How can we represent the threats that are too vast to see? What if civilization itself is one of them?
The Kelpies are two enormous steel horse-head sculptures — they’re 100 feet high and weigh over 300 tons — that were completed in 2013 and now live in a park in Scotland. The one on the left, when you’re facing the sculptures, seems calm or at least quiet; there’s a hint of judgment, perhaps, in the set of the head, the squint of its eyes. The one on the right is throwing its head back, mouth parted, as though bucking and neighing, rearing up on its hind legs. The horses have no legs, but seen at a distance, from the right angle, it looks as if they’re cresting the horizon, like they’re running up over a hill — to kill you, probably, like the giant rabbits in Night of the Lepus. They call to mind the statues on Easter Island, which are not, it turns out, just heads; their bodies are buried, most of their mass below the surface.
The Kelpies, of course, are perfectly stationary, but they capture the essence of horses in movement. It’s a little frightening, even in a photograph. When you do an image search on Google for “megalophobia” — the fear of large objects — the first result is a picture of The Kelpies. The sculptures and the phobia are tightly coupled: I learned of them at the same time. Under a tweet with a picture of the horses shrouded in fog, looking terrifyingly real, a woman had replied that they “really triggered” her megalophobia. I felt an instant kind of anti-recognition. I have a primal reaction to massive objects, but it’s not a panicky fear, like my fear of heights. (I get heart palpitations walking over metal grates and high bridges.) And it’s not a gross-out fear, as in trypophobia, the fear of irregular holes — a disgust reaction to images of coral and dried lotus pods. Instead it’s a tingly fear, an almost fetishistic pleasure, an attractive force.
Global warming is happening everywhere all the time, which makes it harder to see
I have scrolled through the megalophobia image results more than once, losing track of time. Many are from the megalophobia subreddit, where people post images of the enormous things that horrify them: scuba divers floating like hummingbirds next to giant jellyfish; wind turbines; the prows of massive ships, especially seen from below, to accentuate their looming; the space shuttle transporter; Hoover Dam. Some are fakes, either Photoshopped or illustrations — maybe the jellyfish, certainly the dragons and spaceships. But most are real objects that dwarf the human scale, such as offshore drilling platforms, which look like inside-out factories on aircraft carriers, on legs that can extend 8,000 or 9,000 feet underwater, a baffling depth. The megalophobic effect is best, perhaps, when there’s a combination of manufactured and natural elements, which explains why many of the images are cross-posted to r/submechanophobia (the fear of submerged manmade objects). The ocean is the ultimate earthly object of unfathomable size, extending seemingly without limit in two directions at once, out to the horizon and down. We can’t grasp the depth of the ocean until we throw a skyscraper down there.
After finding The Kelpies, I started my own minor collection of megalophobia images. I saw and saved a black-and-white photo of a towering rock formation on a beach (captioned on Twitter with “Possible novel structure”), a few tiny people on a sandbar below. The water caught all the light, while the rockface was almost featurelessly black, a silhouette in the shape of the Titanic. It must be natural, but it seemed dropped there, a monolith like in 2001, uninterpretable. Looking at it feels like hearing a loud bass note on a piano, a singular note of doom.
In another from my collection, a partially built bridge hangs in yellow mist; the ends of the bridge arc up from the shores of the wide Yangtze River, but the middle is missing. (I have a recurring dream that I’m driving down the highway and suddenly realize I’m on an unfinished overpass; this photo looks like a still from my nightmare.) There are cranes perched up there — construction cranes, not birds — on the unfinished edges.
Frozen like that, it feels as if the bridge will never be finished, like the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. The monument, which honors the Native American leader who fought encroachments on Lakota territories, is intended to dwarf nearby Mount Rushmore when complete — according to the memorial’s website, “the 563-foot-high Mountain Carving will dominate the horizon.” If it ever is completed, it may be the world’s largest sculpture. But for now it’s a sad construction zone with little funding and far fewer visitors than Mount Rushmore. (When I pulled around a curve on the road and saw those four gigantic presidents’ heads from a distance, I started laughing uncontrollably; they’re so essentially stupid — too cartoonish to be frightening or awe-inspiring.)
