Warm Pride

I follow with astonishment the discourse on global warming, because, first and foremost, we're screwed and, second, nobody is doing the slightest thing about it.

The discourse seems to be changing today as well. The conversation on global warming is slowly but decisively changing from "addressing" warming to “living with” warming. We've shifted from a language of natural equilibrium, to a language of irresistible evolution. This is what I find particularly astonishing. We moderns, lovers of sober rationality and the freedom from constraint, have slowly succumbed to the ultimate amor fati. So unwilling to adhere to a disciplinary regime if it might curtail our way of life, we now willingly submit to the greatest force of all. Those who were the most levelheaded pragmatists now unwittingly adopt a brute fatalism. Climate Science = Destiny.

Something new has appeared on the streets and sidewalks of New York--playing catch up to similar shifts in other cities. Recycle bins have finally arrived in public spaces. The ones on the NYU campus have particularly caught my eye. Two cans: “Recycling” and “Landfill.” It's a classic Baudrillardian moment. The recycling can is the “false supplement” that appears in order to make us believe that the trashcan is real. And no longer merely trash, but landfill. The very thing that environmentalists in the 1970s were launching campaigns to combat, now reappears as a special privilege granted to all. I recycle waste with my left hand and proliferate it with my right. Like the concept of “pollution credits” that seeks to grant industry the legal right to pollute (provided they monetize their right via markets), I may now fill land without guilt. I have my landfill privilege because, dammit, it's my land to fill.

The “Anthropocene” meme operates in exactly the same way. Pundits, critics, philosophers, and scientists alike have started to describe the current age as the Anthropocene, an epoch of Earth's history defined by the presence of mankind, particularly its pollutants. Until recently humanity conceived of nature as something like Big Nature, an entity too inscrutable to describe, too massive to comprehend. Now, though, the natural history of the planet has been irreversibly altered by the outsize influence of humanity.

Such is the essence of warm pride. We're important enough to imprint the soil at geological time scales. We're powerful enough to re-engineer the planet (but apparently not powerful enough to stop it). Like the “landfill” trashcan, the concept of the Anthropocene teeters with postmodern vertigo. It indicts mankind for its fiduciary failings, only to promulgate a new historical narrative with mankind at the center. Tell me I failed, then put me in the spotlight. Remove agency, then assign it again. Ironically the term is used most often by self-styled ecologists (those erstwhile opponents of man-made change). And in academic circles, the term has become trendy among post-humanists and new materialists, who assert, in varying measures and in different ways, that humans aren't ontologically special, that humans are merely one entity on “equal footing” with all other entities.

But which is it? Are we special or aren't we? Are we special enough to go toe to toe with the planet? Or are we merely another desiring machine, no different from the lowly mouse, or the deoxyribonucleic acid?

Warm pride, in such a conflicted state, splits along classic metaphysical lines. There's an ontic component and an ontological component. The one has to do with actual existence in the world, and the other has to do with being as such. Warm pride says: We're impactful in matters of existence, but peripheral in matters of ontology. It says: We may be ontically chauvinistic, as long as we remain ontologically humble. The split between these two domains is part of the fuel that sustains it. In other words, I may display hubris toward the natural world, provided I subscribe to annihilation at the level of being. The logic of “living with” only works because it is divorced from the logic of “extinction.” This is today's warm pride: a pride of place in geological history...within a declension narrative that only ends one way. We're powerful enough to do anything, but only if that anything ends up being just one thing.

Poignant apathy is common in culture today. Stories of the sorrowful, rendered so beautifully. Harrowing tales of the wounded, but so touchingly told. Walter Benjamin warned us of this already years ago in his famous essay “The Author as Producer.” Beware of merely “tendentious” writing, he said. Beware of the New Objectivity, which seeks merely to “renew...the world as it is.” Instead, in order to combat poignant apathy, Benjamin wrote, you must change your life.

Warm pride is the ultimate form of narcissism. We are so wedded to ourselves that anything we do becomes terrific and true. Like the baby who giggles with glee after spitting up, we revel in our creation because, dammit, we created it. We walk tall in the warm winds of defeat.

The tragedy of our times: to become a vulgar determinist, to admit that there is a single force beyond humanity's control; yet to have mistakenly elected the wrong force, to have abdicated our power before the wrong supernature. We all agree that there is a force greater than ourselves--that's not a question. In other words, global warming makes us all believers in religion, whether we admit it or not. The real question is why this particular religion and not another?

Oh, to find the right theology. Oh, to realign the disciplinary regime. If we are all determinists in the end--climate as destiny--why not a determination we can live with? If we are all theologians in the last instance, why not a form of unbreakable commandment that actually helps? How to shift from an external determination to an internal determination? We need a voluntarism of the will, but we're stuck here with a defeatism of the won't.

Environmental hope lies not so much in more freedom--as the dopes who created this mess endlessly suggest--but in this very determinism. Amor fati is key, but it's only the beginning. Such an acceptance of one's destiny appears here in inverted form; we must “flip the valence,” as Jameson likes to say, to set it right again. The first step is already behind us. We've already accepted that life will change. In other words the “political event” has already taken place, the moment in which the individual realizes that his or her life is not given into natural freedom.

But the next step will be harder still, to realign the disciplinary fiat from Big Nature back down to ourselves alone. The final step will be to swallow our pride, and reawaken that force of the greater.