Tim Morton on Hyperobjects: new book from U Minn Press

Tim Morton has a new book coming out with the University of Minnesota Press. The cover really caught my eye; here it is with a draft blurb, for the back cover, I believe, that I scooped from Tim’s blog.



The world as we know it has already come to an end.

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us as it does with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding. Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. In this book, Morton explains what hyperobjects are and what they mean for how we think, how we coexist with one another and with nonhumans, and how approach and understand our politics, ethics, and art.

Moving fluidly between philosophy, science, literature, visual and conceptual art, and popular culture, the book argues that hyperobjects mean that the end of the world has already occurred in the sense that concepts such as world, nature, and even environment are no longer a meaningful horizon against which human events take place. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, whether climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of thinking.

Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to understand the world we now live in, Hyperobjects takes the first steps, outlining a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of many books, including The Ecological Thought and Ecology without Nature. He blogs frequently at Ecology without Nature.


Stationarity, ecology and law: which decisions are final?

There is a very interesting post over at Law 2050 on stationarity and climate adaptation in law. And it makes reference to a new 2013 paper in the Duke Law Journal.

The idea of stationarity is well-known in hydrology as the assumption that natural variability fluctuates within an overall envelope of stability. So we might have more or less precipitation or water availability in a given year but outer limits of variability exist such that, year over year, things are relatively stable. This is what allows planners to build for 50- or 100-year floods. But as many people will notice, we seem to have 50- or 100- year floods more often than fifty or one hundred years. And this has led to a sustained questioning of the assumed stability of things and to a 2008 by a paper in Science claiming that stationarity is dead. The argument is that human forcing on climate and hydrological systems has taken natural variation out of the envelope – there are now no clear limits to variability.

I used the rejection of stationarity in a recent paper to show how we need to rethink policy concepts in the Anthropocene. For instance, the idea of “renewable water” is common in policy discourse, but it relies on the idea that there are annual stocks and seasonal flows of water and this assumes that water variability is relatively stable over time. Take away that assumption of stability and the idea that water is “renewable” is not so straightforward (if it remains workable at all).

If we consider the idea of stationarity as it pertains to law, it raises anew a question asked in the early 1990s by legal scholar Dan Tarlock in his essay “The nonequilibrium paradigm in ecology and the partial unraveling of environmental law.” In that paper, Tarlock argues that the idea of a stable, natural world is what links science to law in a relevant way. This is because in a stable world the outer limits of things are more or less fixed. This is helpful in law because we need to be able to bind a case somehow in order to reach a final judgment – binding a case in certain ways is what allows certain things to be evidence and other things not to be. Similarly, the idea of outer limits in early ecosystem science suggested that what we need to do is develop environmental laws that would keep us from pushing things off balance. Think of early ideas of a “maximum sustainable yield” in forestry. There the idea was that we can keep taking a certain harvest because the forest as a whole was stable over time – things were in equilibrium.

It is now common, however, to think of complex systems as being at a distance from equilibrium. Think of your body. It hums along at 37 degrees C and works hard to keep it that way regardless of the temperature in your room, building or the environment. So your body is at a distance from equilibrium. If it was not, you would be ill; possibly dead. Similarly, the nonequilibrium paradigm in ecology suggests that broader systems, even the earth itself, work not by seeking stability or equilibrium, but by not doing so. So too in the forestry example. It is not the case that we can develop maximum sustainable yield models that assume the forest itself is always oriented towards stability. Forests are changing and adapting, as Nancy Langston’s classic book on the topic makes clear (Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares).

The idea of nonequilibrium systems troubles the fit of ecological science and the law. In brief, the law will need to catch up to what we are learning about complex systems and to formulate other ways of reaching decisions that do not presume that things will remain relatively stable over time. The paper out in the Duke Law Review is really a nice contribution on how we might begin to think of the fit between environmental law and complex systems without the assumption of stationarity and, in addition, how we might use what we have learned from non-stationary systems to adapt to surprises both in ecological systems and in social systems, like the law itself.

Webinar from POLIS Water Project now online

The video and information below can also be found here from the webinar on Global Networks and Governance Innovation: Tools for Resilient Watersheds.

