“The dead rise and walk about
The timeless fields of thought” – Wendell Berry, A World Lost
All that is solid, melts.
Polar ice, packed hard and dense enough so that the air bubbles are squeezed out of it, glows a pale, forget-me-not blue. The blue of daylight. That’s because, as with water in its liquid state, the chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum.
This is a time-sensitive phenomenon. You won’t see it during the winter, as new, first-year ice forms. Even if the wind causes ‘leads’ to open up in the new ice, and frost smoke erupts from the black waters as the heat is sucked into the atmosphere, the polar blue is submerged. You have to wait for the boreal quickening of summer, when a glacier the size of a cathedral might break away and float off into a sea of glass, circled by gothic black guillemots and puffins, and occasionally boarded by a ringed seal seeking sanctuary.
This arctic windfall will soon disappear forever, as will the sheets and shelves of frosted ice. The Arctic Ocean will be blue, at first during summer and then all year round, because it will be liquid: wide open for shipping lanes and military expeditions which are, even today, being plotted. The core of the ice which remains during the Arctic summer, is multi-year ice. Most of this ice volume is formed, not so much through the dendritic growth of ice crystals across the water, as through packing and deformation, with huge pressure ridges forming which slice deep into water and cut scours into land. This ice is shrinking. With it, the albedo – the capacity to reflect solar radiation – of the ice shrinks, thus speeding up the melting process.
The best estimates suggest that by 2040, global temperatures will be too warm to sustain the northern ice-cap, and it will have melted. By 2100, the glacial era will be definitively over. The temperature and conditions that have remained almost identical underneath the ice sheets for over a million years, will change abruptly. An ecology of phytoplankton, amphipods, sea cucumbers, starfish, krill, seals, belugas, penguins (in the south), and polar bears (in the north), will break down. There may be one last ice renaissance, if the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation breaks down, with the effect of sharply cooling the northern hemisphere. That sharp glacial plunge will last for twenty years, and then the melting will resume. And humanity will have terminated three million years of periodic ice ages, perhaps forever.
The planet has been going through repetitive ice ages for perhaps three million years. The cooling of the earth had meant that the average temperature has been just low enough that small changes in the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun has been able to produce periodic freezing. According to the glaciologist Peter Wadhams, the climate record shows us that once an ice sheet formed over what is now Greenland, toward the end of the Pliocene, the conditions for a long period of ice ages were created. The sudden advance and slow retreat, saw-tooth-like, of the glaciers at the poles has characterised the planet ever since. It was only thanks to this global climate and the relative stability it provided, Wadham argues, that humans were able to develop agriculture. No human ancestor, faced with the turbulent, baking hot, flood-prone climate of the Pliocene, could have dreamed up farming.
And now, something new begins. A sense of the untimelich descends. The untimelich, the uncanny sense of being out-of-time, often descends on us in the small hours, when we are small. For a starless, Hadean hour, we become the stain in the blanket; we become the worm in the casket. Was it a second that passed, or a half hour? Did time even pass? It’s impossible to tell. The reality principle, as Freud called it, with its temporal and physical laws, has momentarily disintegrated. And it is difficult to imagine, at such moments, that normality will ever resume, because normality itself has been infected by something terrible and strange. Now, the untimelich assumes the gigantic proportions of geological deep time. The unconscious has leaked into the planet’s rock records, a telluric tell-tale, and we call this the Anthropocene. A speck in the planet’s history, a stratigraphic nanosecond, but nothing will ever be the same.
The uncanny (unheimlich) is creepy because it is not just other; it is familiar while being other. It is not truly alien but, in Lacan’s term, ‘extimate’, the bit of the outside that sticks to the inside, or of the inside that belongs to the outside. It is home, the climate psychoanalyst Joseph Dodds points out, just as the word ‘ecology’ derives from the Greek word ‘oikos’ meaning ‘place to live’. It is the horrifying part of the homely, when it becomes the bearer of our deepest anxieties: the fear of annihilation, of being chewed up, poisoned, descending into madness. For Freud, the archetype of the uncanny is the maternal body, and the way that in fantasy it becomes a grave, much as the ‘Earth Mother’ is both a birthplace and a grave, the dirt to which we return. In the untimelich, the time of the living and the time of the dead, human history and the history of inorganic sediments, collide into one another. The cyclical time of seasons turns freakish, leaving us uneasily sweating in the clammy mid-winter. Spring comes too early, hurricane-force winds and flash floods break the October calm, the Arctic melts while Europe is wintering. As in a disaster dream, one catastrophe follows another. The progressive time of human civilization, already evacuated by being reduced to the endless accumulation of stuff, collapses into nonsense. The cycle of ice ages melts away for eternity. The progression of geological deep time, with its periods, eras and epochs speeds up so rapidly, that it precipitates a crisis in the temporal order itself: spinning so fast, we may as well be standing still. The Anthropocene is the name, not for the most advanced phase of human civilization, but for a sudden derailing: a spin-off reality, a meltdown.
When did it start? You could begin, in a Smithian perspective, with the invention of agriculture, or with industrialisation, each of which brought new technical means to bear on the planet’s surface. Or, taking a world-systems view, with the colonisation of the Americas at the outset of capitalist civilization. Ian Angus, in Facing the Anthropocene, reviews the literature of climatologists and geologists, and finds an emerging consensus: the middle of the last century. In the 1950s, everything began to spiral: carbon emissions, methane emissions, marine fish capture, ocean acidification, land use, biosphere degradation, extinctions, and of course global temperatures. The economy of war production, and the state-capitalist apparatuses birthed by it, generated unprecedented scales of production and globalised them. Since then, humans and their domestic animals have come to constitute 97% of the earth’s biomass, even as we undergo the ‘sixth great extinction’. And with these changes, the growing accumulation of new materials in the mineral deposit: “technofossils”.
