Category Archives: Temporality

(Bio)plurality

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This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.

 


Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

 

Eco fragments 6On Wednesday, 1 June, I am honoured to host some of the most fascinating  scholars working at the intersection of Indigenous philosophy and ecological crisis, both here in Canada and around the world, at the event Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis . If you happen to be in the Waterloo area, please join us  for the opening event, which will include Haudenosaunee remembrance and condolence ceremonies, a talking circle featuring workshop participants and all attendees, songs from the Waterloo Aboriginal Students Association  and an art exhibition/ spoken word performance featuring the work of the very talented Cara Loft and Zoe Todd . This event will mark the beginning of a collaborative project that features contributions from (in alphabetical order):  Tim Leduc, Genese Sodikoff, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Noah Theriault, Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts and Sarah Wright (joining us on behalf of the Bawaka Country Research Collective)  Special thanks also to my colleagues at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University (especially Jean Becker, Melissa Ireland and Kandice Baptiste) for their guidance, input and teachings. I am grateful to the gifted (and tireless) Tahnee Prior for her help in organising the event, and to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation for funding this event. 

For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’d like to share an abridged version of my opening talk for the event, to give you a sense of the community and projects we are aiming to build. Please note that the text has been edited to remove personal and/or ceremonial aspects of the event out of respect for these people and traditions. 

This workshop marks the beginning of an ongoing, collaborative project, so please get in touch if you are interested  in finding out more.

 

Thank you so much for coming today. I am honoured that you could all join us for the opening of this new project, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you over the next hours and days .I hope that this will event will mark the beginning of many rewarding relationships and new collaborations.

We’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee peoples and offering a formal expression of gratitude to them as our hosts.

[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]

… Before handing over to William Wordworth to begin the remembrance and condolence ceremonies, I’d like to say a few words about why we have come together for this few days of sharing, learning and envisioning.

Western science tells us that the Earth is in the midst of a global extinction crisis. The biological extinction of life forms is accelerating rapidly and across the planet as a result of human activity. We are warned that this may be the beginning of a ‘6th mass extinction’ in which most existing life forms may be eliminated in a few centuries.

Yet there is little discussion of what ‘extinction’ means – it is simply assumed to mean the death of ‘every member of a species’. There are so many problems with this definition: not least the Linnaean mode of classification that has given us the concept of species or the more recent construct of ‘biodiversity’, both of which exclude myriad forms of life and relations and draw sharp boundaries between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ that confound the basic principles of so many living cosmologies.

Even the concept of extinction as the irreversible elimination of a life form effaces the ways in which relations ‘extinct’ life forms may continue through relations with the spirit world, through genetic entanglement, and through lived histories that extend across the imposed boundaries of ‘species’.

Crucially, all of these concepts embed deeply colonial ideas of ‘nature’ and human relations with it – from the early roots of conservation in the creation of national parks and the violent eviction of their human inhabitants, to contemporary forms of hyper-capitalist conservation in which ‘species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are traded, offset and financialized as commodities, severing relations of kinship and care.

These concepts furnished by Western secular science cannot capture the enormity of the global extinction crisis – and they mask the violent erasures that they create, including the crowding out of alternative accounts and ways of being-knowing.

Talking to colleagues and friends from different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned how loaded the term ‘extinction’ can be: it evokes colonial beliefs that Indigenous peoples are ‘extinct’, or headed for extinction. I can’t think of a less appropriate way to describe communities whose powerful, collaborative acts of survivance in the face of waves of crisis and violence epitomises the vibrancy of life and strength.

So, we need new terms, concepts and frameworks, but also stories, songs, images, dances, communities of intention – in a word, visions.

These visions must be expansive enough – both in timescale, geographical scale and the complexity they can embrace – to address the global extinction crisis (or whatever we want to call it!) They must reach back into the deep, ancestral past – and far forward into plural possible futures, while remaining grounded in the everyday experiences of multi-species communities in which we are all, differently, enmeshed. They must address the entangled vulnerabilities of Earthly life, rejecting sharp distinctions between humans and nature, living and dead, tradition and modernity.