“In this webinar, the guest speakers discuss challenges and opportunities for building resilience within watersheds. It focuses on the importance of global networks for driving new innovation processes and improving resilience in our watersheds. It explores the challenges and benefits that transnational relationships bring for watershed-based organizations, and the role of social “traps” during disasters and how they can affect the capacity to build resilience across sectors within a watershed.


Michele-Lee Moore
Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Director, Water, Innovation, and Global Governance Lab (WIGG)
Research Associate & Strategic Faculty Advisor, POLIS Water Sustainability Project

Frances Westley
Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience
JW McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, University of Waterloo”

New issue of Minding Nature now available

Minding Nature has published a new issue. Minding Nature is the journal for the Center for Humans and Nature. Some interesting papers, see below:


By: Bruce Jennings

Our entire economic system is fundamentally dependent upon the functional integrity of natural and living systems that are losing patience with us. That is to say, these systems have a limited capac­ity to tolerate human extraction from them and excretion of waste products and by products into them, and human economic activity worldwide is colliding with those limits.

Read More »

By: Julianne Lutz Warren

October 29, 2012: This is the 83rd anniver­sary of Black Tuesday, the day that the stock market crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. As I awaited Hurricane Sandy, I walked Tess, my terrier, along the wall of Central Park near West 103rd Street, which was barricaded by city authori­ties to keep people safe from falling tree limbs.

Read More »

By: Qi Feng Lin
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was an Ameri­can conservationist, forester, and wildlife ecologist who was deeply concerned about the speed and impact of industrialization on the natural world and human-nature relationships. Since human agency in the modern world is so pro­foundly shaped by economics, Leopold knew he would eventually have to come to terms with the premises and consequences of economics in order to address modern environmental challenges. Read More »
By: Kathryn Papp and Janis Alcorn
What does the group of Wall Street trad­ers focused on banks of computer screens have in common with the wa­tershed communities of South Ameri­ca’s Gran Chaco, the second largest ecosystem on the continent; the priests of Bali, where some of the ear­liest evidence of irrigation used in rice cultivation is found; the Arctic Circle’s indigenous communities of herders and hunters; and National Heritage Areas? A great deal. Read More »
By: Laura Sewall
The fact that nature provides benefits and is healing to the human soul has never been a surprise to me. I grew up climbing trees, fishing, and mucking around in swamps. I was mostly on my own and happy to be outside, de­spite the dysfunction that blazed and simmered inside the family home. Read More »
By: Martha Twaddle
I recall a particular late morning in my garden, one of those late fall days when the sky is vivid blue and cloudless; the air holds the crispness of impending winter around the envelope of sunny warmth. The image still so vivid in my mind was a rose bud—still tight in its emergence with the petal tips deeply blushed with pink. With more warmth and sun, this bud was so full of potential to be a fragrant blos­som. Read More »
By: Emily Nguyen-Vo
The important attempt to broaden the scope of eth­ics to include nonhuman entities has been only partial­ly successful; this project requires more attention to cultural and social contexts and a stronger philosophi­cal rationale. Here, the concept of “place” can make a significant contribution. Read More »
By: Michael Gusmano
The world is growing older. During the past centu­ry, life expectancy has increased by nearly 30 years. By 2050, one-third of the world’s population is expected to be age 60 and over, and between 2000 and 2050, the percentage of people age 80 and over is projected to more than double.1 These changing demographics are predicted to create a “surge” in demand for long-term care. Read More »
By: CHN Staff
CHN BOOKSHELF – A regular feature calling attention to importantbooks and articles that CHN staff, board, and collaborating scholars are reading and recommend. Read More »
By: Anja Claus
More and more individuals and groups are questioning manifestations of the modernist para­digm—our economic structure, our urban and ru­ral planning strategies, and especially, our ethical sense. To these questions, I would add three more: How is it that we might re-envision the ways in which we inhabit our places, particularly the ways we inhabit our urban centers? Read More »

Country, native title, and ecology: a new (free!) e-book

Australian National University Press has published Jessica K. Weir’s

edited collection: Country, native title and ecology.Country, title and ecology

It is freely available as a download e-pub document here or, if you don’t have an e-reader (or software to convert the file for your PC) then you can read it online at the same link.