The trend lines since the industrial revolution had been upward. But until the middle of the last century, the increase was slow enough that the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius could anticipate most of the CO2 increase being absorbed in the ocean, and the rate of atmospheric concentration being so slow that it would 3,000 years to double. In fact, the doubling time is 75-100 years. Which means that, with a speed never seen before in the history of the planet, the Earth is being driven back to states not seen since the Miocene. Spinning so fast, we go backward. Accelerate this.
There is something eerie about all those hockey-stick charts. They were once, surely, part of the triumphalist narrative of capitalism, the Enlightenment harnessed to competitive accumulation. Land use, large dams, urban population, GDP, transportation, all soaring: this is progress, surely? Aren’t these the sorts of things for which Marx & Engels praised the bourgeoisie, in The Communist Manifesto? Wouldn’t these charts once have been boosterishly plastered over the walls of a geography classroom, proof that the system works? The idea that human beings exert such a dramatic impact on the planet would have been cause for high-fives: as Elon Musk said to Sam Harris, “Humanity rocks!” Now we find that even ‘sustainability’ won’t save us: forget geoengineering, even energy efficiency is a curse. The more efficiently we try to consume the earth, the faster it comes to consume us.
The story is not so much shocking as it is, unnerving. The Anthropocene, argue Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene, is no shock at all. “The story of awakening is a fable,” they say. At the outset of the industrial age, they say, people knew. The awakening is a fable, from this perspective, because some people were never asleep. The story of official Anthropocenology is that awareness began to spread thanks to the climatologists of the Sixties and Seventies, globalised with the Earth Summit of 1992, and finally achieved a hegemonic status with the third report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001. Now, thanks to the pioneering work of scientists, humanity can break with its past errors, its ignorance, its unwittingly loaded derogation of the ecological context for survival, and repair the damage.
Buried in this purview is the spontaneous philosophy of the scientist. “The scientific imaginary of the Anthropocene inherited ideologies, knowledge and technologies from the Cold War,” say Bonneuil and Fressoz, in which the planet is viewed from a god’s-eye-view, as a total, manageable, exploitable object. The Anthropocene inhabits and modifies this imaginary, so that ‘awareness’ becomes identified with the ability of states and military bureaucracies to internalise ecological knowledge, and integrate it into new forms of biopower and geopower, serving the small fraction of the Anthropos who actually bear most responsibility for the catastrophe. What the story of ‘awareness’ occludes is that at each stage of ‘acceleration’ in official Anthropocenology, there were writers, from Fourier to Vogt, who drew on numerous mainstream scientific papers to demonstrate threats posed by deforestation, carbonisation, and species-death. And to underline that human beings, through the great industrial and military experiments on the planet then being undertaken had become a geological agent.
The ideology of ‘awareness’, purportedly representing a rift with triumphalist modernism, perpetuates its temporality and its telos – from darkness to Enlightenment, blind nature to human agency. And, with the natural scientist as our saviour, it clears the way for a technoscientific managerialism overriding public ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’, rather than the democratic rupture that is required. Restoring the temporal order of modernity, under the sign of Enlightenment, it represses the unsettling knowledge that modernity itself, with its scorched earth, killing fields, and desertification is the virus implicated in the “brutalization of relations between society and nature”. More than this, in its hopeful stageism, its optimistic anticipation of that stage of the Anthropocene in which humankind assumes responsible governance of the earth, it represses the knowledge that we are no longer in this time. The derailing has already begun.
For there is something already untimelich about capitalism. The screen of capital shows us nature as a series of commodified abstractions. The most famous metaphor for this process is the sausage factory. In the sausage, one of the earliest human gustatory inventions, we encounter a meat. What capitalism has done is make each sausage a uniform iteration of a quantity of socially-necessary labour-time, which we never have to think about. The animal, the farm, the abattoir and the factory are elsewhere, off-site, far from where people live. The labour of rearing, domestication and slaughter, not to mention the ecological processes, the vicissitudes of weather and seasons, the work of other species and their life-processes, are all kept tactfully out of view. To put it another way, their consumers are kept out-of-time, protected from the knowledge of temporality and death, much as children are.
Capitalist production has extended the same logic everywhere: we have stocks of coal, silos of grain, mass produced vacuum-sealed packs, tins, crates and freeze-dried boxes of vegetables, fruits and meats. We don’t have to think about distance, or seasons, or any other natural limitation: as long as we keep feeding the machine, powering it with regular sums of labour-time, these items will magically turn up, in shops and warehouses packed with them, or at your doorstep.
According to its own dreamwork, capitalism is the genie that can, in principle, always grant your wishes. In their own way, Alexa and Siri aspire to be the voice of that solicitous figment of capital. In this Neverland of eternal satisfactions, nothing ever happens except more stuff, more versions of the same stuff, more ideas for stuff, a timeless piling up of little wants to be instantly and habitually satisfied. It recognises no limit. In this sense, the child is the ideal consumer-subject, because children want instant satisfaction without limit, and with the illusion of not paying a price. Is it any wonder if this ideological universe turns morbid, and its friendly commodity-images of progress and plenty turn evil, and attack, like the child’s doll in a horror film?
The untimelich begins with a midnight sweat, the terror of going to sleep, and confronting one’s dreams. Now it stretches out indefinitely, and becomes indistinguishable from the dream we wake up to.