What Climate Collapse Asks of Us - Part I

What Climate Collapse Asks of Us - Part I

By Bayo Akomolafe  •  SAND19 US

In this (very, very) long essay, Bayo Akomolafe investigates the work and contributions of “postactivism” in our unique times by thinking about the nature of science and its products, what we call climate change, the myriad organizations we invent to frame the phenomenon, and the bricolage of capacities and response-abilities that emerges from realizing that climate collapse is not a problem to be solved, but a barely-heard invitation to die well and fail creatively.

We present it to you in 3 parts

The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect Manhattan, or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.[1]

If something is being destroyed, is it perhaps forward movement itself?[2]

Bayo Akomolafe, Ph.D. | The Emergence Network

The photo hid everything.

When anxious bits of data from a global network of eight radio telescopes cohered into the first publicly accessible photo of a cosmic event from galaxy Messier 87, the media spoke about the scientific result in positively Galileoan tones. The “stunning achievement” and “unprecedented” precision of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) bestowed mankind with its first glimpse of a supermassive black hole, 55 million light years from Earth and 6.5 billion times the mass of our toddling sun. Six and a half billion suns compressed into a pin point. A devourer of worlds the size of a solar system. A titan lazily slurping lunch, his lips indecorously smudged with the remains of his prey: a lean diet of dust, gas, light, planet and stars.

Up till this exultant moment of disclosure, his appetite had been witnessed only by a mute expanse of oblivion stretching away from, but not quite escaping, the seduction of his hunger. Into his private vicinage stole 200 human scientists with a “camera”, peeling back the curtains that divide the mysterious from the ordinary. And out of it they came bearing the snapshot of a God. Cthulhu himself.

The photo itself hardly seemed threatening and barely intelligible: a ghostly halo of amber light wrapped unevenly around an innocuous splotch of shadow. A celestial glazed donut. The hung jejune jaw of Donald Trump. But the photo’s characterlessness was beside the point. We of the species that transported people to the moon, built the pyramids and sailed the seas, had finally made God in our own image. “We’ve exposed part of the universe that we thought were invisible to us before,” declared the bespectacled Sheperd Doeleman, director of the EHT project. “Nature has conspired to let us see something that we thought was invisible.” Listening to Doeleman, I couldn’t help but imagine the weightier significance of his words. The invisible tamed and rendered accessible to the will of machine-human conglomerations. A god humbled by creation. The eternal set to clock time. The returning messiah imprisoned in Seville. Dostoevsky vindicated.

A team from the EHT project shortly after approached Larry Kimura, a silver-haired professor from the University of Hawaii, Hilo.

Kimura, dubbed the grandfather of Hawaiian languages, used to eavesdrop on his own great aunts and uncles as they told stories from Hawaiian folklore. As a kid, he would sneak close enough (not too close to be shooed away) to hear the creation stories of the Great Sky Father Wakea, the Great Spirits born in Tahiti, and the kupua tricksters, his ears curdled with the rhythms and dance of his native tongue. In times-yet-to-come lurking in those innocent moments of awe, a future Kimura grows concerned that his language might go extinct, having just been reinstated as the language of the land after being banished by colonial regimes. He co-founds a non-profit called ‘Aha Pūnana Leo’ to create pre-schools that teach children the language. E Ola ka ‘Ōlelo Hawaii (“the Hawaiian language shall live”), declares the motto of the school.

An even older Kimura listens calmly to the group from EHT as they ask him to christen the newly photographed black hole. No pressure. He would just have to listen closely. He rubs the image of the entity between his fingers. His young ears, still attuned to the animated stories and gossip of his aunts and uncles, perk up. From the thick of their conversations, a name calls out to him. He reels it in, through the brackish waters of memory and imagination: Powehi.

