The Hubristic & the Sublime

‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ — John Martin, (1822)

Before the issue of human made climate change penetrated the collective consciousness, its perpetrators had full knowledge of its ramifications. Exxon, as early as 1977, understood the damage that was inflicted by the industrial scale extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. As Bill McKibben writes in the New Yorker, they equipped a tanker “with CO2 detectors to measure how fast the oceans could absorb excess carbon, and hired mathematicians to build sophisticated climate models.” Exxon’s leaders entirely understood the catastrophic trajectory we’re on, including the indisputable fact that the activities of only handful of corporate behemoths, themselves included, were powering us along it. And yet, such premonitions of chaos didn’t even make them flinch. On they pushed, instead using the research to “figure out how low their drilling costs in the Arctic would eventually fall.”

Let us dwell on the extent of the psychopathy at play here. Faced with the knowledge that their rapacious industry was manifestly culpable for the slow destruction of our earth’s systems, a collapse that too would portend the disintegration of human civilisation as we know it, Exxon deployed their insights to double-down on the activities responsible, exploiting the unprecedented thawing of sea ice for more profitable drilling opportunities. They discovered they were thrusting a knife through the heart of civilisation, and chose to plunge it further nonetheless.

Belligerently they sought to cover their tracks, sowing doubt in the certainty of climate research and dismissing claims that the earth is warming. Rather than confess to their responsibility and sacrifice their self interest, they emitted a rancid smog of obfuscation that clouded hope of decisive action. Still today, networks of disinformation, from Koch-aligned think tanks to lobbyists on Fox News, attack the scientific consensus on the singular most pertinent threat to our civilisation, defending the accumulative imperative of fossil capitalism. 38 years since a corporate primer argued “that heading off global warming and ‘potentially catastrophic events’ would ‘require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion’”, they still seek to neuter any substantive effort to do so.

As we reflect upon our increasing belching of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, unbowed by the flaccid attempts at solutions thus far, we would do well to heed the words of economist and philosopher E.F Schumacher, that “Man is far too clever” he wrote, “to survive without wisdom.” For this aphorism encapsulates, perhaps better than any other, the predicament in which we find ourselves. As humanity is trapped; constrained by a system, unparalleled in its efficiency, capable of moulding and shifting and harnessing the elemental powers of nature to its ends. But these ends are predicated upon an obstinate compulsion; a hubristic impulse to accumulate for the sake of accumulation, forsaking our environmental stability, the precondition for civilisation, on the altar of pecuniary wealth.

Paralysed by this reigning idiocy, our efforts to break free of this conjuncture fail, kneecapped by a nihilistic ideology. And so we are trapped in a system without a reflective capacity, temperance, or any ethical system to moor it. We transmute all into profit, refusing to ask whether we should. We remain in hoc to a system without wisdom.

To be clear, it is not humans per se who lack this virtue. No, there is profound wisdom throughout our species. This annihilation of the living world is not necessarily the so-called anthropocenes doing. When Big Oil derails decarbonisation efforts, they act in neither the interests, nor with the consent of, the people. But always for their own maximal gain, sitting atop the extractive machinery which encompasses our societies. Climate breakdown is the product of that gilded machine of fossil capitalism that we have constructed around us, mercilessly trudging onwards in its self-cannibalising march. Thus we should use Jason W. Moore’s frame to conceptualise this epoch: the capitalocene. As, whilst it is less easy off the tongue, it more accurately targets the political agency behind the replacement of natural harmony with a destructively incongruous artificiality.

There is more to this absurd ruination than irrationality, though. The fact that many of us cannot see beyond its vacuity of wisdom; that we do not observe its rampant insatiability as a deep seated structural flaw, but rather its defining virtue, is a tragic emblem of the hubris that has seized the human condition, displacing the humility of the sublime. To reverse this downward spiral, we must embark upon a deep recalibration, placing us back onto the path of synchronicity with nature.

In Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi, the climactic scene tracks the launch of a space shuttle thundering up toward our atmosphere. The frame is cropped close, breathlessly panning to keep the rocket in view; the inferno of its engines burning magnificently. It soars triumphantly until the marvel implodes mid-flight; consumed by a billowing and furious flame. It’s internals are thrust outwards like confetti, as we trace one particular component. The footage slowed down, we watch the gnarled lump spin delicately; gracefully almost, as it plummets toward collision. A bizarre synthetic thing, caught in a tailspin, periodically engulfed by bursts of flame, transfixes you – before Reggio transitions from this poignant catastrophe to a cave wall, illuminated by flickering amber light, panning outwards to reveal an ancient painting.

In this juxtaposition, we may read that both are symbolic of how we construct our own reality, intellectually, consciously and physically, able to decipher natures codes and parry its deficiencies; mould its lands and bend its patterns. From the pinnacle of the machine age to an emblem of our nascent capacities; a conscious intelligence that can reflect upon itself, unique amongst nature, marking out depictions of our reality with dextrous brushes of our hands. Yet, such a message could have been conveyed without the implosion. It augments the meaning drawed with a profound tonal shift, almost as a rebuttal to our previous wide-eyed absorption in our accomplishments. It is as if to say that despite our spectacular intellect and competencies, we ultimately remain at the mercy of the immensity of nature, dependent upon its systems and cowered by its power, as gravity’s strength dragged the crafts’ debris violently down to the surface. That, despite our galactic achievements, we remain those primal apes that mapped simple portraits of themselves, tens of thousands of years before. And so we may view Koyaanisqatsi’s final scene as a visual articulation of the human sublime.

In the philosophy of aesthetics, the sublime is said to be one of the most potent of all possible human experiences. Indeed, Edmund Burke, in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, submitted it is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” As Sandra Shapsay writes in an essay for Aeon, the sublime can be defined, most simply, as “a mix of pain and pleasure, experienced in the presence of typically vast, formless, threatening, overwhelming natural environments or phenomena.” In its more intellectual variant, distinct from the carnal awe of Burke’s conception, is what Shapsay refers to as the ‘thick sublime’ of Kant and Schopenhauer, whereby that immediate awe matures, integrated into ponderance of where humanity fits within the grandeur of natural reality.

Imagine, you are shaking beneath a violent thunderstorm; or standing at the precipice of a vast canyon, its contours embellished with the print of time, layers of rock as an organic cross-section of the past. The sensation at that moment, “this experience of the irresistibility of nature’s power,” as Shapsay explains:

“prompts us to realise that we are weak and existentially insignificant in the grand scheme of nature. And yet, it also reveals that we transcend nature as moral agents and systematic knowers. Insofar as we are morally free beings capable of comprehending nature in a systematic way, we are in a sense independent of and superior to nature.”

This cosmic endowment, to reflect upon ourselves and construct our own reality, as star stuff contemplating the stars – to paraphrase the immortal Carl Sagan – is self-evidently unique. And provides with us, whether for good ill, an asymmetry of knowledge amongst the organisms that inhabit the earth. And thus with it, a burden of power.

No other creature can adapt the environment at our whim, insulating themselves from natures brutal indifference. Whereas other species may adapt themselves to the potentials of life, shaping themselves in accordance to the environment, as would an impala running from a lion, we possess the capacity to manipulate the environment around our own needs. A lack of food from excess foraging and a rapidly increasing population forced hunter gatherers to harness the land, suddenly becoming master over something which before we were beholden to. Knowledge of physics enabled the utilisation of electricity, enabling a rise in living standards; biological breakthroughs give us the power to defeat diseases unbeknownst to other cretures before it granted them an early death. We have managed to claw from nature our survival and flourishing; a permanence of shelter, abundance in warmth, light, food and pleasure.

