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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cthulhu and Climate Change

Open water at North Pole 26 July 2013

Sun sun sun
Burn burn burn
[Jim Morrison, Celebration of the Lizard, 1969]

The August 2013 issue of Fortean Times has two articles on H. P .Lovecraft- ‘Lovecraft resurgent’ by Roger Luckhurst and ‘File under ‘science fiction’’ by David Hambling. Both mention Kenneth Grant’s attempt to claim the rationalist Lovecraft as an occultist. Both rebut this claim by emphasising Lovecraft’s scientific approach to ‘horror’ based on his philosophy of ‘cosmic indifferentism’. As Luckhurst puts it, ‘Horror  in [Lovecraft’s] fiction is generated from the realisation  that the vast age of the Universe  and the discovery of creatures  that existed  before and after  the paltry span of humanity renders  all human values and beliefs irrelevant.’ Or as Hambling expresses it ‘The Universe is vast, ruled by the laws of physics, and completely indifferent to anything as small and insignificant as mankind. There are no gods, benign or otherwise.’

Luckhurst also mentions the work of philosophers Graham  Harman [‘Weird realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy’, Zero Books, 2012 ] and Eugene Thacker [ ‘In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy’ Zero books, 2011] which connect Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic indifferentism’ with attempts  to ‘think beyond the human subject’. Intrigued, I got the books and read them. What I found is that alongside Lovecraft, both books also discuss the  philosophical problems posed by climate change.

Immediately there is a slight problem. Although both books are well written, so it only took me a few hours to read through them , the questions they raise are complex and difficult to ‘compress’ so that any comprehensive  summary of their contents would be not much shorter than the books themselves- and might even be longer, requiring a 400 or 500 page long blog post…and a tl:dr (too long, didn’t read) response.

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming. 

Nuclear holocaust 

Thirty years ago I was unaware of  the threat of posed by climate change. What did worry me as a resident of inner London was nuclear war. At the time, Margret Thatcher in the UK and Ronal Reagan in the USA seemed to be obsessed by the need to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ by making more nuclear weapons. These included  nuclear armed Cruise missiles, some of which were to be based in England. By ramping up the anti-Communist rhetoric, my fear was that the chance of an accidental (rather than deliberate) nuclear war breaking out was increased.

At the same time, partly inspired by the Stonehenge Free Festival, the  anarcho-punk subculture which I was part of was crossing over and becoming mixed with the psychedelic ‘new age travellers’ counterculture. [And what was to become the goth subculture just to confuse things]. Add in a personal interest in Kenneth Grant’s occultisation of H. P. Lovecraft ’s works (via an interest in science  fiction rather than ‘cosmic horror’) and a rather potent mix  was created. Oh, and just remembered, John Lilly’s 1967 book ‘Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer’ was another personal input…

The output was a hurtle into the abyss of the extinction of human consciousness via nuclear annihilation. Salvaged from the radioactive ruins was the reassurance that this was not the future. However, the revelation was mystical rather than rational. From the philosophical perspective of Harman and Thacker’s texts it was not a ‘truth’, rather it was an indication of how deeply ‘human centredness’ influences our understandings and constructions of reality. But even if it was a false consciousness, a psychedelic artefact, a flower plucked from the mouth of hell- the endless moment of annihilation did pass, slowly fading away as the eighties unfolded.

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming. 

Chaos International 3 1987 -Solstice Letter

Slow death through climate change
With climate change the narrative is closer to Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ were  the scientific/ rational narrator assembles stray strands of evidence which only when combined reveal the outlines of the horror. Unlike nuclear war, the coming catastrophe will not be cataclysmic. Instead it creeps up on us like an incoming tide lapping higher and higher up the beach. No one wave will wash away our cities, making the acts of denial easier. It is only when the project new high tide line is examined and found to be far inland that the dread descends.  Will the survivors cling on to new islands of sanity? Or retreat to the mountains of madness?

A power cut. The machines stop. Computer screen goes blank. 

Power on again. How long will it last? Long enough for me to finish writing this? Long enough for you to finish reading it?  The source of the power cut a sudden summer thunder storm hitting power lines a few miles away. But it could have been a flash flood, a ferocious winter gale or an unexpected snow storm. Such extreme weather events are but one symptom of climate change. Loss of electrical power mainly a minor inconvenience  But the impact of food crops will be more damaging. The various Neolithic cultures which emerged after the last Ice Age about 10 000 years ago were able to develop into civilisations thanks to the regularity of seasons under stable climate conditions. The Neolithic farming revolution enabled the accumulation of food surpluses. The first writing in Sumer (now Iraq) recorded the quantities of food stored and led on to the origins of science and philosophy, to the luxury of social self-reflection and social self-consciousness. To ‘history’ as the written record of events.

No food surpluses - no science, no philosophy, no history. No ‘civilisation’. Eugene Thacker  [In the Dust of this Planet pages 4/5] distinguishes between  the ‘world-in-itself’- the world ‘in some inaccessible, already given state’ which cease to be the moment we think and attempt to act on it’, when in turns into the ‘world-for-us’- the world as we imagine/ perceive it to be. And finally, ‘the world-without-us’- which is the subtraction of the human from the world. From one perspective, the world-in itself- and the world-without-us define the origins and extinction of our species homo sapiens sapiens. But the word human only dates from the 15th century in France and the scientific term homo sapiens from Carl Linnaeus in the 18th  century so is a concept/ construction of the rational Enlightenment.

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming. 