The nickname comes from a celebratory chant in honour of the Hawaiian creation event. Powehi. Embellished dark source of unending creation. An ironic title for a destructive force of epic magnitudes. Kimura knows something the EHT cohort doesn’t. They see a ravenous beast consuming galaxies unfortunately perched at its accretion disk; he sees life flourishing. They see a scientific product. He kowtows before the Unthinkable One. A Messiah. Herald of the Incalculable. The name Powehi, not yet approved by the International Astronomical Union, disturbs the stability of what is seen, and calls into question what is noticed or what is obvious. Destabilizing science’s claims of superior access to pristine Nature. The name is not a label, it is a gasp – the only appropriate response when one faces a god. The new name is adopted by the group nonetheless, marked into notes, cheered into life with a handshake. Much better than “Black Hole of Messier 87”. On the table in Kimura’s office, left alone as the diminutive professor escorts the nerds outside, the photo of Powehi murmurs with a billion restless voices hiding behind the pixels of human ingenuity. Ghosts that persist in many other places.

***

9000 miles to the east of Kimura and the two telescopes in Hawaii, a turtle pulls away from the summer-beaten Pacific and onto an island in the Maldives. She has not done this before, but she knows the drill. It is written into her reptilian bones, embroidered upon her membranes. A knowing closer than her breath. The way of her people. Her gravid body seeks a good spot to lay her eggs. The eggs must be expelled or else she risks a painful dystocic death. She comes to a place on the beach, the same place she erupted through her egg and crawled out from her burial – a hatchling among the clutch of her unhatched siblings. The first of the bale to come. It is the same place her mother blinked for the first time too. And her mother’s mother. Through sand and the inviting smell of the Pacific blue. She knows this beach. Except it isn’t a beach anymore. It is the middle of a new airport runway surfaced with tarmac. And that airport is a tentacle of a larger organism of airports, planes, satellites, machines, data, beeping sounds, laptops, skyscrapers, breaking news reports, neon lights, and stories about human triumph. The earth has changed. It is too late. She cannot hold them in any longer. She has travelled through time, too far, to hold them in her weakened body a second longer. One egg lands with an inhospitable thud on the gravelly grey. If you listened closely, a thunderous chorus of squeaks, clicks and chirps could be heard that day – the haunting ancestors of this turtle and the progeny in spontaneous mourning.

Bringing science down to earth

Science is popularly believed to be the story of unfiltered access to Nature as it really is, divorced from culture. Outside of opinions, beyond biases and preferences, resting at a prestigious remove from the tangle of subjectivity, is an objective world of Facts. A world of precise things and discoverable identities. A world of truth independent of value and politics, free-floating and pre-existing. The world 18th century English poet Alexander Pope extolled in his 1727 epitaph to the recently deceased Isaac Newton: “NATURE and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

According to this popular view of science, the world is still, a damsel in distress in passive wait for the appropriately powerful instruments to pierce through (in one phallic move) the veil that divides appearance from reality.  Science is the appointed hero. Science may get the answers wrong time and again, but it is self-correcting – inexorably poised on the event horizon of certainty. In the clutch of cultural performances – superstitious stories of sky fathers and tricksters and magic – science is the lone hatchling, superior in ontology, exposed to the Real.

Presumably, most of us will never apprehend this real mathematical world of blinding light, stuck as we are in the compost heap of a lesser realm. Instead of generating facts, our social worlds are defined by the sweat of our experiences, half-baked ideas pretending to be fully-formed facts, gossip, cultural conditioning, outrageous doctrines and funky faith. The secondary world of appearances. Unlike Newton and his colleagues with VIP passes to the Holy of Holies, able to decipher the cryptic whispers of Nature, the elegant code that connects a bovine galaxy in swirl yonder to the quantum intricacies of an atom here, we may never know things as they really are. We would not even know of this Newtonian world were it not for the scientific method, the curious rituals through which the scientific priestly caste alchemize drops of truth from the base elements of the familiar.

So, for many casual consumers of the news about Powehi, the black hole was merely yet another “discovery”. A remarkable one, but not too shocking given our scientific history of achievements. It’s par for the course. A trophy alongside the telescope, quantum computing, and the black body in its once three-fifths-ness. The image that was printed on the pages of the dailies, the same one that lit up on smartphones and computer screens everywhere, was a true representation of a black hole. The name Powehi was cute at best, but the world it came from – the one Kimura knew, the world of spirits and monsters and tricksters – was secondary to the one the EHT scientists knew.

