Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

what climate collapse asks of us



artworks by DIKE BLAIR 


Nigerian-born philosopher, psychologist, and poet Bayo Akomolafe is a global environmental activist, and chief  curator and executive director of the Emergence Network. He is the author of These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home and other works.


Thinking of how science creates its knowledge is important to thinking carefully about climate change and what it asks of us. There are generally two conceptions on how everything comes to be: one is an arboreal model, which resembles a tree with its roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. There is a foundational and classificatory sentiment here that figures how “things” flow in a unidirectional causal pattern — from roots to tips of leaves. What this model assumes is that things are discrete and follow each other in some Newtonian cascading fashion.
In more recent years, noticing the porosity of things, of categories, has opened up new ways of understanding the world. This second conception of how differences emerge, how things materialize, deploys the idea of the rhizome to express the stunning interconnectedness that characterizes everything.

French philosophers Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze employed the botanical figure of the rhizome to illustrate the striking interconnectedness and relationality of the universe:

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work, “rhizome” is roughly the philosophical counterpart of the botanical term, suggesting that many things in the world — to be consistent, if one follows the direction of their thinking, “all things” in the world — are rhizomes, or rhizomatically interconnected, although such connections are not always (in fact, seldom) visible. Animals or insects that live symbiotically appear to be an obvious example, such as the little birds that clean crocodiles’ teeth when these reptiles bask in the sun with their huge jaws open: instead of eating the birds, the crocodiles let them feed on the bits of meat, etc., between their teeth — their teeth are cleaned, and the birds are fed, in this way forming a rhizome. After all, when one sees them separately, few people would guess that their species-economy is rhizomatically conjoined. (Bert Olivier, “What is a ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking?” in Thoughtleader.co.za, June 2015)

A single blade of grass. A single laptop computer. A livid and gaseous bottle of Coke. A single leather-bound notebook. A single plastic cup. A single image of a black hole 55 million light-years away. A single scientific fact. None of these are at all singular or settled. Every morsel of the real is a framework, a rhizome, a trace. Every point a patchwork of crosshatchings of intersecting shimmering worlds too heavy for our persistent paradigms of intelligibility to articulate. Powehi [the black hole], like other photographic products, is not the representation of an outside universe. Pictures, after all, aren’t taken — they are made. A conspiracy of the manifold. A performance. A chorus of the many.

The figure of the rhizome invites us to see that we are inextricably part of nature, performing the world, contributing to its emergence — just in the way we are also modified by the world in and around us. There is no culture apart from nature, and no nature that can be cut away from culture. To know the world is not to sit outside of it and reflect upon it in order to gain clarity (a representationalist position). How we move through the world, where we stand or sit, the instigations of the ground beneath our feet, the migrations of clouds, and everything else between are all threads that stitch a tapestry of knowing that can only be for the time being.

And in the case of urgent reports about climate change and the rush to solutions, an old complex of ideas that sprang to life somewhere during the Holocene, at the end of the Ice Age when the ice began to thaw, and when the relative stability of the world around us instigated us to build cities and eventually capitalist settlements and see ourselves as permanent fixtures instead of transient bodies. Climate change: how we see the problem is part of the problem In Livescience.com, Brandon Spektor describes the findings of a report published by the Australian independent think-tank Breakthrough National Centre For Climate Restoration:  What might an accurate worst-case picture of the planet’s climate-addled future actually look like, then? The authors [of the report] provide one particularly grim scenario that begins with world governments “politely ignoring” the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy (finding alternative energy sources), resulting in a global temperature increase of
5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) by the year 2050. At this point, the world’s ice sheets vanish; brutal droughts kill many of the trees in the Amazon rainforest (removing one of the world’s largest carbon offsets); and the planet plunges into a feedback loop of ever-hotter, ever-deadlier conditions. “Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and  55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability,”
the authors hypothesized.

