We need a rhetoric of pleasure, not of guilt, postulates the philosopher Timothy Morton. A conversation about solar-powered clubs and saving the polar bears.
I started making my own deodorant and my own washing-up liquid.
That’s very good. That’s lovely.
But I’m not changing anything, except to avoid two bottles of plastics. Would you say that this is a useful political action?
Everybody is caught in a big dilemma. When you do something like start your car, you’re not actually causing global warming, you're doing something that is statistically meaningless. But billions and billions of cars starting are obviously causing global warming. There is this weird gap between me as this one person and then me as a member of the human species. And that’s very uncanny. That’s part of ecological awareness.
Why is it so difficult for most of us to become more aware? We know that global migration crises are caused by climate issues and still we are talking about the numbers of refugees to "let in" for example.
My fantasy is to guess how it might work out if we really tried it. The USA is the most non-dense Western country on the planet, so it is perfectly simple. All refugees should come to the USA. The statue of liberty-thing, the torch-thing, should be honoured again. But the trouble is we have a president who has magnetised the very worst aspects of semi-fascist America. And so it is not easy. This fascism which is happening around the world – it is in Brexit, it is in Japan, it is in Switzerland, it is everywhere – and it is kind of a reaction not just to economics but also to ecological awareness. The kind of economy we’ve got could be described as neoliberal, Reagan-Thatcher type economics with austerity added-on, and this has created this very precarious situation for lots of people. And through this paper-thin economy they can see something even scarier which is this paper-thin biosphere. It is paper-thin for some of the same reasons: It has been so exploited that now humans are actually causing a mass extinction.
If you want to call global warming by its real name we should really call it mass extinction. I like to call it global warming and not climate change. And I like to call it mass extinction even better because, horrifyingly, this is what it is.
So how should we face up to it or even fix it?
When you bring up the question of refugees, you bring up the question of racism. The reason for racism is speciesism, I’m arguing. And so, in order to fight speciesism which is helping us to dominate earth, we have to struggle against racism. They are part of the same thing.
So we need to understand that refugees belong to our species?
Exactly, all human beings are roughly the same. What we all need to know right now is that we all are human beings trying to solve this problem which is a global problem. So how do you say "we" without being racist or misogynistic? I think we can, if we slightly change the concept of what "we" could mean. And doing so is actually very helpful for the rest of the life forms.
But as the biosphere was mainly destroyed by white Western industrial societies, shouldn’t they be responsible for repairing, saving it?
Right. Absolutely correct. The trouble is: The Americans invented air-conditioning first, but Indians also want air-conditioning. Just because Indians wanted air-conditioning after the Americans does not make them better human beings. That’s also racist. The idea of blaming one particular being or group of beings is kind of a problem actually. We need to change society completely. And we don’t have much time. Extinction is happening now. The solutions will be messy and hypocritical, and actually structurally you can get ecological action never absolutely right.
Everything is kind of interconnected in the biosphere. When we decide to be nice to bunny rabbits it means that I will not be nice to animals that hunt them. I can’t be nice to both of them at the same time. This brings me to a bigger point, to the idea of primitivism. To the belief that there is some group of people who don’t have this evil consumerist desire. All this stuff of evil bad desire is also a kind of individual-scaled religious Christian-Jewish-Islam guilt and redemption narrative. I’m pretty sure that Neanderthals would have loved Coca Cola light or zero. Unfortunately, consumerism is telling us something true about human beings, about desire.
If ecological politics means anything it actually means pleasure. It means increasing and amplifying and multiplying different forms of pleasure rather than create more efficiency.
How would this ecological pleasure look like?
Polar bears being alive is very nice for them. It could be very pleasurable for us to keep polar bears alive. I just got solar power for my house and for the first days I felt holy, righteous, good, but then I realised I could have a disco in every room of my house with people dancing and there would be fewer life forms hurt. In other words: The solar power is enhancing my pleasure.
And you are cutting down use of fossil fuels...
If we talk about it in terms of efficiency, we are basically talking about it in the key signature of oil. Because oil is a precious, toxic resource. Are we really going into a post-oil world in an oil-state of mind? This would, I argue, create a control society so rigid and so intense that it would make the surveillance that we put ourselves under now an anarchist picnic by comparison. I would not like to live in that world.
So draconic measures, for example by forbidding new cars as a way to decrease oil consumption, would not be your approach?
Of course we need to decrease carbon emissions. But in what kind of frame of mind and with what kinds of policies do we do it? Are we doing it in the spirit of creating a society with even stricter forms of efficiency than we have now or do we do it in the name of increasing pleasures? I think people would get behind that much more. The other approach would be austerity times five million. "Now, I can’t even have a car." That’s not what people want. They want to think: "The world that we are going into is much nicer than the previous world." The problem with consumerism is not that it is too much pleasure; it is that it is not enough pleasure.
But if we start thinking about the world as it is now and how it will be in 2050 for example, the pleasures will be quite diminished. In Germany, there has been a loss of insects, as many as 80 percent in some parts. Our singing birds are vanishing too. I grew up in the 80s and there was the Chernobyl radioactive cloud over Europe and I was educated with a lot of dystopian youth fiction. Would we need more dystopian views that look into the abyss?
No, we’ve said it quite enough this way. We’ve hoovered up all the people we can hoover up using that discourse of guilt. Although the picture looks incredibly bleak, you mustn’t get into despair mode. You mustn’t go into bad-and-evil-mode. That is religion mode. And religion is the way an agricultural society talks about itself. Agricultural civilisation basically is why this is happening. The deep structure. We live in Mesopotamia version 9.0 with industrial machinery designed to keep it going. If we do this in religion mode, it is not gonna work, because religion creates a very hierarchical, patriarchal society, that explains itself to itself. And it is also an ecologically very destructive society that from the very beginning is creating deserts and then moved on and created deserts and moved on again.
You had a famous correspondence with the islandic musician and artist Bjork, published in the book Bjork Archives and also by Dazed and Confused. You exchange your perspectives and thoughts on topics like viruses, fusing tenderness and sadness and also ecological awareness. She described a "green techno internet age" as something worth striving for. Could this be our future if we manage to create global ecological awareness?
I’m very against the notion of prediction but I’m very interested in the idea of a future. In order to allow the future to be different to the present we have to stop making so many predictions. The problem is that we live in a culture where we have all these devices like Facebook, Google algorithims and so on that are predictive. And that means the past is eating the future. If we want the future to be different, we have to avoid prediction. People are so into creating some sort of concept that will allow them to relax, right? And the trouble with ecological awareness is that it makes you realise that there is a disturbing out-of-controlness about the world. We are not completely in charge of it, you know.
But is there an alternative to accepting the facts of destruction?
These supposedly naked facts of ecological data are creating the notion of nature again, making ecological things as if they are coming to us in the form of pure data. We are not doing it with other features of our world, we are not doing it about sexual harassment, about racism, but we do it about polar bears and coral.
But we are the ones who are killing polar bears and corals.
I would prefer to talk about responsibility. Responsibility is cooler, because if you can understand something, you are responsible for it. Responsibility can also help us to think of our actions on a collective level which is where we need to be acting in order to deal with the massive global scale problems that we have. I am very keen on getting it off that level of religion and guilt, good and evil, and getting it into the level of pleasure and pain. Let’s not have so much pain: It's painful for the coral, painful for us, bleached coral is not nice. Let’s have more pleasure saving coral. Human beings might be able to identify with that.
The interview was conducted by Nikola Richter
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