Indeed, much of the joys of being human are themselves composed in a similar manner. From art to surfing to architecture, we play with the building blocks of reality. Music, for instance, is nothing but the decoding of aural reality, and the playful reconstruction of its language of sound, seeking to compose harmonious sentences. These building blocks are uncovered through rational reflection and investigation. Once the components have been excavated – bronze and seeds, sand and wood, wavelengths and the electro-magnetic spectrum – we proceed with the collective bricolage. To varying degrees and in various modalities, we are all demiurges, participating in the elucidation of reality and the proceeding construction of a world based upon the insights of such knowledge.

Koyaanisqatsi, through its meditative shots of our bizarre and monumental activity, synchronised with Philip Glass’s ominous score, could be an ode to this power. In this sense, our societies, in their tremendous complexity and gigantism, mirrors the imposing grandeur of nature. But this is no celebration. The film’s title — a Hopi phrase, translating to ‘life out of balance’ — provides context to the finale’s metaphor, and Reggio’s larger vision. In the spacecrafts combustion, the contradictory sensation of simultaneously extending beyond nature, the awesomeness of our power, and being one with it, encompassed and ultimately subordinate to it, plays out before our eyes.

But if the condition of sublimity is a truthful depiction of our state of existence, both powerful and powerless, apart and the same, it is not the one our subjectivities operate within. In failing to accommodate the complementary components of the thick sublime, the humility and connection generated from being part of the grandeur of nature, our anagnorisis is stunted. With only an appreciation of our power, we are left catastrophically incomplete, wallowing in the tragic immaturity of hubris

As the social comes to surpass the natural in our collective imagination, displaying a profound ability to reshape and dismantle those “Bold, overhanging … threatening cliffs” that Kant observed, we forget that the cards ultimately remain in Gaia’s hands; that a relationship of dependence exists, and it is inverse to the one we like to presume. Drunk on our self-conception as masters of the universe, a collective ego inflated by the immense techno-social prowess we wield, humanity flies too close to the sun. We impose our systems, crafted from our unparalleled intelligence, onto the organic rhythms and limits of the natural world, attempting to make it subservient to us. The existential insignificance that spread through Kants soul, with “our capacity to resist [made] into an insignificant trifle in comparison with [natures] power,” is not found here. In its place is a charade of godliness, a veneer that will be wiped away as we scramble to shield ourselves from Gaia’s imminent wrath.

To justify this oppression, we maintain a false and corrupting separateness; a delineation between us and the living world that is predicated upon a false relation of dominance. Straying yet further from the sublime, we seize upon “our power as cognising subjects,” forgetting the connective aspect of the sublime exaltation. That is, we do not take hold of the complementary intuition “that we are at bottom really unified with all of nature.” That, as Shapsay writes, “Nature’s immensity is our immensity; its seeming infinity is our infinity too.” Our miasmatic arrogance has obscured this holistic truth; acting as if nature is inferior, subservient and instrumental to us.

But where, we may ask, does this hubris originate from? One may look to religious doctrine and its certainty the earth was constructed primarily for humans, made in the image of God as distinct from animals. But the secularisation of society coincided with the proliferation of our techno-social powers as industrialism took root, and you’d be hard pressed to convince that Exxon executives were acting in accordance with latent theological commands. Religious tendencies may play a part, but hubristic capitalism is the systemic articulation of a more diffuse cultural form, rooted in the emergence of the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm. God wasn’t so much killed by this machinic rationality as supplanted; his world-making capacities grafted onto a different ontology, one that perched Man at the peak of the hierarchy of existence. The scientific method promised the realisation of the fantasy of omniscience, amasssing vast quantities of knowledge, whilst industrial technologies fuelled the approximation of omnipotence. But something was different this time. Respect and deference to the whole of God’s creation, a sensitivity to the careful and intricate networks of life and meaning that gave texture to the universe, was pushed to the wayside.