In a virtual conversation with someone about climate change, and in an attempt to hail alternative ontologies, I uttered the words that have haunted me ever since I started to pay attention to African philosophies: “The times are urgent, let us slow down.” He retorted crisply, acknowledging the place of indigenous customs and sayings. “But this is a global matter. And the science supports it.” What I heard was the silent implication that while it might be politically appropriate to pay lip-service to multicultural perspectives and insights into contemporary challenges, ‘science’ is a superior, more-than-cultural, value-free practice. Ahistorical, neutral, stoic, and foundational. And its adjudications are in principle uncontroversial glimpses into the heart of things where culture could only flail and wax poetic in its eternal inadequacy.  

This is a ubiquitous view: that the rituals of scientific knowledge-making are one ontological decibel above other forms of knowing, inherently privileged with truth. We are used to thinking of the world as a settled matter, science as the practice that seeks to form opinions and ideas about this world, and truth as correspondence between our ideas and the world as it is. We think that indigenous concepts, theological and political gestures require scientific validation to be real. That there is a stable reality ‘out there’, an end that does not vary even when the means do. That perspectives and thoughts are primarily matters of human subjects.

Thankfully, with science and technology studies (STS)[3], the culture of science is being taken seriously. Turns out, science is just as contingent and performative a way of knowing as casting cowries with Ifá to divine a way forward. And the pretensions of technoscientific practices to purity have long been questioned and dismantled by abler essays. By ‘performative’, I mean to stress how ‘objective truth’, supposedly independent of observational methods and universally accessible regardless of context and means, is actually already frontloaded with biases, ideologies, expectations, cultural materialities, textures, and algorithms. I mean to conjure a world that is not at all composed of ‘things’, already possessing properties and features (weight, mass, capacity, etc.), but a maelstrom of relationships in open-ended becomings.

Let’s make sense of this.

Unbeknownst to many, there is a legacy of ‘distance’ at work here – a legacy that cuts the world into neat binaries and puts a wide gulf between objects: words versus things, subject versus object, here versus there, mind versus matter, culture versus nature. Appearance versus reality. A legacy that is suspicious of mere appearances, and seeks to read the hidden code behind everything. This vision of the world thinks of it as a mechanical container of gears, nuts and bolts – things that have determinate measures and inherent values unique to them.

On the continent of Europe, an evolving set of philosophical ideas about the nature of nature developed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, producing this legacy of separation. Sedimenting over centuries, powered by anti-monarchical sentiments that crystallized in the French Revolution of the late 1700s, a rationalistic vision of the world took hold of public imagination. Gone were the superintending regimes of Gods and angels. Now was the time of Man and his Age of Reason, powered by Facts, driving on the rough but surmountable terrain of progress and advancement. Empiricism and reductionism became science’s modus operandi in modifying the new world now liberated from enchantment. This triumphant vocation opened the way to the Industrial Revolution.

Ironically, from within the very heart of science’s world-altering work, a series of unanticipated challenges have arisen. In biology and the physical sciences, sharper instruments have blurred the presumed boundaries between humans and their earthly cousins: concepts like Lynn Margulis’s ‘holobiont’ recast humans as companion species, intra-dependent with bacteria and microbial life, instead of fundamentally superior beings; in quantum physics, especially the Copenhagen interpretation of a much more dramatic and scandal-ridden world than most Enlightenment philosophers could dream of, ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’. There aren’t independent objects or things floating around in the world awaiting the vision of scientific observation. In fact, there aren’t ‘things’ at all; things are the temporary identities we fasten upon fluid relationships in order to navigate the world conveniently.[4]

I have written the words – “facts are not facts” – painfully aware of how that might be interpreted in a troubled time when “fake news”, proto-fascist sentiments and a postmodern dismissiveness of accountability defines political relations. In a time of urgency when this dismissiveness is being weaponized to fund the destruction of our environments. To acknowledge the duplicity at the heart of the scientific enterprise and its production of facts is however to bring science down to earth and situate it within an entangling and messy world.

