October 19, 2021
In 2008, the philosopher and ecologist Timothy Morton coined the term hyperobject to describe things that can’t be seen directly or experienced at a point in time or space but which are nevertheless vast and important. The example he gives is Styrofoam. We might be able to see a small number of cups or fast-food trays, but what we can’t see is all the Styrofoam ever produced. It is a hyperobject and one that will last for at least 500 years, even if we stopped producing it today.
More importantly he writes: “Global warming has the properties of a hyperobject. It is “viscous” — whatever I do, wherever I am, it sort of “sticks” to me. It is “nonlocal” — its effects are globally distributed through a huge tract of time. It forces me to experience time in an unusual way. It is “phased” — I only experience pieces of it at any one time. And it is “inter-objective” — it consists of all kinds of other entities but it isn’t reducible to them.
If you can understand global warming, you have to do something about it. Forget about needing proof or needing to convince more people. Just stick to what’s really super obvious. Can you understand hyperobjects? Then you are obliged to care about them.”
Hyperobjects become especially visible during an ecological crisis
One of the key characteristics of a hyperobject is that it is non-local. Global warming itself is a hyperobject which impacts local weather conditions. According to Morton, entities don’t feel global warming, but instead experience fires, floods and extreme weather as they cause damage in specific places.
In this regard, hyperobjects become especially visible during an ecological crisis, and so alert humans to the environmental challenges defining the age in which they live.
Which brings us to all the plexiglass the world started demanding for a brief period in 2020 and 2021. The manufacturers of plexiglass in the UK reported a 300 percent spike in production in the Spring of 2020, in spite of the many doubts about its usefulness in reducing the transmissibility of coronavirus. The pattern was replicated worldwide.
The question now turns to what happens to it all, however much of it there is. This is a particular problem because when sunlight hits plexiglass, it can emit carbon dioxide, compounding the problem of its lengthy biodegradation and the energy used in its manufacture.
There have been some faltering noises about reusing the material but exactly how remains unclear. Most of it is likely to end up in landfill and it is exactly this sort of wasteful, knee-jerk, potentially useless response to short term problems that we will have to question from now on if we are to have a sustainable future.