by Nils Bubandt
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SCIENCE AND THE REAL: NATURAL-SUPERNATURAL-UNNATURAL
If the uncanny represents a “crisis of the natural” (Royle 2003: 1), the Anthropocene is a truly an uncanny time, a time when the proper separation between things – between culture and nature, subject and object, human and nonhuman, life and non-life – is collapsing. The concept “Anthropocene” was born when geologists and climate chemists had to acknowledge that their natural objects of study was infused by human agency, but in ways that produced their own forms of more-than-human unpredictability. In the J-curves of the Great Acceleration (Steffen et al. 2015) an uncanny valley opened up when scientists had to acknowledge that the familiar promise of endless growth had led to environmental decline and climatic chaos. Climate change is the perhaps most evident example of a human caused but also uncannily run-away process. Consider, for instance, the uncanny rift between familiar experiences of weather and the statistics of climate. Many people across an ordinarily sun-starved northern Europe welcomed the exceptionally warm May of 2018 as an early start to a great summer. But by the end of the month, May turned out to also be the hottest month of May on record in the northern parts of Europe and the contiguous US (NOAA 6.6.2018). And the heat just continued. The hottest temperature ever in Africa was recorded in Algeria in the summer of 2018, and temperature records were broken in Taiwan, Central Asia, Europe, Canada, and the Western US. What was initially experienced as a pleasantly warm weather streak by heat-starving northern Europeans was by July revealed as the hottest El Niña year on record. The hemispheric scale of the heat meant that it began, eerily, to point to more than itself. In early July, a group of leading climate scientists hypothesized that positive feedback loops between changing climate, ocean currents, and other Earth systems could cause cascading effects that would catapult Earth into a “hothouse” state well before current predictions. This, they suggested, would have massive effects on global environment, societies and economies (Steffen et al. 2018). Hoping against all hope that they were wrong, one of the authors said that it was urgent to pose this possibility in the context of the unexpected nature of the ongoing summer heatwave of 2018. It was, in fact, “one of the most urgent existential questions in science” (Watts 2018b). In the course of a few months in 2018, weather had become uncanny, at once familiar and strange, urgent and unknowable. This meant something: namely a shift in how we will be able to experience weather in the future. After 2018, it has arguably become impossible to enjoy a sunny day without a certain frisson – an emotional shiver that is at once existential and epistemological. For while it is “difficult”, as researchers from the World Meteorological Organization put it, to ascribe any individual hot weather streak to climate change, when taken together, all the hot days across the northern hemisphere in 2018 became strong indications of global warming (Watts 2018a). On its own, each freak event is nothing. Together however, the freak events point to a new freaky climate reality, made all the more uncanny by being both perceptible and imperceptible (Hulme 2009). Climate, like ghosts and witches, teeters on the border between being-there and not-being-there (Bubandt 2014). In a time of global warming, weather is no longer innocent and given: from now on, weather is by necessity always-already haunted by the specter of anthropogenic climate change.
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Image Source: https://anthropocene.au.dk/fileadmin/Anthropocene/MORE_THAN_HUMAN_vol.3.pdf