- Digest by James Soane
Where was I?
Late autumn sun made it warm enough to sit outside on the timber deck, overlooking a small stream clogged with exploding reeds and fading foliage. The wooden chair had a moss-green patterned cushion, brought from inside, and I recall putting my feet up on the balustrade with a sense of liberated indolence.
Few book titles immediately take you back to the time and place you first read them. This is one. It was 17 September 2018. The vivid recall is because the book changed me, and will probably reorient you too. Sharing this is itself an act of ‘being ecological’, by emphasising bodily experience according to the notion of affect. While the author declares he will not preach, he invites us to reflect on what is happening to our environment and the natural world. He suggests it is time to pay attention to our feelings, the voices in our heads, telling us things are not right; this is ‘ecological awareness’.
The book’s message is not original, that there is a climate crisis; but Tim Morton tells his story differently. His work is part of the object-oriented philosophy movement that he has taught and written about prolifically over the past 25 years in an effort to repair what he calls the ‘damaged idea’ of nature. (Can you add a few words explaining OOPM.) For him, humankind is in big trouble; he implores us to recognise that global warming is mass extinction. Understanding our troubles cannot be through a terrifying tally of facts and figures, as in many critiques of climate change; instead, explore the critical differences between facts and data, the fact being an interpretation of the data. He further suggests that if shamed, we seldom act together in a choral and proactive manner but become self-defensive. Worse still, we reinterpret the data as less uncomfortable facts. This tendency to introspection reinforces the destructive delusion of Homo sapiens as being at the top of the creation pyramid, when there is no such thing: ‘Ecological facts reflect (refute, surely?) this desire to be at the apex of creation’ (p28). For Morton this is yet another example of hubristic thinking because facts are neither entirely natural nor true, rather they are an interpretation of a given situation in the human universe.
The Architect’s Lens
When Morton suggests the problem with most of so-called civilisation’s ‘human-built space’ is that it does not accommodate beings already there, we perhaps nod in agreement, without really engaging in what it means to dwell in and through the world. Later, Morton suggests that perhaps we have designed our world to look like a ‘supermarket full of things we can reach out and grab’ (p73) we instinctively know this to be simultaneously true and unhealthy: not natural; in his words, uncanny. There is a useful parallel here with the ‘junk space’ described by Rem Koolhaas, in his book of the same name, when referring to supermarkets, airports, shopping centres and the like. Both authors are acknowledging the unchecked growth of the human project at the expense of the other in favour of creating frictionless man-made environments.
Reading this book in the LSA Critical Practice book club we spent time with the text, teasing out meanings and living with it together. Collectively we related to the way the author speaks about ‘fingerpainting a map’ to understand the question as we attempted our own sense-making. In other words, the process of understanding is not a question of logic or scientific reason, rather it is a personal philosophical and spiritual quest that is approximate, contingent and messy.
Nature versus Man-Made
We are familiar with the term natural; as in yoghurt, the changing seasons, my hair colour, your garden. Yet Tim Morton reminds us that this distinction is problematic; a deadly nuclear isotope is as natural as a blast of fresh air. Nature might encompass our whole world but how we perceive that world is a very unstable construct that changes constantly. Consider the uncanny experience of seeing vast swathes of countryside give way to big agriculture, or the strangely inward experience of the air-conditioned shopping mall; neither is natural but nevertheless alive in some kind of half-life if we are simply calibrating human existence. He argues we urgently need to reimagine how we relate to other living beings and examine the pervasive idea that nature can be controlled. This key theme is woven throughout the text like an incantation (the author also practises Buddhism), creating a background rhythm that by the end of the book has lodged in your head.
The author appropriates this apposite word to good effect. First coined in relation to leveraging mass media in 1990s US politics, it has come to mean the assertion that truth can be felt or experienced intuitively without evidence or logic. The word is important, reminding us how language asserts meaning, intention and action. Indeed, much of the argument hinges on the need for us to recognise we have been trapped in a fiscal ideology whose language around efficiency and sustainability is about competing for scarce and highly toxic resources. While paying attention to the connection between ideas and language is not new, what becomes clear is that 21st-century global society finds it increasingly difficult to see meanings and intentions hidden within language so that notions of truth have become extraordinarily flexible.
One of the most troubling yet helpful concepts framed in the book comes in naming the climate crisis a hyperobject. It is an idea so big it is impossible to grasp, like deep time or the event horizon. He speaks of it as something sticky and viscose that we can only see in slices; very physical attributes, that connect to the abstract nature of the problem. It is intrinsically non-local and can transcend linear time, which in reference to global climate change means its impact is through a series of effects such as fire, a drought or a pandemic, although the actual cause is the chemical reaction between carbon and the energy of the sun. Yet there is still a massive debate around the cause and effect/affect, a distracting smokescreen hiding the interests of the powerful few. This is a political problem.
End (of the World)
To summarise the book, I would point to the author’s observation that ecological awareness is that of seeing the ‘unintended consequences’ (p50) of so-called progress. We know there is only one planet and that as a species we have precipitated a catastrophically destructive series of change events. We may claim initial innocence; but since dropping the atomic bomb in 1945, the year the author suggests was the birth of the Anthropocene, we have known the consequences. He goes on to say that the future emerges directly from the objects we design. We might therefore reflect that we have stolen from the future by plundering materials from deep within the Earth and we must learn from nature to live ecologically. This inevitably means designing less, repairing and nurturing more; truthfully the end of architecture as we know it.
As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.
To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.
Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.