What better place to look than the rich, vibrant multitude of living Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies?These cosmologies have survived, adapted and nurtured plural life-forms across millennia, negotiating and fostering life in the face of crisis. Indeed, for many Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened, with the advent of European colonisation. For several centuries, they have been responding, adapting and creating in the face of violence, rupture and destruction – not least the expropriation of their ancestral lands and the severance of their fundamental relations with specific places and beings.

This workshop builds on the intuition that Indigenous philosophy and cosmology can offer radically different approaches to understanding the global extinction crisis. It rejects the Cartesian, rationalist logic of classification and scientific management, instead embracing plural understandings of how humans and other beings form, sustain and care for multiple worlds here on Earth.

While ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ – localizes Indigenous knowledge,  Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies have much to offer in terms of wrestling with the global nature of this crisis, and should not be parochialized against the backdrop of apparently ‘universal’ Western scientific and governance perspectives. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of connection to specific places and beings, but rather to explore the global significance of contemporary, living Indigenous thought. As Vine Deloria Jr and Rauna Kuokannen (amongst others) have argued, Indigenous knowledge tends to be instrumentalized, treated a source of empirical material that can be used to substantiate the claims of Western science and policy-making. Yet diverse bodies of Indigenous knowledge offer profoundly distinct cosmologies, frameworks, philosophies and spiritualities that are also abstract and transcendent, while remaining grounded in place and concrete experience. Moreover, the idea of ‘traditional’ knowledge imposes a linear, progressivist view of time which parcels it out neatly into past, present and future – and relegates Indigenous thought to the past. Instead, embrace multiple temporalities and are energised by Indigenous visions of multiple possible futures.

Our goal in this project is to engage a wide range of forms of Indigenous knowledge in order to identify resonances amongst them – NOT to find one universal, over-arching theory. In so doing, we hope to generate new insights and visions for apprehending the multiple dimensions of the global extinction crisis, decolonizing the structures of knowledge that dominate the way it is discussed, researched and governed, and cultivate creative, visionary responses to it.

Art exhibition

The following images are from the exhibition “Cultural Projections” by Cara Loft. Cara is Aboriginal Recruitment and Outreach Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a Mohawk Woman from wolf clan and her home community is Tyendinaga First Nation. Cara holds a BA in Health Sciences and a postgraduate degree in International Development, with a focus on community development in First Nations communities in Ontario. She is an avid beader, a women’s traditional dancer and hand drummer. Cara is  passionate about supporting aboriginal youth in Canada in all capacities possible, and her current work focuses on  bolstering education, leadership & cultural pride. “Cultural Projections” highlights Cara’s experiences travelling through Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario, with a focus on pathways and passages. 

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Attawapiskat Catholic Church by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

52.9259° N, 82.4289° W

Attawapiskat First Nation lies on the western side of James Bay. It is an isolated Cree community with a population of 1,549. Each December a Winter Road is constructed to connect the remote communities of Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat being the most northern and remote stop on the James Bay Winter Road. When driving on the Winter Road, the first view you see on the way into Attawapiskat in the Catholic Church sitting high on the hill top. This serves as a reminder of the colonization that took hold of the ‘People of the Parting Stone’ and continues to grip this community. This is reflected in the flagrant natural resources extraction from the open pit Victor Diamond Mine, located a mere 90 km from Attawapiskat.

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Beausoleil Ferry by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

43.7418° N, 7.4230° E

Beausoliel First Nation is spread across three Indian Reserves, the one pictured here is Christian Island located in Georgian Bay. The peoples of Christian Island largely depend on the ferry system to move back and forth to the mainland; and also move supplies onto the island. Recently one of the main passenger ferries, the 57 year-old M.V. Sandy Graham, was deemed unsafe and had to have $500, 000 worth of repairs to make it usable again. The other ferry, the Indian Maiden, is also in need of repairs as well. Pictured here, we see a community member using their own barge to transport equipment to Christian Island. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other-wise used or acquired.” Without access to a working ferry, the peoples of Christian Island are at risk of losing their traditional territory and way of life.

