Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting L: Cordillera Blanca, Peru, 2008 © Sayler/Morris
Climate Change: Catastrophe without Event
We love fictional catastrophes, but what happens when the catastrophe becomes reality without us realizing it? Speaking to 42 Magazine, Prof. Dr Eva Horn of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Vienna explains why we fail to acknowledge climate change even though humans have been actively altering our climate for millennia. In order to respond to this ecological crisis, Eva Horn is re-examining democratic processes and calling for alternative models of collective decision-making.
Dr Horn, stories of the apocalypse and the end of the world are a popular topic in both film and literature. Why are we so fascinated with the fate of the last of humanity?
Catastrophe fascinates us because it represents the eruption of something that has always existed as a threat: something we did not recognize, but should perhaps have been able to see. Since we don’t normally experience disasters, but rather live enclosed, relatively and uneventful lives, we often get the feeling that something might descend upon us; something already there, but not yet visible.
Is that why we look for catastrophes in fiction?
Exactly. When I experience a fictional catastrophe through a movie or book, I explore the dark places which I have always noticed subconsciously. What if we were confronted by certain extreme weather events like a snowstorm that prevents us from leaving our homes? Those living on the East Coast of the United States have this problem every winter. But if this threatening situation continues, as in Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow”, what will happen then? What underlying structures of our communal life will then become visible? A catastrophe can also give rise to positive aspects, such as solidarity and communal work. The positive as well as negative potential of our community is revealed when everyday life collapses, which is what a catastrophe represents.
Does that make stories test scenarios for us to analyze?
No. Scientists want to analyze. Audiences want to experience concrete stories and explore new possibilities. Literature and film offer a space for experimentation. Sometimes literature is based on extensive scientific research, but this does not have to be explicit within the narrative. Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” is a realisticportrait of a nuclear winter, but the novel never refers back to the science on which it is based. The science is poetically obscured through the narrative and thus provides a frank perspective on the behaviour of the characters towards each other. The book is therefore of such interest for this reason, that it illustrates the human dimension of a catastrophe. That is what readers are interested in.
Catastrophes are a very old subject; climate change and the role humans play in it are also not new. Already in 1788, the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder called humans a “band of bold little giants” who changed landscapes and the climate with their “feeble hands”.
Herder refers hereto the landscape transformationswhich took place in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the Holoceneperiod. In essence, Herder claims in his observations that culture developed through the alteration of thelandscape, through for example irrigation and drainage, and through interference with the local climate. He argues that through this interference humanity is changed: it generates its own culture. The key idea is that humans have to be understood as cultural beings, who distinguish themselves through the manipulation of their ecological surroundings.
Did Herder regard human intervention into nature’s processes as necessary?
Yes. This idea was coined by the French geologist George Buffon, who was a very progressive thinker for his time. He was the first person to calculate, for example, the age of the Earth, beyond the biblical chronology of about 6,000 years,at circa 80,000 years – still quite an understatement, but for his time a revolutionary idea. According to Buffon, mankind had come to be on Earth in order to manipulate the climate, because his theoretical elaborations assumed that Earth had originally been a blistering lump of iron that was slowly, but irrevocably, cooling down. This cooling-off is mainly drivenby bodies of water and forests, which makes it mankind’s task to keep Earth habitable through deforestation, the drainage of swamps or the canalization of rivers. Today you could say: man made climate change is counteracting this alleged cooling effect. Herder adopts Buffon’s idea of humans as climate-changing beings and goes even further when he endorses the manipulation of local climatic conditions, as this created culture. Both of course had no sense of the complex relationships involved in the Earth system, atmosphere or hydrosphere, and were hence relatively optimistic. The geological epoch of the Holocene already held the germ of the idea behind the Anthropocene, in characterising humankind as climate-changing beings.
Where does the term Anthropocene come from?
