A few years ago, Björk began corresponding with a philosopher whose books she admired. “hi timothy,” her first message to him began. “i wanted to write this letter for a long time.” She was trying to give a name to her own singular genre, to label her work for posterity before the critics did. She asked him to help define the nature of her art – “not only to define it for me, but also for all my friends, and a generation actually.”
It turned out the philosopher, Timothy Morton, was a fan of Björk. Her music, he told her, had been “a very deep influence on my way of thinking and life in general”. The sense of eerie intimacy with other species, the fusion of moods in her songs and videos – tenderness and horror, weirdness and joy – “is the feeling of ecological awareness”, he said. Morton’s own work is about the implications of this strange awareness – the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings – which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our “core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is”.
Over the past decade, Morton’s ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Björk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Morton’s terminology is “slowly infecting all the humanities”, says his friend and fellow thinker Graham Harman. Though many academics have a reputation for writing exclusively for their colleagues down the hall, Morton’s peculiar conceptual vocabulary – “ dark ecology”, “the strange stranger”, “the mesh” – has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion. Last year, he was included in a much-discussed list of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His ideas have also percolated into traditional media outlets such as Newsweek, the New Yorker and the New York Times.
Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.
Morton’s theories might sound bizarre, but they are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet – a phase that Morton and many others now call the “Anthropocene”.
For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period.
The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning “human”, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we can’t imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. That’s 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.
The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.
One of Morton’s most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. It’s there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are.
Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.
“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” he writes. “And it creeps up on you.” Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, “let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet”. But “harm to Earth is precisely what is happening”. Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, “everything is interconnected”.
As Morton’s work spreads beyond cultural hierophants such as Björk to the pages of major news outlets, he is arguably becoming our most popular guide to the new epoch. Yes, he has some seemingly crazy ideas about what it’s like to be alive right now – but what it’s like to be alive right now, in the Anthropocene, is pretty crazy.
In the course of its young life, the Anthropocene has grown into a concept as grand in its scope as any other world-historical paradigm worth its salt (which, if it’s sea salt, now includes a good dose of synthetic waste in tiny particles called microplastics). What began as a technical debate within the earth sciences has led, in Morton’s view, to a confrontation with some of our most basic ways of understanding the world. In the Anthropocene, he writes, we are undergoing “a traumatic loss of coordinates.”
The Anthropocene idea is generally attributed to the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the biologist Eugene Stoermer, who started popularising the term in 2000. From the outset, many took Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept seriously, even if they disagreed with it. Since the late 20th century, scientists have viewed geological time as a drama punctuated by great cataclysms, not merely a gradual accretion of incremental changes, and it made sense to see humanity itself as the latest cataclysm.
Imagine geologists from a future civilisation examining the layers of rock that are in the slow process of forming today, the way we examine the rock strata that formed as the dinosaurs died off. That civilisation will see evidence of our sudden (in geological terms) impact on the planet – including fossilised plastics and layers both of carbon, from burning carbon fuels, and of radioactive particles, from nuclear testing and explosions – just as clearly as we see evidence of the dinosaurs’ rapid demise. We can already observe these layers forming today.
For a couple of years, a lively debate over the usefulness of the concept unfolded. Detractors argued that humanity’s “geological signal” was not yet loud enough to justify the coronation of a new epoch, or that the term had no scientific use. Supporters wondered when they should date the Anthropocene’s start. To the advent of agriculture, many millennia ago? To the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? To 5.29am on 16 July 1945, the moment when the first-ever nuclear test exploded over the New Mexico desert? (Morton, in his all-embracing way, treats each of these moments as pivotal.) Then, in 2002, Crutzen set out his arguments in the scientific journal Nature. The idea of a moment in planetary history in which human influence was predominant seemed to tie together so many disparate developments – from retreating glaciers to fresh thinking about the limits of capitalism – that the term quickly spread to other earth sciences, and then beyond.
Since then, at least three academic journals devoted to the Anthropocene have been founded, several universities have established formal research groups to ponder its implications, Stanford students have started a popular podcast titled Generation Anthropocene, and thousands of articles and books have been written on the subject, in fields ranging from economics to poetry.
