how we will live with this problem. In this Morton converges with Jamieson, who rejects climate engineering’s big technological fixes. Jameison notes that even in the best-case scenario we will be seeing the effects of present emissions for centuries, a fact that urges greater attention to adaptation together with strategies of emission reduction.

Morton’s insistence that there is no outside to the problem is presented partly as a critique of the romantic view of nature. He admonishes us to say farewell to any lingering association of bucolic landscapes with a healthy and harmonious environment. A rolling pasture with cows might look “green,” but as a biologically and chemically engineered environment, it is no more natural than a natural gas plant. And, like a gas plant, it contributes significantly to greenhouse gases.

Accepting hyperobjects also means taking responsibility for them. The daunting burden of our responsibility is vividly illustrated by the Nuclear Guardianship movement, which advocates keeping spent nuclear fuel conspicuously in our midst (Morton reports that some have even suggested encasing the plutonium in gold), as a way of recognizing that there is nowhere to hide it that can be safeguarded for millennia. We must show each future generation what we have done in this era, lest some unknown and unknowable descendant of ours or of another species should innocently come to harm from the hazards we have manufactured.

Yet this metaphorically rich environmental hermeneutics produces its own hazards. The figures of interconnection become totalizing, and potentially paralyzing. Like the earlier generation of network utopianism, the current dystopianism may be seduced by science without paying sufficient attention to its rigors. It has become commonplace to see natural phenomena as radically contingent on one another. In the 1960s, meteorologist Edward Lorenz came up with the idea of the “butterfly effect.” Complex systems (like a weather system) may experience hugely amplified consequences from even a slight alteration in initial conditions, such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. Fitting our networked times, the concept has become a ubiquitous, if often misconstrued, trope in popular culture.9

Scholarship on the place of humans in the natural world has also increasingly built analysis around interconnection and contingency. Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory in science studies and the new environmental history exemplified by the work of William Cronon have both been influential for the way they render visible unnoticed and sometimes improbable-seeming circuits of cause and effect.

The danger in all this connection tracing arises when it renders only a landscape of endless contingency. Some connections may be robust, others tenuous, and others entirely illusory. How to distinguish among them and weigh their relevance? Both Morton and Jamieson observe that more data will not bring certainty about global warming; scientists can never establish absolute causality. Deniers of anthropogenic climate change will always be able to point to scientific uncertainty as proof that it is merely hypothetical. An honest recognition of the role and limits of science must reject the naive fallacy that scientists deliver irrefutable facts. Rather, science represents a process for generating testable models of reality. Uncertainty always surrounds the process, but that does not mean that all models are equally valid.

Yet Morton takes the implications of uncertainty further, proposing that we should question the value of empirically based reasoning itself. In one egregious case of sacrificing sound reasoning to the rhetoric of interconnectedness, he asserts that the tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011 and damaged the Fukushima reactors may have been caused by global warming. This claim briefly appeared in the blogosphere after the disaster, although it received no support from either seismologists or climate scientists. Proponents quickly became objects of ridicule from climate change deniers. Morton repeats the claim three times.

The desire to see all natural disasters as somehow connected to human causes, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, may be a perverse new species of romanticism, or worse, of primitive magical thinking. Abandoning empiricism means throwing away the only tools we have to analyze and respond to climate change. Without empirically based reasoning, how will we persuade others to work with us? If climate change is, at base, a political problem, then how shall we form a collective if not with persuasive evidence of human causes?

The Internet itself, both in its architecture and in the cognitive effects it has on us, seems to further encourage associative modes of thinking that leave behind conventional linear causality. It is surprising that Morton does not discuss the Internet as a hyperobject, since it could be the premier example: it is ubiquitous and boundless and a part of each of us. In the same period that most of us became aware of global warming—mostly through mass media—and the realization spread that it was a real and imminent crisis, the Internet was starting to transform us individually and collectively. With each passing year, more people in the wealthy, energy-consuming countries began to live a large part of their lives in cyberspace. Just as the physical world was heading toward dystopia, a utopia of free communication seemed to emerge in the virtual world.

The forecasts of 1960s network gurus were coming true: for the first time one could actually experience the global village—the words of billions of others and even the intimate details of their private lives were there online. Social media increased individual engagement in cyberspace exponentially. Tweets from Tahrir Square made it appear for a brief moment as if we had entered an era in which every voice had an equal chance of being heard and each of us could change the world. It also became harder to even conceive of a question that one could not immediately answer in some form just by turning to that vast “intertwingled” repository of human knowledge.

