Being Ecological (Philosopher Timothy Morton Interview)


It’s great to welcome to the program today,
Timothy Morton, who’s an ecological philosopher at rice university, also author of the book being ecological out with
penguin and MIT. It’s so great to have you on today. Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor and if I couldn’t do things
like this, I couldn’t think you have to sort of work with other people to be able to do
that. If you’re, if you’re me, let’s do it. I mean, I think maybe to start, let’s define
some terms a little bit. I think that maybe the term ecology and ecological
is not often understood by many. There’s sort of something in there that relates
to the environment. There’s something in there that relates to
climate change or maybe not. So can we maybe start with defining what the
field is and what we’re talking about? Well, the funny thing is that the word ecology
is like the word economy. And we sort of know what economy means. Um, economy means like how you organize your
house actually that first two syllables, the eco bit means house in Greek, you know, incoming,
outgoing flows of money and whatever. And roughly it’s, it’s sort of to do how you
organize your enjoyment, right? You know, like I’ll give you 50 cents and
you give me this ice cream as a free cheap ice cream for some reason. Um, ecology is in a way the logic of that. It’s the logic of where we live. Um, how it, how it works. And the funny thing is of course, is that
classical economic theory doesn’t seem to have anything to do very much with coral or
mountains or whatever. But I guess we’re finding out right now just
how connected these things are. Um, that actually by ignoring, um, some of
the things like coral and mountains, um, we might have, uh, got some things a bit screwy
with, with our, with our economics, with our way of doing it. So what would be some examples of maybe the questions
that would be the questions that the field considers? Oh, well, um, one very strong question would
be, uh, at what scales is this thing happening? Right? Like in a funny way, ecological awareness
just means being aware that things are happening on more than one scale at once. So for example, you start your car now that’s
actually, you know, on a planet scale, statistically meaningless, you haven’t done anything, you
shouldn’t feel built guilty in a way. Um, I like to say that maybe there’s a difference
between guilty and responsible. Um, then billions and billions of those are
doing something. So there’s a funny paradox, which is that
on one scale, nothing’s happening. On another scale, everything is, is happening
and it’s the same thing. You’re doing the same thing. So in the, in the field of, you know, climate
change and environmentalism, one debate that exists that I think is, uh, is a better one
than does it exist. I think that that’s not a good debate at this
point. But one is personal responsibility versus
corporate responsibility. So the discussion of plastic straws and getting
a car with slightly better gas mileage or whatever the case may be. And a counter to the entire framing of those
questions is that this is not really about the decisions of the individual because the
overwhelming, I think it’s, you know, 70% of emissions come from just a hundred companies
or something like that, so that the conversation is actually happening at the wrong scale within
the ecological framework. As you say, you know, there’s the little action
and things are happening on, on multiple layers. Is there a particular level of zooms, so to
speak, that is the predominant one in the questions you deal with? Oh, well, um, you’re quite right to suggest,
I feel that the, um, individual scale is a bit too small and it also brings up questions
of good and evil. Like, am I doing this right? You know, what’s the right shampoo to choose? I’ve got 200 shampoos in the shop and I’m
confronted with them like this giant ice flow and it’s made of shampoo and I have to figure
out which one to do and it’s quite alien, you know? Um, and um, of course there’s a, there’s an
awful feeling of powerlessness when you’re thinking about something happening at planet
scale. And I’m old enough to remember those things
in the 90s where in the media sometimes people would say things like, if we just did this
one thing like save toilet paper or jump up and down on the spot for awhile, then this
would happen. If we just did it for two weeks, then this
other amazing thing would happen. And it’s as if the onus is put on, on us as
individuals. And I, I like to distinguish between guilty
and responsible. I’m, I’m doing this interview across from
Chevron and all those companies cause I work at rice university and in Houston and it’s
quite clear who’s guilty in a way. Like some people knew that global warming
was happening and that uh, and so forth quite a long time ago. Um, rather like the cigarettes situation,
on the other hand, everyone’s responsible and it doesn’t mean that even that you have
to prove that you did it or do you have to prove is that you can understand it, right? Like if you see somebody running in the street
and they’re going to get hit by a car, you’re responsible for that person and you don’t
have to prove even that you did it. Um, and even maybe it might waste some time. You know, you might be trying to prove that
you did it, the calculator and suddenly the person got hit anyway. So in a funny way, I feel like taking a lot
of that guilt of the people’s shoulders and I feel like people like me often make ordinary
people feel stupid and evil and, and that’s probably why our message isn’t working so