Some thinkers object to the term, arguing that it reinforces the human-centric view of the world that has led us to the verge of ecological catastrophe. Others say the blame for the despoliation of the Earth should be laid at the feet not of humanity in general, but of (predominantly white, western and male) capitalism. Several alternative designations have been minted, including “Capitalocene”, but none has caught on. They don’t have the disquieting existential ring of Anthropocene, which stresses both our culpability and our fragility as humans.
Around 2011, the Anthropocene “began to crop up regularly in newspapers for the first time”, according to the scholar Jeremy Davies’s recent history of the concept. The BBC, the Economist, National Geographic, Science and others covered the idea. Planetary changes had increasingly led journalists to set their environmental reporting in the context of geohistory – atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million? Not seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago – and the Anthropocene became a useful shorthand for placing human activity in the perspective of geological deep time. For Morton, who had recently begun writing about it, it captured his concern with the way beings of different kinds, including humans, depend on each other for their existence – a fact the various calamities of the Anthropocene drove home.
In 2014, the Anthropocene was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, and last year, the epoch was formally endorsed by a working group within the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper of geological time. As a tentative start date, they chose the year 1950, when one of the clearest markers of human activity shows up globally in the earth’s crust: plutonium isotopes from widespread nuclear testing. The working group’s announcement was considered so significant that it made the front page of the Guardian. (Across the media, the Anthropocene is now used to frame everything from fiction reviews to discussions of the Donald Trump presidency.) As Jan Zalasiewicz, the chair of the group and one of the leading scientists studying the Anthropocene, said at the time, the new epoch “sets a different trajectory for the Earth system” and we are only now “realising the scale and permanence of the change”.
There have been periods of intense climate fluctuation coupled with mass extinction before. The most recent was 66m years ago, when a meteorite six miles in diameter struck what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. The impact released an estimated 2m times the energy of the most powerful atomic bomb ever detonated, altering the planet’s atmosphere and wiping out three-quarters of its species. But that was a comparatively simple event, which the physical sciences are well-equipped to understand.
To make sense of an epochal change that is being driven by human activity, we need more than geology, meteorology and chemistry. If this is a reckoning for our species, we need an intellectual guide – someone to tell us just how panicked we should be, and how our recognition that we are transforming the planet will change us in turn.
The awareness we’ve gained in the Anthropocene is not generally a happy one. Many environmentalists now warn of impending global catastrophe and urge industrial societies to change course. Morton stakes out a more iconoclastic position. Instead of raising the ecological alarm like some Paul Revere of the apocalypse, he advocates what he calls “dark ecology,” which holds that the much-feared catastrophe has, in fact, already occurred.
Morton means not only that irreversible global warming is under way, but also something more wide-reaching. “We Mesopotamians” – as he calls the past 400 or so generations of humans living in agricultural and industrial societies – thought that we were simply manipulating other entities (by farming and engineering, and so on) in a vacuum, as if we were lab technicians and they were in some kind of giant petri dish called “nature” or “the environment”. In the Anthropocene, Morton says, we must wake up to the fact that we never stood apart from or controlled the non-human things on the planet, but have always been thoroughly bound up with them. We can’t even burn, throw or flush things away without them coming back to us in some form, such as harmful pollution. Our most cherished ideas about nature and the environment – that they are separate from us, and relatively stable – have been destroyed.
Morton likens this realisation to detective stories in which the hunter realises he is hunting himself (his favourite examples are Blade Runner and Oedipus Rex). “Not all of us are prepared to feel sufficiently creeped out” by this epiphany, he says. But there’s another twist: even though humans have caused the Anthropocene, we cannot control it. “Oh, my God!” Morton exclaimed to me in mock horror at one point. “My attempt to escape the web of fate was the web of fate.”
The chief reason that we are waking up to our entanglement with the world we have been destroying, Morton says, is our encounter with the reality of hyperobjects – the term he coined to describe things such as ecosystems and black holes, which are “massively distributed in time and space” compared to individual humans. Hyperobjects might not seem to be objects in the way that, say, billiard balls are, but they are equally real, and we are now bumping up against them consciously for the first time. Global warming might have first appeared to us as a bit of funny local weather, then as a series of independent manifestations (an unusually torrential flood here, a deadly heatwave there), but now we see it as a unified phenomenon, of which extreme weather events and the disruption of the old seasons are only elements.