Author and researcher of Roman archaeology Astrid Van Oyen writes that “…ethnographers of science have muddied the supposed purity of the modernist scheme itself by showing how scientific facts – the epitome of western immaterial rationality and its Enlightenment principles – rather than deriving from purely abstract eternal laws, are contingent upon such things as the size of test tubes, the distribution of funding, and the focus of gossip. This is not to say that science is untrue or unfalsifiable; it is rather to specify that its validity is built on foundations of a different nature and reach than previously imagined”[5]. This ‘different nature’ Van Oyen writes about is a vision of a world where nature spills corrosively through its categories and touches culture (and vice versa), and one in which humans do not possess any characteristic exteriority that might grant them a ‘God’s eye point of view’ on things. A world where humans are not central to meaning and value, but part of a field – an always emerging flowing that enlists humans and nonhumans alike in a rhapsody of possibility.

Van Oyen and contemporary researchers into the material culture of science are pointing out that we have to think of facts differently. Whether those facts are climate change, black holes or gravid turtles. These are not sterile objects that merely take on the inscriptions we assign to them, and they are not permanent furniture in a static universe. If – as some interpretations of the weird and wacky world of quantum physics tell us – the act of observing a wave in a double-slit experiment alters its identity, then the observation is inescapably a part of the very identity of the wave or the particle that materializes as a result of that observation. Scientists had once presumed that the closer they looked, the more information they could excavate from the object of their observations. Now it seems to be the case that making observations is not passive and innocent work, but actually alters the ‘thing’ being observed. The subject-object dichotomy breaks down. As such, the ‘things’ that science offers up for our consideration are not things at all: they are relationships. The black hole phenomenon called Powehi is not just an observation-independent spectacle in outer space, discoverable and rendered visible by dint of hard work and resourcefulness; it is the entity in space, the human actors, the satellites of the EHT, the hard disks and notepads strewn across office desks, the culture of human exceptionalism, the language conventions and gender-based politics of representation activated in similar bureaucracies, government funding, lack of government funding, nation-states, private agendas, colonial erasures, and – yes – a turtle struggling to give birth.

We do not usually rope things together this way – and that’s because modernity teaches[6] us to see only isolated and reductionistic ‘objects’, instead of contingent, fluid, emerging frameworks and relationships.[7]

As is usually the case with invisibilized knowledges lying in the shadows of colonial sciences, the Yoruba people of West Africa[8] – just one among many non-western peoples – have taught this entanglement for a long time. Long before quantum experiments started to show that the emperor had no clothes on after all. The Yoruba have always understood that everything is a crossroads – not just an intersection of other things but relationships resisting absolute determinacy. Things are assemblages. Provisional, multitudinous, spread out. Like rhizomes.

***

Thinking of how science creates its knowledges is important to thinking carefully about climate change and what it asks of us. There are generally two conceptions on how everything comes to be: one is an arboreal model that resembles a tree with its roots and trunk and branches and leaves. There is a foundational and classificatory sentiment here that figures how ‘things’ flow in a unidirectional causal pattern – from roots to tips of leaves. What this model assumes is that things are discrete and follow each other in some Newtonian cascading fashion. In more recent years noticing the porosity of things, of categories, has opened up new ways of understanding the world. This second conception of how differences emerge, how things materialize, deploys the idea of the rhizome to express the stunning interconnectedness that characterizes everything.

