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The Milky Way

Photo by Abdul Rahman | CC BY 2.0

At the recent twenty-third session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) in Bonn, Germany, presided over by the Government of Fiji – and featuring their national themes of Bula (friendly welcome) and Talanoa (listening to each other) – there was the usual byzantine wrangling by committee on the ways and means by which greenhouse gas emissions might be reduced globally, states might sustainably adapt to climate change and the global North might recompense the global South for causing the whole mess in the first place. (COP 23: Truth Without Consequences, Curtis F.J. Doebblen)

At 4:00 p.p.m. and still rising, many of us have moved on to carbon catastrophism: the UN’s impotent policy palaver drowned out by the existential realities of climate change. Absent a global bureaucratic fix, and with the certainty that geo-engineering is a “what could go wrong?” false-hope, where do we go to find a way out of this geo-historical calamity?

Not so long ago, in 2011, there were those who believed that global consciousness was about to fundamentally change. Dr. Johan Carl Calleman, the millenarian new-age Mayanist, declared that September 5, 2011, marked our entering into the 6th Day of Flowering in the final 9th wave of Unity Consciousness as foretold by the Mayan Calendar – which purportedly begins 16.4 billion years ago in the time of the “Cellular Underworld” (which you are forgiven for mistaking as the dark-age before the i-phone, which stretches from 2008 back to the dawn of time). There may still be some who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, believe that their consciousness is resonating with the Dance of Unity begun that very day – and if such souls exist, they are very likely to be found right here, in the thrall of the local spiritual vortex, in Ojai, California.

But despite the apparent failure of Mayan calendric prophecy, the idea that global consciousness can indeed change, and go on to have profound material consequences, has some academic credibility. In The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, 2000, the French archeologist Jacques Cauvin, makes the argument that it was not only climate change associated with the end of the last ice age – about 15,000 years ago –  that initiated agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution; indeed, he largely rejects ecology and the environment as causal agents in the exploration of new ways of organizing communities and the feeding of its members.  Instead, he suggests that a re-structuring of human consciousness coincided with a significantly altered world view in which humans could see themselves as separate from external reality. He argues that the emergence of personified divinities dominating humanity ‘from above’ and the emergence of the bull as symbolic of a masculine anthropomorphic god, led to an alienated sense of self and the will to transform wild landscapes into agricultural resources. Coincidentally, the imposition of a linear geometry on dwellings is similarly associated with the bull cult of masculine virility and a more conscious expression of self inscribed upon the landscape. Cauvin stresses that “the chronological sequence leading from cognitive transformations on the one hand, to socioeconomic changes on the other, forms part of a factual realm that the prehistorian may uncover at the end of a trowel – it is not a theory”.

The philosopher Timothy Morton, who practices post-Heideggerian object oriented ontology (OOO), suggests that culturally and psychologically we are still, effectively, Mesopotamian – heirs to the great civilization of farming, logistics, hydrology and accounting which began with the Neolithic Revolution. Yet he believes that this world is at an end. Following Heidegger, meaning, according to OOO, is exuded by objects – which themselves are overarched by hyperobjects.  He identifies Global Warming as one such hyperobject, (a geo-historical artifact that has created the existential reality of the sixth extinction) and from which we, our consciousness, and other planetary objects, are subtended. The human conceit of making worlds in which our individual consciousness is foregrounded, is no long tenable. In Hyperobjects, Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World2013, he writes,

“The end of the world has already occurred. We can be uncannily precise about the date on which the world ended…. It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust – namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale”.

He goes on to suggest that this ending was confirmed in 1945, in Trinity, New Mexico, with the first successful detonation of an atom bomb and reconfirmed by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year.

It is Morton’s limning of hyperobjects (one of which is the Earth itself) that begins to suggest a geophilosophy capable of transforming consciousness: where the primacy of human events and human significance (pre-figured by the Neolithic Revolution) is finally denied by overarching geo-historical realities. While this transformative psychic shift may be difficult to imagine, it is useful to remember that it was Neolithic imagery symbolizing personal divinities, that instigated new levels of human intervention in the environment – where mental development preceded the triggering of human agency.

Cauvin’s work has been validated by field work in the Near East in the sixteen years since his death.  Ludwig Morenz, the noted Egyptologist, suggests that Cauvin was visionary in his recognition that symbolic images allowed for new ways of world-defining, a process that reaches back into the cave paintings of the Paleolithic. Morenz writes, in his paper, Media-evolution and the Generation of New Ways of Thinking, 2014, that “new and fundamental impulses for the conquest of denkraum (thought-space) through symbolic linkages emerged in the Near Eastern Early Neolithic and were developed further in subsequent decades, centuries and millennia”. Cauvin shows that these changes in thought resulted in material, civilizational transformations.

Now Morton, in a series of recent books, is suggesting new philosophical approaches in response to what he calls a “horrifying coincidence of human history and terrestrial geology”, as a part of a broad movement known as Speculative Realism (with Graham Harmon and others) which is dedicated to breaking the spell known as correlationism which suggests that meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks. The autonomous human mind, freed to act on its environment with impunity, was a creation of the Neolithic. To the extent that this psychology reached its apogee with Descartes, Morton is arguing for a post-modern psychology freed from the exclusivity of human consciousness, thus his call, in his most recent book, Humanity, 2107, for “solidarity with non-human people”.

It is in the recognition of realities that are not simply the products of a human gaze, of ecologies that transcend ‘Nature’ (a product of modernity fashioned as a neutral backdrop to human activity and cognition) that he sees possibilities: we have, he suggests, woken up in a hyperobject – the ecological emergency known as global warming. We are surrounded by yet more hyperobjects. Morton writes, “they have contacted us” ……now is the time that “Nonhuman beings are responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking”.

This evening, I walked in one of the canyons that riddle the flanks of the Santa Ynez Mountains. It is called Matilija from Mat’ilha, a place where the Chumash collected pinyon nuts. The Milky Way was known by the local people as “the way of the piñón gatherers”. There was a full moon, a super-moon, with no visible Milky Way, but I thought about its hidden presence, and I tried to be in solidarity with it – while walking in the footprints of the terrestrial piñón gatherers, in a spooky, monochrome landscape.  Me, punily subtended from one of the biggest hyperobjects of them all. Me, walking on a warming planet, connecting with a non-human consciousness, re-wiring my brain in ways that can quiet its Neolithic hubris.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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