 

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Pike, Pic Mobert by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

48.6833° N, 85.6333° W

Pic Mobert is an Anishnabeg First Nation community composed of two small reserves located along the White River in Ontario: Pic Mobert North and Pic Mobert South. These rural communities have roughly 400 band members living on reserve. One of the staple foods in this community is the fish; providing both a practical source of food and cultural connection to the land and waters. Pictured here is a pike caught through the traditional practice of netting. An oasis in North Western Ontario; Pic Mobert is still considered an impoverished reserve without the proper health, education & social resources to address the issues within their communities. Despite these gaps, the cultural connection to land and water is strong and speaks to the resiliency of these communities.

Serpent_River

Serpent River by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

46.183°N 82.550°W

Serpent River is an Anishnabeg community located along the North Shore of Lake Huron. The traditional territory of these peoples extends from the North Channel of Lake Huron, to just past the city of Elliot Lake. In 1847, uranium was discovered near Elliot Lake prompting the Chief at the time to demand protection from mining exploitation. Thus began the era of natural resource extraction from the Serpent River territory. Today, Serpent River is a modest community of 373 on reserve band members that sits quietly on the banks of Lake Huron. Despite a history of land misuse, the natural beauty of this territory is not lost today. Pictured here are the tree’s mid-fall in Serpent River.

 

This_Is_Indian_Land_Garden River_2015

Garden River First Nation by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

Garden River First Nation is located near Sault Ste Marie and is a largely Anishnabeg community. With roughly 1,100 band members, this community sits mainly along the St. Mary’s River and Highway 17B passes through their traditional territory. There has been dispute over Highway 17B and its passage through the Garden River Community, mainly due to the deaths of community members on this road. In April of 2016, band members from Garden River closed down highway 17B for a day to highlight the meaningless accidents and tragedies that happen along this highway. Pictured here is the old rail bridge over Garden River, and a written affirmation of who the traditional title holders and protectors of this territory are.

Fish Friday Images by Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd is a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University. A Métis scholar from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), her work spans the subjects of human-fish relations, Indigenous philosophy, feminism, art, and the important role of Indigenous legal orders within the legal pluralities that shape Canada. Her series of ‘Fish Friday’ images (posted every Friday on her website and Twitter account) explore the fish stories that and creatures that have shaped her more-than-human relations web of relations. 

 

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 7

Whitefish by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Eric the Walleye by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 52

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved


Spiked: violence, coloniality and the Anthropocene

This online mini-exhibition is presented in advance of the initiation of the Anthropocene Re-working Group (with Zoe Todd), which will take place at the Conference “Landbody: Indigeneity’s Radical Commitments” at the Centre for 21st Century Studies, Milwaukee, 5-7 May 2016. 

The full text of our presentation is available here: Earth violence text Mitchell and Todd

Since this is a work in progress, please let us know if you would like to reproduce it. For the same reason, all rights are reserved for the use of these images. . Contact me if you’d like to share, reproduce or alter them. 

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Strata by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

 

Since the early 2000s, there has been a scramble amongst scientists to define the boundaries of the ‘Anthropocene’. In the rush to mark and claim this era, hundreds of scientists and some social scientists are racing to find a definitive ‘golden spike’. The golden spike is a discursive, imagined, yet very real placetime in which scientists intend to drive a stake, claiming the conversion of the Earth into a human dominion. Most notably, the ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ of the subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy is planning this year to announce where/when the spike should be driven. It will choose amongst numerous proposals, including the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, the Industrial revolution, and the beginning of large-scale agriculture.