The term Anthropocene was coined in 2002 by the interdisciplinary Earth system science. Geologists were the first to use it because they felt responsible for the definition of epochs and their change, in this case from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. They did not create the term, but have popularized it. Today, the Anthropocene is a societal term which expresses the idea that we are now in an ecological crisis so severe that we are leaving the climatic and ecological stability of the Holocene. These days the term Anthropocene does not only designate an epochal threshold separating us from this stability, but also a synthesis of the many different symptoms of crisis within our complex Earth system which have been detected since human interference has become measurable: the loss of species, the disruption of important chemical cycles, ocean acidification, land consumption and urbanization, desertification and many more. For this reason,the Anthropocene is not a synonym of climate change; rather, climate change is a phenomenon of the Anthropocene.
Does the climatic period of rest of the last millennia constitute an exception rather than the norm?
The Holocene, i.e. the last 12,000 years, has indeed been an anomaly in climate history in which the intense fluctuation between glacial and interglacial periods, which had characterized the Pleistocene, suddenly leveled out to leave only small swings in temperature. All the achievements of modern civilization – from complex social structures to media – developed in this resting period of the Holocene because the Holocene, as a stable climate period, allowed mankind above all to stay in one place and become a settledspecies. Thus, static societies developed, which became increasingly hierarchical as well as more intelligent, because they accumulated knowledge and preserved it in media like stone tablets and,later, books. Such a period of climatic stability, of balance, which we experience as normality, is actually a rarity in the history of nature.
Is the popular ecological idea of the balance of nature still relevant then?
No, that is a completely inadequate way to describe the way nature works, as we now understand it. According to Earth system science, the Earth possesses a self-regulating dynamic balance, but the term balance is misleading in this case. Balance can also mean that the Earth may experience a new Ice Age, which thaws and in a couple million years looks as it does now. This would also constitute balance; however, from a human perspective this would constitute a gigantic catastrophe. The Earth fluctuates constantly, but normally it does so over very long periods of time. Hence, there is self-regulation but not on the small, local level that we associate with natural reserves instituted for this purpose. We mustunderstand this idea in its historical context, because it was coined by 19th century ecology, and arose at a moment in time when industrialization had already begun to disrupt and destroy large parts of nature; this was a time when we knew quite a lot already about local climate change. In these circumstances the idea of protecting nature arose, with the thinking that,if mankind didnot interfere, nature would uphold a natural stable equilibrium. We mustundo our normal thinking when approaching this reasoningin order to understand why people argued this way.
Does that mean that it’s not the term “balance” that is misleading, but the short period of time we base it on?
Yes, exactly. The issue of balance is actually a problem of scale, a question of magnitude, of the geographic space that is studied, and of time range. It is of course also a product of the scientific approach of viewing biotopes as phenomena within a specified framework. A biotope is only a small sample, but in order to examine regions, one has to utilize Earth system science and, above all, the necessary computing power. As in climatology, calculations were already being made in the 19th century, although effective climate science has only been possible since the appropriate processing power has becomeavailable through the advent of modern computing. But there were already impressive results in the 19th century: already more than a hundred years ago the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius had already described the greenhouse effect as the product of CO2.
For a long time, we regarded the climate as a constant, and that the weather fluctuated from time to time. Has our understanding of the climate changed?
The term “global climate” covers an abstract system and is therefore difficult to comprehend in its entirety. We all think now that we know what the global climate is, but we actually only know computer models, in which arrows indicate wind direction and movements while different continents change colours. Climate, as we know it, is the cycle of seasons or rather a sequence of certain weather conditions. That means that the climate people experience is fundamentally bound to a certain place and certain cycles.
“We must let climate change get to us, not just as something global that is happening elsewhere, but as something that is occurring here and now”
And this experience of weather has changed?
Yes. What we have experiencedmore and more in recent times is that our expectations ofweather conditions, which are based on our experience, are not being fulfilled, and that the weather is different to what our rhythmic understanding of it have it be. That means that climate will continue to be a stable, physically measurablequantity, but less reliably linked to our experience. Climate possesses a kind of unpredictability, which mitigates the familiar feeling of living within a specific climate, which we experience in all its facets throughout the course of the year. This in itself is not a problem, until extreme weather occurs, which the community affected was not prepared for. It is important to allow climate change inside our homes in the sense that we need to understand how the landscape and the parameters of the annual cycle of our immediate surroundings will change. We must let climate change get to us, not just as something global that is happening elsewhere, but as something that is occurring here and now, where we live.
