One can say the most contradictory things about the era in which we live, and they are all equally true. That fact is itself the most exalting and the most frightening thing. We must reflect at the same time on the possibility of catastrophe and the responsibility, of possibly cosmic importance, that humanity bears to avert it.
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite métaphysique des tsunamis, p. 14
It will escape no one that the word “disaster” literally means something ill-starred, which is to say that its provenance is extra-terrestrial, or less hyperbolically, extra-human, yet fated rather than simply accidental. A disaster is something thatbefalls us. In contrast to “disaster,” “violence” suggests a human agent, one who exercises force (vis) against or violatesanother. The contrast between these two terms suggests that if today we face a “crisis of representation,” it is the result of their conflation.
Natural disasters are traditionally represented, whether by victims or observers, as punishments visited by the divinity on wicked or simply neglectful humans: as an example, it suffices to mention the Flood. Disasters, in short, are traditionally seen not as natural phenomena but as acts of divine violence. But to consider disaster as a punishment for human misdeeds, which are always in one way or another acts of violence, is tantamount to saying that our own violence threatens us only through the mediation of the gods. Disasters encourage us to represent our violence as directed toward the gods rather than our fellows. Thus the traditional response to disaster is to expiate this violence, on occasion by sacrificing to the gods some of our fellow humans.
By the same token, traditional anthropological intuition saw natural disaster rather than human violence as the typical threat to our survival. When Vico wanted to explain our fear of the gods, he evoked the banal disaster of the thunderstorm; Vico explained this inordinate fear of storms by the “fact” that, all the water having left the heavens during the Flood, there were no storms for centuries afterward, so that the first creatures to witness thunder were altogether unprepared for the experience. Or we may take the example of the philologist Max Müller, the only thinker of the nineteenth century to consistently link the origin of language to that of religion. As he describes this origin, “man,” a generic but essentially singular human, first becomes aware of, and is driven to represent, a divinity when he is faced with the magnificent power of the sun. It was left to Durkheim to point out that there would be no moment at which one of our ancestors could have beensurprised by something he sees every day—whether before or after the Flood.
The hypothesis of a collective scenic origin of the fundamental characteristics—as opposed to higher forms of organization—of Homo sapiens was to my knowledge first presented in detail by Sigmund Freud in the Oedipal father-murder scene inTotem and Taboo (1913). Yet the degree of humanity of the primal “horde” that preceded this murder is not altogether clear. Should we assume that it possessed language and some kind of kinship terminology, or was the horde essentially a society of apes? In any case, Freud’s intuition of a founding event was never developed further by either Freud himself or his disciples—a sign that its purpose was understood as justifying the originary status of the Oedipus complex rather than offering a parsimonious model of human genesis. It is nevertheless a significant indication, along with the work of Durkheim, who considered theories of origin to be an improper subject for science, of an anthropocentric trend in anthropology, one that would first become truly generative with the work of our mutual friend and mentor René Girard.
Even today, mainstream social science and everyday common sense continue to refuse the parsimoniousness of generative anthropocentrism and prefer to see humanity as having evolved, like all other creatures, in response to its natural environment. What is all the more curious is that this tendency remains unaltered despite the sea-change following World War II in the valence given to human specificity. Whereas Müller saw a vast ontological gulf between a human being and a mere ape, to speak of “mere apes” today might provoke a PETA demonstration. Yet, in both cases, the specifically human, whether of supreme consequence or a mere detail, is understood to derive from our encounter with nature. For Müller’s “man,” the sight of the sun reveals the capacities for language and religion inherent in his “immortal soul”; today, humanity is thought to have differentiated itself only gradually from our primate cousins, of whose underlying similarity to us we are constantly reminded. A few years ago, the language origin scholar Derek Bickerton refuted those who derived our acquisition of language from the needs of interaction in a complex social environment with the argument that ape societies likewise are highly organized, yet do without language. I would only add on Bickerton’s behalf that what really distinguishes human from ape society is not its complexity but its susceptibility to self-destructive violence.
Why do we prefer as a general rule to understand humanity as a solution to a natural rather than a human problem? To answer this question, we must refer to generative anthropology’s hypothetical originary scene, in which a group of protohumans surrounding an object of their mimetically intensified appetite defer their potentially violent conflict through the conversion of their abortive acts of appropriation into a sign that each can reproduce at will and exchange reciprocally with his fellows. For the participants gathered around the central object who emit and exchange among themselves this first “symbolic” sign, the sacred is absolutely other than themselves; the sign that designates it is the name-of-God. The human desire focused on the center, whose conflict is deferred by the emission of the sign, sees its object transfigured into a transcendental being external to humanity; whether sacred transcendence is a reality temporarily incarnate in the object or a formal object whose invention permits the survival of the human group is a question we are not required to answer. Precisely because originary humanity is “anthropological,” it is not anthropocentric.