Enamoured by our capabilities as we emerged from the dark ages, we proceeded to unravel, dismantle and indiscriminately reconstruct, swept away by the magnitude of our efficacy. Capitalism emerged as the tool with which to do so, a frighteningly efficient relation of social control that burned with the infinite resource flow of extraction, production, and consumption. Embodying the hegemony of anthropogenic concerns and systems of value, capitalism takes the language of calculation – the kernel of post-enlightenment rationality that is testament to the ‘genius’ of Man – and imposes it on natural reality. It seeks to quantify all, to transmogrify every existing relation into the commodify form, to encompass and absorb and thus reduce and abuse the grandeur and complexity of natural reality. It is the violent subordination of the world to the tyranny of narrow economic accumulation.

But it is not a conscious malevolence. Rather, it is the arrogance of man that sees its contingent systems as necessary and noble. My castigation of Exxon afore, in hindsight, was slightly off the mark. Yes, their psychopathy is axiomatic. But more destructive, and infuriating, is their stupidity. What matter is their riches as human civilisation frantically unravels? How will they sustain their rate of profit, their singular holy objective, as resource wars ravage the planet, and economic precarity degrades into complete destitution? This inability to think outside of the immediate pecuniary value, displayed most grievously by Exxon, is, in many ways, the defining pathology that allows us to continue barrelling toward oblivion. We refuse to adapt our perfect systems; to give way to the demands of natural reality. We’d rather die than not see profit prevail.

Ambitious and equitable plans to decarbonise, known strategically as a Green New Deal, are shot down by neoliberals who insist that the financial cost of investment is simply too high. Too high? Too high for what? To ensure the continuity of the human race? Despite the fact such objections are economic nonsense, to these people, our entirely contingent and arbitrary systems of debt have ossified into the limits of possibility. Their does not exist a reality that is not defined by myopic short-term concerns. Human realities are not constrained by physical possibilities, but by the other way around. To power our entire civilisation wholly from the vast reserves of renewable energy is physically possible, but we remain largely impotent due to the particluar economic and political straitjacket binding our action. Consequently, physical realities – the balance of natural systems and the limits to resource consumption – are broken so as to conform to our irrational rubric of rapacious accumulation. We arrogantly presume it is our structures that are naturalised; rigid laws of nature that cannot be budged. But as our crops perish and our state systems weaken, that engorged ego, convinced of its invulnerability, will deflate rapidly. Like a flower left dessicated in the sun, our Ozymandian empire will shatter and crumble.

Wedded to the voracious industrialism of monopoly capitalism, our world-makers (that is, the ruling class or ‘power elite’ or whatever one may call their cabal) reject all efforts for ecological systems change, demanding petulantly its own survival at the expense of civilisations. On the one hand, polite promises to ‘work with industry’ and timid regulation are brushed off by corporate giants. On the other, servile politicians continue to funnel subsidies and grant licences to Big Oil. The eerie guidance of the infallible Invisible Hand is sufficient – indeed, singularly so – to circumvent collapse, it’s prophets screech. Blind faith in market mechanisms – those phantasmagoric spells of production and exchange, to paraphrase Marx – remains the driving imperative of bourgeoise efforts, despite their patent culpability in pushing us toward collapse. Such calamitous impotence, trying the same means of organisation again and again and expecting alternative results, would no doubt meet the definition of insanity.

Here we have a variation of mankind who’s hubris has overcome the intrinsic terror of sublimity, both of its own power — no longer asking whether the deployment of such knowledge is beneficial; no longer entertaining the notion of limits and flaws — and of the overarching supremacy of nature. And there is no greater illumination of this asymmetry; this human pretension of godliness, than of the breakdown of the climactic systems needed to sustain our civilisation. The implicit distinction made in this formulation, between climate destruction and the destruction of a particularly nurturing climate system, is key. For what is happening is not the world dying, as is sometimes claimed. Of the Earth, some billions of years old, being murdered by a ‘parasitical’ human civilisation that robs its vitality. Such a position is symptomatic of the overestimation of our powers. We will perish long before the host does. What will be experienced by our civilisation as a catastrophe – oceans unfurling inwards, striking against our delicate metropolises; ungenerous seasons denying agricultural bounties; uninhabitable surfaces, displaced populations, noxious air, violent storms – will be lapped up as Gaia self-regulates. She will clean herself of the toxin, settling down once again to another epochal shift in her conditions. Such adaptations are neither unforeseen nor painful — oscillating between climates is central to her process of homeostasis. Alas, life may not bloom for a while. Until, slowly, it will begin again, stretching outward, blurry eyed and knock kneed. Perhaps this time, we may hope, it’s own conceit will not be its death. Perhaps this time, it’s intelligence will not supersede it’s humility.

