Proposal for Living and Dying Well on a Warming Planet
December 17, 2018
In thirty years the world may be unrecognizable to those of us born in the twentieth century. I’m thirty now, and according to a report issued in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I will likely experience the effects of worsening food shortages, wildfires, coastal flooding, and the mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as my fifties, even as I live in the privileged industrialized west. Key word: worsening.
Those born in the twenty-first century are inheriting a planet happily abused by past generations, and future generations will suffer. Today, ninety percent of the world’s children—1.8 billion—breathe toxic air.1 Families are being forced out of their homes and countries because of climate-related problems such as crop failure, drought, and flooding.2 Elsewhere, others justify not making changes in their lives because they have yet to experience the immediate effects of climate change—in doing so, they contribute to the suffering of billions.
Every steak, every first class plane flight, and every new iPhone is paid for twice. Acknowledging the consequences of human development in the Anthropocene and taking responsibility for our actions are necessary for survival, recuperation, and flourishing on earth.
In her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway connects the many factors that have led to our current state of ecological devastation and social upheaval. She also offers a recipe for reconsidering and restructuring the present and future of life on earth. “The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.”3
Haraway insists that art can and should play a major role in how we try to understand the world. She cites four examples of science/art collaborations “committed to partial healing, modest rehabilitation, and still possible resurgence in the hard times of the imperial Anthropocene and Capitalocence,”4 which range from the Inupiat-inspired computer game Never Alone to the Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land’s collaboration with Navajo-Churro sheep.
I think Haraway would approve of John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea,” (2015) recently on view at the New Museum as a part of his solo exhibition Signs of Empire. The three-channel film begins with a triptych of cerulean blue projections that transition into three tenuously connected scenes: a small boat in the open sea; a close-up of a clock held in someone’s hands; the ocean beneath scattered clouds. As the vignettes shift, zooming out or changing to other imagery, two male voices begin to speak:
Narrator 1: Inside of the net there was big, big fish. I can’t really explain. If anyone fall inside, it would eat that person because the fish was very big. The waves—it can even move a house, the waves.
Narrator 2: There were 27 of them onboard. None had been to sea before. They come from all across the continent, traveling northwards to the coast.
Narrator 1: I shouted “Jesus save me, Jesus save me.”
Narrator 2: Numbers reported dead or missing here this year are the highest ever, nearly 500. Last month, on one day, 14 dead bodies were found floating in the sea.
Narrator 1: Jesus save me, Jesus save me.
In the film, Akomfrah uses the ocean as a vessel to carry the histories of colonialism, exploitation of earth’s inhabitants, and disastrous environmental transformation. As the three channels flip through visually similar scenes, the narrative progresses like a group of waves, surging forward and crashing back into themselves at varying speeds—sometimes synced, sometimes not.
The resulting structure is one of overlapping sympoiesis, a phenomenon Haraway describes as “making-with.” She explains: “nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing.”5 That is: organisms are not independent of their environment. Just because we aren’t turtles doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry about plastic filling the oceans. Just because a black student gets a 4.0 at Harvard doesn’t mean she will get a better job than a white student with only a high school diploma. Akomfrah acknowledges the intersectional, sympoietic progression of life on earth and rejects the synthetic linear structure that dominates the stories we’re told by movies, books, historians, and politicians. Stories we tell each other.
By presenting three channels side by side, he allows for an exponentially more complex, confusing, and accurate depiction of the world as we know it. We’re left with a choice: pay close attention to one channel at a time and miss the events unfolding in the others, or spread our attention across the three channels and accept that we’ll have an incomplete view of each.
As with life, focusing on any one thing comes with acknowledging that other simultaneous, interconnected things will be missed. That’s not anything to be anxious about—we can’t pay attention to everything at once. Problems only arise when someone tries to sell a story as autopoietic, ahistoric, transcendent, or neutral. People insist that climate change is the result of normal fluctuations in the climate, that racism is justified because some people are genetically better than others, and that poor people just didn’t try hard enough.
Ignoring systemic and intersectional relationships makes the world a much easier place to categorize, but it doesn’t solve any problems. In “Vertigo Sea,” Akomfrah refuses the myth of irrelevance perpetuated by oppressive empires. Instead, he magnifies the inter-generational, -species, -categorical muddling we all experience. He equalizes the triumphs and tragedies of oceanic ecosystems, humans, and other animals.
In one brief triptych, giant columns of seaweed extend up to the water’s surface where a blinding sun cuts through the murky garden; a dense school of fish swirls in undulating formations; and silhouetted net-laying, flipper-footed humans, viewed from far below, become strange sea creatures. This marine serenity doesn’t last long, as clips of men on boats, large and small, launch the complicated relationship between humans and the ocean.
