Sustainability—does that word make you feel a bit sick? It does me. What are we sustaining? What, on Earth, are we sustaining? What, exactly? Very often, the word “growth” is said, silently, after the word “sustainable”. Really? Is that what to sustain?
Climate emergency doesn’t just mean the weather will become horrible. It means, quite literally, you will run out of food. You won’t have anything more to eat.
Have you seen Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”? There’s a scene that visualises Paul Dukas’ piece “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The sorcerer leaves on an errand. His apprentice, Mickey Mouse, has to sweep up. But Mickey is feeling lazy. Mickey casts a spell to make a broom do the sweeping. It seems great, until the brooms start to multiply. Like coronavirus, it’s exponential. There are two brooms, then four, 16… suddenly there are hundreds of thousands of brooms and the world is threatened. Mickey is about to let the end of the world happen, because he wanted to clean it, efficiently.
We need to act like our hair is on fire, like we’re in a burning building—because we are
We need to remember that we’re not just Mickey. We’re the Sorcerer too.
Mickey didn’t mean it. He had a good motivation. He wanted to make things right, make things function smoothly. It’s like how humans decided to store their grain and plant their crops, 12,000 years ago. It was based on increasing happiness. The Earth was warming. The food had dried up, or scampered away. It was great—until it wasn’t. It just grew bigger and bigger and bigger. Growth got so efficient. Fast-forward 12,000 years. Now we call it neoliberal capitalism and fossil fuels and all of a sudden, here we are, Mickey Mouse realising that the recipe, the programme, the algorithm that makes the brooms do the sweeping is about to cause planet death. Where is the Sorcerer?
Some of us are worried about automation, about droids coming for our jobs. But our economic system is already a form of automation. We already live inside a programme. It’s an algorithm, a recipe: buy cheap, sell expensive, squeeze more work for the same money out of people… It is like what they call an adaptive AI: it machine-learns how to extract life from the biosphere, without stopping. Churn, churn, churn. Sweep, sweep, sweep. It’s so efficient. Like war. Like surviving. Like what we call survival mode.
I’m a survivor. You don’t need to know the details. But I know all about surviving, and how different it is from the thing called living. PTSD, it’s a machine, it protects you, like a tank in the First World War. If you’re inside the tank, that is. Too bad if you’re the fields of Normandy, too bad if you’re a rabbit or a human in the way. Surviving, it’s what some children have to do, but when you carry on as a grown-up, you could really hurt someone. “Business as usual?” There is no way we can sustain that. Isn’t that clear now? Crystal clear, with floods and fires and extinction? What are we sustaining? Survival mode?
Sustainability: the word sounds so old and so strange now. I think it used to mean, “Let’s sustain as much as we can the churning of the Mickey Mouse Sorcerer’s Apprentice brooms of our global economic system”... given how it’s munching the biosphere down to an ashy thread, that sounds sensible. It doesn’t sound sensible.
I don’t think that’s what we want to sustain. I don’t think an ecological future will be about doing what we do now, only more efficiently. Efficiency for its own sake, when you let it happen thoroughly enough and at a big enough scale, looks the same as evil. Efficiency boils down to killing two birds with one stone. How about no birds at all? How about we put the stone down?
The ecological future can and must be about being creative. And creativity involves trying and failing and trying again and waiting and listening and hesitating. Creativity is not efficient at all.
I know what to sustain. I know what gives me sustenance because I’ve only just figured it out, and I’ve had 50 years of not figuring it out, so I know, inside, I know, from my own feelings. What to sustain, it’s easy: the possibility of living. Life. It’s not the opposite of death. That’s the survival mode talking. Humans, especially white, especially male, have been trying to survive, not caring who gets hurt or killed or erased. Who cares how many life forms, many of them human, get enslaved and eaten and bought and sold and mown down and sprayed with pesticides and poisoned? That’s what we aren’t going to let happen any more. No more. It’s why ending white supremacy and patriarchy are an intimate part of creating a real ecological future.