And so we must underscore again how this hubris is not an essential component of human conduct or the evolution of intelligent life, but is manufactured, entrenched and elevated by the hegemony of capitalism. Monopoly capitalism, in its obstinate totality, is the concretisation of our conceit; externalised and naked. It is thus entirely possible to resist. Hopefully, as it’s irrational pretensions are illuminated by the white heat of climate change, the path away from it emerges into view. The danger is, like a cinder block tied to the ankle of civilisation, it sinks both itself and humanity before we can cut it off.

If the sublime is antithetical to the hubristic, what does it mean to construct a social reality that is more proximal to this dimension of the human condition? How can we prevent the sublimity of human efficacy deteriorating into a hubristic certainty of our own ‘supremacy’? And what systems can we construct, what models of relations can we nurture, that embody and encourage this paradigm shift? At its core, this process is a dialectic. The seeds of hubris, far from being merely oppositional, exists within the sublime, making it a subjective terrain of contradiction. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the task of banishing our pretensions is to embrace this contradiction; to relish in our power and vulnerability, our magnitude and insignificance. And to do so, we must construct a more authentic notion of selfhood, recognising the interrelationality and interdependence that constitutes the core of existence itself.

Thus, in order to enter into the sublime, mankind must recalibrate its understanding of itself. Only by jettisoning our conceit of independence, that anthropocentric idiocy of self-sufficiency, can we realise our potential. For, despite our delusions to the contrary, we need nature. The very notion of our separation from it – the narcissistic antithesis of Schopenhauer’s tactile observation that we are “at one with the world” – is nonsensical. Upon even rudimentary examination, it cannot be true. How could we be disconnected from Gaia if we are birthed from her womb, and fed at her teat? Our chemical composition is identical in its constituent parts to all else; the very same wonderful concoction, merely set to a different recipe. Our sustenance, our continuation as living, breathing, reproducing beings, is not generated by our wit, but by the blind hand of biophysics. We are dependent upon nature, ultimately subordinate to it. We are inseparable from cycles of life, death and rebirth; of degradation and renewal; the self-regulating conditions of this precious Earth.

Even our faculty of mental abstraction, the foundational knowledge of ourselves as a conscious subject that is taken as proof of being set asunder, only confirms our inability to tidily partition us from the natural. As the father of social ecology, Murray Bookchin, writes, our “conceptual powers of thought, [and our] highly symbolic forms of communication,” are products “of the human species, a species that is no less a product of nature than whales, dolphins, California condors, or prokaryotic cells.” Contra to the dichotomy of traditional ecological theory – divided between the egotistical anthropocentrism, premised upon a “species hierarchy” that entails all belonging to us, and misanthropic biocentrism, that posits a problematic equality amongst all life forms and a self-contradictory total faith in nature – Bookchin counterposes the notion of “second nature.” Human consciousness, and our complex “organizing or institutionalizing human relationships, human interactions … and richly nuanced cultural formations,” he contends, is but part of a flow of life, “a cumulative unfolding from first into second nature,” with our intelligence and reflexivity nothing less than “nature rendered self-conscious.”