great. What is it that when it comes to solving the
problems that we’re dealing with, you see as the biggest impediment because it’s very
easy and I think at least partially accurate to say that there are significant corporate
interests that stand to lose a lot of money if we actually start dealing seriously with
the problems that we’re having. But that I think is only one piece of it. So are there others, you know, there’s this
idea of analysis paralysis of endlessly seeking facts without a path forward. I’ll just open it. What else is preventing us from solving this? Well, the way that we talk to each other about
it is quite inhibiting. Um, I’m sometimes like to think that it’s
not exactly how, what you think that’s could start world war four or whatever, but, but,
but how you think? Yeah. Like there are different ideas, for example,
about what the word belief means, you know, disbelief. I mean, hold on really, really tight or something. I never let go. Or disbelieve means something more like trusting,
you know, just sort of allowing things to, to, to be the case. And, um, so you know, in a way it, it’s to
do with what we think all these deep things about what does believe mean, what does responsible
mean? And in general, how do we act in groups? You know, I mean we’re, we, we on our daily
lives, we are members of lots and lots of overlapping intersecting different sizes of
group. And if we’re going to work with this global
warming stuff, it’s a 7.5 billion group problem. And, and that’s a big challenge actually to
imagine ourselves as part of a group without thinking that the group is like this glass
of water in which we just dissolve like salt or sugar and we don’t really mean anything
and we don’t really exist. And it’s a tremendously inhibiting to think,
you know, and again, perhaps it’s a hangover from not, not so great aspects of some religion
that’s feeling like you’re part of something bigger. It makes you feel like you don’t count. Yeah. I, I in uh, of his book, guns, germs and steel,
Jared diamond talks quite a bit about the size of groups in which humans can function
in different ways. And to different degrees. And it seems that when we’re talking about
ecology, we, we really are talking about the planet. I mean everybody is part of it in a sense. And that seems overwhelming to some degree. Is this the role? Is this why we have governments? I mean, I don’t, I don’t want to be pessimistic
and maybe you’re not pessimistic, but how do we wrap our mind around how to solve a
problem of that scope and size? I have awful trouble with, with, um, dangle
two feelings about this. So I, I feel badly a lot. Um, so one of my favorite hobbies is feeling
badly. And, um, I feel like if I’m just lying there
in the fetal position, you know, on the floor, which is how I feel sometimes when I hear
this data, there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? So I have to figure out how to scrape myself
off the floor and get up and do something. So one has to feel somewhat confident in the
face of the, the, the awfulness. Um, I think really that, um, what we’re dealing
with is, uh, obviously a, again, it’s a, it’s a problem to do with, um, knowing that the,
that what you do at one scale might suck at another scale, right? Like, like very crudely. Um, nothing that everything’s sort of interconnected
on the planet means that if you’re going to be nice to bunny rabbits, it means that you’re
not going to be nice to bunny rabbit parasites. So part of it is this Groundhog day situation. If you remember the film Groundhog day, bill
Murray tries to get it right. It keeps going through the same day over and
over again when he realizes he can never ever save the guy who’s going to get hit. And that’s a little bit like ecological awareness. There’s always going to be some flaw in your
plan, but that doesn’t mean you should, you should not try to carry it out. And so part of it is, you know, realizing
that we’re always going to feel a little bit like Hippocrates and Murray’s going to wonder
exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing. They’re on point enough reasons all the time. When it comes to action, I mean, is there,
do you think on those terms, is there, when we look at fossil fuels, trash, plastics,
the oceans, the ozone, all of these different, is there even something that you would say
should be the areas of focus at this point? Oh, well actually it’s very easy for an individual
person, um, to realize that actually the best thing you can do as an individual is to eat
a little bit less than need. If you’re wondering what to do right now and
you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this. And the way we talk to each other about it
is so triggering and sort of PTSD, and you open the paper and it says that, you know,
500 to 16%, 20,000 years and it’s also confusing. And then there’s another lot of data dumped
on either the next day, you know? Um, and then you read the editorial section
and it’s like, Oh, you’re really evil. You’re bad. You know? And so no wonder people feel put off, but
actually there’s something very simple you can do. While we’re waiting for people to do bigger
things, um, which is each a little bit less meat. It’s amazing how much fossil fuel emissions
there are in agriculture. And if you want to do something right now,
I would seriously advise, I would seriously advise that as you’ve got a car and if you
do and it’s probably quite expensive to pay it off. Maybe it’s better just to focus on the food