The power of gods, whether singular or plural, first appears to inhere in the objects that arouse our (positive or negative) desire. But even the understanding embodied in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim “Abrahamic” religions that there is one God for all humanity and that the power over nature that we attribute to Him is subordinate to his concern for us does not lead us to understand the emergence of the human as the solution to a (proto)human problem. The good Christian Müller’s image of a singular being (“man”) confronted with nature is the apparently most parsimonious way of translating the biblical creation story into a scientific hypothesis of anthropogenesis. Because God is by definition in charge from the beginning, humanity’s internal problems have always already been solved, if only for the first time. We begin in Eden, not because we indulge the childish dream of a golden age, but because the very existence of humanity requires that a protohuman community will have deferred the threat of internal violence long enough to permit the human individual—”man”—to come into being. In ritual the community celebrates the central divinity’s deferral of its own potential violence, but this communal expression of what Durkheim called “solidarity” is contingent on the subordination of the community to the divinity. To understand explicitly that our very existence as humans depends on the uncomfortable fact that we are our own worst enemies is an idea that only exposure to the worst of human violence has allowed to emerge.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God does not anthropomorphically exercise his power over nature for his own satisfaction. Even when it extends to stopping the sun in the sky, this power is oriented to human needs. Disasters are God’s punishments; their absence signifies his favor. The attribution of natural powers to God humanizes the entire universe that surrounds us, making all the forces of nature concur in the deferral of human violence. That the deferral of violence within a given community may involve the exercise of violence against another community has been a fact of human life since the beginning. Our species has not ceased to be its own worst enemy, but each human community maintains its own viability by deferring its internal violence. We incur disaster when we disobey God’s law, which interdicts violence within the community (“thou shalt not kill”) and asks us to pay homage to the divinity who enforces this interdiction. The assertion that we inhabit a theodicy in which natural disasters are God’s punishments brings them under our potential control; we have only to obey God’s laws to avoid them. If we restrain human violence, God will restrain natural violence.
But the progress of economic and cultural exchange in early modern Europe made affirmations of faith in God’s providence increasingly unviable. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake played in the Enlightenment a role not dissimilar to that played by the Holocaust in the postmodern era. Human interaction with nature in the age of Descartes had become too regular and predictable for a sudden disaster to appear as motivated by an ultimate concern for human welfare. Instead, disaster served as a liberating force. Lisbon reminded us that such things happen, but not that they happen particularly often or that our lives are more than marginally affected by them. (An earthquake in Paris might have provoked a different reaction.) The Lisbon earthquake, which may have killed as many as 100,000 people, was by no means the worst disaster of the modern era, but because it happened at the right moment, it came to exemplify the failure of traditional theodicy in a way that the Black Plague, which killed 20,000,000 in Europe alone, could not do. And once the extension of God’s power to nature was placed in doubt, his power to defer the violence internal to human communities was no longer assured. Whether we call it atheism or deism, the Enlightenment attitude toward the sacred was a diminishment of the institutionalized religious attitudes that preceded it. This was a first version of anthropocentrism, one that included notably the first autonomous exercises of what I call the “scenic imagination,” in which the social order and even language were conceived as products of a wholly human interaction. The most familiar expression of the Enlightenment scenic imagination is the “social contract.”
The possibility of a world without God depended on the human capacity to do what God and the gods had really done for humanity, which is to say, protect us not from natural disasters but from human violence. The growth of the market exchange system, with its notion of the transaction complete in itself, in contrast with the “Maussian” system of gift exchange characteristic of traditional societies, gave the impetus to the idea that human individuals could regulate their own interactions without need for a divine mediator.
With respect to the question that concerns us here, we may consider the nearly two centuries that separate Lisbon from Auschwitz as grosso modo an age of optimism. The French Revolution was followed by the Restoration and the appearance of a new age of faith, but political violence was no longer restrained by common religious belief. The revolutions from 1789 on were not, like peasant revolts, respectful of the “god-given” social hierarchy. Revolutionary violence was the final conflictmeant to destroy the old order and bring about a world where human violence would be permanently deferred. For Communists, Fascists, and Nazis, the source of violence was declared to reside not in fallen human nature but in groups who had usurped the birthright of all, whether necessarily (reflecting the immature state of “production-relations”) or diabolically (via the “International Jewish Conspiracy”). In all cases, including the relatively less violent Fascism of Italy, these stigmatized groups were seen as owing their dominance to the unjust manipulation of market exchange and its political equivalent, “parliamentarianism.”