From this perspective, we can see how we may iron out the contradictions of the sublime. Social reality – our terrifyingly beautiful “capacity to restructure [the] environment purposefully according to [our] own needs” – is not opposed to nature, but an integral stage in its “striving for increasing complexity and awareness.” The framework of this second nature allows us to navigate the bizarrity of our position, bringing the hubristic tendency of self-consciousness into conflict with the humbling tendency of interdependence. The sublime synthesis of these sensations, of simultaneously being transcendent and encompassed, powerful and powerless, is that humanity adopts a position of balance. That is to say, out of the sublime rises an imperative of care; of respect; of equilibrium, where we recognise that our endowment of consciousness coincides with a responsibility for maintaining the flourishing of that web of life, of which we are but its furthest articulation. For Bookchin, the question “is not whether humans should intervene into nature – for nothing will stop them from trying to fulfill their most basic “natural” potentialities – but how they should intervene and toward what ends.” And it is my supposition that the ends to which we should strive are those that fulfils our social necessities whilst nurturing and protecting first nature, reversing our alienation from the root of our existence, thus reconnecting to our organicism. To use our vast powers of reformulation and reconstruction, not to serve the carnivorous (and self-defeating) interests of the machine, but the interrelating needs of first and second nature; that without fauna and flora, we cannot thrive; that without clean air, water, food and epochal stability, we cannot survive. The preservation and empowerment of nature does not derive its value from what it does to sustain us. Rather, our continuation is synonymous with the preservation and empowerment of nature. In this identicality, humanity cannot flourish by annihilating nature, and nature cannot flourish by annihilating humanity. Like the wings of a bird, life cannot fly without this mutuality.

But the underlying assumption of capitalism – that there can be infinite growth on a finite planet – is a standing offense to this reverie of ecological balance, a monument to our profound stupidity. The handlers proceed to unlock the gate of every pasture, releasing our ferocious machine till nothing remains to prey upon; the entrails of biotic nature dangling from its teeth. As abundance gives way to scarcity, the machine begins to starve. Gradually, it eats itself from the inside out, consumed in a frightening display of self-cannibalisation. This is the fate that could befall us, a theatre of intense violence as civilisation hollows itself out; the creativity and fascination of second nature reduced to a festering carcass. We cannot allow such an eventuality to come to pass. Defiant, we must dismantle the machine which encases us, replacing its corruptive hierarchies and tyrannies with emancipatory models of collective ownership, administration, and interaction. Surpassing the destructive vacuity of greed, we should instead be oriented around the fulfilment of physiological and psychological needs, of furthering our capacities of freedom, whilst interlinking such aims with the satisfaction of first natures coterminous necessities. Around the publicly provisioned mental-health hospital, beautiful vines and plants weave through its sinewy architecture. The courtyard, covered by variegated flora, is a place of reflection, of purity; mental clarity emanating from the scents and sights of a woodland.

Imagine a world in which authentic communities, their isolation healed by thick social meshes of democratic control over truly public goods, are interconnected by zero-carbon maglev transport links; decommodified and municipally controlled. Imagine further, that within these communities, the materialist colonisation of space by high-streets and shopping malls, those temples of consumerism, are replaced by a psychedelia of green-urban collectivities, whereby plant covered walls mark the periphery of a public plaza, home to spontaneous artistic endeavours and participatory debate. Imagine still, that decentralised and communally owned renewable energy grids power such spaces, free from the extractive exclusivity of private provision; with food production also localised, tearing nutrition from the sterile manufacturing of big business, allowing the rewilding of vast tracts of land. Here, the contours of this world come fast into view, with individual autonomy, public luxury and natural magnificence forming a celestial conjunction upon which life can prosper. Integration, diversity and mutuality become the values of this social nature, free from the toxic acquisitiveness, homogeneity, and atomisation of capitalism. To get here, though, requires a joint endeavour, organically arising from the reciprocity and ingenuity of social movements. And as we push toward the actualisation of this new architecture, we shall finally liberate ourselves, and thus nature itself, from our conceits. Moving, with determination, from arrogance to authenticity; from the hubristic, to the sublime.

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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor

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22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.