When it ends

In the summer of 2018, I came back to Cambridge from one of my travels to a yellowed, dusty patch of land. The grass – the only thing that grew in the too shady back garden of the house me and my partner were renting – had not only wilted; it had literally burnt to the ground.

I burst into tears. As I sat in the garden crying, to (I think) the dismay of my increasingly bewildered partner, I pondered what a scene of death so close to home was doing – what it was doing in my back yard, and what it was doing to me. For it was neither the surprise at nor the scale that shook me – I had witnessed both human and non-human destruction much vaster than a patch of grass in Cambridge; I had spent most of the preceding year and some reading on the politics, economics, and – as the famed expression goes – ‘the science’ of climate change (starting with the excellent Anthropocene reading group I attended while living in London), so I was well-versed, by then, in precisely what was likely to happen, how and when. It wasn’t, either, the proximity, otherwise assumed to be a strong motivator: I certainly did not need climate change to happen in my literal ‘back yard’ in order to become concerned about it. If nothing else, I had come back to Cambridge from a prolonged stay in Serbia, where I have been observing the very same things, detailed here (including preparations for mineral extraction that will become the main point of contention for the protests against Rio Tinto in 2022). As to anyone who has lived outside of the protected enclaves of the Global North, climate change has felt very real, for quite some time.

What made me break down at the sight of that scorched patch of grass was its ordinariness – the fact that, in front, besides, and around what for me was quite bluntly an extinction event, life seemed to go on as usual. No-one warned me my back garden was a cemetery. Several months before that, at the very start of the first round of UCU strikes in 2018, I raised the question of pension funds invested in fossil fuels, only to be casually told one of the biggest USS shares was in Royal Dutch Shell (USS, and the University of Cambridge, have reluctantly committed to divestment since, but this is yet to yield any results in the case of USS). While universities make pompous statements about sustainability, a substantial chunk of their funding and operating revenue goes to activities that are at best one step removed from directly contributing to the climate crisis, from international (air) travel to building and construction. At Cambridge, I ran a reading group called Ontopolitics of the future, whose explicit question was: What survives in the Anthropocene? In my current experience, the raising of climate change tends to provoke uncomfortable silences, as if everyone had already accepted the inevitability of 1.5+ degree warming and the suffering it would inevitably come with.

This acceptance of death is a key feature of the concept of ‘slow death’ that Lauren Berlant introduced in Cruel Optimism:

“Slow death prospers not in traumatic events, as discrete time-framed phenomena like military encounters and genocides can appear to do, but in temporally labile environments whose qualities and whose contours in time and space are often identified with the presentness of ordinariness itself” (Berlant, 2011: 100).

Berlant’s emphasis on the ordinariness of death is a welcome addition to theoretical frameworks (like Foucault’s bio-, Mbembe’s necro- or Povinelli’s onto-politics) that see the administration of life and death as effects of sovereign power:

“Since catastrophe means change, crisis rhetoric belies the constitutive point that slow death—or the structurally induced attrition of persons keyed to their membership in certain populations—is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain where an upsetting scene of living is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all” (Berlant, 2011: 102).

Over the past year and some, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of ‘slow death’ in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic (my contribution to the edited special issue on Encountering Berlant should be coming out in Geography Journal sometime this year). However, what brought back the scorched grass in Cambridge as I sat at home during UK’s hottest day on record in 2022 was not the (inevitable) human, non-human, or infrastructural cost of climate change; it was, rather, the observation that for most academics life seemed to go on as usual, if a little hotter. From research concerns to driving to moaning over (the absence of) AC, there seemed to be little reflection on how our own modes of knowledge production – not to mention lifestyles – were directly contributing to heating the planet.

Of course, the paradox of knowledge and (in)action – or knowing and (not) doing – has long been at the crux of my own work, from performativity and critique of neoliberalism to the use of scientific evidence in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. But with climate change, surely it has to be obvious to everyone that there is no way to just continue business as usual, that – while effects are surely differentially distributed according to privilege and other kinds of entitlement – no-one is really exempt from it?

Or so I thought, as I took an evening walk and passed a dead magpie on the pavement, which made me think of birds dying from heat exhaustion in India earlier in May (luckily, no other signs of mass bird extinction were in sight, so I returned home, already a bit light-headed from the heat). But as I absent-mindedly scrolled through Twitter (as well as attended a part of a research meeting), what seemed obvious was that there was a clear disconnection between modes of knowing and modes of being in the world. On the one hand, everyone was too hot, commenting on the unsustainability of housing, or the inability of transport networks to sustain temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius. On the other, academic knowledge production seemed to go on, as if things such as ‘universities’, ‘promotions’, or ‘reviews’ had the span of geological time, rather than being – for the most part – a very recent blip in precisely the thing that led to this degree of warming: capitalism, and the drive to (over)produce, (over)compete, and expand.