At first, it’s jovial. Crowds on a dock bid farewell to grand ships, two sailors give their shipmate a haircut, a man dances on deck. Soon we’re in the Arctic. On one screen, ships slice through thick slabs of ice while a polar bear navigates under and around glacier fragments in another. After several clips of the Arctic sea—sailors on their ships, polar bears going about their business—out come the guns.
“Vertigo Sea” combines footage produced by Akomfrah with imagery from the BBC archives of nature documentaries and educational television programs, including David Attenborough’s documentary series The Blue Planet (2001). The film’s score weaves recent TV reporting about refugees drowning at sea with narration of literary works such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). By knotting an expanding web of historical footage, nature documentary, and fiction, Akomfrah activates a filmic version of what Ursula K. Le Guin described as the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.
“We’ve all heard about all the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained,”6 writes Le Guin in the eponymous 1986 text. She encourages writers and readers to seek stories not just about the hackneyed “Ascent of Man of Hero,” but also about the women, nature, conflicts, and lack of resolution.
Le Guin quotes Elizabeth Fisher’s 1975 book Women’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society: “the first cultural device was probably a recipient…a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.”7 Sticks, spears, swords, and bombs move themselves from point A to point B, where someone wins and someone else loses. Carrier bags contain mixed up things that bear complex, interconnected meaning.
Le Guin rejects the propaganda fed to us that a worthwhile story must be centered on conflict and overcome by a (male) hero who follows a linear narrative: “Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag / belly / box / house / medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing progress.”8 Enacting Le Guin’s recommendation, Akomfrah sidesteps resolution and stasis by embracing continuity. The forty-seven-minute film ends, but the message keeps unravelling.
With “Vertigo Sea,” Akomfrah opens three windows into the bag / belly / ship / house / bundle that contains all of our jumbled stories. The projections, sometimes disparate, other times synced, follow a sampling of sympoietic interactions. “Critters—humans and not—become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding,”9 writes Haraway. Throughout Staying with the Trouble, she unpacks her analysis of the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene, and advocates the urgent need for positive, collectively-minded change. “Recuperation,” she explains, “is still possible, but only in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture, and technology and of organism, language, and machine.”10
Thinkers and makers like Akomfrah, Haraway, and Le Guin are essential because they cast nets wide enough to extend beyond national borders and generations. “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories,” writes Haraway.
In today’s tumult, their works provide a poignant depiction of the past and present consequences of human greed and lack of foresight. By examining the past, they propose an alternative to the narrative of technological progress at any cost that has dominated since the Industrial Revolution. If climate change is progressing faster than we previously thought and governments and corporations are making only minor efforts to reduce the suffering of others, how can we minimize the damage?
Haraway writes that “the Anthropocene marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before…Our job is to make the Anthropocene as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge.”11 Faced with the realization that we are embedded in systems of power outside of our control, we must demand a future that takes more than one perspective into consideration.
The recent expansion of power enjoyed by a few corporations has introduced a method of control and exploitation so cleverly marketed that most people have only recently become suspicious of its intentions. We have allowed a few people to exploit the earth’s resources, including human and non-human animals, on a massive scale. This is not news. Environmentalists have warned against the gross misuse of natural resources for decades.
The most recent addition to the story, however, potentially poses the greatest threat because it has surreptitiously begun reconfiguring global power structures. Corporations peddling digital technologies impact the lives of billions of people, whether they are buying products or producing them. They have changed the way we make decisions, impacting everything from fashion choices to ethics. They can dictate how a nation functions.
When Amazon raised its minimum hourly wage to $15 and said it will pressure other companies to follow suit, it did what state and federal governments could not, or would not. In August, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify announced that they will ban Infowars’s Alex Jones. This undermined the Supreme Court cases regarding Jones and the First Amendment, demonstrating that technology corporations can enforce their own versions of the law. A recent report by the think tank Freedom House shows that the internet is growing less free globally, with several countries embracing the Chinese model of cyber-authoritarianism.12 Whether it’s Facebook conducting social experiments on users without their permission, or Cambridge Analytica affecting election results, we’ve traded social and political autonomy for a luxury turned convenience turned necessity. We’ve entered the period of digital imperialism.
Digital imperialism usually refers to the effects of information’s spread across the globe. I use it here to mark a departure from traditional imperialism. Historically, empires gained power by moving bodies and goods to and from strategic places. The bodies of soldiers would move into foreign lands and occupy the space, claiming it for their leader. The bodies of the local population would be moved into graves or slavery.