In so doing, this group of overwhelmingly white, male scholars of the physical sciences, whose meetings are closed to the public, plan to make a claim on behalf of ‘humanity’ over the history, future and fate of the planet.

Critics of the Anthropocene are producing excellent work on the domination of scientific perspectives amongst Anthropocene discourses,on Anthropocentric narratives that magnifies human agency and entrenches the human/nature divide, and the inaccuracies of claims that ‘humans’ as a whole are responsible for the phenomena transforming the Earth. Yet there has been little focus on the role of foundational violence in the Anthropocene and the distinctively colonial violence enacted through the forces re-shaping the Earth and the discourses arising to describe them. Recently, the geographers Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have made an important contribution to this discussion. They argue that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be placed in 1492, the year when the colonization of what would become the Americas resulted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Maslin and Lewis focus on the ecological outcomes of this period of mass violence and expropriation.

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Spiked by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Building beyond this,  Zoe Todd and I are initiating a new artistic/performative/collective thought experiment focused on role of violence in the Anthropocene. We will be looking at multiple modes of violence, including the detonation of nuclear weapons and the slow violence of capital accumulation, industrialization and extinction. Each of these phenomena, central to the concept of the Anthropocene, are rooted in the historical/geological moments and trajectories of violence that are colonisation. To this end, we are inaugurating a public ‘Anthropocene Re-working Group’ whose goal is to explore the violences shaping the planet in open-ended, multi-media, multi-disciplinary ways (more on this to follow…)

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Entanglement by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

To begin this project, I wanted to get my hands on some actual spikes to think and feel through the discourse of a ‘golden spike’. Engaging with these spikes allowed me to reflect on their materiality and their potential for violence. Handling them enabled me to sense their  weight and shape, their utility as weapons, the intention of penetration with which they were forged, their appropriative nature, as the stakes through which claims to land and ‘resources’ are made. These particular spikes, salvaged from a defunct stretch of railroad, also evoked the violence of industrialisation, the expropriation of Indigenous lands across North  America and the near-extinction of the American buffalo as a result of hunting from trains. Even their material basis is poignant: it brings to mind and hand the metals torn from soil and stone to fuel the demand for industrial resources and capital speculation.

I composed these images in order to encourage contemplation of the ‘golden spike’ as a central and meaning-multiplying  embodiment of the impulse to mark and bound the Anthropocene. These are my initial responses to the idea of the golden spike and the intention to tell different stories about the violence of the Anthropocene. I hope that this nascent project will encourage and foster the exchange of many alternative stories, images and ideas.

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Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.


Stumbling into eternity

Why IR needs deep future counterfactual thinking

Chernobyl Pripyat exclusion zone by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (http://bit.ly/19czoBH)  licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial share-alike (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Chernobyl Pripyat exclusion zone by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (http://bit.ly/19czoBH)
licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial share-alike (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Almost thirty years after the world’s worst (yet) nuclear disaster, work is nearing completion on the 110 meter arch that will seal off Chernobyl’s reactor number four and allow for the removal of the melted nuclear fuel beneath it. The labourers building the arch are working against time: the concrete sarcophagus built to contain the effects of the explosion will reach the end of its expected lifespan in 2016. Then again, it might expire sooner, if the partial collapse of the turbine hall next to the reactor in February, 2013 is any indication. The arch itself is only a temporary solution, since there is currently no means of disposing of the waste. According to site manager Phillippe Casse, cited in the article, the disposal of the waste “could be done in 50 years’ time. Perhaps there will be the technology to solve the problem then.” In other words, this problem is being delegated to the future and its inhabitants.

The article highlights the staggering temporal challenge that radioactive material poses. Nuclear materials remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Yet many of the materials and strategies used to contain it – for instance, the concrete in which reactor four is currently encased –  are only effective on vastly shorter timescales.