Coextensive with the rational Enlightenment was the irrational Industrial Revolution which through the exploitation of fossilised energy (coal) began the process of climate change. The Industrial Revolution was also intimately bound up with the origins of modern capitalism.  As the dominant/dominating power, the ‘us’ of the ‘world-for-us’ is not the collective/ species ‘humanity’, it is the capitalist sub-species/sub-culture.  From any perspective other than that of this dominant class, the ‘world-for-us’ is  really the ‘world-against-us’. Without the economic imperative of continuous growth, the threat of climate change would recede into insignificance since all economic activity would by have remained at the organic/sustainable level.  But…

…it is a fundamental/crucial/central aspect of radical (Marxist and anarchist) political theory that the world-as-it-was of feudalism had to be first broken apart by industrial capitalism before the world-as-it-will-become (might-become?) can arise. Historically this follows on from a theory developed by  the Scottish Enlightenment in which human societies progress through stages from a gatherer-hunter stage (‘primitive communism’) through an animal and crop farming stage (‘feudalism’)  to a commercial/ market economy stage.(‘capitalism’)… with  socialism/communism  as the final (‘end of history’) stage. It is the final stage since the conflicts and tensions which (from Hegel’s re-working of the Scottish Enlightenment themes) are finally resolved.

Another but… But if the commercial/ capitalist stage depends upon fossil fuel powered industrialisation, then there is race against time to achieve its overthrow before climate change negates the potential of a post-capitalist future. Go back to the 1970s and the potential for a positive post-capitalist future still existed. It existed in the ‘radical technology’ (renewable energy) and related ‘worker-control-of-industry’ movements plus the ‘anti-work’ ethic of the counterculture. The potential future embedded in these movements was not realised. Instead we got neo-liberalism and a right-ward shift which intensified/increased CO2 emissions.

As a consequence  we are now locked into a process of climate change which is Cthulhu like in its horror. It may be a slow and long drawn out death of a civilisation rather than the immediate extinction of nuclear war, but a death it will be. Like an ice age in reverse, no doubt  a few groups of humans will survive the heat death of this civilisation. As Nikita Khrushchev is supposed  to have said about the survivors of a nuclear war ‘the living will envy the dead.’

I could be wrong, along with all the scientists who are charting the advance of climate change. Perhaps, like the apparent logic of mutually assured nuclear destruction, something will turn up and the world-as-it-is will continue, capitalism will collapse through its own contradictions and a new world and new civilisation will arise to take its place.

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming. 

If the climate change scientists are right however, the consilience of their theories and evidence is too strong to be overturned. All our dreams will turn to dust. I want to believe that ‘reason’ will prevail against the irrationality of ‘business as usual’.  That the horror of our situation will penetrate even the most closed of minds and the de-carbonisation of the global economy will become a survival imperative.

Another power-cut intervenes. Plunged into silence and darkness again. I find a candle and jot down a few words by Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Rage? There should be. Instead there is only a frozen numbness.

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits, dreaming. 


Blogger Simon Brooke said...


Without the industrial revolution the human population was growing, and had been growing, steadily, since the neolithic. As the human population grew, it progressively cleared forest, and it would have continued progressively to clear forest. Further, in some parts of the world, even primitive agriculture, as practiced, was not sustainable. Irrigation, for example, over extensive periods, can salt land rendering it infertile, especially in hot regions.

The growth of the pre-industrial population was periodically checked by famine and by disease; without industrialisation it would have proceeded more slowly. But in the world now it is the non-industrialised populations which are growing fastest. Without industrialisation, Malthus' prediction is still true: people ultimately outbreed their resource base, and like any other species without a climax predator, the population is resource-limited. Without industrialisation, the humman race would nevertheless reach the global limits of its resource base, and crash. It would just take longer.

Furthermore, humanity is a very adaptable species; we have adapted, even at a pre-industrial level, to every environment on earth except the high polar regions. There is no forest so remote that pre-industrial humanity would not eventually have expanded to destroy it. The mass extinction event caused by human expansion destroying the habitats of the overwhelming majority of other species on the planet would still happen. By the time humanity reached the limits of its resource base, an enormous harm would still be done to the planet's biosphere - a harm so great that it's possible that even a remnant population of humanity would not survive it. Just as, in fact, now.

Finally, there would still have been climate change. It would not necessarily be change which resulted in a significant rise in global temperature, because at least the vast bulk of the fossil hydrocarbons would remain unburned; but the desertification of the Amazon, Congo and Ganges basins would nevertheless have enormous consequences for the global climate. And, without trees, the planet would lack a short term buffer for carbon, so the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere would nevertheless be substantially higher than pre-human levels; not higher enough to cause runaway global warming, perhaps, but still sufficiently to result in some degree of warming.

In summary, it is not correct to blame the coming extinction of humanity on the industrial revolution, or on capitalism. The extinction event was coming anyway; capitalism has merely accelerated the process. It's possible that without capitalism the extinction need not have been inevitable. It's possible that in a pre-industrial civilisation which had invested its modest surplusses into science, instead of into religion and warfare, an understanding of the planetary ecosystem, together with communications technologies which would allow the global co-ordination of sustainable management of the ecosystem, and effective and safe contraception, would all have been developed in time to save the planet. It's possible but in all truth it isn't likely.

Humanity will commit suicide not because we invented capitalism but because as a species we are too stupid to survive; and that was always true.

3:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In that issue of Fortean Times Luckhurst mentions another book - Cyclonopedia - which interests me. It seems to be a fictional account concerning the politics of oil being driven by an 'extra-terrestrial demonic thing lurking in the cracks of the planet'. This made sense to me as I cannot otherwise work out why the oil industry has taken over the running the planet - other than some deep, controller with a disdain for the planet's inhabitants.

Grant and Lovecraft, as artists, have picked up on this vibe and construed it as best they can.

1:59 am  

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