- What can a bunch of circles and a squares from a 19th century novella tell us about climate change?
It's metaphor time.
(upbeat drum music) - That's Mike Rugnetta, an essayist and cultural critic, and he's here today to help us think about thinking about climate change.
- [Mike] In Edwin Abbott Abbott's satirical sorta fantasy but also math novella "Flatland", social and belief structures are determined by the geometry of the universe's two dimensional inhabitants.
People aren't people, per se, they're shapes.
And in "Flatland", the more angles a shape has, the higher in status they are.
Triangles are laborers and soldiers, circles are a kind of holy class, and interpersonal interaction is based upon the ability to recognize the number of angles possessed by, and therefore the class of, others.
Flatlander's social hierarchy and strict moral order is derived from all of this.
Now, once a millennia, a sphere visits Flatland to spread the truth of higher dimensions, of space land.
The sphere descends before one potential apostle, this time it's "Flatland"'s protagonist, a humble square, to whom the sphere appears as a circle, which miraculously grows and shrinks in size as it passes through "Flatland" in a third dimension.
From its literally elevated perspective, in space land, the sphere can see the leaders of "Flatland" resist knowledge of higher dimensions and attempt to silence those who would spread the truth.
And of course they do this, all relations in Flatland are shaped by shapes, they're based upon the supposedly unshakeable truth and comfort of two dimensionality.
- By now you're probably wondering, "Uh is "Flatland" about climate change?
"This is a climate show, isn't it?"
And, well, no.
"Flatland" isn't about climate change, at least not directly.
Though its premise can be a useful model for thinking and talking about some of the challenges surrounding climate change.
"Flatland" is about climate change in the same way "Game of Thrones" is about climate change.
- Winter is coming.
- [Miriam] It gives us something approachable or fun and familiar to consider the climate crisis.
- I think about "Flatland" a lot because, among other things, it's about perspective.
How you view the world, literally, your actual and immediate perception of it, determines how you view it in other, more figurative, ways.
Your perspective is determined by the possibilities of your environment.
And that guides what you think of as being possible.
There are things that Flatlanders can't see in their totality, the sphere and other space land objects, because their environment and their perception can't fully accommodate those things, they provide a challenge to their comprehension, and so in turn, the very structure of their moral and social order.
- And similarly, there are things we have trouble seeing and understanding because they exist entirely beyond our perception.
In a lot of ways, climate change is the sphere and Earth is "Flatland."
Climate change is difficult for your standard human square to apprehend all by their lonesome.
Like the lone quadrilateral visited upon by sphere slices in "Flatland," we only see bits and pieces of climate change directly.
And we must work conceptually, logically, to assemble and comprehend the widely complex whole.
In that process, bits of the social, moral, and material order are threatened.
And we're finding that those in various positions of power are skeptical or resistant to our reality.
- [Politician] It's a snowball.
And, that just, from outside here.
So it's very, very cold out, very unseasonable, so Mr. President, catch this.
- And uh, just to be clear, when we say that climate change is a sphere and Earth is "Flatland," we are not saying that the Earth is flat.
This is a metaphor.
- Climate change is so vast, it and its impact is found in nearly all the world ecology, that it provides a challenge to human subjectivity.
Climate change, despite being definitively caused by humans, is so profoundly non-human, so expansive that our understanding is continually outpaced by its total seepage into our environment.
Climate change is both a thing and much, much more significant than a mere thing could ever be.
It is, as ecophilosopher Timothy Morton puts it, a hyperobject.
Hyperobjects, in the simplest sense, are objects which exist across a vast span of time and space.
In fact, the spatial temporal range they occupy is so big, they kind of transcend to a different plane of objecthood.
They're not just objects, they're over and above objects.
- There are a bunch of different hyperobjects.
Climate change, styrofoam, like, all of it, American nationalism, and all vinyl records ever produced have been referred to as hyperobjects.
According to Morton, hyperobjects have five characteristics.
They are viscous, "which means that they 'stick' "to beings that are involved with them."