I kept that broken-bridge photo open in a tab for several months. What is the fascination? Unlike photos of The Kelpies, what it and the rest of the artist’s Yangtze River series depicts is frankly kind of ugly: poverty and pollution set up against brutish engineering, grim landscapes in grim light. But size, and fear, make both of them sublime — sublime in photographs at least. The sublime is “the most typical of all aesthetic moods,” Terry Eagleton writes in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, “allowing us as it does to contemplate hostile objects with absolute equanimity.” Do people who frequent r/megalophobia actually feel afraid, I wonder, or do they, like me, get pleasure from those photos, “serene in the knowledge” that the objects can’t harm us? They’re shrunk, behind glass.
I’ve been thinking about scale because I’ve been thinking about climate change — or global warming, to be less euphemistic, as the writer-philosopher Timothy Morton advises:
Climate change as a substitute for global warming is like “cultural change” as a substitute for Renaissance, or “change in living conditions” as a substitute for Holocaust. Climate change as substitute enables cynical reason (both right wing and left) to say that the “climate has always been changing,” which to my ears sounds like using “people have always been killing one another” as a fatuous reason not to control the sale of machine guns.
Morton calls global warming a “hyperobject,” something that is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” Such objects are more giant than the giant objects of megalophobia; they can’t be captured in a photograph or even an abstraction. Time-elapse gifs of melting ice don’t help; their extreme compression only minimizes the impact of what’s happening at actual size. Global warming is happening everywhere all the time, which paradoxically makes it harder to see, compared with something with defined edges. This is part of the reason we have failed to slow it down. How do you fight something you can’t comprehend?
The nebulousness of global warming works in the status quo’s favor. We don’t know exactly how it will play out, which allows fossil-fuel corporations and politicians to exploit that uncertainty, telling the public the facts aren’t all in yet — as if doing nothing were the wiser, more cautious move. As with calling it climate change, the call to inaction affects how everyone thinks about global warming. Even those who recognize its urgency can be lulled by its uncertain specific effects, “postponing doom into some hypothetical future,” as Morton writes. The disaster seems always just over the horizon. But “the hyperobject spells doom now, not at some future date.”
I had forgotten — or maybe never fully understood, or maybe learned and then gone into denial about — the time-delay component of global warming until I read an essay by Chad Harbach originally published in n+1 in 2006, which describes this lag:
It takes 40 years or more for the climate to react to the carbon dioxide and methane we emit. This means that the disasters that have already happened during the warmest decade in civilized history (severe droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, Western Australia, and Iberia; deadly flooding in Mumbai; hurricane seasons of unprecedented length, strength, and damage; extinction of many species; runaway glacial melt; deadly heat waves; hundreds of thousands of deaths all told) are not due to our current rates of consumption, but rather the delayed consequences of fuels burned and forests clear-cut decades ago, long before the invention of the Hummer. If we ceased all emissions immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise until around 2050.
I was shocked by this, the idea that the “megadisasters” of 2017 were set into motion in the 1970s, when there were only about half as many humans on Earth.
Even if we did or could stop all carbon emissions now, there’s the question of where the existing carbon goes. If we don’t invent and implement some kind of technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere (a.k.a. “negative emissions”), it will take natural processes tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of years to renormalize — to return to a state that’s normal, that is, for us. Take as an example the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55.5 million years ago, when an enormous amount of carbon and methane were suddenly released into the atmosphere for reasons that remain unclear. This is the closest known analogue in Earth’s history to modern-day global warming. It caused a warm period where average temperatures increased by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius. Fossil records show that, at the time, the poles resembled the Florida Everglades, hosting crocodiles instead of polar bears. There was no surface ice. This warm period lasted about 200,000 years and was actually a boon for the evolution of mammals and specifically primates; without it we might not exist.