right now and not worry so much about about the car aspect. That’s interesting. And that’s something I try to do and, and
I advocate for and yet if I recall correctly, I think agricultural emissions or something
like 13% of total emissions. So we sort of are back in this position of
even if we all did it, we’re dealing with maybe a 10th of the problem. And I is, that may be what gets some people
to do nothing instead. I think so, yes, there’s a feeling of paralysis
and you know, I guess one of the most important things in the short term is to remember to
vote, you know, figure out who can represent you, who can work some things out, um, politically
in, in, in larger groups. Um, it’s, it’s probably more effective than
anything. I think right now, even though some things
may seem more, um, to seem seemingly direct and sort of more obvious or flamboyant, um,
for regular folks folks, I think just figuring out who’s the right person to vote for with
all of this is probably the best. It’s probably the best tactic right now in thinking a little more broadly, like maybe
five years, 10 years, 20 years are individual conversations where you try to convince someone
who simply doesn’t believe that we are affecting the climate and our planet. Is that a worthwhile conversation to have
or are those sort of vestigial remains so to speak, that will eventually go away? And that’s not really where our focus should
be arguing with people about whether it’s real. Gosh, that’s interesting. Um, well, you know, the funny thing is that,
you know, the wondering whether it’s real or not, is it a funny way, a symptom of the
fact that it’s real? I don’t know if either there’ve been in a
car accident but, but, but, but when you’re in something like that, some kind of traumatic
situation, the thought is, gosh, is this really happening? And all around the world people are going,
is this actually for real, this global warming mass extinction thing? And that’s actually a signal that it is happening
in a funny, in a funny way. Another thing to say about this is that, um,
that kind of conversation where you try to convince someone, yeah, probably that kind
of conversation has hoovered up as many people as it possibly can now who want to believe
this stuff. I think it’s probably more effective to have
other kinds of conversation that don’t necessarily obviously direct, like for example, have a
conversation about responsibility. You know, like again, maybe jellyfish did
this, but because I can understand it, I can responsible for it, right? And because I’ve got fingers that can switch
off the keyboard switches that switch off the oil pipes, I need to do this because dolphins
can’t do it cause they flip. It’s con like what the keyboards. That’s it. So, but I mean, so, so the, the idea and thinking
pragmatically then is that although there’s nothing wrong necessarily with trying to convince
people, but that has been going on for so long that the convincible people likely already
have been, am I sort of understanding what you’re saying? Yes, yes, exactly. Exactly. Is I, I feel like, you know, I, I was in the
local burger place. I live in Texas and so water burger is our
Texas burger place. We’re all very proud of it. And, um, I just seen an incredible retired
by the adults are doing this incredible performance of this Debussy ballet in Paris. And then the person who served me, the sources
cause as, suppose someone comes with a tray with the sources or this place came to the
table to serve this. I thought, gosh, your, you are handling yourself
as gracefully as this ballet dancer person in Paris. And you know, people like me make people like
you feel stupid and evil most of the time. No wonder we haven’t started fixing this thing. Like, I mean, obviously there’s other things
to blame, but who can I blame? But myself if the situation isn’t, isn’t going
so great. Any situation. Right. I don’t know if you’ve seen the democratic
presidential debates that have taken place so far, but if you have, I’d be curious to
know what is your assessment of the way in which these issues are discussed, whether
it’s climate, a fossil fuels, energy, whatever. I mean in terms of the questions that are
asked as sort of part a and in terms of the, the framing of the answers as well. Gosh, that’s very, very deep and it’s very,
very important because I’ve been, okay, I feel like how you do a thing is the thing
in a way. Um, it’s not an optional extra how we ask
ourselves questions about this and how we talk about it. And it seems to me that the way it’s talked
about quite often, um, is, you know, perhaps some of the solutions are right, but, um,
th the language is very chained to cratic and it’s not very democratically empowering
and it’s not scaled so that you don’t think like, what can I do as, as someone in my neighborhood,
right? Like what can I do with someone in mine who
lives in a street all lives in a town? Of course they need to, to be trans state
international action on all of this stuff. Um, and, and yet at the same time, I think
the way we talk about it, it makes it seem like this scary alien thing. And it is scary, but it better not be alien
because if it’s alien and it’s just something that happens, like fate or destiny or nature
or whatever the old word nature that I do, that things just sort of happen without your
will, you know? And this is something that we have to input
our will into. So the way that you talk about it as a little
bit stifling, I fail. That’s a very good question. What would be an example of a question that
you would like to hear from moderators pose to the candidates that would maybe be more