Hyperobjects smear across regular objects, they are messy and adherent, leaving their trace on other things.
For climate change, that may be oceans, landfills, stock markets, personal technology, coffee chains.
Hyperobjects are like a vast toddler with chocolate-y fingers, they leave signs of their presence, but they're also non-local.
"Any 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject "is not directly the hyperobject", Morton writes.
There's no 'tip' to the hyperobject iceberg, and symptoms of its presence shouldn't be confused with their cause.
You can't point at something, like the rising sea levels, and say, that is climate change.
Like the sphere passing through "Flatland," no one slice of the hyperobject is the hyperobject.
Gaussian, or molten.
"Hyperobjects are time-stretched to such a "vast extent, Morton writes, that they become "almost impossible to hold in the mind."
Morton says that hyperobjects are so massive, and so distributed in time and space, that they're baffling to think about, and can become invisible to human perception because of their sheer magnitude.
Being in the presence of a hyperobject is like swimming in a pool, it buoys us, and we create ripples in it, but it's impossible for us to cognize the body of water as a totality, even though we are fully in it.
"The hyperobject is not a function "of our knowledge: it is hyper relative "to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, "as well as humans."
Hyperobjects arise in the interaction between things, but they don't come into being because humans notice them.
The hyperobject exists regardless of what you want, or even if you notice it.
"Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space "that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis."
- Like the sphere in "Flatland," the hyperobject of climate change has an elevated perspective on the dealings of humankind.
It exists within and between objects that we deal with every day.
But it's not simply those objects.
Chevy Camaros, the daily temperature, BP gas stations, and turtles, plastic bags from the corner bodega, the Brazilian rainforest, and cyclone season are not climate change, but may be local manifestations of or be intertwined with climate change.
Really, climate change only exists for us in the evidence of interactions between countless things, and us humans' remarkable ability for synthesis and pattern recognition.
But, even evidence is met with skepticism.
Direct human apprehension is the most trustworthy input we have for judging the world.
And the hyperobject not only defeats, but is hostile toward it.
- "Convincing some people of, [Climate Change's] "existence, Morton writes, is like convincing "some two-dimensional "Flatland" people "of the existence of apples, based on the appearance "of a morphing circular shape in their world."
So how, or why, is any of this useful?
Well, I think it provides a way to appreciate the complexity in grokking climate change.
Not just comprehending it through evidence, and scholarship, and consensus, which are important, but not the whole story.
The hyperobject challenges and maybe even defeats immediacy, intuition, and in some ways, thanks to its level of abstraction, sense.
And so all downstream considerations can become moot.
Climate migrants, mass extinctions, and tanking biodiversity are less dire if the thing supposedly causing them is nothing more than a morphing circular shape.
I like "Flatland," particularly as a metaphor for climate change and the hyperobject because it's a good reminder of an important trifecta.
Our environment, both determines and is impacted by what we are able to perceive and what we see as meaningful.
Our perceptions and sense of meaningfulness guide cultural norms, and individual subjectivity can guide, but also become stuck in those norms.
While seeing beyond the restrictions of one's environment is possible, it can require immense creativity, and even bravery.
- Philosopher Felix Guattari named these things, the environment, our shared culture, and individual subjectivity, the three ecologies, in a book by the same name.
He argues that in order to have meaningful impacts on the environmental ecology, we also need to re-shape the mental and social ecologies, which have been flattened like mined out mountains by processes of mass production and profit.
So much so, it's sorta hard to imagine how things could be any different.
Guattari wasn't writing about climate, he was writing about the environment in general, with its myriad challenges, but his suggestions still feel relevant.
I'll end with one last quote, "Now, more than ever, "nature cannot be separated from Culture.
"In order to comprehend the interactions "between ecosystems, we must think 'transversally.'"
We have to think across dimensions, beyond flat and even space land, to a kind of hyper land, occupied by hyperobjects which, though distant, have great bearing on us.
By at least trying to conceptualize the whole that is climate change, thinking outside of ourselves and what we alone can see, is potentially a solution for dealing with this mess.