Meanwhile, droughts, floods, and wildfires regularly ravage the land. Nearly one-third of the world’s land surface turns to desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, beginning with the planet’s coral reefs, the rainforest, and the Arctic ice sheets. The world’s tropics are hit hardest by these new climate extremes, destroying the region’s agriculture and turning more than one billion people into refugees.

This mass movement of refugees — coupled with shrinking coastlines and severe drops in food and water availability — begins to stress the fabric of the world’s largest nations, including the United States. Armed conflicts over resources, perhaps culminating in nuclear war, are likely.

The result, according to the new paper, is “outright chaos” and perhaps “the end of human global civilization as we know it.”

Describing the phenomenon as an existential risk that will unleash the perfect storm of effects guaranteed to snuff out ordered human settlements, the report advocates “dramatic action […] if the ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario is to be avoided,” championing a zero-emissions industrial system that gradually restores the climate to pre-industrial levels.

Buried within the reports however, behind stentorian headlines and “action points,” is a less articulate bewilderment about how to steer the anfractuous world-building machine of global industrialization away from the cliffs.

There are two general strategies of response to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. In the case of the former, which involves reducing or stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere with climate engineering tactics like carbon dioxide removal (CDR), methane digesters, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), there are seemingly insurmountable spill-over ethical issues and hidden costs. For instance, with BECCS, converting vast swaths of land into monocultures of trees and crops that can extract carbon from the atmosphere is likely to exacerbate conflicts over land and water, drive up food prices, and destroy ecosystems and reduce biodiversity.

Adaptation solutions are no less controversial.

Retrofitting existing buildings with solar panels or replacing ICE (internal combustion engines) vehicles with electric cars to ramp up our transition to renewable and sustainable energy sources might seem like a fairly straightforward and radical thing to do. In fact, like every rhizome, this set of responses is not straightforward at all. It is not radical either. For one, it would take a lot of energy, mining, and carbon proliferation to produce these cars and technologies, and — in the case of the cars — keep them charged and running.

It’s like a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation. Most of what we can do to save the day and reduce carbon emissions require us to continue doing what we’ve done before — the processes that lend themselves to global warming, if the greenhouse gas theory is to be taken for granted. Put simply, there are not enough resources to save the world. To do that, we’d need to destroy it.

Perhaps, if you are already sensitive to rhizomatic entanglements, then you might notice that the reason we are seemingly caught in a deadly and sticky cycle of toxic reinforcement, where redemption is the breakthrough we seek, is because this is what the “larger” framework is doing. Here, another disturbing implication of a rhizomatic reality becomes clear: we never act unilaterally —
we act in assemblages.
We act together-with. We become-with. We think-with. We do-with. There is no doing that is not a doing-with. In a very pressing sense, agency (or the power to act) is not a human or individual attribute; it is an emergent quality of assemblages. When we suppose that all we need do in response to climate change is to come up with a technofix, the next bright idea,
an “indigenous” protocol, a policy statement or a piece of legislation, it is wise to notice — where this is possible — the “other,” often invisible, nevertheless moving “pieces” (human, nonhuman, conceptual, material, etc.) that impinge on (or intra-act with) our efforts, and thus produce effects that stretch beyond “original” intentions. In this scenario, we are not detached or separable human actors facing a discrete threat yonder; we are capitalist-political-ecological-spiritual-gastronomical-bacterial rhizomes intra-acting with the world. It is as I said while speaking in Kigali, Rwanda, at an innovation conference to a glamorous hall full of young people who had been told earlier to “think outside the box”: “Thinking out of the box is exactly how the box thinks. We are the boxes we strive to out-think.”

