A long time ago people were part of nature, but then all that changed. When a spider made a web that was nature but when human beings made a city it was man-made and the separation between human and non-human where nature knows its place became the pattern on which civilisation was built. It’s there in the book of Genesis and it’s there in the neoclassical economics that powers modern life. But the centuries old smooth operation of that machinery is no longer smooth. We can see the cracks. The end of the world, according to Professor Tim Morton, has already happened. The end of that world, the uncomplicated world in which humans shout ‘Jump!’ and nature asks ‘how high?’ is what’s ended.
If you were tiny so very tiny that you could fly between atoms then a spade would not be a spade. You would fly through a spade (and the wall it rests on) with no hindrance, aware only of a subtle change of decor. And down at the micro pub (make that a nano pub) you’d argue whether spades really existed or were just some concept created by lefty liberal intellectuals to make your life more complex and stop you having fun.
Things (and they are things) like global warming and mass extinction are like spades to the very tiny, they are just not of a scale that humans are used to. We have surrounded ourselves with human scale things – things of human size that operate at a human pace. We’ve forgotten how to relate to these other things.
Which is why drowning in yet more devastating facts about looming environmental peril doesn’t help. In fact, it’s worse than that. They make it harder to know what to do. That’s because these facts keep predicting that the end is nigh leaving you to choose between anxiety, depression or denial. But as we’ve heard, the end isn’t nigh, it’s happened. What Samuel Beckett never let on was that Godot is already here.
You can respond properly to looming environmental peril because you don’t have to wait. You can get on with it. According to Morton you can respond properly by rejecting the separation between human and non-human. Every time you relate to the non-human world in a non-violent way, every time you stroke a cat, plant flowers for bees or gaze at the Milky Way, you are doing something about it. You are being ecological.
And this is where art comes in. Not (as you might think) because art helps you transcend scale and so re-build lost connections. Of course art does this. It does it very well. But that’s not what Morton is getting at. When you appreciate art, you have to let it take over. You yield control of your feelings to something non-human. And that (he says) is a feeling we need to get more used to.
Tim Morton’s 2018 book Being Ecological (Pelican Books) is a breezy, often witty exploration of these ideas. It is not (as he makes clear) stuffed full of worrying facts. It is a book about philosophy and explores its themes in the way philosophers do. His three-part BBC Radio 4 Series The End of the World Has Already Happened is currently available on BBC Sounds.