“It is difficult to name the perpetrators when the catastrophe occurs removed from time and space”
You have coined the term “catastrophe without event” and name climate change as an example. What does that mean exactly?
The catastrophe of climate change is occurring slowly and in such miniscule shifts that we do not recognise it as a big bang, a sudden collapse, but are also failing to notice that is it taking its course. That is what “catastrophe without event” means. We have ecological issues today that we did not have 50 years ago; micro-plastic for example, which is found both in soil and water. These are catastrophes not marked by events, acts causing harm that we do not notice, and whose effects are unknown. American scientist Rob Nixon coined the term “slow violence” for this process, specifically in the context of the effects of environmental damage in developing countries. If we talk about violence, then there is always a perpetrator. But it is difficult to name the perpetrators when the catastrophe occurs removed from time and space. I don’t know exactly where the catastrophe is currently happening, because it is happening everywhere. That is why I use the term “catastrophe without event”, because it assumes a neutral point of view.
Nevertheless, we might reach a point of no return in the future. Would such a tipping point not bean event?
The term tipping point originated from Earth system science and strongly relates to cybernetic models, regulatory processes of highly complex systems. An easily observed tipping point is, for example, the eutrophication of a lake: nitrates accumulate, and nothing happens at first until the lake surpasses a certain threshold and the entire ecosystem of the lake collapses and nearly all living beings within it die. This process can often be observed in ecological contexts, because these are complex and self-regulating systems, which are able to buffer some disruptions over longer periods of time until saturation is reached. This culminates in a chain of events. In that sense, a tipping point does constitute an event, because it is followed by a cascade of side-effects. But the lead-up to the tipping pointconstitutes an event of equal value within the gradual process and has to be included in the course of events, even though it remains invisible up until the catastrophe itself. Tipping points are therefore a typical characteristic of complex systems. However, they remain difficult to anticipate and it is even more difficult to predict them. With the climate, at the moment, we are currently at the stage leading up to the tipping point, butcannot gauge the magnitude of this development. For this reason we may have difficulty preventing it.
The cause of climate change is rooted in our collective behaviour. Does that mean that the solution can also be found in collective, democratic behaviour?
Of course, but democracy might not be the right format, because democracy is bound to nations and nation-states. Nation-states represent their citizenry in international committees, whose resolutions possess no binding force. If we want to restructure democracy, then we first need to address the danger of populism – that is, decisions based on misinformation and baiting. Furthermore, in the context of global challenges, we would need to stop thinking solely in terms of nation-states, which are only interested in the popular vote, in order to make unpopular decisions that make sense from an ecological perspective.
“We need to reconstruct our democratic process of decision-making”
How can we solve this dilemma?
We need a new form of collective decision-making. One based on knowledge, or rather knowledgeability, so that decisions can be made on a higher level of abstraction and the force of our habits can be overcome. That means that we need to reconstruct our democratic process of decision-making, which might lead to a system that does not give the same number of votes to everybody. The equality of the vote is something of a sacred cow, but democracy increasingly struggles with unqualified or rigged decision-making processes. To face a global crisis, we cannot be afraid to question these processes.
Modernity has brought about and initiated the Anthropocene without understanding what it has done. The fundamental conviction of modernity is the active shaping of the future, the prevention of hazards and the creation of desired futures through planning and foresight. The problem is that we now have such a detailed appreciation of the interconnectedness of the world that it is becoming more difficult to generate simple preventive measures. Obviously, we can say: the way in which Western industrial countries are consuming goods is not sustainable, therefore it has to change. But how? Rapid industrialization and the immense increase in consumption, which societies like China and India are going through, is an ecological catastrophe, as is the consumer behaviour of Americans and Europeans. Microplastic and greenhouse gases know no national borders. That is why we need new transnational institutions that tackle issues on the policy-level and optimize decision-making processes.
Prof. Dr Eva Horn teaches and conducts research at the University of Vienna’s Institute for German Studies. Her work focuses on the cultural and literary debates surrounding climate change as a “catastrophe without event”.