The 2011 documentary Into Eternity delves into this problem by exploring the world’s first final nuclear waste facility: Onkalo in Finland.  Onkalo is hewn out of solid rock, constructed over decades and built to last 100 000 years. It seems to reflect an encouraging degree of proactivity and future-thinking with regards to the problem of nuclear waste.

But forward-thinking brings its own problems. Humans (even when aided by their most advanced technologies) struggle to think on timescales that reflect the half-life of nuclear particles. The effects of radioactive materials are distributed across the deep future, or what Timothy Morton calls the ‘future future’: a time so distant that it seems beyond the grasp of human cognition and, I shall argue, ethics.

Into Eternity’s director, Michael Madsen, is fascinated by this issue. He frames the documentary as a direct message to beings living thousands of human generations in the future. In a series of interviews with prominent members of engineers and advisors from the nuclear authorities of Finland and Sweden, he raises some tough questions. For instance, how can contemporary humans prevent distant future generations of humans from entering Onkalo? Can we trust thousands of future generations to transmit warnings about the site, or are we better off encouraging them to forget its location? Even if these future beings can decipher the messages left at the site, will they dismiss them as myth – just as contemporary scientists dismiss runes and other symbols left by previous civilizations?  Even these questions presuppose that the human species will exist long enough to guard these materials until they are no longer dangerous. Given the timescales involved, even this cannot be taken for granted.

Geiger counter by Jayneandd (http://bit.ly/19cyx41)  licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Geiger counter by Jayneandd (http://bit.ly/19cyx41)
licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

If your ethics are  anthro-instrumental, then you can dismiss these problems: if there are no more humans, than who cares what else is harmed by radiation? But let’s assume that other beings do matter, and not only the ones that currently exist, but also the possible beings that may exist in the deep future. This is one way of saying that care for possible futures, and for future possible beings, is an ethical good irrespective of its value to humans as they currently exist. From this viewpoint, even if humans do not exist in the future, something to which we (now) could be ethically attached might be harmed by our actions, and so we should take it into account when pondering different courses of action. All right, then – how can we begin to think in this way?

The respondents in Into Eternity rely on one of the only tools that humans have for projecting into the future with limited or no empirical data: their imaginations. More specifically, they use a technique called future counterfactual reasoning: the act of imagining possible future scenarios and asking ‘what if…?’ they occurred.

Future counterfactual thinking is not, generally speaking, an accurate predictor of ‘the’ (that is, one specific) future. Rather, its function is to attune humans to multiple possible futures and consider how they – or, I would argue, future others – might react in these possible future conditions. As Stephen Weber puts it (in one a small handful articles in the IR literature devoted to future counterfactuals), the purpose of this kind of thinking is “to open minds, to raise tough questions about what we think we know, and to suggest unfamiliar or uncomfortable arguments that we had best consider”.  He argues that effective future counterfactual scenarios challenge the ‘official futures’ on which analysts and policy-makers rely. They focus our attention on ruptures and discontinuities, apparent anomalies, and catalytic events. For Weber, a good future counterfactual changes the boundary conditions for discussion, making it possible to address what, in the physical sciences, are often called ‘category two problems’. These are problems that exceed the limits of science in its current form – including the now (unfairly) infamous category of ‘unknown unknowns’.

Into Eternity’s interviewees use this form of thinking to ponder the problem of communicating the secrets of Onkala to future beings. They consider a number of possible scenarios: for example, one in which people eventually return to live around the site of Onkala; one in which earthquakes or wars destroy the site and its archive; one in which future beings try to open the site deliberately because they value its contents. They also consider the possible outcomes of their attempts to communicate into the distant future. For instance, they ask whether it would be effective to construct a sinister ‘landscape of thorns’ around the site to frighten intruders, or whether a reproduction of Eduard Munch’s ‘Scream’ would do the trick. They rely on this kind of future counterfactual thinking to make crucial decisions about Onkala’s future.

