Cover art by Mark Henson
Philosophy has always been a tough discipline to describe; my ongoing study of the matter has not made things much easier. Of all the disciplines one might find at an academic institution, philosophy is the one that has been ‘grandfathered in’ the most; how else do you explain its bizarre confluence of various disparate domains? From ethics to epistemology, from analytic to continental: even the way this field is defined by its ‘love for wisdom’ is strange and exceptional.
To put it simply, philosophy is weird. One way I would describe myself is to say that philosophy is the study of intuitions, hunches, and instinctive patterns of thought. Our regular existence in the world is always already predicated on a myriad of unfalsifiable assumptions, ways to make sense of our sense-data in a coherent and sustainable fashion. Look too deep into any of them and you start to grow a little eccentric, as many philosophers have. Still, in a most paradoxical fashion, these assumptions are also the basis of our purported sanity. And since they’re at the foundation of our functioning, our very being, they’re certainly worth studying.
In what is to follow, I will try to lay out a few of my own intuitions, indefensible as they may ultimately be. The focus here will be on their use, the way they augment our awareness of the world and so provide a new way of looking at things. Because of this function-driven perspective, and because of the specific notions I have in mind, I will be applying my philosophy to the context which drives me: our present hellworld of climate catastrophe. The ideas I’ll lay out here will hopefully help to make sense of this dreadful, fateful era, and what we may somewhat expect it to look like.
To make a long story short (too late!), I’m going to talk about our experience of the world itself, but not as something that can be grasped completely. This epistemic humility is the important part, as it reveals a kind of primordial reality which can be used as a hint of the future. “The future”, in the sense of being the thing that we talk about, is already here, now, and cannot be thought of otherwise. Frustrating as this suggestion may be, it also explains how what is to come could be the source of our present activity. As such, this realization can make us more deliberate in our imagination of and engagement with the future. And that’s important!
This is all just to summarize what I’m about to say; if it sounds a bit confusing still, then it’s only right for me to start properly. The big idea, insofar as I have one, is that the world is everything. Not just everything we know to be true (the known knowns), but also those things we only suspect, or even that which we have dismissed entirely. All of this exists in the sense that we’ve thought of it. Along with these phenomena, there are probably plenty of others that occur without our knowing of them, some of which we even know to yet allude us. Taken together, the totality of the world is indescribable insofar as any term for it would be insufficient. To name it, to conceive of it, to even try to hold it within our cognition is an act of sheer hubris. It must instead be left as-is, utterly mysterious and magnificent.
At this point, I could take my analysis down the same path as that of the Dao De Jing, pointing out that “the true Way (of the world) is not one that can be put into words.” Following that, I would likely attribute some primordial and creative energy to it. After all, the totality is what necessarily precedes and sustains us, at least as long as we consider ourselves a mere part of it. Even so, this is not the road I mean to take, useful as its myriad insights might be. Instead, I’d like to turn to a second significant suggestion, one which partly derives from my first.
The second idea is this: that all our imagined worlds are mental derivations of the aforementioned totality. Simple as it sounds, this is a slightly different concept from several other ideas that might initially seem similar. For example, I am not saying that our imaginations have some kind of real and independent existence, like Platonic idealism or modal realism. Quite the opposite: insofar as the imaginary exists, it is wholly derived from what we actually experience. This is important, because it means that something like a literal escapism is quite impossible. Hiding in our fantasies, lies, or illusions will always prove infeasible , since we’d merely be living in a derivative impression of the reality we’re hiding from. At the same time, this also means that our imagination can always tell us something about the real world, as we create and recreate our fictions through experience and interpretation. Though merciless in their reality, at least our ideas have some inherent meaning to them in their relation to the world at large.
At this point, you would do well to ask what any of this has to do with our climate crisis future, the supposed motivation behind this entire endeavor. Well, I would answer, perhaps my two philosophical intuitions could be applied to futurity itself. After all, the thing about “the future” as we conceive of it is that it is precisely one of these derivative imaginations that only exist in relation to our present reality. Even if some kind of Einsteinian four-dimensionalism turns out to be true, the actual future that exists ahead of us in time is not one we’re able to talk about. Instead, the future as imagined is always just a cognitive tool, a way of reckoning with our temporal existence. It steers us, it informs us, but it is not the real thing.
So, if the future we know is always purely imaginary, how does that change our conception of it? Here, I believe, my first observation can be of service. While the ultimate totality is indivisible by its very nature, we could still try—in a most illusory fashion—to carve a different sort of totality out of it, this then being the set of all imagined futures. While such a collection would surely be as dazzling and incomprehensible as the true totality itself, I believe it can still be of use in dealing with our climate crisis specifically. This is because the particular prospects of a disturbed environment have invited a more discrete collection of imagined responses, though still with a considerable variety to them. As such, I believe we may be able to put all these visions together, to stacks its various pictures on an imaginary slide projector and see what kind of composite image results from that. In the next few segments, I would like to explain how such a process might operate, what its rules and challenges are like. If the future will be everything, how do we make sense of that?
