”the house is on fire”
Whose fault is that? And what will save the Earth?
The Earth’s ecosystems show higher temperatures. Draught, flooding, cyclones, rising sea levels; heat waves, fires, most recently in California. In only two years, the Arctic has lost land areas the equivalent of five Great Britain. The ice in Greenland has started to melt, and so has the glaciers of Himalaya; should the warming continue, forty percent of all species will be extinct before 2050.
The tipping points. This is the term the journalist Andreas Malm opts for to depict the critical situation in which life, all life, is at stake. The tipping point is a location in time and space in which, literally speaking, the content of the chalice overflows. A condition of the Earth caused by Western civilization’s intensified consumption of fossil fuels; oil, coal, natural gas, emissions of methane.
The large discharges of climate gasses started after 1850, but the pivotal change took place as late as 1976-1977. The temperature rose by 0,3 degrees, and 0,2 degrees in the decades that followed. Since 2000 the rate has increased even more, between 1990 and 1999 it was 1 percent, between 2000 and 2004, it was 3 percent.
And now the phenomenon is moving fast, faster than the IPCC (the UNs Climate Panel) can count and faster than anybody could expect. The capacity of Nature to absorb the emissions of gasses is effete, something that was expected to happen at the end of this century. The debilitation is caused by the ecosystems of the world organizing critically, reaching the breaking point. Instead of adjusting gradually to new conditions, the ecosystems collapse. Like the pyramid of a heap of sand that may be piled higher and higher, but with another grain of sand falls.
All climate researchers would not agree with the description of the situation as a pyramid of sand. The IPCC, as of recent awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has for long abstained from doing so.
Andreas Malm’s book is a monumental referential work of the amassed research now proclaiming the Earth to be in a state of emergency. Not because of the environmental destruction, that since half a century has been put on the agenda by investigators, free thinkers and environmental organizations; but solely due to climate change.
Malm goes about his task properly; beginning with the birth of life; definition, principle, explaining the circle of coal, the great role of blue green algae, the photosynthesis. The reader is brought on an expedition of epochs and eons, and taken on a journey through the revolution of oxygen, the cambric revolution, i.e. when animals appear, and earlier events of mass extinction on Earth.
It is a somewhat brushy educational tour entertained by telescope and microscope, in a jungle where the processes, the concepts, the metaphors from various researchers’ worlds of imagery pile up. Now it is illuminating, now it is a bit confusing.
Some words are key to the theme. Biosphere, referrals, cyclic causality, spandrels, liminality; the concepts give witness to a victory over an outdated view of nature that has impeded insights, and, thus, has contributed to the mistaken prognosis of the IPCC. It is not recommendable to count species just separately; each species must be considered in relation to other species. It is wanting to regard ecosystems as separate, or to miss the fact that organisms are fellow creators of the environment. The progression of nature cannot be understood as exclusively gradual, it develops in leaps, and collapses in landslides.
Malm’s book slows down the discussion simultaneously as it raises the level of emergency. It says: Let us start from the beginning and not exclude how deep the climate crisis is entrenched in our perceptions of life itself. It draws in the reader to share the fascination for natural science and the climate struggle on the side of the critical Marxist-Darwinists Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontins, writers who see the development as more interacting with the surroundings compared to the view of Richard Dawkin and his adapting genes.
Yes, I am on board. But not at any price. Not to the price of overlooking the research tradition that succeeded to zoom in both socially and theoretically, and, thus, was able to pose even broader and sharper critique. Carolyn Merchant, Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding have shown how the old mechanist view of nature got a head start with Francis Bacon’s misogynist metaphors in the 17th century and how it replaced an earlier cosmic view of nature. In fact, this cosmic view resembles the approach Malm introduces as new and disregarded, an outlook that was early understood by non-European cultures as the web of life. Everything’s connection to everything else.
The Nobel prize discovery 1983 of the complex organization of the DNA-molecule (1948) by Barbara McClintock, for many years shut out by her fellow research colleagues; the interaction between the DNA-molecule and the cell, the organism and the environment outside the organism, is for instance missing in Malm’s reasoning, despite the finding being key to the argument. Also, the metaphors seem unsuspectedly masculine coded; thorn apples, battle fields, battles, attacks, missiles and the examples of cars, producers, and factories.
Perhaps Miss Universe’s Profesora (Catti Brandelius of Sweden) would have emitted her famous statement: “Why this, my mama may have told you.” But, the protagonists in Malms’ book are not mothers, or even men and women. The homo social world, with its production methods, social relations, technology, and nature view, is not the subject of contemplation. Rather, it is to be saved by the masculinity that created it and its climate crisis. Is it possible? Desirable? Sustainable?
Malm’s work is powerful, yet mysterious; if the house is on fire, if a pyromaniac is residing in the cellar and all payable research says that the flames may start at any time, why get lost in the biospheric brushwood? And if the situation is already surprising us, if the collapse of the Greenland ice threatens to raise the sea levels by seven metres, and national emergency is called for at this instance, why not be thoroughly power critical?
In Malm’s book the world remains in the hands of the patriarchal culture. It is a divided world, and a great risk. Andreas Malm promises to write another volume, a sequel, in 2008. In the meantime, may no threshold be reached, no grain of sand be the precipitating one. Biogeochemists in panels and parliament – organize. If most is not done now, chances are it will be too late.
• Andreas Malm, Det är vår bestämda uppfattning att om ingenting görs nu kommer det att vara försent, Stockholm: Atlas 2007 [Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm, Verso 2014]
Originally published in Aftonbladet Culture 2nd of November 2007, translated from the Swedish 29 May 2019
© Arimneste Anima Museum #8