In the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote “Nuclear weapons could wipe out life on Earth, if used properly.” The brilliant fake naivety of this seemingly obvious remark should make us pause. We have indeed created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it's good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I'm going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they're massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience. In this sense, hyperobjects are like those tubes of toothpaste that say they contain 10% extra: there's more to hyperobjects than ordinary objects.
Plutonium, for instance, has a half-life of 24 100 years. That's far, far further into the future than it's possible to think that anyone meaningfully related to me could still exist. Will the future people even be human in the currently defined sense? 24 100 years is over twice as long as the whole of recorded human history thus far. Here it is: plutonium—it's really here, take a look.
Pu 239 aglow with radioactivity
It will outlive your descendants' descendants far beyond any timescale in which the idea of descendants (sharing my genome, my taste in music, my politics) is significant in any way.
This means that we need some other basis for making decisions about a future to which we have no real sense of connection. We must urgently construct some non-self ethics and politics to deal with these pernicious hyperobjects. No self-interest theory, no matter how modified (to include my relatives, my nearest and dearest, my cat, my great grandchildren's hamster's vet) is going to cut it.
As well as being about mind-bending timescales and spatial scales, hyperobjects do something still more disturbing to our conceptual frames of reference. Hyperobjects undermine normative ideas of what an “object” is in the first place.
Let's consider the fact that hyperobjects disturb our habitual ideas of time and space by stretching them and by distributing effects across them. The trouble with global warming is not just that it's real—the trouble with it is that it deals a deathblow to “common sense.” Palin and the Tea Baggers may have taken up this phrase precisely to forestall the victory of the hyperobjects (and the related issue of the death of Reagan, which happened in October 2008 when the stock market crashed). Common sense tells you that things you can see and feel like snow are more real than things like global warming, which must be abstract and thus vague. But global warming turns this false immediacy inside out. Global warming is far more real, while things like weather—things that appear to be immediate in our experience—are actually the abstractions! Local weather is a kind of snapshot of larger processes, a snapshot that's pretty much out of date by the time you notice it.
Repeat after me: climate is not weather. It's sort of like how momentum is not velocity. If you're tied to a train track, and a train is coming towards you with constant momentum, it doesn't matter if it slows down—you will still be dead.
You can't see climate, but it's more real than wet stuff under your boots. This sudden turnaround has a weird effect on all of us. Think of those conversations you can't have any more with strangers, about the weather. You can't have them because at some point one of you mentions global warming, or the conversation trails off into an awkward silence (because of global warming), or, heaven help you, the other guy says “See! This global warming thing is a crock!” The conversation loses its redundancy, its nice, comfy, just-passing-the-time-of-day feel.
This loss is part of a more general loss of a sense of a neutral background against which human events can become meaningful. In a globalized world of hyperobjects, there's no background anymore—and so there's no foreground (you have to have one to have the other). This sudden loss of meaningfulness is dreamt up in countless sci-fi fantasies—our hero arrives at the 13th Floor, only to find that “reality” outside the window has become a horrifyingly blank zone of uniform gray… The realization of climate change is just as disturbing. The meaningless background of weather, our everyday experience of the world, now means something. Climate change represents the possibility that the cycles and repetitions we come to depend on for our sense of stability and place in the world may be the harbingers of cataclysmic change.
We now have instruments that can perceive hyperobjects. We now have computers that can model climate in real time, but this takes terabytes of RAM per second (a terabyte is a thousand gigs). From the less than tiny to the vaster than huge, we humans have discovered and unleashed things that go way beyond our everyday frames of reference. Geiger counters can perceive radiation and atomic clocks can perceive relativistic effects—the effects that make you realize that E = MC2, the reason nuclear bombs explode the way they do. These effects are happening all around us but our regular “common sense” perception can't compute terabytes of global climate information or sense nanosecond timescales. Most mornings I can't even find the coffee grinder.
The fact that we need these devices to see hyperobjects, objects that will likely define our future, is humbling in the same way Copernicus and Galileo brought humans down to Earth by insisting that the Universe wasn't rotating around us. In their era, common sense told you that the Sun went around the Earth once a day. Common sense also told you that weird old ladies offering herbal remedies who didn't drown when you threw them in water should be burnt, because they're witches. Common sense has a lot to answer for.
It's ironic that the machinery of modern life is creating the materials that are modernity's undoing—materially, philosophically and even spiritually.