An idea as large and amorphous as global warming blurs the distinction between object and process: To look at the moving object we have to pause it, which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively
Morton calls the time scales involved in global warming alternately “horrifying,” “terrifying,” “petrifying,” and “truly humiliating.” It is easier to imagine infinity, he says, than very large finitudes: “For every object in the universe there is a genuinely future future that is radically unknowable.” Nuclear waste, another example of a hyperobject, similarly forces us to contemplate the deep future. Plutonium-239, which is used in both nuclear weapons and reactors, has a half-life of 24,110 years. (The specificity seems almost comical, but nuclear materials are exact when they decay; they’re essentially atomic clocks.)
It’s hard to know — and easier not to think about — the effects that all the nuclear materials on the planet could have on people, other organisms, and the environment over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. This kind of time-delayed destruction is what the writer Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” a violence “that occurs gradually and out of sight … dispersed across time and space.” Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor explores how processes like toxic drift, global distillation (also known as the grasshopper effect, which causes pollutants to accrue at the poles), and the acidification of the oceans unfold so slowly they “can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively.” The emphasis here is on action — not the object per se but the work it does. An idea as large and amorphous as global warming blurs the distinction between object and process: To look at the moving object we have to pause it, which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively.
Nixon shows how poor communities and the global South are forced to bear the brunt of “long dyings.” He quotes Lawrence Summers, then president of the World Bank, in a leaked memo from 1991: “I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?” We in the “developed world” can ignore slow violence because so much of it takes place in the far future and the far elsewhere, not here and not to us.
One way to minimize the apparent damage of globalization and capitalism is by setting arbitrary time limits on the effects of our actions. We can say, for example, how many people we killed during the years we occupied Vietnam, without including the “hundreds of thousands [who] survived the official war years, only to slowly lose their lives later to Agent Orange,” Nixon writes. The toxic herbicide continues to build up in food sources like fish; it’s linked to birth defects and Parkinson’s disease. Cultural theorist Paul Virilio called the Gulf War “a local war of small interest,” but it was also the first to make use of depleted uranium in warfare, which has, Nixon writes, “a durability beyond our comprehension,” a half-life of over 4.5 billion years: “When it enters the environment,” he writes, depleted uranium “effectively does so for all time.”
The effects of depleted uranium are disputed, but an Army nurse named Carol Picou who worked on the so-called Highway of Death in Kuwait, a strip of road filled with wrecked and abandoned vehicles and other debris from an airborne attack, showed signs of what sounds like radiation poisoning:
Within days of her departure from the scene, Picou’s skin started to erupt in black spots; soon she lost control of her bladder and her bowels … over the months and years that followed, she developed thyroid problems and squamous cancer cells in her uterus; she developed immunological dysfunction and encephalopathy. Three years after her stint on the Highway of Death, tests found dangerously elevated levels of uranium in her urine.
In 1996, the Department of Defense discharged Picou, but the documentation calls her condition “non-combat-related”; “Etiology Unknown.” Nixon writes, “She was thus denied the kind of pension that servicewomen and men injured in the battlefield secured.” Picou became one of the hibakusha of the world, the often unacknowledged victims of nuclear weapons and disaster. More than 250,000 U.S. veterans of the Gulf War (out of about 700,000 total) complain of continuing health problems, a mysterious chronic illness known as Gulf War Syndrome. But like many conditions we don’t understand, the syndrome is often written off as, essentially, hysteria. In Hystories, Elaine Showalter argued that Gulf War Syndrome was a psychogenic disorder, like a fear we can catch from the Internet just by learning it exists.
The media does spread “infectious” ideas — sensational reporting has been shown to lead to clusters of suicides and spikes in mass shootings. But that explanation often masks human error or, worse, willful obfuscation. As Nixon notes, for decades the military dismissed the health crisis caused by Agent Orange as “a grand hallucination.”
Slow violence, according to Nixon, is “underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory.” If we can’t see it we can’t remember it, nor can we really imagine its future. As journalist Susan Moeller notes in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, the media and memory are both highly visual. Spectacular disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding are newsworthy, but climate change is not. You can package the symptoms, but not the disease.