Actually, there have been many frameworks of the climate change phenomenon and many organizational systems that have struggled to carve out clarity about this phenomenon. These strategic gestures produce different kinds of capacities, enable response-abilities and disable others, and texture maneuverability. In their paper “Climate Change Is Not a Problem: Speculative Realism at the End of Organization,” Norah Campbell, Gerard McHugh, and PJ  Ennis write about climate frameworks in general:

Research in climate change has long been about the construction and interpretation of the object in question, and the output reveals highly diverse responses from individuals, organizations and societies… Frames are “general organizing devices” that do numerous things: they define problems, diagnose causes, and suggest solutions. They influence organizations by their argumentative strength and can determine the size of climate change, in the sense that they define and therefore produce climate change through the work of problem-identification, claims-making, attribution-laying, boundary delineation, counter-framing, bridging, amplification, and constructing identity-forming vocabularies and discourses. Framing climate change in particular ways can alter an audience’s ideological beliefs and value sets about it.

Noting that “the framing of climate change is not a static process, but evolves and regresses over time, as specific economic, social, and policy contexts shift,” the trio in their paper go on to conduct a meta-survey of literature on climate change frameworks, eventually identifying as many as 12 distinct frames that have shaped enactments and understandings of climate change and climate justice from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

When climate change was framed as an “Externality” in the ’70s, the nature of the problem was believed to be a “malfunction in the market mechanism” occasioned by “uncompensated environmental costs of production and consumption.” Originating from economics, this evaluation led to the organizational response of trying to integrate those externalities, attempting to build a circular economy by emphasizing the benefits of ecological modernism.

An alternative but contemporary framework, dubbed the “wicked problem” framework, noticed that there was
“no single or optimal solution”: solutions had a way of reinforcing the problems. Just action was sensitive to the political nature of solutions, dismissing the idea that a technocratic, politically neutral approach could engage with the “event.”

Campbell, McHugh, and Ennis continue:

Specifically, [Wright and Nyberg] chart how corporate organizations engage in framing work, interpreting and translating climate change into a strategic agenda, in order to overcome the tension between profit and ecological preservation. Gradually, the revolutionary import of climate change is framed as an opportunity, allowing the organization to create a consonance between these two opposing aims. As new criticisms of the organi­zation surface, the organization engages in localizing and normalizing practices that cause the problem to splinter and be measured parochially. This results in the purification, dilution, and dissipation of an extinction-level event. Ultimately, their model demonstrates how climate change is always conceived as something “outside” that needs to be internalized by the organization. We extend their conclusion by adding that all organizations begin this framing act with the default notion of the outsideness of climate change. Climate change comes as a challenge, albeit grand, that must be internalized (to varying extents) by the organization.

Campbell, McHugh, and Ennis finally insist that the reason we cannot solve the problem of climate change is because climate change is not a problem. We cannot save the world from climate change because climate change is the world — incalculably more complex and more multidimensional than our organizations can frame or address. “Climate change is so thoroughly unbounded that organizations
exist within it, because nothing will exist outside it.” We struggle with it because of the dynamics of centralizing human permanence and survivability. We struggle because of a modernity-reinforced “feeling” of entitlement that the world ought to be stable, convenient, and user-friendly. The post-Holocene turbulence we experience is existentially jarring: the message we cannot face is that we, too, are transient, that we are not the fulcrum upon which the universe is balanced, and that the coddling and pampering of a historical inflection in the natural rhythm of things must now give way to foreclosure.

The end of hope as we know it.

I find this idea intriguing: that climate change is not a problem organizations can draw lines around, encompass, or own. That it is ontologically unframeable, unthinkable, and incalculable. These attributes do not belong to determinations of size and scale; they are not rhetorical strategies or hyperbolic attempts to stress how daunting the referent is. Instead, they signal a “break in referentiality” — a coming to a place where appellations are not only useless, but they are counterproductive. A coming to a “place” of an elderly silence so compelling that one yields oneself to its operations, longing to be defeated. A place of creative surrender. The end of thought.

In what way is climate change unthinkable and incalculable? If climate change is more than just a problem, more than a threat, more than a crisis, more than a war, then what is “it”? What are we being slowly invited to consider?

