I’ve been spending time recently with Tim Morton’s new book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. I ordered it as the main text for a course on philosophy and the environment I’m teaching in December. The course lasts only two weeks and is two-thirds online, so I thought it would be a valuable exercise to focus intensely on one topic: the meaning of global warming. What could be a better book to use? Well, last night while struggling to write the introductory lecture, I found myself echoing Morton in quoting a Talking Heads song, muttering to myself, “my god, what have I done?”
Then this morning something clicked. I recalled the Dr. Suess book, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It may have had special resonance growing up in wintry Wisconsin, where the prospect of interminable show shoveling had us understandably longing for a felis ex machina to relieve us of finger-numbing duties. You may recall the basics of the plot: Two kids are directed by their mother to shovel the walk while she goes shopping. The Cat in the Hat shows up (again – the same dramatis personae were in the original), snow-shoeing into their house and promptly helping himself to a piece of cake while reclining in a warm bath. That impertinent behavior causes a pink bathtub ring which the Cat removes with the mothers’ white dress. The pink spot is “re-moved” to, in turns, a wall, shoes, a rug, and a bed. With the help of littler and littler alphabetized cats emerging from his headwear, the pink spot is transferred to a TV, a sauce pan, and finally fanned outside to the snow in the yard. Attempts to eradicate the spot by pop gun, rake, and baseball bat only serve to spread the mess until the last anti-spot combatant-in-hat, the microscopic Little Cat Z, deploys the magical “Voom” to successfully clean up all the pink. When all the snow is restored to its original whiteness the Cat and his re-hatted assistants depart with the open offer of future spot therapy.
Theodore Geisel’s The Lorax gets all the attention as an environmental cautionary tale, but I think this one is the more interesting. If we’re truly living in the age of hyperobjects, per Morton – things that are massively distributed relative to humans: viscous, nonlocal, generating their own time and space – then even the wisdom of the Lorax is going to look quaint and inadequate. Let’s assume the pink spot is analogous to something like nuclear radiation, a persistent reality resistant to remediation. Both spread from a localized, background space to ubiquity. They can’t be wiped away or moved away. Did Geisel mean to say that, like Heidegger, only a god-like power from elsewhere can save us now, called forth by the spread of doom we’re within? Or did he want us to not give up the hope that we can solve our environmental problems with enough imagination (“maybe we can engineer some Zoom!”)? The Cat in the Hat is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, so helpful and all, but is that what we need?
I think I need to get my students to help me figure this out.