It is through hyperobjects that we initially confront the Anthropocene, Morton argues. One of his most influential books, itself titled Hyperobjects, examines the experience of being caught up in – indeed, being an intimate part of – these entities, which are too big to wrap our heads around, and far too big to control. We can experience hyperobjects such as climate in their local manifestations, or through data produced by scientific measurements, but their scale and the fact that we are trapped inside them means that we can never fully know them. Because of such phenomena, we are living in a time of quite literally unthinkable change.
This leads Morton to one of his most sweeping claims: that the Anthropocene is forcing a revolution in human thought. Advances in science are now underscoring how “enmeshed” we are with other beings – from the microbes that account for roughly half the cells in our bodies, to our reliance for survival on the Earth’s electromagnetic heat shield. At the same time, hyperobjects, in their unwieldy enormity, alert us to the absolute boundaries of science, and therefore the limits of human mastery. Science can only take us so far. This means changing our relationship with the other entities in the universe – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – from one of exploitation through science to one of solidarity in ignorance. If we fail to do this, we will continue to wreak havoc on the planet, threatening the ways of life we hold dear, and even our very existence. In contrast to utopian fantasies that we will be saved by the rise of artificial intelligence or some other new technology, the Anthropocene teaches us that we can’t transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them.
That might sound gloomy, but Morton glimpses in it a liberation. If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us, we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself. Enjoyment, Morton believes, might be the thing that turns us on to a new kind of politics. “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure,” the tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter timeline reads. “Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.”
Those words are typical of his thought, which often sets out from the dismal familiar, but then veers wildly off the beaten track. “There’s something truly hopeful in his work,” Hans Ulrich Obrist says of Morton. “Hope and maybe even optimism are somehow in there.” Morton has a story about converting his home outside Houston, where he holds a chair at Rice University, to wind-generated electricity. After a day or two of “feeling very righteous and holy,” he realised he could now have “full-on strobes and decks and people partaying for hours and hours, all day, every day,” while causing far less damage to the planet. “And that’s the ecological future, actually.”
One Saturday morning last autumn, I went looking for Morton at the Serpentine Galleries’ annual festival of ideas, where he was to speak later that day. Over the previous few weeks, he had been in Seoul to help Olafur Eliasson open a solo exhibition; in Singapore, to speak at the Future Cities conference; in Brussels, to give a talk titled “ Nature Isn’t Real” in a public park at night (he said 250 people showed up); at the University of Exeter, where he outlined “rocking”, his new theory of action, which he described as “a queering of the theistic categories of active versus passive”; in Rome, where he spent his time, among other things, drinking martinis; and in Paris, where he went raving with his friend Ingrid and was so overcome with emotion and exhaustion that he spent some of the night lying in the middle of the dancefloor.
If you had to select an avatar for the Anthropocene, Morton might be an appropriate choice. He has arctic-blue eyes that at once shock and appear shocked. Combined with a slight pudginess that suggests physical vulnerability, an eczematic redness to his face, and a thistle of thin blond hair, he looks as if he has survived some kind of fallout. Indeed, he is something of a man afflicted. Among other things, he suffers from severe sleep apnoea, severe depression, severe migraines, and, it seemed to me over the course of our conversations, the occasional bout of mild paranoia. Obrist, who has recorded more than 2,500 hours of interviews with artists and philosophers, told me that Morton is the only one who became “so emotional that actually he starts to cry”. (They had been discussing mass extinction.)
Earlier in the year, when I had spoken to Morton on video calls, he had been ebullient. Now, sitting at the back of the gallery’s restaurant, which had been converted into a performance hall, he seemed to be running on fumes. He had already published 14 essays that year, while continuing work on his two upcoming books. In the next few weeks, he was speaking in Chicago, at Yale, in Seoul (again), Munich and, finally, convening with members of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to contemplate the kinds of messages we should be sending into space on a potential reboot of the Voyager mission. (The original, launched in 1977, sent two spacecraft hurtling beyond our solar system; each contained a 12-inch gold-plated record engraved with sounds and images representing humanity and other earthly beings.) By the end of 2016, as he later wrote on his blog, Morton had racked up 350,000 air miles.