encompassing or framed in a, in a better way? Hmm. Um, how do you think neighborhoods and local
communities can organize to affect ecological political change would be my number one question. Just to get people in the mindset of thinking
this is a thing we can do. You know, like we all live in a neighborhood
and in a funny way, the neighborhood is sort of a very good unit of political change. It’s not the individuals, it’s, it’s a group,
but it’s small enough and it’s connected enough to your actual physical location and what,
who you are and who you know that it’s, it’s, it, it, it’s got this reality to it. That’s interesting. I mean, just, I’m imagining it being asked
and I just know that the candidates, at least that we currently have would, if you’re lucky,
give an answer that is even tangentially related. I mean is, you know, that’s one of the things
where one of the critiques I’ve had of the debates is that the format doesn’t really
allow for depth. But the other issue is that on a lot of these
issues, the candidates don’t really know more than two or three talking points related to
the issue. And that that just seems like more of a, I
mean, it just, this is not an area of expertise really for any of the candidates I think unless
you, you think there’s someone who is better on this issue. Yeah, no, I, I, I think, you know, obviously
someone like Bernie Sanders has got the right idea of the scale of, of, of, of funding involved
to make this problem go away. But um, again, it’s, it’s sort of about owning
this as an issue. When you read the paper, it’s almost as if
we are continually surprised. For example, unbolted hurricanes affect poor
people and black people, for example, worse than white people or well off people. And you sort of think to yourself, gosh, you
know what? What else in social space do we treat like
this? It’s as if the hurricane is coming way, way
from the, from the outside of our knowledge. And it’s like shock, horror, bad thing affects
poor suffering people worse. And it’s like, well, what doesn’t do that? We should be owning this right now. And sort of figuring out how to become more
familiar with it. Otherwise it’s just this huge daunting mountain
of, of data that we’re looking at like free tout romantic poets or something. Yeah. I mean your book being ecological is not about
beating people over the head with facts, but how would you, how would you sort of summarize
the effect you would hope the book would have on someone who reads it? Oh, um, well I got asked by penguin to write
this book and I thought, gosh, penguin, you’ve confirmed me a golden microphone to talk to
people. And I’m a scholar. I don’t get out much when I go to talk to
people. So it’s like, what to wait? How can I use this opportunity? Right? I know people like me say, you know, we, we
have this horrible phrase, what does it to appeal to a wider audience that’s so condescending? You know, I personally think that th that
making a nice thing for lots of people to read is off the level in a way from being
right in that heavy duty, medieval way that happens in universities. I’m making it kind of rubber stamping motion
with my hand, cause that’s how it sort of works. Um, whereas, you know, um, being interesting,
you know, is there’s a philosopher called Heraclitis, he’s an ancient Greek philosopher
and he said something very beautiful. I love very much. He says, the truth cannot be directly stated. You have to evoke it. Right? And all this direct stating and pointing and
this is bad and you’re a bad person. It’s just not, I mean, I’m quite a defined
person. So if I hear this kind of thing, I mean to
myself, I tend to consistent pretty strongly. Um, so my sense of the project is just basically
trying to very gently evoke things, which ends up becoming more powerful actually than,
than yelling. Um, there’s a very good phrase I heard once
about the novelist Marcel Proust by one of my favorite. So lots of those actually Geico, Theodore
Adorno, the German philosopher, and he says something very beautiful, which you could
also think about Jane Austin if you’ve never read Bruce, do you say? So? [inaudible] Preuss destroys the aristocracy
with remorseless gentleness. That’s the phrase that he uses. And I like this idea of, of, of gentleness
can be more effective. Um, then aggression, you think about the nonviolent
direct action things that have happened, Martin Luther King and so on. And you sort of see the point of that. I’m going to phrase this last question and
what maybe is not ripe for an academic answer, but if zero is total pessimism and 10 is total,
uh, optimism about figuring this out before we destroy ourselves, where are you? Uh, well, um, two and a half, two years for
ambiguity. Um, because on the one hand, um, as far as
understanding this issue goes, I’m at a one or a zero, you know, pessimism of the intellect
as they say. Um, as far as failing, like we’ve got this
actually, if we can do this, so just stay to a little tiny adjustment and to get into
doing this. Um, I’m at a nine or return actually. So it’s very ambiguous for me. Um, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of
the will. That’s why that’s my slogan. So the answer is depending on where are you
from, zero to 10, it, the, the, the answer is it depends from where you are measuring
in some sense. Yeah, it’s hard. The zero will turn is a don’t mess with Mister
in between. That’s what I say. We’ve been speaking with Timothy Morton who’s
an ecological philosopher at rice university. The book is being ecological Timothy, so great
having you on today. So thank you much. It’s been a pleasure.

