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Eco ogy Frontline

BE INSPIRATION │ KNOWLEDGE Tim Morton What Ecology Really Means

One of my favorite bumper stickers here in the USA says “COEXIST,” and it's made up of seven religious symbols that spell out the word. Whenever I see it I think about the essence of ecology.

Ecology means we coexist.

My stomach coexists with the bacteria that help me digest my food. My DNA coexists with viruses that over millennia have become inserted into my DNA sequence. Anaerobic bacteria coexist with my cells by hiding inside them, providing energy as mitochondria— what are they hiding from? Their own environmental disaster, the one we call oxygen.

When we think deeply about how this coexistence functions, we won't find a center or an edge to it. There is no “top” or “bottom” lifeform, no “omega point” to which life is tending. There isn't even much of a distinction between life and non-life. You drive to work using dinosaur bones and algae. You walk on chalky cliffs that are billions of crushed tiny shells. You hammer in a nail whose iron was excreted by bacteria. You look at a spider's web—you are looking at DNA expression. A beaver's DNA doesn't stop at the ends of its whiskers, but at the end of its dam.

This strange mesh without center or edge has no controller—it's a sort of semi-organized anarchy. Who is in charge? When you sneeze, are you trying to get rid of a cold virus? Or has the rhinovirus coded for people who sneeze, in order to propagate itself? Where does this mesh stop? At the surface of the biosphere? Surely it must include the Sun, whose rays pulse lifeforms into being? And on and on: no center, no edge.

Since the mesh of ecology has no center or edge, it's not quite right to describe it as a “web” or even as a “system,” or as a “sphere”—those sorts of concepts make us feel “part of something bigger,” they give us that religious feeling of belonging to a whole. But there is another sort of religious feeling: the sense of intimacy with a stranger. Think of all the times in Norse mythology, in Christianity, in Buddhism, in which one being encounters another being, vulnerably and nakedly, or in disguise—sometimes both.

This feeling of intimacy with strangers is much more like ecological coexistence than feeling part of something bigger. We can get a handle on the “something bigger” but there is always a threatening, uncanny, trickster quality to the idea of encountering a stranger. How do you know it's a stranger? You already are familiar with their strangeness, perhaps … what is strange is uncanny, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Uncanniness is the dominant sensation of an ecological age. Something weird is happening. We try to block it—we retreat to our human burrow, or we spiritualize the whole thing by coating the strangeness with the glossy paint of holistic belonging: this is Nature, this is Life, this is “our” ecosystem. But we know, or suspect, that it isn't ours, this existence that is always coexistence. It's like finding out that the home you've been living in for decades is actually a hotel, and you are just a guest, and there are strangers coming in and out of the lobby.

In the face of these strangers, we have a responsibility. It's an unshakeable responsibility. There is no good reason to fix global warming —all the reasons we can think of are based on some kind of self-interest, whether we expand it to include as many other beings as possible, or not. But in order to wonder whether to fix global warming, you have to be breathing. You are breathing oxygen, which is the gift of the bacteria, which they are hiding from in your body, the mitochrondria. You coexist before you have reasons why you should act ethically or do the right thing politically.

Allowing other beings to coexist is a direct, nonviolent political act. It's an act that is strictly impossible to carry out perfectly: every time you breathe you are killing something. Since there is no outside of the mesh of coexistence, everything you do, everything you are, is a kind of hypocrisy. Ecological awareness makes us realize we are all hypocrites. This is cognitively very healthy, because it provides the exit route from postmodern cynicism and nihilism.

But it's not a comfortable exit into feeling whole, or feeling part of something bigger. It's an exit into greater awareness, and with greater awareness goes a greater sensitivity and a greater feeling of hypocrisy. Ecological awareness means coping with this fact on a daily basis.

Humans are now at a point at which we must make decisions based on huge spans of time: the half-life of Plutonium is 24 100 years; global warming reaches 100 000 years into the future. That far away, nothing that I am will be of any significance—no one then will be meaningfully related to me. But everything I do, including typing these words with my greasy fingers on this laptop in a coffee shop in downtown Davis, California, will have a profound effect that magnifies over the coming years. It's a shocking thought. Humans are finally becoming aware, on a visceral and on a profound intellectual level, that there are nonhumans, and that they are part of social, psychic and philosophical space. This is not the end of history: it's only the beginning.

Tim Morton is the author of Realist Magic (OHP, forthcoming), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and over seventy essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music.

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