Counterfactual thinking is one of the few tools at human disposal for responding to some of the biggest problems we face. But counterfactual thinking remains underdeveloped – and sometimes openly scorned – in international security. In fact, Richard Ned Lebow titled his 2010 book on the historical counterfactuals Forbidden Fruit  precisely because mainstream IR treats places this technique somewhere on a continuum from rampant subjectivity to the corruption of scientific knowledge. Even those IR scholars, like Lebow, who engage with counterfactuals do so in a fairly conservative and instrumental way. The vast majority of this literature is devoted to past counterfactuals as a means of challenging theories and explanations of present conditions. This, in turn, is expected to help policy-makers to be more attentive and open-minded in their (near) future strategic actions. Moreover, these authors focus on relatively narrow timeframes (perhaps a few decades, or a century at most). They rely on existing, accessible empirical data and social-scientific methods for collecting it. And within IR discourses, most of the available work on this subject focuses on establishing the plausibility of other possible outcomes of historical events – that is, on the predictive value of counterfactual thinking. This is because counterfactual thinking is usually viewed as a means of improving strategic thinking – for instance, how to prevent (or win) the next war.

Future counterfactuals have also made a small impact on contemporary IR. Some academics and use future counterfactuals in order to inform policy making, theory-building and teaching. Others have scenario-based workshops in which they brainstorm, for instance, possible outcomes of the Syria crisis by 2018 or the potential use of nuclear weapons for terrorism or as a result of inter-state conflict. And as far back as 2000, a group of US think tanks ran a large-scale simulation in which they asked current and former government officials to react to a small-pox outbreak. Indeed, Operation Dark Winter exposed the total lack of preparedness on the part of the relevant agencies: supplies of vaccines were quickly exhausted and the (fictional) medical system collapsed quickly.

But these approaches to counterfactual thinking cannot help very much with the kinds of problems discussed above, which span millennia into the future, often cannot be studied empirically due to their massive timescales, cannot rely on existing knowledge, assumptions or conditions, and cannot be predicted with reasonable accuracy. In fact, the least problematic element is the past-orientation of historical counterfactuals – after all, a past counterfactual simply involves placing oneself in the past and thinking forward into a counterfactual future.

Even the future counterfactual exercises discussed above extend only a short distance into the future (in some cases, only a few years).  They do not help us to understand future possible worlds dramatically different from our own. Instead, they focus on very similar versions of existing conditions, with a few minor mutations (despite the fact that complexity theorists, and most proponents of scenario thinking, acknowledge this to be unrealistic in nonlinear systems). In these scenarios, most of what we know today still holds true, and our ways of knowing it are treated as reliable. Crucially, the beings that might be harmed are those that exist now, or in the near future. Finally, and crucially, these scenarios and counterfactuals are oriented towards informing strategy, not preparing us to face the ethical challenges posed by meta-threats like nuclear disaster.

Does this mean that counterfactual thinking is useless for thinking about harm in the deep future? No, but it does suggest that we need dramatically to change how we do counterfactual thinking. This is not a matter of making ‘better’ (in the sense of more plausible or empirically accurate) counterfactual questions and scenarios. Instead, it is a matter of using counterfactual thinking to do different things, several of which deserve to be highlighted.

First, it should help us to break with deterministic understandings of the future, which can lead to a sense of nihilism. For instance, apocalyptic climate discourses give humans the impression that we are mired in a deterministic universe, and that nothing we do can change the situation. This may be true, but in case it is not, it is important to retain a sense of multiple possibilities and contingency, and to explore the range of responses we might make to them. Future counterfactual thinking – particularly approaches that impel us to imagine multiple worlds – can help to achieve this, or at least to orient ourselves towards it.