The utopian ideal of these revolutionary societies was a self-regulating economic and moral equilibrium of exchange, an ideal that conflated the market with the gift exchange of traditional society. The autonomous market, in other words, was already a virtual utopia, save that it had to be cleansed of those who corrupted it. This is obvious in the case of Fascism. Communism, of course, claims just the opposite: the Socialist paradise will have nothing to do with the market, in which supposedly equal transactions mask the quiet violence exercised by the owners of the means of production over the producers of value. In carrying out “from each according to his ability,…” the socialist exchange system generates no resentment because, in Marx’s words, “society regulates the general production”—demonstrating that in the absence of “capital,” the myriad market-like transactions of modern industrial society can be magically organized into a harmonious system that allows the individual to contribute to the “general production” by following his own bent: hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and engaging in “criticism” in the evening. The roots of socialism are directly traceable to the bourgeois marketplace—as Marx would have been the first to admit.
If Lisbon was essentially a liberating experience, the idea that humanity could settle its own problems was dealt a deathblow by the events of the twentieth century that culminated in Auschwitz. Clearly the real problem in the world wasn’t the fetters of superstition but the potential for violence inherent in the human soul—a violence from which God had been supposed to provide us protection. Just when we thought that we could do without God, we discovered that we needed him, but that he couldn’t help us. Natural disasters could be understood and accepted as providing in a Durkheimian sense means for reinforcing human solidarity. To Lisbon one could answer that God lets his rain fall on the just as on the unjust. Auschwitz was another matter altogether.
The postmodern era is, grosso modo, a reaction to Auschwitz. Humanity is still obliged to fend for itself, but it is no longer a question of celebrating this independence. Instead, the human scene of representation, the source of human Being, is felt to be irremediably impure; its existence, however inescapable, is morally unacceptable and must be unendingly deconstructed. The dream of postmodern culture is to retain the human circle while doing away with its center, a geometric impossibility whose paradoxicality is nowhere revealed more clearly than in Deleuze-Guattari’s Anti-Oedipe, where what must be killed is the very idea of killing the father. In the Oedipal myth, human violence is focused on eliminating the monstrous being in the center of things, whereas for Deleuze-Guattari the center itself is a monstrosity that must be… eliminated.
This situation has not unsurprisingly produced a variety of religious responses; the decline of religion in Europe and the non-reproduction of much of its native population; the revival of Christianity in the US and parts of the third world as an affirmation of Being in reaction to postmodern nihilism; and the rise of a newly militant Islam posing as the defender of traditional society, with its piety and cruelty, against modernity and its godlessness, and above all against the Jews, who unaccountably continue to assert their “firstness” as the discoverers of the One God when they were supposed to have been exterminated. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial takes Deleuze’s denial of Oedipus one step further; we must kill the center of postmodern culture that consists in the Nazi killing of the Jews. The danger this presents to Western and indeed, to global civilization need not be elaborated on here.
It is under these circumstances that the “Westernized” part of the globe has given birth to a new religious phenomenon, which I will for simplicity’s sake call a new religion, that grants us a privileged understanding of how the sacred operates without the need to postulate the existence of supernatural beings of any kind. I am referring to the belief system whose most visible spokesman was recently honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, the religion that currently takes global warming for its theme but that may more generally be called the religion of impending disaster.
The credo of the global warming believer consists of four propositions: (1) absent human intervention, world temperatures will continue to rise significantly for many decades, perhaps centuries to come; (2) this increase in temperatures poses a significant threat to human civilization; (3) human activity is responsible for a significant part, if not the totality, of this increase; and (4) human efforts can significantly contain or reverse the increase.
Let me at least attempt to forestall any political reaction, whether positive or, more likely, negative to these remarks. Although a nonbeliever, or at best, an agnostic, I am not a climatologist and therefore am not qualified to participate in the scientific debate over the global warming phenomenon. Nor do I intend to deride either Mr. Gore or his followers; indeed, I found particularly offensive a recent LA Times editorial that interpreted the prize as more a repudiation of George Bush than a reward for the laureate’s own accomplishments. My point is this: here we have a collective attitude that operates according to the configuration of the sacred, that at times makes use of its vocabulary, and yet that presents itself and indeed can be understood as a rational calculation about the future. That there is an investment of the sacred in this phenomenon is not independent of, nor does it originate in, but it is guaranteed by global warming’s scientific bona fides. What most strikes me in both believers and nonbelievers in global warming is how much they want to believe or disbelieve—so much that it is virtually impossible to discuss the issue objectively. It is the perfect issue for dividing the left, who dream of conflating the human and the natural, from the right, who like to keep them separate. In a word, the left believes in “science” and the right believes in anthropology—although many of them call it “religion.”
