Who is the Subject of Climate Change?
Thoughts on an unpredictable series of local disasters
Thoughts on an unpredictable series of local disasters
Commissioned photography by Matthieu Lavanchy
Monday, 9 April 2018. 4:35am
I shake a Starbucks VIA into my cup and turn on the electric kettle. Dust rings form around a spinning nebula, debris colliding and flattening into discs orbiting its collapsing centre, hydrogen nuclei smash and fuse, exploding, birthing a star. While I wait for the water to boil, I check Twitter. Solar wind flares through the rings, scattering loose debris and burning off the smaller discs, while others, dense enough to survive, become spheres, crusts of rock cooling around molten cores. I watch video footage of a gas attack in Douma, Syria: limbs splayed on a bunker floor, blank eyes, green, wax-like children’s faces.
When the kettle clicks, I fill my cup, relishing the bitter aroma of the water mixing with the powder. Originally emerging in the highlands of Ethiopia, coffee is now a global commodity crop, grown in equatorial regions around the world, threatened by drought, berry borer beetles, leaf rust fungus and increasing temperatures; threatened, that is, by climate change. I recall a recent review of a book about a Yemeni-American man, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who dreams of importing beans from his country of origin and I think about the war going on there, which I do not understand – but only for a moment.
Theia smashes glancingly into the Earth, vaporizing its outer layers, shifting the planet’s path around the sun, blasting rock into space that then coalesces, over time, into a moon. The Earth’s orbit stabilizes, oceans form, clouds form, comets and meteors strike the planet’s surface. Life begins. I flip my egg-white omelette onto my plate and pour a new cup of coffee, this one made from Guatemalan beans roasted in Valparaiso, Indiana, brewed in a moka pot that always reminds me of living in Berlin after I got out of the army, and also of the third-floor apartment in Bushwick I subleased the summer I first moved to New York. I can still smell the loamy aroma of Bustelo brewing, feel the smothering humidity of an August day already warm by seven in the morning, and see the lurid greenery glowing wild in the apartment block’s empty back lot. Outside it’s snowing, adding to the impression that winter will never end, yet the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that Arctic winter sea ice recently reached its second-lowest maximum area ever recorded, not quite matching the record low set last year.
While I eat, I read Alain Badiou’s introduction to Being and Event (2001). I’m hoping to find something useful for thinking about our contemporary moment – specifically our global failure to imagine a universal human subject who might respond to climate change. Badiou argues that the subject, as such, ‘is nothing other than an active fidelity to the event of truth’; I’m not sure yet what he means by truth, but it seems to be a kind of procedural, transcendental ideality. As Badiou writes: ‘The being of truth, proving itself an exception to any preconstituted predicate of the situation in which that truth is deployed, is to be called “generic”. In other words, although it is situated in a world, a truth does not retain anything expressible from that situation. A truth concerns everyone inasmuch as it is a multiplicity that no particular predicate can circumscribe. The infinite work of a truth is thus that of a “generic procedure”. And to be a subject (and not a simple individual animal) is to be a “local active dimension of such a procedure”.’
Events are ruptures within pre-existing situations that produce truths. For Badiou, there are four and only four kinds of events, four and only four kinds of truth procedures: political, artistic, scientific and amorous. I suspect that neither climate change nor any particular climate disaster would be, for Badiou, an event, properly speaking, since these are things that happen to human beings, not situations through which human beings produce truth. Rain may fall, wind may blow, ice may melt and seas may rise, but nowhere present is the human action that produces truth: no politics, no art, no science, no love. Or is there?
What would it take, I wonder, to produce a militant subject faithful to the truth of climate change? Only a global communist revolution, it seems. What appeals to me in Badiou specifically is his recuperation of Maoism, which suggests a way to turn the hive mind created by social media into some kind of collective for climate jihad. But how? White strobes reflect off the blue dawn behind the kitchen window, a school bus stops to pick up children, and I remember with a mild sense of alarm that today is recycling day. I put on a coat and boots and go out into the snow, wheel/drag the recycling bin out to the corner, then return to Badiou, feeling my way into the labyrinth of his thought, groping for some lever with which to move the world.
A distant star goes hypernova, sending gamma rays through space 6,000 light years and more, blasting the Earth, stripping the ozone layer from the atmosphere. Almost 85 percent of all marine species – most life on Earth – is wiped out, killed by the ultraviolet solar radiation now piercing the ozoneless sky. The planet cools, causing sea levels to drop dramatically as water is frozen in glaciers and ice caps, including one over the supercontinent Gondwana at its south pole. I tweet a National Public Radio story about an Iraqi man who says: ‘Those who came after are worse than Saddam,’ then go to the copy machine to scan in edits to galley proofs. While I scan pages, the copy machine pumps out my colleagues’ coursework: Chinese exams, an essay on W.E.B. Du Bois, an article about whether cats can eat carrots.