The West’s newest empires—Google, Facebook, and Amazon—exert power through pocket-sized devices and electromagnetic waves connecting billons of people around the globe. Digital imperialist expansion has resulted in a complex web of remarkable benefits for some humans—the unimaginable wealth and omnipotence enjoyed by Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, for example—and horrifying assaults on earth’s living creatures such as deforestation, species extinction, and child laborers mining materials like cobalt to be used in our smartphones, cars, and computers.13
One particularly nefarious effect of digital imperialism is the use of our attention and data to sell things to ourselves in a widening gyre of hyperconsumerism. If you’re not paying for a service, then you’re the product.14 The majority of the things we buy and eventually throw away, from phones to sneakers, end up in landfills. In 2016, we generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste. That’s the equivalent of nearly 4,500 Eiffel Towers.15 Still, people line up around city blocks to be the first to get the new iPhone or Supreme t-shirt.
Akomfrah illustrates in “Vertigo Sea” that we are still living through the historic legacies of anthropocentric colonialism. Although global societies have had hundreds of years to analyze and unpack these effects, the election of politicians like Donald Trump and Jai Bolsonaro demonstrate that the issues are far from resolved. Our current destructive path may not allow for future retrospective understanding.
As Haraway writes: “Change on earth is not the problem; rates and distributions of change are very much the problem.”16 Digital imperialism may simply be the most recent chapter in the long history of imperialism, but its speed and scale give it an unprecedented ability to end human life on earth. Though Facebook and Google are based in the United States, their influence extends globally. And while there are still billions of people without regular access to the internet (or electricity, for that matter), most will eventually be connected and under the empire’s control.17
These new emperors pose a further threat because, unlike nations, however corrupt, there is little to no internal regulation stopping them from exploiting resources, human or otherwise. The European Union attempted to regulate how companies use individuals’ digital data with the recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but many companies still aren’t compliant, and consumers have little understanding of how it works.18 These empires are businesses. Their purpose is to make money. Meanwhile, we the consumers do little to insist on more humane, environmentally sustainable methods because changes would lead to higher retail prices. If companies can no longer use child labor or fossil fuel-powered factories, dump their chemical waste into human and non-human habitats, or mine our data and use it to sell us more things, things will get more expensive.
Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to function outside this ever-expanding empire. Emperors have successfully influenced international systems of exchange so that consumers are dependent on their services and products. For many people, the only alternative may seem to be life as an unplugged luddite. We need to find a balance between exploitation with affordable prices and access to technological progress without compromising our collective right to live and die well.
The curtain seems to be falling on the stories about the (male) hero who travelled far and wide with a sword and killed and conquered, or the (male) hero who rose from the obscurity of his parent’s basement to become a tech billionaire. Now that some parts of the world are drowning, and others are burning, and women are furious, it doesn’t make sense to keep aspiring to traditional heroism. Instead, we need carrier bag narratives like those illustrated by Akomfrah, Haraway, and Le Guin.
Traditional linear conceptions of the world offer an incomplete view. By expanding beyond the line and into the bundle, we can imagine alternatives and bring them into being. We may not have a chance to be retrospectively wise this time—to admit where we went wrong but learn from our mistakes and carry on. Or, rather, to learn from the emperors’ mistakes that we never challenged. The rich and powerful will always find ways to outsource their suffering to the powerless. For the rest of us, our lives and the lives of future generations depend on the changes we must make.
We can no longer tell ourselves everything will be okay as we drive gas powered cars, eat animals raised on factory farms, throw plastic into oceans, and continue uncritically producing new humans at our current rate. That story has to come to an end. Instead, we urgently need contemporary, cross-generational stories, told by people without power, full of complex and complicated ecosystems, humans, and companion species working together in continuous sympoiesis.
Taylor, Matthew. "90% of World's Children Are Breathing Toxic Air, WHO Study Finds." The Guardian. October 29, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/29/air-pollution-worlds-children-breathing-toxic-air-who-study-finds.
Milman, Oliver, Emily Holden, and David Agren. "The Unseen Driver behind the Migrant Caravan: Climate Change." The Guardian. October 30, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press, 2016. 1.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Dancing at the Edge of the World. Grove Press, 1989. 167.
Fisher, Elizabeth. Women’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press, 2016. 97.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Dancing at the Edge of the World. Grove Press, 1989. 118.
Shabaz, Adrian. "Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism." Freedom House. November 16, 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2018/rise-digital-authoritarianism
Kelly, Annie. "Children as Young as Seven Mining Cobalt Used in Smartphones, Says Amnesty." The Guardian. January 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/19/children-as-young-as-seven-mining-cobalt-for-use-in-smartphones-says-amnesty.
Variations of this idea have been floating around the internet for about a decade, and there isn’t a consensus on the original author.
Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann, P.: The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. 38.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press, 2016. 73.
“Internet Usage Statistics.” https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
Ponemon Institute LLC. “The Race to GDPR: A Study of Companies in the United States and Europe.” April 2018. https://iapp.org/media/pdf/resource_center/Ponemon_race-to-gdpr.pdf