Introducing the idea of ‘hyperobjects’

A new way of understanding climate change and other phenomena.

  • "Light Bulbs" depicts 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage (inefficient wiring, computers in sleep mode, etc.).

    Chris Jordan
  • "Light Bulbs" depicts 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage (inefficient wiring, computers in sleep mode, etc.). (detail)

    Chris Jordan
  • "Silent Spring" depicts 183,000 birds, equal to the estimated number of birds that die in the United States every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides.

    Chris Jordan and Rebecca Clark
  • "Silent Spring" depicts 183,000 birds, equal to the estimated number of birds that die in the United States every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides. (detail)

    Chris Jordan and Rebecca Clark
  • "Paper bags" depicts 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour.

    Chris Jordan
  • "Paper bags" depicts 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour. (detail)

    Chris Jordan
 

I’m an environmental philosopher. In 2008, I invented a word to describe all kinds of things that you can study and think about and compute, but that are not so easy to see directly: hyperobjects. Things like: not just a Styrofoam cup or two, but all the Styrofoam on Earth, ever. All that Styrofoam is going to last an awfully long time: 500 years, maybe. It’s going to outlive me by a great extent. Will my family’s descendants even be related to me in any kind of meaningful way by 2514? There is so much more Styrofoam on Earth right now than there is Timothy Morton.

So hyperobjects outlast me, and they out-scale me in the here and now. Let’s think of another example. Not just this one speck of plutonium, but all the plutonium we’ve made, ever. That plutonium decays for 24,100 years before it’s totally safe. That’s an unimaginable time. I can just about wrap my head around 500 years when I think about Styrofoam. But 24,100 years? Yet I’m obliged to act with a view to the people, whoever they are, who are alive at that point. Who knows whether I would even recognize them as human? Maybe by then we will have merged with a whole host of extraterrestrials. I don’t know. I’m like Donald Rumsfeld and his “unknown unknowns”: There are things I don’t know about the future, and I don’t even know how much I don’t know about it. But it’s coming.

Plutonium is a problem. Humans made it, so we’re pretty much responsible for it. Beyond that, I can understand what plutonium is — which seems like a pretty good reason for assuming responsibility for something. Suppose I see someone about to be hit by an oncoming car. I can understand that she’s about to be killed, so I’m obliged to step in and save her. Hyperobjects are like that — like the Dust Bowl, for instance, or the colossal drought in California. We are obliged to do something about them, because we can think them.

That’s good news if you care about mitigating the effects of global warming. (I refuse to call it climate change. The globe is literally warming because of greenhouse gases.) Thinking ecologically about global warming requires a kind of mental upgrade, to cope with something that is so big and so powerful that until now we had no real word for it. However, thinking of global warming as a hyperobject is really helpful. For starters, the concept of hyperobjects gives us a single word to describe something on the tips of our tongues. It’s very difficult to talk about something you cannot see or touch, yet we are obliged to do so, since global warming affects us all.

I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But I know it exists, and I know I’m part of it. I should care about it.

Many people have told me, “Oh, now I have a term for this thing I’ve been trying to grasp!” We can see, for instance, that global warming has the properties of a hyperobject. It is “viscous” — whatever I do, wherever I am, it sort of “sticks” to me. It is “nonlocal” — its effects are globally distributed through a huge tract of time. It forces me to experience time in an unusual way. It is “phased” — I only experience pieces of it at any one time. And it is “inter-objective” — it consists of all kinds of other entities but it isn’t reducible to them.

If you can understand global warming, you have to do something about it. Forget about needing proof or needing to convince more people. Just stick to what’s really super obvious. Can you understand hyperobjects? Then you are obliged to care about them.

So hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space and we are obliged to care about them, even if we didn’t manufacture them. Take the biosphere. I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But I know it exists, and I know I’m part of it. I should care about it.

Or global warming. I can’t see or touch it. What I can see and touch are these raindrops, this snow, that sunburn patch on the back of my neck. I can touch the weather. But I can’t touch climate. So someone can declare: “See! It snowed in Boise, Idaho, this week. That means there’s no global warming!” We can’t directly see global warming, because it’s not only really widespread and really really long-lasting (100,000 years); it’s also super high-dimensional. It’s not just 3-D. It’s an incredibly complex entity that you have to map in what they call a high-dimensional- phase space: a space that plots all the states of a system.

In so doing, we are only following the strictures of modern science, laid down by David Hume and underwritten by Immanuel Kant. Science can’t directly point to causes and effects: That would be metaphysical, equivalent to religious dogma. It can only see correlations in data. This is because, argues Kant, there is a gap between what a thing is and how it appears (its “phenomena”) that can’t be reduced, no matter how hard we try. We can’t locate this gap anywhere on or inside a thing. It’s a transcendental gap. Hyperobjects force us to confront this truth of modern science and philosophy.

It’s like being inside the gigantic worm in The Empire Strikes Back. For a while, you can kid yourself that you’re not inside a gigantic worm, until it starts digesting you. Because the worm is “everywhere” in your field of vision, you can’t really tell the difference between it and the surface of the asteroid you think you landed on.

The person who denies there’s global warming because he can still touch snow is partying like it’s 1759. He’s partying like modern science never happened. Modern science happened largely because of Hume, a Scottish skeptical empiricist. In another life, Hume might have been the bass player for Pink Floyd, because he certainly could have written some of the group’s lyrics. “All you touch and all you see / Is all your life will ever be” — that’s basic Hume right there. You can’t know things directly; you can only know data. That’s the foundation of modern science. Cause and effect aren’t things that churn away underneath other things. They are inferences that we make about patterns we see in data.

Oddly enough, this makes modern science more accurate and honest than anything we’ve previously come up with. The thing is, statistical correlations are better than bald statements of fact that you just have to believe or face the consequences. (“The Earth is flat! God is this golden calf!”) It’s better to say that we’re 95 percent sure global warming was caused by humans than to shout, “It was caused by humans, dang it! Just believe me!” You have some actual data to go on, in the 95 percent case. Try rolling two 10-sided dice and coming up with the numbers from 96 to 100. (As a recovering Dungeons & Dragons player, I know what I’m talking about here.) It’s incredibly unlikely.

So hyperobjects are funny. On the one hand, we have all this incredible data about them. On the other hand, we can’t experience them directly. We’ve stumbled upon these huge things, like Han Solo and Princess Leia and the giant worm. So we need philosophy and art to help guide us, while the way we think about things gets upgraded.

Human beings are now going through this upgrade. The upgrade is called ecological awareness.


Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University in Houston. He is the author of Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality and Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End Of The World. He is currently working on a writing project with Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.