World On Fire

I made the following comments on a panel at the World Congress of Environmental History, Guimaraes, Portugal, 8 July 2014, on the theme "Unmaking Modernity: Ecologies of Terrorism, Total War, Deconstruction and Disaster." The panelists were Janet Ore, Brett Walker, and Ian Miller.


Environmental history conferences by their very nature probably invite bleak, even apocalyptic sounding, session titles. But even by that standard our panel today surely stands out, what with ecologies of terrorism, poisonous family homes, and melting nuclear reactors. Had a fourth presenter not had to drop out, we’d also have been treated to a discussion of the environmental dimensions of total war. Rumor has it that declensionist narratives have become a bit unfashionable in environmental history circles these days—but if so, one would surely not suspect it from the titles of our papers today. Which, as it turns out, is all to the good, because while all these papers obviously offer some rather sobering if not down-right depressing stories, I think all three do so in pursuit of a worthy if still rather distant goal. In my view, these papers not only deftly illuminate the dangerous consequences inherent in the literal “unmaking” of the toxic homes, skyscrapers, and reactors of our modern era. But in doing so, they also contribute to the important conceptual work of “unmaking” the very modernist ideas and behaviors that helped to create these tragedies in the first place. Indeed, the papers offer ample proof that the difficult task of unmaking the modernist worldview cannot begin soon enough, even as they also warn us that doing so is fraught with perils.

Modernity is, of course, a creature of magical divisions. Its power, or rather that of its disciples, emerges from the lines they draw between things. As Janet Ore’s paper makes evident, the post-war American housing boom and the vast profits it generated for some was built on the promise that the cheap gypsum sheet rock, formaldehyde plywoods, and polyvinyl plastics in our homes were distinct from the reeking chemical plants from whence they emerged, as well as the vast “sanitary” waste dumps which were supposed to be their eternal resting places. Likewise, when workers strolled into the gleaming magnificence of the World Trade Center towers, they thought they saw an entirely human-made and thus human-controlled world, one in which the dusty chaos of the distant Montana vermiculite mines Brett Walker brings to life for us could scarcely have seemed more irrelevant. Likewise, Ian Miller takes us to a brightly illuminated shrine to Japanese electrical progress and prowess, perhaps the archetypal modern technology as its ineffable and even vaguely occult functions seemed so distant from the messy coal, oil, and nuclear plants that charged its circuits.

And so it was that humans gambled their lives and their fortunes on powerful things put potentially dangerous things, confident that the divisions they had erected would hold, until, often suddenly, they didn’t. Buried slabs sheetrock refused to stay properly dead, mixing with water to rise from their graves like legions of pasty-white zombies, reeking of rotten eggs. It took two jetliners loaded with hydrocarbons, painstakingly refined to maximize their volatility, to bring down New York’s twin towers, but from the almost tectonic heat and pressure generated in those horrific seconds emerged something wholly new in this world, a swirling pinkish white dust that carried mutagenic asbestos fibers and other toxins deep into the lungs of Michael Valentin and as yet unfathomed legions of others. The Japanese, of course, have known and lived with Tsunamis for millennia, yet who had imagined that a wall of sea water could so effortlessly breach the divide between bright lights and slugs of decaying plutonium, plunging the optimistic promises of the Tokyo Power museum into a darkness from which it has yet to emerge?

I find these powerful stories disturbing in two somewhat contradictory ways. At first I am, like most people I suspect, shocked by the rapidity with which our things fall apart, the ease with which the dividing lines are erased by nothing more than mixtures of water and gypsum, jet fuel and asbestos, sea water and electric pumps. But then comes a slower and perhaps more profound sense of surprise in realizing that we—and I include myself here—still continue to be so surprised by this reality. That our best efforts notwithstanding, the modernist worldview still stands largely intact, even though many of us have long since concluded that it is fatally flawed. Why, in the face of such overwhelming contrary evidence, do we still cling so tightly to these dysfunctional ways of understanding the world?

