Hyperobject

So, since many of our children are refusing to go to school today in order to protest climate change, I’m going to invite the rest of you – ironic Gen Xers, sensitive Millennials, and stubborn Boomers back into the classroom in order to learn a new word.

Ever wonder why so many people are skeptical about global warming? Ever wonder why so many people, who understand perfectly well that humans are baking the planet, don’t do anything about it? Every wonder why it so hard for YOU to care, really care, about climate change more than say, losing weight, Game of Thrones, or what your ex just posted on Instagram? Why exactly is it that so many of us who are not in Gen Z are so complacent about the biggest calamity to hit our planet since a comet got the dinosaurs?

Well, an extremely useful word, when trying to understand the average person’s indifference to or outright denial of climate change, is HYPEROBJECT.

Ecologist-Philosopher Timothy Morton coined the word and defined it as “objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” What that means is that “Climate Change” has no specific place, yet it touches everything across the entire globe; it covers times at least as far back as the industrial age but perhaps as far back as the dawn of agriculture, like a spooky fog only visible at a distance. It is not “present” in a way that one can point to, like pointing to an apple, or a country, or a basketball team; we can only point to its effects, its traces, which can seem suspicious, like the footprints of Bigfoot.

Hyperobjects are just too big, too elusive, and too weird to get our heads around. They don’t behave as ordinary “objects” are supposed to behave- objects like cars, carrots, winter, or the super bowl. This is why it’s easy to get emotional about an ordinary object like the weather (it’s raining!) buts its hard to get truly emotional about climate – which seems to happen mostly in other places, to other people, someday far in the future.

In a sense, denialists and skeptics are right when they say climate change doesn’t “exist.” Rather, it weirdly haunts the weather, making it more extreme but never “causing” a specific event.  It rises in intensity slowly, boiling us like a frog in a pot, without us noticing year by year that anything is really happening. It appears in statistics about warming oceans, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, and superstorms, but those statistics never manifest in ways that interrupt our day-to-day lives.

The human brain simply isn’t built to deal with hyperobjects. Our minds evolved to think about time scales contained by seasons and lifetimes. A hunter on the savannah only had to think about straightforward objects (that lion stalking me…) with clear temporal boundaries (…it appeared this morning…) in particular places (… here the foot of these mountains,) that are unambiguously NOT other things (A lion is not a deer. A lion does not slowly morph into a deer. The heard of deer is not partly caused by a lion.)

Hyperobjects are everywhere but also nowhere. They are so big and so withdrawn from everyday experience, the average person (like you, like me) has trouble maintaining strong emotions about them. So with climate change, we mostly just ignore it, and if we do try to get our heads around it, we become paralyzed by its terrifying and spectral immensity. In fact, Hyperobjects can seem vaguely religious in scope, which is why people talk about “believing in” global warming – as if it required a kind of leap of faith, taking science as scripture.

But Climate Change is real. It doesn’t care what you believe. And it’s unfolding right now. It is, in fact, another comet striking the earth in hyper-slow motion, over the course of decades and centuries, hyper-distributed over billions of exhaust pipes, chimneys, and industrial farms.

Other hyperobjects include things like “race” and “class” and the growing continent of human trash clumping together in the Pacific, but perhaps the biggest hurdle we have to understand climate change is the hyperobject human species. As Western democratic capitalists, we always see the world through the lens of Individualism. As an individual, “I” have essentially no effect on climate change. The exhaust from my car, the beef that I eat, and the number of times I ride on an airplane make no difference. Or rather, it all makes a difference so small, it becomes a kind of MICRO-object, so tiny that it’s just too tedious and abstract to bother with. It’s hard enough to think on the level of family, tribe or nation; it’s nearly impossible to think about ourselves on the level of species.

Nearly impossible for us, I mean.

Gen Z grew up with hyperobjects. They understand on an emotional level how vanishingly small things, like a single tweet, can blow up into something vast and global. They have an intuitive sense about how things, like a social media storm, can be distributed widely in time and space, yet can become powerful, destructive, and deeply personal.