Second, one of the advantages of counterfactual thinking in general is that it undermines the notion that there is only one possible future. As such, it can help humans to cope better with (and perhaps even embrace) contingency and non-linearity, conditions with which we do not relish. Simply accustoming ourselves to multiple possible futures, and radically different worlds, can help us to retain (or perhaps to attain) a sense of efficacy,however modest, in the face of extreme uncertainty. This can combat the affective states of nihilism, resentment or depression that might otherwise accompany thinking about meta-threats. It also attunes us to possibilities, not only that our worst nightmares might not happen, but also that other, unknowable futures might exist. Since we cannot know these futures now, we cannot assume with any certainty that they will be either positive or negative, and so we must remain open to a range of possibilities. In a word, deep future counterfactual thinking is conducive to hope, albeit of a tempered kind.

Radiation chamber by Thomas Bougher (http://bit.ly/19cxIbt) licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-derivs non commercial generic (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Radiation chamber by Thomas Bougher (http://bit.ly/19cxIbt) licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-derivs non commercial generic (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Third, deep future counterfactual thinking can help us to imagine multiple possible worlds that may seem extreme, fantastical or horrific to us (for instance, human extinction). This helps to combat what I call futural amnesty, or  forgetting the future. Futural amnesty is distinct from denial, for instance of the kind that we find in debates on climate change. Denial is, in one sense, affirmation; it involves acknowledging the possibility of a phenomenon or event, then systematically negating what, to the opposite viewpoint, appear to be its positive features. In contrast, futural amnesty is a deep-seated unwillingness to think, or be confronted by, a possibility that one might otherwise be forced to accept or deny. It is a refusal to recognize things that cannot be fully grasped, an unwillingness to think even the conditions of their unthinkability. Its most frequent refrains are ‘how could we possibly know?’ or ‘let’s not even think about that’.

By appealing to futural amnesty, people let themselves off the ethical hook not only of responding to, but also of imagining situations beyond their grasp. Yet, like amnesty related to the past, its function is to allow humans to ‘get on with life’, to live without the constant presence of horror and enormity. It allows them to draw a line in the near to medium future (perhaps a few generations, or even one’s own lifespan) beyond which they can forget to think, and behind which they can shelter. So futural amnesty is a protective and generous strategy. But it is also one that stops humans from confronting what might be the most important ethical challenges they could face. Future counterfactuals break through futural amnesty and the social taboos that hold it in place, forcing us to imagine the unknowable or unthinkable.

Doing this is, in turn, crucial in helping us consider our responses to such events: what we value, what we might try to protect, and how we can respond to other beings. In other words, future counterfactual thinking is deeply ethical. By imagining the effects of our actions into the deep future, we may start to think about the harms that we might do (unintentionally) not only to known others, but also to unknowable others. And this is not only useful in thinking about future actions and their effects, but also in helping us to realize our effects on currently existing others that are radically different from us. Indeed, good counterfactual thinking will not detract from the value we place on ourselves and other beings now but rather heighten them, attuning us to ethical challenges both present and (future) future. From this perspective, (deep) future counterfactual thinking is a means of enhancing our ethical sensibilities, confronting our worst nightmares, and trying to remain ethically open in the face of them.

IR needs to develop these aspects of counterfactual thinking, and to make it central to discussions of international ethics. Counterfactual thinking is not scientific, or objective, or empirically robust. It cannot give us predictions or certainty, and it can’t prove that everything will be ok, or tell us how to ensure this.  But it can help us to see possibilities, to scope the boundaries of our knowledge, to appreciate the limits of our agency and to expand our ethical sensibilities. In the strategic-instrumental discourses that (still) dominate IR, this may not seem like much of a weapon to wield against meta-threats like nuclear disaster. But it may be all we’ve got.

As the author of the Chernobyl article discussed above states, “every stage of the [arch] project has been a step into the unknown”. Indeed, when we think ethically about meta-threats, we are stumbling into the unknown – quite literally, into eternity –with little to guide us. This goes far beyond what Hannah Arendt called ‘thinking without banisters’: it is thinking without stairs, and perhaps without even a human body to climb them. If future counterfactual thinking can help us even in a modest way to do this, then we should make it a top priority.

 
 

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