Later, I’m teaching Laurie Penny’s sci-fi novella Everything Belongs to the Future (2016). It’s set in a dystopian near-future in which anti-ageing drugs have allowed the rich to extend their lifetimes indefinitely. In the novel, some well-meaning young bohemians turn from activism to terrorism when one of the drug’s creators develops a time bomb that causes people to age decades in seconds, often fatally. The allegory is a little neat, but it’s a fun story. One interesting detail within the book’s future world is that, since the rich now live so much longer, they have a personal interest in fighting climate change, and successfully do so. Nevertheless, despite climate change having been ‘solved’, the activists’ futility and frustration – their closed sense of a world in which the unjust distribution of an inherently limited resource (time) creates vast inequalities that cannot be magicked away by technological innovation or wished away by reference to some liberal-capitalist notion of progress – feels acutely of our moment, the manic Malthusian apocalypticism characterizing the Anthropocene.
The Ordovician-Silurian extinction is followed 70-odd million years later by the Late Devonian extinction, which is followed just over 100 million years later by the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which is followed 50 million years later by the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, which is followed almost 150 million years later by the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which is followed almost 70 million years later by the Holocene extinction event, currently ongoing, caused not by the collision of planetary bodies or by a distant hypernova’s ozone-stripping gamma rays, but by human beings.
In my graduate fiction workshop, we talked about M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), an excerpt from William S. Burroughs’s Nova Express (1964), two short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) and ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939), along with an Omer Fast video, CNN Concatenated (2002), which I made them watch. My point in assigning these texts was to help the students think about the relationship between text and reality, reality and language; how as social animals we not only inhabit physical space but, perhaps even more importantly, live within a world woven in language. As writers, as makers of language, I tell them, we weave reality.
Yet, we do not make it just as we please. We bricolage our world within the constraints of our narrow sensorium, from whatever we find at hand, from what we’ve been told is true or possible. Pockets of once-frozen methane melt and explode throughout the Siberian tundra. It’s sup-posed to reach more than 21 degrees on Friday, then drop again to one or two, with more snow forecast for Monday. I pretend to my students that what we’re doing matters, but I struggle to see what sense art and literature make in a world whose future is foreclosed. Whatever reality we make through the work of art in the present is swept up in a greater reality, a wall of water, a burning sky. Ash, ash and dust.
How many years do we have left? A few decades, more or less? And how do we live in fidelity to that truth? What would that even mean?
We tend to rely on two kinds of temporality, which the Ancient Greeks called chronos and kairos, that we might call ‘day-to-day time’ and ‘event time’. In day-to-day time, we tend to assume everything is going to be much the same as it was yesterday, happening within the predictable cycles of change to which we have become accustomed. This regular unfolding of life as we conceive it is the basis for our sense of normality, the frame that shapes our decisions and the implicit backdrop against which we judge new information. In event time, on the other hand, day-to-day rhythms are suspended. A carnivalesque mood reigns, our social structures reveal themselves as the willed collective illusions they are, and we see ourselves emerge for a moment into a clearing of nearly infinite possibility, the ‘now’ when everything can change.
These two kinds of temporality constitute a dynamic in which everything is normal until it isn’t, then there’s a new normal. Unfortunately for us, climate change doesn’t fit this dynamic, because climate change happens in geological time, planetary time, cosmic time: it is a gradual process happening year by year, punctuated not by one global event but by an unpredictable series of local disasters. Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the monsoon floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people in 2017, the California drought – any one of these catastrophes might have been the event which changed everything, except that each one was, in the end, no more than a regional phenomenon, swiftly superseded.
It might also be true, thinking with Badiou, that these occurrences are not events at all, but only weather. There is no ‘we’ who might respond to them, no universal political subject, because there has been no rupture creating a new truth procedure. There is no concrete ‘we’ who might respond to climate change, only an abstract scattered ‘we’ comprising billions of individuals who are all going to die individual deaths. The day-to-day time of global capitalism remains the beating pulse of our lives, even as the world around us transforms into something strange and awful. By the time the event we seem to be waiting for happens, we will have already lost too much to be able to do much about it. By the time the moment of truth arrives, our fate will have already been sealed.
I drink a beer. My partner puts our daughter to bed. Israel launches airstrikes against Syria. My body feels heavy, mostly water and carbon, and my soul, whatever that is, sinks into torpor as the end of day draws near. I hear a car go by. Somewhere far away, our planet rumbles with the birth pangs of a future that has, uncannily, already been born.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, June/July/August 2018, issue 196, with the title 'Swept Up'.