Both Moeller and Nixon are concerned that we can’t properly react to or prepare for less visible disasters until we modify our storytelling: We must find a way to turn them into “arresting stories” (in Nixon’s terms), told “in a distinctive manner” (in Moeller’s) — suggesting that the right response to unending wars and a rapidly warming planet is a shift in aesthetics. Perhaps it is. Perhaps we have to make the real threats fascinating. But how, if we lack the cognitive capacity to see them?
One of the defining properties of the hyperobject is “non-locality” — they are here and not here; their massive scale deceives the mind. Morton refers to a passage in William Wordsworth’s long poem “The Prelude,” in which the poet recalls rowing a boat, at first in peace and then with dread, under a “craggy ridge” that appears at first “an elfin pinnace” but seems to grow and even chase him as he rows away. This impression is due, Morton writes, “to a strange parallax effect in which more of a suitably massive object is revealed as one goes farther away from it.” Similarly, I have noticed that airplanes look much larger from a medium distance — when the plane is taxiing on a bridge over the highway as you drive toward the airport, say — than close up, when you’re sitting at the gate or boarding the plane. The hyperobject is evasive, always partly hidden.
The cover of Hyperobjects offers an impossible view: an iceberg sparkling in sunrays, the whole thing from top to bottom both above and below the water, a cross section of reality, like some kind of science museum diorama by Thomas Kinkade. It reminded me of something, but it took me a few days to figure out what. It was Hyperspace, by physicist Michio Kaku, published almost 20 years earlier. I remember seeing my older brother read it when I was in high school, its paperback cover showing a vaguely surrealist cube hovering over a green field with blue sky behind it.
Hyperspace is in part an exercise in conceptualizing spatial dimensions beyond the usual three. As Kaku explains, “the growing realization among scientists today is that any three-dimensional theory is ‘too small’ to describe the forces that govern our universe.” Extra dimensions give us “‘enough room’ to explain the fundamental forces.” Again, later, he writes, “In higher dimensions, knots are easily unraveled and rings can be intertwined. This is because there is ‘more room’ in which to move ropes past each other and rings into each other.”
After reading Slow Violence, all this talk of room makes me think of lebensraum, literally “living space,” kind of the German equivalent of manifest destiny: the justification for colonialism and, later, the Holocaust. This is the usual lateral expansion of empire. But higher dimensions, like the abyss of deep time, are difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. Kaku writes that “even experienced mathematicians and theoretical physicists who have worked with higher-dimensional spaces for years admit that they cannot visualize them.” However, there are techniques designed to make it easier. Mathematician Charles Hinton, while working at Oxford in the late 1800s, devised a series of tricks intended to help people “see” four-dimensional objects.
The most well-known of these thought experiments involves a “hypercube,” a four-dimensional cube. You can unfold the sides of a regular cube into a two-dimensional object, six squares lying flat in the shape of a cross. A two-dimensional being could perceive the cross of squares, but could only imagine what the higher-dimensional, folded-up cube might look like. Analogously, Hinton proposed, a hypercube can be “unfolded” into a three-dimensional object — he called this a “tesseract” — which looks like a cross made of eight cubes. You can see an example in Salvador Dali’s painting Christus Hypercubus, in which Jesus is crucified on a tesseract. The exercise is to try to imagine what the tesseract would look like “folded” back up into its real shape.
It may be that civilization itself is a progress trap
There’s something misleading about these exercises, though, as well as the idea of higher dimensions creating “more room” — they make it seem like the fourth, fifth, etc., dimensions are larger, somehow, more outside. But where? As high up or far down as you can imagine is still in the third dimension. But counterintuitively, some theoretical physicists think higher dimensions are smaller, not bigger, than the ones we perceive. Peter Freund says we can’t see them because they are “‘curled up’ into a tiny ball so small that they can no longer be detected.” These curled-up dimensions are on the scale of the “Planck length,” a unit 100 billion billion times smaller than a proton. Of course, to a normal brain this makes as little sense as trying to imagine the extra dimensions “outside” our three dimensions. How do you escape the third dimension by going further inside? What order of dimension you’re in is somewhat academic when the scale itself is inconceivable.