It is true that these kinds of challenges – like existential crises – can really make people double-down on whatever positions and identities they already have. This is quite obvious in the case of some of political divisions – with, for instance, the death spirals of Covid-denialism, misogyny, and transphobia – but it happens in less explicitly polarizing ways too. In the context of knowledge production, this is something I have referred to as the combination of epistemic attachment and ontological bias. Epistemic attachment refers to being attached to our objects of knowledge; these can be as abstract as ‘class’ or ‘social structure’ or as concrete as specific people, problems, or situations. The relationship between us (as knowers) and what we know (our objects of knowledge) is the relationship between epistemic subjects and epistemic objects. Ontological bias, on the other hand, refers to the fact that our ways of knowing the world become so constitutive of who we are that we can fail to register when the conditions that rendered this mode of knowledge possible (or reliable) no longer obtain. (This, it is important to note, is different from having a ‘wrong’ or somehow ‘distorted’ image of epistemic objects; it is entirely conceivable to have an accurate representation on the wrong ontology, as is vice versa).

This is what happens when we carry on with academic research (or, as I’ve recently noted, the circuit of academic rituals) in a climate crisis. It is not that our analyses and publications stop being more or less accurate, more or less cited, more or less inspiring. On the other side, the racism, classism, ableism, and misogyny of academia do not stop either. It’s just that, technically speaking, the world in which all of these things happen is no longer the same world. The 1.5C (let alone 2 or 2.5, more-or-less certain now) degrees warmer world is no longer the same world that gave rise to the interpretative networks and theoretical frameworks we overwhelmingly use.

In this sense, to me, continuing with academia as business as usual (only with AC) isn’t even akin to the proverbial polishing of brass on the Titanic, not least because the iceberg has likely already melted or at least calved several times over. What it brings to mind, instead, was Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, and the way in which professional identities play out in it.

I’ve already written about Area X, in part because the analogy with climate change presents itself, and in part because I think that – in addition to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and Octavia Butler’s Parables – it is the best literary (sometimes almost literal) depiction of the present moment. Area X (or Southern Reach, if you’re in the US), is about an ‘event’ – that is at the same time a space – advancing on the edge of the known, ‘civilized’ world. The event/space – ‘Area’ – is, in a clear parallel to Strugatskys’ The Zone, something akin to a parallel dimension: a world like our own, within our own, and accessible from our own, but not exactly hospitable to us. In Vandermeer’s trilogy, Area X is a lush green, indeed overgrown, space; like in The Zone, ‘nature is healing’ has a more ominous sound to it, as in Area X, people, objects, and things disappear. Or reappear. Like bunnies. And husbands.

The three books of Area X are called Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. In the first book, the protagonist – whom we know only as the Biologist – goes on a mission to Area X, the area that has already swallowed (or maybe not) her husband. Other members of the expedition, who we also know only by profession – the Anthropologist, the Psychologist – are also women. The second book, Authority, follows the chief administrator – who we know as Control – of Area X, as the area keeps expanding. Control eventually follows the Biologist into Area X. The third book – well, I’ll stop with the plot spoilers here, but let’s just say that the Biologist is no longer called the Biologist.

This, if anything, is the source of slight reservation I have towards the use of professional identities, authority, and expertise in contexts like the climate crisis. Scientists for XR and related initiatives are both incredibly brave (especially those risking arrest, something I, as an immigrant, cannot do) and – needless to say – morally right; but the underlying emphasis on ‘the science’ too often relies on the assumption that right knowledge will lead to right action, which tends not to hold even for many ‘professional’ academics. In other words, it is not exactly that people do not act on climate change because they do not know or do not believe the science (some do, at least). It is that systems and institutions – and, in many cases, this includes systems and institutions of knowledge production, such as universities – are organized in ways that makes any kind of action that would refuse to reproduce (let alone actually disrupt) the logic of extractive capitalism increasingly difficult.

What to do? It is clear that we are now living on the boundary of Area X, and it is fast expanding. Area X is what was in my back garden in Cambridge. Area X is outside when you open windows in the north of England and what drifts inside has the temperature of a jet engine exhaust of a plane that had just landed. The magpie that was left to die in the middle of the road in Jesmond crossed Area X.

For my part, I know it is no longer sufficient to approach Area X as the Sociologist (or Theorist, or Anthropologist, or whatever other professional identity I have – relucantly, as all identities – perused); I tried doing that for Covid-19, and it did not get very far. Instead, I’d urge my academic colleagues to seriously start thinking about what we are and what we do when these labels – Sociologist, Biologist, Anthropologist, Scientist – no longer have a meaning. For this moment may come earlier than many of us can imagine; by then, we’d have better worked out the relationship between annihilation, authority, and acceptance.  

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