Comments 36

  • Anyone see Adam Schiff read off the Ukrainian transcript that trump specifically stated that he would not give weapons until they found dirt or made up dirt on Joe Biden? Once Schiff was called out on his reading of the transcript, he tried to pretend his “reading” of the transcript was meant to be parody.

    Still waiting for David to call out these liars. Oh wait, David only presses for certain narratives, I won’t hold my breath

  • I now understand that Conservatives don't deserve any sympathy anymore,
    They are evil people that don't want happiness but destruction

  • Until Conservatives are wiped out of existence the planet will die each year

  • A SERIOUS SUBJECT LIKE GLOBAL WARMING BEING DISCUSSED BY A PHILOSOPHER IS A MOCKERY OF SCIENCE

  • Remember how triggered Convics got when We Didn't care about that Demon Brother passing lol

  • Timothy Morton's work on object-oriented ontology is brilliant. Global warming is a hyperobject and it's scary.

  • Great interview! Thanks for this. Lots of food for thought on a very important subject. Thanks for not making all your work focused on the minutia of blow-by-blow politics. I appreciate this bigger subject matter — the planet.

  • There is a corporate and consumer side to climate change, but the next generation will not see nuance, they will want vengeance against those who have destroyed the planet, heads will roll.

  • Thank you for your interviews David. I enjoyed this very much and it has made me think about how to approach this subject with others.

  • We need to be studying Timothy Morton’s work. So glad he was on the show and is being presented to more people. His Hyperobjects concept revolutionized ecology and modern “nature-oriented” philosophy.

  • Please Do Not Cover Bernies Heart Surgery. We need to pretend it didn't happen so we can beat Orange man bad. Progressives rULe. Tyt nAtion.

  • k, a little trouble staying on point …. but I could listen to him for HOURS !!!

  • Trump raises Q3 record 125 million dollars.
    – Pakman does story about Bernie raising 24 million.
    Bernie has heart surgery.
    – Pakman does 89th story about a Trump impeachment.

  • What language is this guy speaking? Doesn't he know we speak English in America. 😁😁👽

  • Cmon David, go vegan.

  • Beautiful reasoning from Timothy Morton on the ethics and morals among ordinary people, a never ending sense of guilt, so many choices to make and a feeling of insufficiency that’s almost natural and in a way acceptable.

  • So refreshing to hear someone who understands the big picture

  • Shop at stores that have already taken the time to find truly eco products. Stay away from mainstream chain brands

  • Eating less meat helps, huh. So vegetarian until lab meat rolls out the next few years.

  • Personal scale vs institutional, corporate/industrial, city, county, state government scale.