For Millennials, Gen-X, and Boomers, climate change is a thing that’s happening to someone else, in some other place, at some future time. For Gen Z, climate change is happening right here, right now, TO THEM.

And, unsurprisingly, they are freaking out.

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For more on hyperobjects, I think anyone interested in climate change should read Timothy Morton’s book, Hyperobjects. It’s been around for a while, but only in academic, intellectual and activist circles. Morton’s writing is inventive and entertaining, so reading it won’t feel like doing homework or eating Kale.

2 thoughts on “Hyperobject”

  1. This is poignant and timely. Thank you for posting it. Morton’s term has value to me because it allows me to wrap my mind around not being able to wrap my mind around the term: “climate change.” I feel less lost because the word itself acknowledges that something can be…. and yet not be digested by my puny human intellect.

    Recently, my 12 year-old son showed me a paper that was part of his astronomy class. It stated that scientists have unambiguously discovered hundreds of billions of galaxies since the beginning of the 20th century. I “know” this to be the case but I can’t grasp it. So I suspect that inter-galactic astrophysics is also a study in hyperobjects. I haven’t read Morton (I have only heard about about his ideas through you) but I appreciate his contribution to the lexicon of human cognitive and imaginative limitations.

    What interests me most about this post is your adroit observation that the current Gen Z’s were raised while being bombarded with non-trivial hyperobjects (the Internet, Climate Change, etc.) and therefore may be more capable of appreciating the tangible threat of climate change to our species than us older folks.

    I can only imagine what it must be like to be, say, 18 years old…and to be informed by a credible scientific consensus that, if radical collaborative action isn’t taken now, the planet may not be habitable in my own lifetime. It’s a burden of extinction that no other generation has had to face with leaders who are markedly indifferent. At least during the Cold War, as the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated, world leaders were responsive and took visible steps to avoid nuclear annihilation. Trump and. Putin lead with greed and openly dismiss the obvious unfolding threat of climate change to our species.

    The Green Deal and the rational but passionate voices of Gen Z are going to be so clearly ignored by the entities that have the power to initiate a collaborative plan to contend with the facts that it’s just sad. I mean: our President and his cronies unabashedly taunt any public figure who advocates for meaningful action to contend with climate change (AOC is a good example….she’s 29 and can obviously see the looming threat likely affecting her own life).

    I’m not optimistic about our species with regard to collaborative measures to keep the planet habitable. Greed is a formidable opponent of the Green Deal. In a Green versus Greed cage match, history and human nature would suggest that Greed is the heavy favorite.

    Anyway, that’s why I applaud but am also saddened by the Gen Z strike tomorrow. Even though, barring some incredibly lucky technological innovation, our species has about 100 years maximum (probably less than that) left on the planet, the relative innocence of youth speaks to power as if it will make a difference. I have the same protective feelings toward tomorrow’s strike as I had when my son believed in Santa Claus. It was a magical sort of idealism that I wanted to foster and cultivate for as long as I could in him. Gen Z will learn soon enough that the Trumps and Putins of the world are going to take our species to extinction in exchange for a decade of personal profits. Why rush them to this realization? The strike tomorrow, we both know, will make no appreciable difference to the international lack of collaboration among those who wield political and military power. However, there is a certain tragic beauty in the fact that young people are capable of harboring the belief that their voices can change the likes of Exxon, Trump, Putin, Pfizer, et al. I’ll cheer for such innocent altruism to my last breath precisely because I’ve already lost my own innocence. Cheers for the Green Deal! Cheers for Santa Claus!

    1. I often feel this same kind of hopelessness and defeat with regard to climate change sometimes. This is a product of cynicism and exhaustion I think, on our part. Gen Z has not yet encountered decades of frustration and inaction, and their stake in the outcome is far more pronounced. Forty years from now, when the most severe effects of global warming could manifest, we will all likely be dead, while Gen Z will not.

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