August 21st, 2016
Test Your Strength
Sometimes there’s just a little glint of something in the sand. A quotation is brought in to the stream of the conversation and it’s meant to provide support for some point being put across in an answer to an interviewer’s question.
In Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times interview with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, it’s the moment when he pulls Milton Friedman into the conversation. The question has to do with whether or not ideas from Burning Man have entered the larger culture. Harvey responds:
I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman. He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.
I don’t know the origin of the quote or whether it’s accurate or not. While I didn’t have much use for the rest of the article, I did find the Friedman quote intriguing. On the one hand we could make the case that the ideas we find lying around are the result of some historical process and therefore predetermined by their predecessors. The other case is that these ideas are lying around for a variety of reasons. Some are bought and paid for, others are the result of conspiracy theories, some are just random trends. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. As I look around me at the ideas lying around, that one seems to fit the bill.
When we consider Friedman’s idea about crisis and action and apply it to global warming, we run into a problem of scale. According to Friedman, action occurs when we perceive the crisis. As the crisis reveals itself, we humans look to the ideas lying around and hope to find something that might serve to blunt its force. Global warming is a large wave overwhelming the biosphere. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact moment this wave began gathering its force, certainly it’s a trans-generational event. The patenting of the steam engine (1781) serves as a useful marker of global warming’s beginning.
Objects of this size and complexity have been given the name hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton. Even our ability to directly detect the crisis is limited. We require a global network of sensors, computer climate models and a good measure of inference. The size and momentum of the global warming wave begs the question as to whether the ideas we might find lying around could possibly counter something of this size.
We look for an idea to counter strength with strength. We might believe through the use of leverage, physics and ingenuity we can create a force sufficient to provide an answer. Our instinct tells us that size and momentum of global warming must be overmastered.
In addition to the word “hyperobjects” Timothy Morton also has given us an idea of the value of “hypocrisy, weakness and lameness.” When confronted with something as large and powerful as global warming, perhaps we should take a different tack. Dinosaurs were the most powerful animals on earth during another global climate event. Strength didn’t result in survival. Perhaps as we look at the ideas lying around, we shouldn’t assume that it’s strength that will get us out of this crisis. To evade the power of a hyperobject, we may need to reverse our instincts and get small.