Tim Morton on climate, denial, and responsibility

The following extremely lengthy extract is from Timothy Morton’s ‘The Ecological Thought’ which is (appropriately enough) heavily influencing my current thinking, distilling a lot of background intuitions and assumptions into a more definite form. Here’s Morton, at the beginning of Chapter 3, talking about global warming. It was too compelling not to share. (Any mistakes are my own as I typed it out by hand):

Environmentalism is often apocalyptic. It warns of, and wards off, the end of the world. The title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring says it all. But things aren’t like that: the end of the world has already happened.  We sprayed the DDT. We exploded the nuclear bombs. We changed the climate. This is what it looks like after the end of the world. Today is not the end of history. We’re living at the beginnign of history. The ecological thought thinks forward. it knows that we have only just begun, lke someone waking up from a dream.

We’re resonsible for global warming. Formally responsible, whether or not we caused it, whether or not we can prove that we caused it. We’re responsible for global warming simply because we’re sentient. No more elaborate reason is requiuired. If you believe a more elaborate reason is required, consider the following:

When you see a child about to be hit by a truck, do you protest, “I’m not directly responsible for her death, so I won’t help her”? When your house is burning down, do you say, “Well, I didn’t start the fire, so I’m, not responsible for putting it out”? The big difference is that unlike the girl and the house, you can’t see climate. Climate isn’t weather. You can see weather, but not climate, in the same way that you can’t see momentum but you can see velocity. Climate is derivative of weather. Very powerful computers using terabutes of RAM can barely model climate.

You can’t really point to climate, but it exists. It doesn’t matter if it snowed somewhere, just as it doesn’t matter if a truck that’s about to run you down is slowing down or speeding up. It if has enough momentum to kill you, it’s going to do so unless you get out of the way. If you’re watching a little girl in front of that moving truck, you’re obliged to rescue her, for the simple reason that you can see her. In other words, simply because we’re sentient – let’s set the bar low to ensure that even snails and the snailiest humans are also responsible – we’re obliged to address global warming. No proof is required that we caused it – looking for absolute proof inhibits our response.

This is tough: taking responsiblity for something you can’t see. But it’s  no tougher than taking responsibility for, say, not killing – you don’t have to come up with a reason; you just do it and figure out why later. That’s why it’s called an ethical decision. It doesn’t have to be proved or justified. You just do it. This doesn’t mean that your act is unconscious. By no means am I advising us just to do what we feel to be right. It  means that one can act spontaneously and cautiously…

Global warming denial depends upon and contributes to an idea of nature not that different from a certain attitude to the child in the street or the burning house: “It’s over there – in some fundamental way, it’s not my concern.” Part of assuming direct responsbility for golbal warming will be abandoning the idea of Nature, an ideological barrier to realizing how everything is interconnected. Gloval warming deniers are like a man with a gun to somone’s head, saying, “Give me a good reason not to shoot this guy.” Do you give a good reason (“It’s right, it feels good, there’s a symbiotic web in which we’re immersed and you’re damaging it, you’re upsetting a natural balance…”), or assuming you’re strong enough, do you just grab the gun?

All the reasons in the world aren’t reason enough, from a certain point of view.