Morton’s itinerary was an index of how popular the notion of the Anthropocene has become, and how deeply his approach to it resonates with our increasingly disquieting experience of the world. Poring over his books, or speaking to him in person, one starts to suspect that what is outlandish in his thinking and personality actually reflects something truly strange about the world. Over lunch, Morton ordered a chicken salad sandwich – an earlier experiment with veganism had lapsed – and we discussed the development of his thought. As he ate, I was reminded of a recent report that almost 60bn chickens are slaughtered globally every year, which, in the words of Jan Zalasiewicz, means that their carcasses have now been “fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world”. That thought leads immediately to another one: about the bacterial “superbugs” we have created through widespread use of antibiotics, especially in industrial livestock production. From there, it’s only a short jump to thinking about other strange phenomena in our new epoch, like rocks formed from plastic and seashells, and changes in the earth’s rotation caused by melting ice sheets. Once you start listing these unsettling Anthropocene facts, there’s no end to it.
It’s possible, when one encounters Morton for the first or second time, to wonder if there’s something concocted about his hippie disposition, his emotionality, his intellectual flair. But his childhood friends and relatives say that his visceral engagement with ecology, and his academic prowess, go back to his childhood. Morton was born in north-west London, in 1968, in the midst of a period when a growing awareness of ecological threat still went hand in hand with the sense that people could change the world for the better, possibly under the influence of LSD. After his parents, who were both concert violinists, divorced in the late 1970s, his father sailed off on a Greenpeace protest trawler; his mother was a committed feminist who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
From early on, Morton was an academic standout. He received the top scholarship at the elite St Paul’s School in London five years in a row, and then went to Oxford to read English. He got the highest marks in his subject across the university in his first-year exams, and a first in his finals. Doing well academically was important to Morton, but eventually he came to the realisation that it’s “actually secondary to this other thing, called being alive”. His life took on something of the shape his work would later adopt. It was about more than accumulating knowledge; it was also about pursuing pleasure and intimacy. In his second year as an undergraduate, he and his roommate, Mark Payne, who is now a classicist at the University of Chicago, would “do acid and listen to Butthole Surfers and talk about Blake”. (Payne says they did acid and talked about Milton.) He also fell in love for the first time. As a graduate student, Morton wore his hair long, with a suede jacket, and decked himself out in beads. His PhD thesis, which is recognised as an important contribution to the study of Romanticism, showed that the vegetarianism of Percy and Mary Shelley was intimately entwined with their politics and art. Paul Hamilton, who supervised some of Morton’s graduate work, told me that, when it came to the Shelleys, Morton “changed the lights for everyone”.
Despite the success of his dissertation, Morton struggled to land an academic position, and even contemplated killing himself. Eventually, he found a job at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before moving on, in 2003, to the University of California in Davis, north-east of San Francisco. Being in northern California seemed to season his thought, and he began focusing on explicitly ecological questions, such as what we write about when we write about nature. In a canny bit of self-branding, he also took to calling himself Professor of Literature and Environment.
Over the next few years, Morton published his book challenging the idea of “nature”, as well as a follow-up asking what it means for us to rely in unfathomably complex ways on a countless number of other beings. He also joined a small, contentious philosophical movement called object-oriented ontology, or OOO, which holds that every being, including humans, can only ever grasp the world in its own limited ways. (In other words, we will never know what flies know, and vice versa.) Then, in 2012, Morton left California for his current chair at Rice, one of the most well-regarded universities in America.
With the security of tenure and the successive infusions of Buddhism and OOO into his thinking, Morton started to write in a more riffing, personal style. His talk of discos in his wind-powered home and the cringey way he elongates “partaying” aren’t incidental to his project. “Inevitably, ecological awareness has this kind of 70s flavour to it,” he says. It’s an aesthetic he embraces, “in all of its flared weirdness”. There’s a bell-bottomed capaciousness to his intellectual style, too. He may well be the only person ever to grace a list of the most influential living philosophers and have a songwriting credit on an album that reached No 4 in the UK charts ( Stacked Up by Senser, from 1994).