French philosophers Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze employed the botanical figure of the rhizome to illustrate the striking interconnectedness and relationality of the universe:

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work “rhizome” is roughly the philosophical counterpart of the botanical term, suggesting that many things in the world — to be consistent, if one follows the direction of their thinking, “all things” in the world — are rhizomes, or rhizomatically interconnected, although such connections are not always (in fact, seldom) visible. Animals or insects that live symbiotically appear to be an obvious example, such as the little birds that clean crocodiles’ teeth when these reptiles bask in the sun with their huge jaws open: instead of eating the birds, the crocodiles let them feed on the bits of meat, etc, between their teeth — their teeth are cleaned, and the birds are fed, in this way forming a rhizome. After all, when one sees them separately, few people would guess that their species-economy is rhizomatically conjoined.[9]

A single blade of grass. A single laptop computer. A livid and gaseous bottle of Coke. A single leather-bound notebook. A single plastic cup. A single image of a black hole 55 million light years away. A single scientific fact. None of these are at all singular or settled. Every morsel of the real is a framework, a rhizome, a trace. Every point a patchwork of crosshatchings of intersecting shimmering worlds too heavy for our persistent paradigms of intelligibility to articulate. Powehi, like other photographic products, is not the representation of an outside universe. Pictures after all aren’t taken, they are made. A conspiracy of the manifold. A performance. A chorus of the many.

The figure of the rhizome invites us to see that we are inextricably part of nature, performing the world, contributing to its emergence – just in the way we are also modified by the world in and around us. There is no culture apart from nature, and no nature that can be cut away from culture.[10] To know the world is not to sit outside of it and reflect upon it in order to gain clarity (a representationalist position). How we move through the world, where we stand or sit, the instigations of the ground beneath our feet, the migrations of clouds, and everything else between are all threads that stitch a tapestry of knowing that can only be for the time being.

Perhaps the most unsettling implication of the rhizome for those committed to a view of the scientific enterprise as an illuminating endeavour is that “facts” – as we must now come to see them – are simultaneously acts of concealment and disclosure. What is revealed, what we learn to see, what we pay attention to, what is permitted intelligibility always comes subsidized by aspects of an entangling web of relations that are erased from mattering. The invisible always underwrites the visible. It is the asymmetrical/complementary dynamic between the ‘two’ that worlds the world.

In the case of Powehi, the turtle.

And in the case of urgent reports about climate change and the rush to solutions, an old complex of ideas that sprang to life somewhere during the Holocene, at the end of the Ice Age when the ice began to thaw, and when the relative stability of the world around us instigated us to build cities and eventually capitalist settlements and see ourselves as permanent fixtures instead of transient bodies.


Footnotes and references:

[1] Roy Scranton

[2] Judith Butler

[3] An interdisciplinary field that looks at how science is affected by politics, culture, society and how science produces its knowledges.

[4] Barad, K. M. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning.

[5] Van Oyen, Astrid (2018). Material Agency. In ‘The Encyclopedia of Archaeological Sciences.’ Edited by Sandra L. López Varela.

[6] It is difficult to notice this fluidity because a palimpsest of sedimenting strategies and imbrications between ‘humans’ and the ‘more-than-human’ around us has bequeathed ‘us’ a massive and peculiar arrangement of shared anxiety about the world around us: a way of making ‘cuts’ in the fabric of the ‘whole’ that keeps us ‘sane’. So we settle for the logo. The brand name. The mark of quality. The swish of good fortune. And in the sake of scientific products about climate disaster bearing down on us, the implicit trust that this reductionistic vision is trustworthy and complete. “But this is a global matter. And the science supports it.”

[7] Feminist physicist Karen Barad noted that these relationships work (and thus everything materializes) based on “intra-actions”. An “intra-action” – as opposed to an “interaction” (where two independent bodies meet one another, maintaining their independence) is when individual bodies materialize as a result of their relational encounter. This reframe privileges relationships and the phenomena or frameworks they produce as the fundamental quality of reality. Reality is made up of relationships, not things that relate.

[8] Of which I am a member.

[9] Bert Oliver, What is a ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking?

[10] Biologist Donna Haraway decides then to rechristen nature as “naturecultures”, dissolving the binary and highlighting the processual and performatively interesting ways every object (once merely “natural phenomena”) is a relationship.


This article was previously published on The Emergence Network’s ‘Mushroom Newsletter’.

 

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