  • His discussion of guilt vs responsibility is exactly what I was trying to say but couldn't find the words for it. It's difficult advocating for plant based diets and other lifestyles that offer a better alternative when there's such a toxic internet culture surrounding it. I believe companies and governments are at fault, but I also believe we as individuals have a responsibility to make the best decisions we can for the better of our future. I want a million people practicing veganism imperfectly instead of a hundred practicing perfectly

  • Things we all (well a majority) can do: vote for politicians who support environmental policies such as the green new deal in place of politicians who are funded by the fossil fuel industry.

    Reduce the number of flights you take (especially business flights, use Skype whether possible), reduce the number of journeys you make in a car that are within walking distance (or cycling distance, which makes you healthier and therefore reducing obesity epidemic), eat less food (reducing the obesity epidemic and reducing health problems), use less electricity, less water, less gas, by being more efficient, like installing LED lighting, using a more efficient car (which also reduces costs), and many more things that if everyone did their bit would add up.

    I personally walk as much as possible, use LED lights, take short showers rather than baths, reuse washing up water in the summer to water the plants (which helps the environment in a number of ways), I buy as energy efficient products as possible, use reuseable bags instead of plastic ones, recycle (and have done my whole life), use public transport instead of a car, but I could do more, I could install solar panels (though not my house), eat less meat, and I'm sure much more things, the point is if we all do a little it can add up to a big difference.

    There are some things that are out of our control, like the amount of waste companies produce, this is why voting for the right politicians is so important, they can force businesses to act and that would make a massive difference

  • I agree with Morton. Stop trying to convince deniers and focusing on getting things done. Majority of population believes it and you can never achieve 100% penetration. It's a pointless exercise.

    Take action, vote for the GND, get politicians who can affect change, eat less, live responsibly.

    the rest will take care of itself.

  • It is not just believing in something but accepting that everything needs a level of belief.

    Alternative energy sources can supply all the power America needs, providing you can store it effectively. That would mean the government taking responsibility and control. An America wide power network with electricity storage so electric can be moved to where it is needed, when it is needed.

  • I can barely understand this hipsters answers to Davids questions. Focus brother.

  • 1) Go vegan, 2) stop shopping for crap, 3) no alcohol, sugar and dairy. Disrupt.

  • That's silly. A tenth is still a significant chunk of anything. If you refuse to engage in any activity other than what will have the greatest impact, I don't understand how you even get out of bed.

  • Belief: An opinion that leads to action.

  • try eliminating meat, dairy, eggs, processed food and sugars from 1 meal each day — that seems to be fairly easy to do. we really dont need to eat animal products every meal, 3 times each and the drink dairy on top of it.

    another easy food choice to make is to use milk alternatives instead of cow milk: soymilk, almond milk, oatmilk, cashew nut milk, soy creamer — so many choices!

  • Divorced dad makes a lot of sense

  • Unless you're allergic, a single ant sting isn't much. It hurts for a bit, but no real damage is done. No creature on Earth, today or at any point in our history, could survive the sting of a million ants. So, yes, we're tiny individually, but working together, we could tackle any problem. The difficulty is organization and willpower. Figure those out, and we're unstoppable.

  • the fact he said ww4 makes me feel validated

    this book seems interesting

  • This guy is worth listening to.

  • People keep saying that it's 100 companies producing most of the emissions but it's not that simple, they are producing those emissions to make random useless throwaway crap for us, stop buying crap, single use items that serve no purpose.
    That's what's annoyed me about this straw debate, it started as a debate about why do millions of these things get made, out of no degradable plastics, which is made out of oil which has to be drilled out of the earth, shipped around the world, separated in a fraction tower, turned into plastics, shipped back around the world, turned into straws, and then shipped back around the world and sold, used once then thrown away. It was never about the plastic in the oceans it was about the materials to make these single use items produced tons of CO2 from container ships and trucks for no reason what so ever. And everyone missed the point and laughed at it because they didn't understand the argument and couldn't be bothered to read any of the actual think pieces on it.

  • david was dancing around the meat issue and as soon as he said it you could tell he was like FUCK

  • David, thank you for having Timothy Morton on!

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