He has followed in the footsteps of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Edward Said in giving the prestigious Wellek Lecture, at the University of California in Irvine – but he has also performed at Glastonbury, playing music for fire-juggling performance artists, and served as a consultant on the Steve Coogan series The Trip to Italy. Although he’s about to publish a book attempting to fuse dark ecology with Marxism (“The tweak is pretty intense, and not everyone’s going to like it,” he says), he also has one forthcoming for Pelican books, Being Ecological, which is meant to enchant the general public. The first sentence is: “This book contains no ecological facts whatsoever.” Though several of his books are dedicated to the customary people (spouse, children, siblings), he has also dedicated one to his cat, the late Allan Whiskersworth. One of the most engrossing posts on his blog, which he updates regularly, is a critical inquiry into giant penises drawn on rooftops so they can be discovered via Google Earth. He’s deep into Shambhala Buddhism and has circumambulated Mount Kailash in Tibet. Not long ago, he received a very moving Tarot reading.
If people find most of this ridiculous, all the better. “I like to think of myself as the corniest, most awful thing you could possibly imagine,” he told me. He has achieved the usual trappings of academic success; now that he’s through the metaphorical metal detectors of polite society, he has a different aim. “I can get quite well known, and then I can unleash this kind of anarchist-hippie thing that I’ve been holding like a very precious liquid, carefully, without spilling any, for years and years and years,” he said. “And now I’m going to pour it everywhere.”
When it was time for his talk at the Serpentine, Morton appeared in a tight-fitting, silver Versace shirt of the sort a camp Bond villain might wear. His lecture was titled “ Stuff Can Happen”.
“You wouldn’t believe how many philosophers are afraid of movement,” he began. He went on to discuss two strands of thought in the work of the philosopher Hegel. One problem with Hegel, Morton said, “the problem I call macro-Hegel, is that macro-Hegel makes the slinky move up the stairs, improbably. And at the top of the stairs, like the killer in Psycho, is waiting, drum roll, you guessed it, white western patriarchy in the guise of the Prussian state.” (I had not guessed this; should I have?) “So macro-Hegel blows it.”
It seemed an odd way to approach a lecture to a motley crew of artists, activists, students and musicians. Even as someone with an interest in Morton’s work, I soon felt bored and distracted. The man standing next to me, an American scholar with an acerbic sense of humour, rolled his eyes and whispered a comment to the effect of “What is this bullshit?”
Despite Morton’s popularity, this isn’t an uncommon response to his work. The Morton detractors with whom I spoke accused him of misunderstanding contemporary science, like quantum mechanics and set theory, and then claiming his distortions as support for his wild ideas. They shared a broad critique that reminded me of the sceptical adage, “If you open your mind too far, your brains will fall out.” The slurry of interesting ideas in Morton’s work doesn’t hold together under scrutiny, they say. The philosopher Ray Brassier, who was once associated with OOO, has charged Morton and his blogging confrères with generating “an online orgy of stupidity”.
Other critics, especially on the left, complain that Morton’s conception of the Anthropocene glosses over issues of race, class, gender and colonialism by blaming the entire species for the damage inflicted by a privileged minority. The focus on the human enshrined in the term Anthropocene is a particular target for critics. By referring to humans as a unified whole, they argue that Morton effaces distinctions between the affluent west and the other members of humanity, many of whom were living in a state of ecological catastrophe long before the notion of the Anthropocene became trendy on campuses in Europe and North America. Others say that Morton’s notion of politics is too woolly, or that the last thing we need when facing ecological challenges are abstract musings about the nature of objects.
Morton’s defenders, however, see him as something of a Ralph Waldo Emerson for the Anthropocene: his writing has value, even if it doesn’t always stand up to philosophical scrutiny. “No one in a philosophy department is going to be taking Tim Morton seriously,” Claire Colebrook, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has worked extensively on the Anthropocene, told me. But she teaches Morton’s work to undergraduates and they love it. “Why? Because they’re like, ‘Shut up and give me an idea!’”
Not everything that Morton said to me in the course of our conversations struck me as philosophically or ecologically plausible. (“You and me, and our computers and that painting behind you and maybe one of the pigeons in the street – we’re going to get together and make a little anarchist collective, and the focus of this anarchist collective will be reading, um, the letters of Beethoven.”) But what attracts many to his ideas are not their cogency so much as their profusion and playfulness. Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artists Philippe Parreno and Olafur Eliasson all used the same word to describe his oeuvre: it’s a “toolbox”, they said, from which they can pluck useful ideas.