The Internet has thus sped the erosion of expert authority. In the populist environment of Internet democracy, every idea is equally worthy of consideration and everyone chooses their sources of knowledge. The moral weight of both expert and public opinion is replaced by the weightlessness of the viral meme. The findings of natural science too become just as available to casual appropriation and just as suspect as any other kind of knowledge. The minority positions of dissenting scientists can gain equal web presence and journalistic coverage regardless of the strength of the scientific consensus against them.

we are the only creatures capable of making collective choices that will determine whether the planet remains habitable.

Scientists, for their part, have changed little in the way they constitute and authorize knowledge. Peer review of scholarly articles remains the foundation of scholarship. Despite the egalitarian ring of the phrase, peer review is an undemocratic process. Designed to preserve hierarchies of knowledge, it assures that established experts judge new findings before they are published. This system, maintained also by tenure, institutional rankings, and exclusive editorial boards, runs against the grain of network thinking and contrary to the trend of building opinion through crowd sourcing. As Jamieson notes, the general public has a weak understanding of peer review’s significance in scholarship. Imagining that the best academic opinions are simply the ones that have won in the “marketplace of ideas” is more consonant with the values of our market-based society—as if scholarly authority were like fair pricing, a product of open negotiation between large numbers of buyers and sellers.

Academics too, when engaged in public debate beyond the boundaries of their area of formal expertise, are prone to appropriate what they like from the vast flattened landscape of knowledge on the World Wide Web. Jamieson himself, while discussing the problem of public misunderstanding of how scientific consensus is formed, includes numerous footnotes containing only URLs and does little to demonstrate the authority of his choice of sources. If humanistic scholars hope to contribute to shaping public opinion with regard to environmental issues, we must buck the populist trend in the production and circulation of knowledge rather than ride it. While embracing political engagement and pursuing connections between ideas wherever they lead, we must also build carefully on the existing edifice of scientific knowledge.

It is telling that even Timothy Morton, who adopts a style of ecological thinking that radically decenters human beings, nevertheless closes his book speaking in the first person plural. Morton’s “we” is unmistakably “we humans.” Cockroaches may outlive us. We may not control the earth’s destiny to anywhere near the extent we once imagined. For now, though, we are the only creatures capable of making collective choices that will determine whether the planet remains habitable. Or rather, we have to act as if we can make collective choices in order to have a field of endeavor called politics.

Network thinking has helped us conceive our present predicament. Yet, if embraced too completely, it may leave us powerless to do anything about it. Global warming is unlikely to be solved by either a Marshall Plan or a popular revolution against capitalism.10 In lieu of a big fix, we will need many more middle-range solutions. Each will have to be advocated and worked for in local communities and through social media as well as in the halls of Congress and the United Nations. Relying too much on metaphors of entanglement and contingency for both human society and the natural world may make it impossible to act purposively and in concert. This would leave the field of environmental politics to the most powerful interests, like fossil fuel corporations, which do act purposively, and often in concert, to keep the planet delivering maximum profits with little consideration for its long-term welfare. icon

  1. Justin Gillis, “U.N. Draft Report Lists Unchecked Emissions’ Risks,” New York Times, August 26, 2014.
  2. Claire Cain Miller, “How Social Media Silences Debate,” New York Times, August 26, 2014.
  3. The epistemological problem of grasping the scale of the phenomenon may be tied to our own biology, too. As Jamieson remarks, human beings have evolved to recognize “dramatic movements of middle-sized objects.”
  4. For a journalist’s account of recent research on species loss, see Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Great Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt, 2014). For a review of the evidence that we may be witnessing a mass extinction on the order of the five earlier ones recorded by paleontologists, see Anthony D. Barnosky et al., “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?,” Nature, vol. 471, no. 7336 (2011), pp. 51–57.
  5. For an optimistic account, see Steven Pinker, The Angels of Our Better Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011).
  6. See Leo Hickman, “How a Giant Tree’s Death Sparked the Conservation Movement 160 Years Ago,” Guardian, June 27, 2013.
  7. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  8. Stewart Brand, quoted in Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University of Kansas Press, 2007), p. 165.
  9. See Peter Dizikes, “The Meaning of the Butterfly: Why Pop Culture Loves the ‘Butterfly Effect,’ and Gets It Totally Wrong,” Boston Globe, June 8, 2008.
  10. Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything (Simon and Schuster, 2014), treats global warming as a new issue to mobilize the political left for mass action against the greedy one percent. As Paul Kingsnorth suggests in a recent review, despite the book’s title, the issue of climate change actually changes nothing in Klein’s understanding of politics. See “The Four Degrees,” London Review of Books, October 23, 2014.
Featured image: The Blue Marble (1972). NASA / Wikimedia Commons