The religion of impending disaster has taken on many forms in recent decades, beginning in the 1970s with the “club of Rome” predictions of “limits to growth” and Paul Ehrlich’s “population bomb.” These predictions were embarrassingly false, but Karl Popper, following David Hume, reminds us that just because the sun rises every day is no proof it will rise tomorrow. Nor is it a simple matter of “they’ll never learn,” any more than each stock bubble is a simple repetition of the last one. We do learn from our mistakes, but never enough to keep from turning the learning into the occasion for a new mistake. And that’s because we don’t know in advance that it’s a mistake. Nor do I know in advance that belief in global warming is unjustified. The important thing for the purposes of this discussion is what this belief accomplishes; its hypothetical nature is a precious source of understanding of the phenomenon of religion in general.
Religion is about faith, and faith is about supporting a hypothesis—making a bet. To believe in global warming is to bet on the veracity of a set of hypotheses. More specifically, the kind of faith that deserves even metaphorically to be called a religion is one that is focused on deferring the violence that threatens to destroy the human community. Indeed, the belief in global warming and the catastrophes it is presumed to entail makes explicit that the deferral of violence is the primary object of faith, a truth masked in traditional religion by the mediation of supernatural powers. Global warming is like a divine punishment for our sins of excess energy consumption—sins against “Gaia,” if you like, but the divinization is altogether optional because the punishment is the wholly natural consequence of these sins. Global warming is comparable to the self-generated sufferings of a drug addict rather than the externally inflicted punishment of a murderer, except that, as its name implies, it takes place on a global scale, and its cure, assuming this is even possible, will preoccupy all of humanity for decades, not to say centuries, to come.
But this emphasis on the deferral of external violence is not the only, nor even the principal deferral effected by the belief in global warming. Its most important feature is that it provides its believers with an externally-directed goal that can in principle defer human violence. Violence and disaster—même combat. By turning our desires away from what might be thought more pressing dangers—Osama with an H-bomb—toward reduced energy expenditure, we work for the benefit of humanity as a whole. More precisely, by focusing our efforts on global warming, we not only diminish its effects, but we also demonstrate the possibility of action toward a goal that can in principle be shared by all—Osama reducing his “carbon footprint.” Like the “Aranda” religious rituals described by Durkheim, the global warming praxis serves to promote solidarity. But where traditional religions, however “universal,” have concrete historical roots that, involuntarily or not, exclude others, the science-driven behavior demanded by the fight against global warming obeys no such constraints. It would not be an outrageous exaggeration to claim that global warming is the first global religion—which makes its principal spokesman, independently of all politics, a perfectly fitting candidate for the Peace Prize.
The religion of impending disaster transforms the nature-centered apotropaic rites of “paganism” into rational, goal-directed activity. Instead of sacrificing an animal to appease Neptune or Apollo, one rides a bike to work to lower one’s gasoline consumption. The nonbeliever may scoff, but this activity makes a fully rational appeal to natural forces. Nor is global warming comparable to the Enlightenment-derived secular religions of Communism and its Fascist antithesis, whose worship of unaided human powers leads inevitably to their concentration in a quasi-deified Supreme Leader. Al Gore is closer in spirit to Jesus or the Buddha than to Stalin or Mussolini.
Is the sea level really fated to rise twenty feet? (At its present rate of 3mm per year, this will take place in about 2000 years.) There are moments when the religion of global warming overreaches itself into apocalyptic fantasy not all that different from cultist predictions of the end of the world. One might say in their defense that these extreme possibilities are evoked to dramatize the urgency of conversion. Yet these apocalyptic tendencies reveal in this new embodiment of the sacred a potentially fatal flaw.
The traditional objects of faith are, ultimately, hypotheses concerning the divinely approved forms of human interaction; such hypotheses can be discredited only by the failure of the faithful to maintain a viable society. This is equally true of political religions such as Communism; had Khrushchev really “buried us” under Communist productivity, it would have been the USSR who won the Cold War without firing a shot. In contrast, faith in global warming is adherence to a scientific hypothesis independent of human activity, even if it concerns this activity as an important parameter. This makes global warming vulnerable to disconfirmation independently of the benefits the fight against it may confer on global human society. If next week or next decade the climatologists revise their models of climate change, the common goal that was to have preserved us from the selfish incentives of the Prisoner’s Dilemma will vanish. If they do not, bringing climate change within acceptable limits would have the same result.
One wonders what, if any, impending disaster might then be found to take its place. Or perhaps by that time our global society will have evolved to the point, described not long ago with rash optimism as “the end of history,” where the give and take of political and economic exchange in an increasingly global civilization will become and remain sufficiently challenging to allow humanity to defer its undiminished potential for violent self-annihilation.