Here is the opening paragraph, followed by the table of contents, it looks quite interesting:

“The overtly technical process of making a native title application has obscured one of the central reasons why Indigenous people engage with the native title system – to affirm and promote their relationships with country. This publication focuses on Indigenous peoples’ relationships with country, and seeks to discuss native title in terms that are more directly related to those relationships. In doing so, we also describe ways of living on country that inform and critique mainstream land and water management. This volume also includes case studies that are not classified as part of the native title system, so as to broaden native title issues into the frame of traditional ownership. Limitations with common and statutory native title law have meant that native title is not a land justice system accessible to all traditional owners of country. Profound connection to country frequently exists where native title cannot be successfully applied for, or where traditional owners choose not to make native title applications.”

Title page

Imprint and copyright information

List of Figures and Tables


List of Shortened Forms


1. Country, Native Title and Ecology

2. Connections of Spirit: Kuninjku Attachments to Country

3. The Kalpurtu Water Cycle: Bringing Life to the Desert of the South West Kimberley

4. ‘Two Ways’: Bringing Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Knowledges Together

5. Water Planning and Native Title: A Karajarri and Government Engagement in the West Kimberley

6. Native Title and Ecology: Agreement-making in an Era of Market Environmentalism

7. Towards a Carbon Constrained Future: Climate Change, Emissions Trading and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Australia

Democracy and ecological crisis: the case of the climate

Today’s ecological crisis has long been identified as also a democratic one. Lynn White Jr.’s famous essay (“The historical roots of our ecological crisis,” Science 155 1203-07.) is often used to rail against anthropocentrism, but White starts out by arguing that:

Our ecological crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms.

For my part, it seems clear that democracy is not “entirely novel” since it has no essential format and has been around in various cultures for some time. But White was talking about a “democratized world”. Clearly then, something either remains ambiguous for White (since this was written during the Cold War and hence worldwide democracy was very far from existing, or even guaranteed) or White had something else in mind. The latter is more likely to be closer to the truth, since the article is about a particular way of constructing moral and political obligations within a new view of the world – an ecological one.

These quick thoughts are just a lead in to the set of publications from the Center for Humans and Nature that were recently released. Here they are:

Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?

In the wake of superstorm Sandy and an election process that all but ignored climate change, HumansandNature.org looks ahead.  As Obama begins his second term, our Scholars and Contributors initiate a critical discussion, reflecting on if—and how—the “last, best hope on earth” can tackle one of the most significant challenges the world faces. We invite you to join the conversation and share your thoughts on how we can reshape the democratic process and meet the climate crisis.

Senior Scholars Ben Barber and Carol Gould take the lead on this series.  Click here to read their essays.

Four other Contributors are also kicking off the conversation:

Bill McKibben: Currencies of Movement Are the Key

Robyn Eckersley: The Tyranny of the Minority

Tim Hayward: Why Taking the Climate Challenge Seriously Means Taking Democracy More Seriously

John Dryzek: Deliberative Democracy and Climate Change

Chemical confusion: Paul Hawken on Food, Environment and Health

Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest and Natural Capitalism, gave the following talk recently at the 16th anniversary of the Center for Environment and Health.

Environmentalism 2.0(12, 13…) and nature v. nature

Slate published an article recently by Keith Kloor on the “battle over nature” in mainstream environmentalism. It starts out from a now well-rehearsed departure point: Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s declaration that environmentalism is dead.

Since then, as Bryan G. Norton so nicely put it, environmentalists are at best mourning a movement past. As the opening gambit of one of his major works states, the obits have been written. Of course, Norton doesn’t think this is exactly right. For him, what is dead is a particular version of environmentalism, one pitched between the preservationist (i.e. hands-off nature) view anchored in John Muir and the conservationist (i.e. use nature wisely) view anchored in Gifford Pinchot. Norton’s view is that it is this version of environmentalism that is dead.

So what comes next?