Campbell, McHugh, and Ennis conduct their analysis of climate change within a relatively recent philosophical tradition that situates a real and material world outside of human experiences of it. Their desire is to ontologize climate change — that is, to give it real footing in the world at large, instead of situating it as merely a phenomenon of human attempts to know about the world (epistemology). They then adopt Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of “advents” to characterize the unprecedentedness of the climate change phenomenon. For Meillassoux, “advents” are forms of “emergence without precedent”
or specific points in the history of the universe when the laws of nature themselves have changed. This change is not brought about by a tinkering Hand, by an absolutely transcendent force outside of nature: it is written into nature’s radical openness. Nature’s utter creativity. Meillassoux identifies three Worlds that have emerged from these advents: the World of the material, the World of life, and the World of thought. The World of the physical and the “world” before that (if one could conceive of such a world) are so irreparably different, so rapturously unaffiliated, that one might think of the shift as fundamental. These radical discontinuities — the moment when matter emerged; the moment when life (“which,” in Meillassoux’s imagination, “cannot be reduced to material processes”) sprang forth; and the moment when thought or the capacity to arrive at intelligible meaning became possible — render “unrecognizable everything that has come before.” These advents are not reducible, justified, or explainable by anything present in the familiar. They are traversals. Crossings. Altering reality in their flashing up.

Campbell, McHugh, and Ennis argue that we are — in a Meillassouxian sense — in a fourth World, conjured by a fourth advent. This advent/World of climate collapse exceeds thinkability, where thinkability and various forms of organization that gesture toward the world as an “other” or a “challenge” or “obstacle” to human progress are the furniture of a “previous” world. The World that mothered the Holocene 11,700 years ago, the timescale of polite weather and less turbulence that afforded us opportunities to create “epistemological categories that lasted thousands of years and became the most fundamental modes through which we understand and organize — the births of language and religion, the concept of resources and exchange, the invention of all known technology, the development of agriculture, domestication, and urbanization.”

Contrasting the Holocene with what many now consider to be the post-Holocene world of the Anthropocene — the world largely terraformed by human activity — Campbell, McHugh, and Ennis observe that it is the rift between these spacetime frames that is of interest to them. This is the “point,” through this crack, the unthinkable entered, so to speak. This is the sense in which “climate change outpaces organizing.” An advent marks a quantum leap, a shock to the solution that freezes it. The end of hope as we know it.

Everything thus becomes strange.

Something inarticulable, a twirling murmuration of a monster too wild to be tamed, too wild for form, too wild to be categorized and speciated, now sits in theophanic magnificence at the city gates. Like an elder cosmic monster in an H.P. Lovecraft book. The One-Not-to-Be-Named. The Magnum Innominandum. Humming songs and tunes we don’t know how to listen or dance to.

In a World that exceeds thinkability, in a world we have no language for, one “fundamentally” delinked from a prior due to the traversal flashing up of “nature” in her flamboyant passing away, and one in which forward movement is now impossible, we need new forms of inquiry. We need new ways of making sense. We need new ways of listening.

Postactivism is the collective inquiry into the kinds of organizing, capacities, response-abilities, im/possibilities, and desires we intra-act with in a strange World. Instigated by Selah, the call for creative foreclosure, postactivism is the kind of work that feels fitting in these messianic moments.

A climate morality now divides between those fighting hard for climate justice and those who are said to deny climate change even exists. The conversation is locked between these opposing sides. And every opinion that even slightly deviates from the centrality of carbon, from the drive for new climate legislation, from the efforts to educate people about carbon emissions, is said to be tantamount to climate denial.

However, justice itself is queered in this strange new circumstance. With the container of justice blasted open, a rhizomic abundance of response-abilities spill forth.


Dike Blair, Untitled, 2019, charcoal, gouache, and gesso on paper, courtesy of the artist, Karma, and Linn Lühn Dike Blair, Untitled, 2019, oil on aluminum, courtesy of the artist, Karma, and Linn Lühn

[Table of contents]

The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

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