Kaku, writing in 1996, reports that physicists speculate that hyperspace — entailing, as it does, wormholes, or portals into other parts of space-time or even other universes — could save us somehow from the eventual heat death of the universe (the Big Crunch), when “all lifeforms will be crushed beyond recognition.” “Scientists and philosophers, like Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell,” Kaku writes, “have written mournfully about the futility of our pitiful existence, knowing that our civilization will inexorably die when our world ends” — unless hyperspace provides an escape hatch.
Now this idea sounds almost quaint. First of all, recent evidence suggests there will be no Big Crunch, because the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating. If it keeps doing that “forever,” the death of the universe will actually be cold. But either way, the end is the end, most likely many trillions of years from now — in what sense would the “us” that makes it there be “us”? More importantly, I can’t imagine a scientist or philosopher in the 21st century worrying about the eventual fate of the greater universe. A different kind of heat death — global warming — is a far more imminent existential threat.
A progress trap is a development that looks at first like a clear advancement but in time proves to actually deoptimize the system. The classic example is the development of weapons, which helped early man become much more efficient at hunting but then led to the extinction of megafauna. According to Ronald Wright, who wrote a book about these traps called A Short History of Progress, the problem is often one of scale: Trying to scale up technologies that work on the local level leads to depletion of resources and other unforeseen consequences that can ultimately collapse the system.
It may be that civilization itself is a progress trap. A theory known as “the Great Filter” proposes that the reason we haven’t found compelling evidence of advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe is that there aren’t any, at least not any advanced enough that they could reach us. There may be a “filter” somewhere in the evolution of life that puts a ceiling on advancement — for example, maybe any civilization sufficiently advanced to develop deep space travel will quickly exhaust the energy needed to sustain it. Or maybe they’ll inadvertently destroy themselves through nuclear warfare or a runaway artificial intelligence.
“Since World War II, the sum total of scientific knowledge has doubled every 10 to 20 or so years,” Kaku writes, “so the progress of science and technology into the 21st century may surpass our wildest expectations.” When I was in college, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and completely accepted its techno-optimism; Kurzweil believed that “the singularity,” a tipping point after which technology would advance so rapidly we couldn’t possibly predict or imagine what developments would be possible, was upon us. For years I told people we might be the last generation to die, or might not die at all but be “uploaded” out of our bodies so we could theoretically live on eternally, as data. To be clear, I have lost all faith in this theory. I no longer assume that technology will save us.
The economist Leopold Kohr believed most social dysfunction was the result of “the cult of bigness,” the unexamined assumption that growth is always good. In The Overdeveloped Nations: The Diseconomies of Scale, Kohr recounts an incident in New York where a man threatened suicide from a high window. The first bystanders were “terror-struck,” but as the crowd grew, “the pangs of individual conscience were insensibly drowned in the throb of socialized excitement.” They turned mean and taunting; someone called to the man to “make it snappy.” When the crowd dispersed, the few who stayed went back to praying for the suicidal man. “This had nothing to do with their better selves,” according to Kohr, but the return of the group to a “sub-critical mass” — “the tenuous translucency of which makes it impossible for an individual to hide his action from his own conscience.” A crowded world, then, has a dangerous opacity, providing cover for cruelty and corruption.
In Hyperobjects, Morton claims that “the end of the world has already occurred” — more than once, in fact, since “for something to happen it often needs to happen twice.” It ended first in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine, and again in 1945, when we tested the first atomic bomb — two events commonly named as the starting point of the Anthropocene. He includes a photograph of the Trinity test at 0.016 seconds, a horrifying membrane-bubble like an alien jellyfish the size of a town. The photo was originally banned, “since it was considered far more provocative than the habitual mushroom cloud.” Unlike a cloud, the bubble did not look natural.
This reminds me of the Buddhist philosophy known as “broken glass practice”: don’t be upset when a teacup breaks, because its breaking was inevitable, therefore it was already broken. Is the world already broken? I wonder if humanity is not “too big to fail” but too big not to.