According to the Slate article, environmentalism 2.0 is the new battle for nature where the remaining preservationists are confronted by pragmatic modernists. If those are the two options, it looks to me like conservationism in a new outfit. And not, as Norton would have it, a new environmentalism characterized by a thorough-going pragmatism – which is a philosophic view where the test of truth is what prevails in the long run and in which experimental policies drive assessments of how to relate to nested and complex social and ecological systems. It is a philosophy, for Norton, of adaptive management.

But if this is so, of what interest is “nature” in the Slate article?

As I’ve noted here before, following some of Tim Morton’s work, working without nature is the way to go. But it is not quite accurate to say that we can do ecology without nature, as Morton asks us to do. I’m not interested in emphasizing differences, but my view is that ecology is entangled with nature. And that it will be so for the foreseeable future. Which is to say, even if we think that the concept, worldview, or proposition of “nature” is outdated, wrongheaded, or empty, it remains the case that the social and ecological systems we inhabit have been actively shaped by it for quite some time. So while we need philosophic work on doing ecology without nature, we also need a practical philosophy for an ecology entangled with it. We need something like transition ecology.

Back to Slate. It seems fairly clear that most of our existing environmental policies and institutional structures took shape at a time when environmentalism was alive and kicking, and when “nature” figured as the backdrop for plays of human drama; let’s say, mid to late 20th century. Putting things in this context clarifies where the Slate article goes off track: it is that environmental folk are already worried that regulations and institutions are too lax, yet they cannot admit that the kind of institutions we now have are inadequate. So on the one hand they want better regulations, but they have a poor foundation to build on. They have built their house on the sandy land (which, yes, is intended both as biblical metaphor and aimed at an interpretation of Leopold where he fits neatly into the preservationist’s building).

And this is where the Slate article gets it wrong in its idea that environmentalism 2.0 is right, or even a palpably new option suitable for 2012, 2013 or 2xxx. Or for any time in the Anthropocene for that matter. The mistake is that it pits failed preservationist ideas against an amplified and globally extended anthropocentrism, cloaked in the idea of ecosystem services (i.e. that the entirety of Earth Systems can be valued in terms of human well-being). And this is not a moral anthropocentrism (in some versions, yes, but that is not my point) but a social, scientific and technological one; where all that counts as the “world” is what befits our current and contingent understanding of our relationships with complex systems. But this is not a new foundation; this is building an ever teetering edifice.

And when you paint a wall white and decide its too bright, you don’t put on a new coat. You change colors.



Tim Morton on Ecology and Presence

Tim Morton gave a superb talk at Western University in their Public Humanities lecture series (which continually assembles creative and excellent conversations) and as part of the Underground Ecocriticism conference. It is posted on his Ecology without Nature blog here and shows some of the paradoxes of thinking “nature” across philosophy, science, aesthetics; all sorts of good stuff driving home the profound changes necessary for getting on track with ecology.

Questioning Planetary Boundaries

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger over at The Breakthrough Institute made their fame, in part, by declaring the Death of Environmentalism back in 2005. A death I’ve often thought Bryan G. Norton gave a nice rebuttal to, and very compelling recovery of in his book, Sustainability: a philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management.

In a new report, they question the idea that planetary boundaries can be defined in the ways currently circulating in the literature on global environmental governance. The original idea of planetary boundaries was produced in 2009 in two key papers, one in Nature and the other in Ecology and Society. There were originally nine planetary boundaries in total: land-use change, biodiversity loss, the nitrogen, phosphorous and freshwater cycles, respectively, ocean acidification, climate change, ozone depletion in the stratosphere, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger, together with Linus Blomqvist, argue that, in fact, only three of those systems have non-arbitrary boundaries. Meaning that there are three systems – climate, phosphorous and ozone depletion – that, if pushed beyond their boundaries, will reach tipping points beyond which ecological processes will fundamentally change. The report claims that most of the remaining ‘planetary boundaries’ do not have global tipping points and operate independently from global scale processes. These are claimed to be ‘local’ or ‘regional’.

You can read the summary or download the entire report here. It came out in June 2012 so it will be interesting to see what uptake it gets, if any, after summer.