That toolbox may be useful to the rest of us, too. As global warming and other features of the Anthropocene intensify, our experience of this grave new age is bound to become ever weirder and more fraught. When that happens, more and more people are likely to seek out writings – such as Morton’s – that echo their experiences of alienation, as well as their yearning for hope. Some other thinkers seem to believe we can tidy up the world if we just have better, more logical, more rigorous ideas. Morton says we can tidy up our ideas all we want, but the world is going to remain a fundamentally messy place that will always resist our philosophical decluttering. What we need to do instead is get comfortable with this weirdness. During one of our earliest conversations, I told Morton I appreciated his work, to the extent I thought I understood it. “I think I understand it too, sometimes,” he replied.
There’s nothing like the prospect of an authoritarian strongman to make intellectuals, hippies, and, above all, hippie intellectuals appear hopelessly ineffectual. Compared to organising protests or setting up a recurring donation to the American Civil Liberties Union, talk of deep time or of effacing the false ontological divide between humanity and nature risks seeming rather fatuous.
In November 2016, the week after the election of Donald Trump, Morton flew to New York to confab with the Nasa group about what a new Golden Record might contain. He was devastated by Trump’s victory, but not necessarily surprised that America had opted for what he called the political equivalent of a diet of vicodin and cinnamon buns. In his hotel room, he had a “private weeping session” while reading the David Malouf novel Fly Away Peter. Later, he went for a bite of sushi – in which mercury from coal-fired power plants, smelting metals and burning trash tends to accumulate, occasionally leading to poisoning – and got swept up in a large crowd. “I was in that first protest, man,” he told me. “I was in that first fucking anti-Trump protest at Trump Tower.” He quipped to his Twitter followers, and to the Nasa meeting, that he wanted to put the president-elect on the next Voyager probe.
I wondered how potent Morton’s animistic politics would seem under the new dispensation. The day after his talk at the Serpentine in the autumn, I had eaten lunch with him, the performance artist Kathelin Gray and John Polk Allen, AKA Johnny Dolphin, the prime mover behind Biosphere 2, a planetary microcosm built inside what is essentially a gigantic test tube in the Arizona desert. The conversation, in the course of meandering from places on the globe with special energy (the Himalayas, Chaco Canyon) to the “lunatic asylum for clever people” that is Oxford, turned toward solidarity with other species.
“I’ve always called other things ‘people’,” Gray said. “My Native American friends are very happy about that.”
“How could you not call them people?” Morton responded.
Gray told a story of snakes she had known. Morton, evidently moved, put his hand on his chest. “You had two friends called Snakey?” he said. “That’s wonderful.”
This had all sounded a bit ludicrous, even before Trump got elected. But somewhere in these schmaltzy attempts to express their affinity with other creatures was a genuine desire to move towards the sort of radically pluralist politics that Morton advocates. “Don’t hide under a rock, for heaven’s sake,” Morton had said to me at one point. “Go out in the street and start making any and as many kinds of political affiliations with as many kinds of beings, human or otherwise, that you possibly can, with a view to creating a more non-violent and just, for everybody, ecological world.” It was hard to argue with those aims. We can’t debate with other species, but the Anthropocene makes it clear that we need to include their wellbeing among our goals.
Morton’s own political emphasis seemed to change after the election. Wind-powered house parties and interspecies reading groups were out. Now, the whole point, he said, was “to freakin’ crush these fascists over and over and over again”.
Still, the Anthropocene isn’t going away just because a venal troll in a baggy suit is sitting in the White House. The build-up of carbon in the air and nitrogen in the soil; the acidification of the oceans and the desertification of once-fertile lands; the counterpane of radioactive isotopes (from nuclear testing) and plastic (from consumer packaging) that blankets the globe; the species after species extinguished – the list of dramatic changes to the planet goes on. The politics of today may be more urgent than ever, but the need for a politics of tomorrow hasn’t gone away.
A few days after the election, Morton regained his sense of humour and began to laugh about the president-elect, “this little orange guy with a huge, yellow pile of Cheetos on his head”. Yes, Morton was going to spend the next months, or however long it took, fighting fascists on campus and wherever else he could be heard, but he was also continuing to proclaim his unusual view of ecology.
“Let’s put some house music on,” Morton said at the end of one of our longest conversations. “Even if it’s true that we really are screwed, let’s not spend the rest of our lives on this planet telling ourselves how screwed we are.”
What should we do instead?
“Shake hands with a hedgehog and disco.”
Main photograph by Max Burkhalter for the Guardian