Lecture, Dipesh Chakrabarty: "Climate Change and the Human Condition"
Guest Writer: Brandon Jones

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

[On November 4, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted "Climate Change and the Human Condition," a lecture by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar at UIUC and Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Below are reflections on the event from Brandon Jones (English).

"Rifts of Scale: Humans and Hyperobjects in the Era of the Anthropocene"

Written by: Brandon Jones (English)

In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton coined the term “hyperobject” to refer to “materials from humble Styrofoam to terrifying plutonium” that “will far outlast current social and biological forms… hyperobjects outlast us all.” (He furthers this concept in his most recent book that carries his influential term as its title: Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.) Climate change is perhaps the most quintessential and pressing example of a hyperobject, as its global environmental effects push the limits of what is temporally and spatially imaginable. For Morton, to act ethically and politically in a world where climate change cannot be ignored requires us to think bigger than we ever have before: “To tackle pollution, climate disruption, and radiation, we must think and act big, which means thinking and acting collectively. This will take conscious input. We will have to choose to act and think together.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty both borrowed fruitfully from Morton’s analysis of hyperobjects and complicated it in ways that are extremely important for questions of social injustice, economic inequality, political agency, and human history in the age of the Anthropocene. If Morton and his colleagues in object-oriented philosophy show us how to think ethically about objects and hyberobjects in a way that acknowledges and appreciates their inaccessibility to human experience, Chakrabarty reminded us that in the case of climate change, this insight cannot but be a problem for activity on the human scale.

The human condition today is such that we cannot consider it without an understanding of how the force of our collective action is entangled with larger scale geological and planetary phenomena. If we are to commit to confronting the far-reaching consequences of anthropogenic global warming, we must find a way to incorporate them into human experience, to reconcile human and inhuman scales of space and time—a daunting task that requires operable connections between what we think and how we act
. It requires us to straddle the rifts that open up between action and cognition when we are forced to confront the reality of our collective geophysical condition. Consciousness-raising alone is not the solution.

Networked image of European transportation and energy systems 
Such were the stakes of Chakrabarty’s lecture on “Climate Change and the Human Condition.” The talk drew on recent work that builds on and expands his earlier work on postcolonial studies and history to address how the advent of the Anthropocene calls on us to rethink questions of human temporality and universality.
 In Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical DifferenceChakrabarty outlined two different conceptions of the human that are tied up with the history of capital: Enlightenment historicism, which advocates universal human rights but tends to sublate cultural differences, and postcoloniality, which attends to anthropological difference and the diverse life-worlds that difference entails. To these conceptions of the human, he now adds a third: theories of the Anthropocene which consider the human as a species in the light of the collective geophysical force it exerts on the planet. 

The Anthropocene challenges us with a human condition riddled by "rifts" or fault lines as our physical reality crosses different scales of time, not all of which are assimilable to ordinary experience. 
He characterized three such rifts as crucial for us to confront if we are to deal with the hyperobject of climate change. 

The first rift is between probability and radical uncertainty. Economists working to develop policies based on climate change turn it into an issue of risk or cost-benefit analysis which calls for sophisticated probabilistic models. 
Their hope is to predict the tipping point of climate change--that is, the point at which climate might alter planetary conditions so significantly that human existence on Earth might be threatened. But is climate change predictable enough to be subject to such models of probability? Environmental historians and scientists such as David Archer and Wallace Broecker suggest that it is not: they use vitalistic language that depicts climate as an unpredictable beast. From this view, the behavior of climate is more chaotic than stochastic and will remain unpredictable despite our attempts to quantify it. 

The second rift is between the divisiveness of individual human lives and the collectivity of the life of the human species. This rift is best exemplified in the contrast between the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and population growth. When we speak about greenhouse gas emissions, we often ask about who emits them. This is a question of intra-human injustice: ironically, we would be emitting even more greenhouse gases were it not for the poverty of the majority of humanity who do not have the means of consuming the goods and technologies responsible for increasing our carbon footprint. While such inequality is normally accounted for in terms of a history of capitalism during the last 500 years, the question of climate change requires us to consider a longer arc that explains how people spread across the planet and how the possibility for future migration will change as the habitability of the earth's surface changes. Here we see a crucial difference between the short-term effects of capitalism and the much longer term history of our species dispersal across the globe. 

The third and final rift divides anthropocentrism (or human-centeredness) from the weaker or more enlightened anthropocentrism we are challenged to cultivate. If we cannot but be anthropocentric in our thought, is there virtue in at least trying to be less so? Chakrabarty contends that projects of social justice and political activism will always have human welfare as their primary concern, despite what more radical attacks on anthropocentrism by theorists of nonhuman ethics and politics, such as Bruno Latour, may say. By turning to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and religions of animism and totemism, Chakrabarty ended by laying the groundwork for an enlightened anthropocentrism that critiques discourses of human exceptionalism, resists putting humans first when thinking about the health of our planet, and at the same time admits the anthropocentrism we can never fully relinquish.

If the knowledge of such rifts between the scales of human political agency and geophysical agency cannot by itself lead to more productive ways of dealing with global warming in the era of the Anthropocene, it at least makes clearer the necessity of asking how we can make the hyperobject of climate change 
available to our experience in its various registers.


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Eleanor said...

Excellent recap! Makes me want to learn more about hyperobjects: are they characterized essentially by their enormous size, or by our inability to grasp them epistemologically?

Brandon said...

Thanks, Eleanor!

To attempt an answer to your question, if I'm reading Morton correctly, I think it is precisely the combination of those two characteristics you have identified that make hyperobjects so formidable.

Those object-oriented ontologists following Graham Harman (founder of OOO), as Morton does, will claim that all objects, regardless of size and temporal reach, "withdraw"--that is, at least some part of them will be inaccessible to every attempt by human knowledge to acquire an exhaustive understanding of their being. (And, of course, they will go so far as to say this withdrawal is more ontological than epistemological: it is not so much an indication of the finitude of human knowledge as it is of the at least minimal autonomy of things-in-themselves.)

What makes a hyperobject "hyper" is that in addition to this minimal autonomy, it adds its massive scale: these are nonhuman objects operating on inhuman scales, which makes them all the more difficult to comprehend. Obviously, there are many objects we encounter at or below the scale of human experience, but hyperobjects are far above it. I think Professor Chakrabarty was saying something similar in the Q&A when he clarified that the term "inhuman" for him was an issue of scale, not of encounters with ordinary nonhumans such as cats, trees, or rocks.

Hope that helps!

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Jason said...

Thanks for a fascinating, all be it tough to read article on this very interesting subject that is close to my heart. What struck me most in the article was the realization that climate change is something that is very unpredictable and as politicians try to estimate the tipping point we may already be there but just not know it. I write a sit on Air Conditioning and am starting to wonder if this is really ethical or not.