Life. The Greek for this word is thumos. Not bios, which is the technical concept of life, the biological one. Not zoe, which is the legal definition: who gets to hunt whom, with impunity; who gets locked in the zoo. No, this is thumos, the word at the end of the word rhythm. It means palpating, palpitating, trembling, shimmering, the constant movement, the quivering we call alive. The thing that we see trees doing in the wind. The thing we see subatomic particles doing. We don’t really live in a machine universe. Things are quivering and vibrating all by themselves.
If you get too mechanical, you can easily destroy that palpitating life. It’s violent, this mechanised survival mode, this endless churning, because it goes against the basic way things are. They are alive.
You point to your chest when you say this kind of “life”, thumos. You point to your heart. Have you ever seen an echocardiogram? I just saw my daughter’s heart. It made me cry, even more than seeing her body in her mother’s uterus. This trembling, quivering thing, opal flashing colours moving in the darkness of the technician’s screen; I was seeing Claire’s heart by listening, feeling with ultrasound, not looking at the dead thing we call an object. The technician was playing, like playing music: tuning, feeling.
That is what we’re sustaining. The possibility of that. The quivering. The possibility of the future—it’s a quivery thing, the future. Quite literally, my daughter’s life, that’s what we are sustaining. My daughter and my son, the people they call Generation Z, the ones who will suffer from the thousands of years of churning, the severing of ourselves from other life forms, like the way the daemons get cut from the children in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The violence of denying our place in the biosphere, connected to all those other life forms by all those symbiotic threads—it was an idea, the idea of soul versus body or subject versus object, person versus machine, person versus animal—which is always master versus slave. It was just an idea, and then it wasn’t. Now it’s imminent biosphere collapse. It was an idea. Now it’s mass extinction.
Be careful what you dream
Art takes care of how you dream, not just what you dream. Art is the possibility of dreaming at all. The default art is called dance—bodies moving. Even a poem is a kind of dance, a dance for your throat and the bones and muscles in your face. And the default dance is called being alive. Alive, as in Black Lives Matter. That’s a phrase from the future. Wouldn’t it be great if it was true? That’s what it means. Life, thumos—why can’t people just live?
And the default of alive is called being asleep. All those fluids, pulsing and flowing without your will. All those dreams flowing around. Just sleeping, because it’s safe. That’s what we are sustaining. The possibility that life can go to sleep in our arms and dream.
It’s not about life versus death. When were you ever not going extinct? When were you ever not dying? When was it ever not true that one of you, your partner or you, or your child and you, your pet and you, one of you will be holding the other, pressing their face against the other as they die?
How come we keep on shocking ourselves with all this eco data? How come we make like we have to have some huge religious conversion and be totally different? We know what to do. We know. We know how to give each other sustenance. How to sustain. How to feed each other, and hold each other asleep, hold each other dying.
Please let’s stop beating ourselves up and beating ourselves down. I know, I really do. I understand emergencies. We need to act like our hair is on fire, like we’re in a burning building—because we are. Ecology is the logic of the house—the Greek oikos means house. Logic is how you arrange things in your house. You can’t have any logic when your house is on fire. There won’t be any drawers left, no more cupboards, no more secret hiding places. I get it. Our house is on fire.
But at the same time… and this is where people like me need to help, because this is about holding that feeling of life, alive, thumos, while we are acting as intensely and as precisely as we can. It seems so strange. You are saving the world, but you don’t quite know why. You can’t sum it up, there aren’t enough reasons. That feeling is because you want to live, not just survive.
You need to stop the machines, right now. In the name of life. The urgency and the gentleness really do belong together. But it might not look like it. Not in the five-second, five-minute, five-year or whatever-it-is timeframe. It all seems so shocking and intense. You need a vision of something bigger, something that will sustain you.
If the biosphere makes it past 2100, if some of us humans are still alive, they will have understood exactly what I just said.
Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the author of 17 books, including Being Ecological (Penguin, 2018) and 250 essays on philosophy, ecology, literature and more. Their work has been translated into 10 languages to date.