Chapter 14: Celebrating Mystery
“Look at it: nothing to see.
Call it colorless.
Listen to it: nothing to hear.
Call it soundless.
Reach for it: nothing to hold.
Call it intangible.
It merges into oneness,
Not bright above,
Not dark below.
Call it unthinkable thought.
Face it: no face.
Follow it: no end.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
One of the many challenges the phenomenon we refer to as climate change presents is what to call it. “Global warming” masks many of its aspects, and conjures visions of balmy Caribbean beaches in our future. “Climate change” is vague and value-neutral. Even “climate disruption” doesn’t quite do the trick, since among business and tech people—i.e., the most powerful actors in the system—disruption is a good thing that yields wealth and innovation. Beyond this, all of these labels frame the climate problem as an environmental issue: they compartmentalize and cordon it off from politics, economics, and society at large. This language is a function of our modern dissociation of nature and culture. We imagine the climate, and nature is general, as something “out there” or “up there,” rather than something that not only surrounds and supports society, but suffuses it. As Vaclav Smil puts it, there is no such thing as the economy, there are only energy conversions.
But another reason we struggle to name the climate problem is that it is what theorist Tim Morton calls a “hyperobject.” Or to use Whitehead’s category, climate change lacks “simple location” (well, according to Whitehead’s process philosophy, everything lacks simple location, an ontological insight confirmed by quantum mechanics, and one that underwrote Fritjof Capra’s attempt to integrate the new physics with Eastern philosophies in the Tao of Physics). A hyperobject is something so large, so complex, and so distributed throughout time and space that when pressed to explain it, the mind balks. As Augustine confessed in his analysis of time, “If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, plainly I do not know.”
This paradox of knowing and not knowing is eerily similar to the state of anxiety; while fear has reference to a distinct object, anxiety is “about nothing”—it is more a cypher for the maw of the abyss of the future, for the singularity of the black hole, for Kali. And that drives us slightly mad: hence the apt title of Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. If you follow this line of thought, climate change begins to resemble what existentialists like Martin Heidegger referred to as being itself; being as opposed to beings. When we begin to see climate not as merely or mainly as environmental, but as existential—and collectively existential—then our fumbling has laid hold of a genuine thread. And rather than flee that anxiety—crank up the AC, put the pedal to the metal, trust that economic growth and technological innovation will take care of it–we interrogate it, listen to it, and trust that it has something vital to tell us.
Morton—and the kind of environmental pessimist he stands in for—underestimates our abilities to grasp the climate problem. If we rely on thought alone, yes, due to cognitive biases and the propaganda of the fossil-fuel industrial complex, the deck is stacked against us. But in the face of the weakness of the logos, we can turn to the power of the mythos—of myth, story, image, and narrative. Bruno Latour suggests that we already have all we need—not so much a new religion, but an old goddess: Gaia. In Facing Gaia, Latour frames the climate problem not as exclusively environmental or even economic, but as mythopoetic and political. The saving story is sewn into the first fabrics of Western civilization. Coupled with scientist James Locklock’s Gaia hypothesis, which indicates that the thin, globe-spanning sphere that supports all life is a single, interdependent system, Gaia can plausibly serve as the “image of no image.” As the positive-sum, post-World War II, worldcentric, neoliberal order buckles, and a return to the zero-sum, 19th century, ethnocentric, nationalistic order looms, a planet-centric Gaiapolitik may be the way through. We have all the threads we need.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to properly naming the climate problem is seeing it as a problem in the first place. The most popular framing of climate is the aesthetics of apocalypse, but ironically, this doesn’t take the idea of apocalypse seriously enough. The term literally means un “unveiling” or “uncovering.” Seen this way, an apocalypse is not just an end, but a new beginning and, in that way, progress. In the fullness of time, we may come to see climate change not as a problem, but as a solution to arguably the greatest civilizational problem: how to build a global society without destroying ourselves. Nothing unites people like a common threat. For all of human history, that threat has been another person, another tribe, another country, another religion. The peril and promise of climate is that we have seen the enemy, and it is us. Nothing in human history has had the potential to unite all peoples and nations around a common goal, to catalyze planetary awareness at scale. If we frame the goal less in negative terms—avoiding disaster—and more in positive terms—building a new civilization—and see climate less as a burden and more as a blessing, we are more likely to solve it.
The chapter concludes:
“Holding fast to the old Way,
we can live in the present.
Mindful of the ancient beginnings,
we hold the thread of the Tao.”
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”