In part, it’s that the more accurate ways of understanding the world that these three papers so beautifully demonstrate are inherently complex and difficult to grasp. In rejecting the old modernist idea of bounded human body that was clearly distinct from its environment, Janet and Brett present us instead with a porous body, one which exists not so much as a discrete entity, but more as one node in a web of biogeochemical flows. In rejecting the old modernist idea that human-made technologies are clearly distinct from natural systems, Miller presents us with an electrical network in which unpredictable Tsunamis and seawater are as much a part of the system as reactors and generators. Yet, as useful as these insights are, my hunch is that we’re still circling around the real heart of the matter, that concepts like ecological bodies and organic machines are just the camel’s nose in the tent. That having opened the flap, we now have to let the whole beast inside and have a proper look at him.

If we do, my suspicion is that at the heart of the modernist worldview—particularly in its western incarnations—lurks a decidedly pre-modern and religiously rooted article of faith that we have yet to fully grapple with: the belief that humans are fundamentally special creatures because their abstract cultures are largely or entirely distinct from the material world around them. That unlike almost every other creature on the planet, humans are the shapers of the material world, not its products. Yet what do these three papers tell us but that the things we’ve long counted as most uniquely and essentially human—our buildings, our technologies, ever our own bodies—are anything but fully ours? To the contrary, I’d suggest that these papers give us a glimpse of a different reality, a sort of scientifically grounded animism in which the powerful things we so arrogantly dismiss as mere raw materials and passive tools are revealed in the moment of creating us. Human power, as the political ecologist Jane Bennett suggests, is really just a type of thing power. Or, to quote the Stanford archaeological theorist Ian Hodder, “[humans] depend on things . . . in order to build, maintain and justify power. They depend on things to control others.” The French anthropologist Philippe Descola perhaps puts it most boldly when he exhorts scholars to move beyond the old modernist divisions that placed nature and culture in opposition, and to recognize instead how the material world around us makes—or perhaps more accurately, constitutes—human culture.

These new ways of thinking about human culture and the material world have appeared under a variety of banners, including the so-called “new materialism,” post-humanism, and thing theory. My own preference is for “neo-materialism,” but I won’t exploit this comment to push my own views on it any more than I already have. Plus I’ve also been told that academic theory is as passé these days as declensionist narratives, though I suppose I’m in good company in that regard. So let me instead conclude with a few more concrete suggestions for how these very good papers and their larger projects might benefit from a neo-materialist perspective. First, and most generally, I hope all three authors will make it clear in their work that they are not only trying to capture the physical unmaking of the modern world, but are also actively pursuing its conceptual unmaking. Now that we all know that Latour was right and we never really were modern, I think the more urgent question is: what then are we to become instead? I’d recommend Descola, scientific animism, and neo-materialist theory, had I not just promised to avoid mentioning it again. Second, to Brett and Janet, I would suggest that their skillful dissections of the nefarious ways in which in toxic houses and skyscrapers shape human health beg the even larger question of how these environments are shaping human minds and thus cultures. If, as I’ve suggested, culture is indeed often inseparable from the material world around us, we have to wonder what kind of human beings are emerging, and will still emerge, from worlds filled with plastics and asbestos. However, I’d also draw our attention to Ian’s apt observation that any such conceptual unmaking of this modern world will almost certainly spark a reactionary rage from some, and quite likely we will witness a redoubled insistence on the transcendent uniqueness and brilliance of the human species that could prove immensely dangerous.

But to end on perhaps a slightly more optimistic note, I’d suggest that the most obvious lesson we can draw from these three papers is that we should take much more care in selecting the things with which we surround ourselves than we heretofore have. Such a genuinely modest and cautious type of conservatism would, of course, be almost entirely contrary to the faux conservatism and neo-liberalism of the modern market-driven capitalist world, that worships and rewards nothing so much as what is new and disruptive. Yet what do these three papers tell us but that Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” is both a good deal less creative and a good deal more destructive than he realized? It is perhaps naïve to hope that humans might yet develop a more profound type of conservatism, one in which we deploy even a modest proportion of the immense energies and wealth we now use in creating what is new, to the careful assessment of what we already have and what we might, in fact, better do without. Yet I’m also encouraged, as these three papers suggests that the task of unmaking the modern world—and thus how we might make a better one in its place—is in many ways already well begun. To paraphrase the American politician Barry Goldwater, “declenision in the service of new visions is no vice.”