At first, the dazzling diversity of climate fictions, predictions, and prognostications is sure to threaten any sense of a coherent future. Indeed, many of them seem mutually exclusive with one another. There is little to find in common between a Mad Max hellscape and a solarpunk utopia. However, here it is important to recall my second point. Since the fundamental meaning of these imaginations is in their relation to the present, there is no need for us to take them literally. Instead, they exist as musings, warnings, or aspirations. From this perspective, even the flawed expectations of ages past have some historical relevance in how they inspired the direction of their time. We may not be living in the rocketpunk utopia of Space Age science fiction, but this kind of futuristic culture still lead to such projects as the Apollo program or Disneyworld’s EPCOT. We should therefore treat our present anticipations in a similar fashion, as a thousand different force-lines colliding just beyond the horizon. This is how our amalgam is established.
Now, once you finally begin to put all the climate problems and responses together, it helps to account for the specific people and institutions who are doing the imagining. Government agencies naturally take a quite different view of things when compared to anti-civ anarchists; in creating their combined future, the position of each must be kept in mind. However the powerful might consider their future, it is more likely to be realized (or at least attempted) than the aspirations of those who lack the necessary means. Even if the present distribution of power is unlikely to be maintained indefinitely, we must still explain its shifting before we change the proportion of these representations. Of course, all of this is also modulated by a notion of ignorance; we must lend far more credence to those imaginations which are informed by a proper social-scientific analysis. Ironically, it is often the upper class and its affiliated thinktanks whose predictions are woefully behind the times, whereas those of the revolutionary underdog can prove strangely prescient. All in all, the future totality is constructed through a clash of Power and Knowledge, two factors which never line up exactly. Their precise nature is one we must find for ourselves.
In the end, perhaps the most important task in creating a future totality is the reconciling of opposites. As noted before, there are many mutually exclusive visions of how our climate crisis might unfold, even as my present philosophy insists that all of these tendencies will occur at once. Thus, we will have to find a way to have our cake and eat it too, to maintain the paradoxical coexistence of utopia and dystopia, and of differing systems in general. The key here is to consider the interaction and conflict of these alternatives, to start to see the totality as a confluence rather than a monolith. To give an example of this, consider the way that issues of automation, wealth distribution, and state policy might affect the matter of employment. In this area, the variety of imaginable scenarios runs from full employment to permanent unemployment, from post-work communism to the renewal of serfdom. To understand the totality is to see the relation between these imaginations, to see how one might arise in response to another. Mass unemployment could lead to a disillusioned non-working class seeking a mass exit from capitalist society, setting up prefigurative communist structures in its absence. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, the same unemployed class might find themselves the victim of state repression, being press-ganged into climate cleanup crews working for starvation wages. Along these lines, a thousand different outcomes are possible, and it’s much the same for every other climate issue you can imagine. This interaction is the true wealth of the totality.
As I conclude this piece, I would like to leave you with a consideration of some of the big issues. Here are some of my own thoughts on how the climate crisis might look in its totality. First, the actions of state actors will be quite varied, though always with the underlying goal of maintaining and entrenching its own power. Some will seek out international cooperation, others will shut the door and pretend nobody’s home. The onslaught of sea level rise and desertification will see some states retreat to their zones of relative safety, even as others employ ever more authoritarian means to preserve what they have. The few benevolent regimes will still commit to either austerity or redevelopment in the face of economic pressures, each of which carries its own pernicious downsides. At the same time, non-state actors of all kind will seek to profit or simply survive amid the chaos. Communes may be carved out in the margins, though their semi-governments could run from friendly anarchies to genocidal cults. War between all these factions will be commonplace, though the specter of nuclear annihilation will still make global war unlikely. Overall, the general situation will make everything a little shittier, or at least more extreme in all directions. Besides all this, a few historical wild cards will persist: the intervention new technologies and social movements, the unlucky timing of pandemics and disasters, and any other factor that’s inherently unpredictable. None of these will solve the core issues, but they do provide its contingent modulation.
Taken together, this is what I expect the future to be like. It may not sound all too hopeful, but then the present state of the world doesn’t inspire too much hope in me as-is. Insofar as there are things to be optimistic about, it’s the folks who are confronting these issues sincerely, building up the networks of resilience which could get us through tough times. These efforts are what will make the difference, along with all the support, solidarity, and research which empowers them. Along the way, of course, we will also need all those other things which make life worth living. There will therefore be much work to do. But with the power of our imagination, we can not only anticipate this work, but find ways to plan and organize it. And if the real future is indeed shaped by its imaginary totality, then let us steer the latter in a good direction. That is something we can do right now.