New climate rhetoric: “the least worst of all possible worlds”

What makes a t-shirt about the grim future cool?

An even-greater-than usual recent episode of Radiolab focused on this question. It found a route into the question through a bizarre fact: an ultra-obscure philosophical book from Zero Press called In the Dust of this Planet has overnight (well, this past year) become a fashion/cultural icon of pessimism

Or, just a cool t-shirt. 


But the coolness can't be denied, because the reference has the legs. Not just the model's, but the central idea of the book — from young philosopher Eugene Thacker — turns out to have been central to the (really) cool mini-series True Detective of this past year. 

Example? Look at the scene in which the lead anti-hero Rusty Cohle discusses the flatness of our existence versus the perspective of our lives seen from the fourth dimension — with a graphic visual demonstration to boot.

Some observers trace this to Nietzsche's idea of the horror of the eternal return. Which is interesting, but even more interesting is the idea from the broadcoast –the idea of the horror of philosophy. 

Thacker talks about how (as I understand it) horror movies with a supernatural element dramatize what cannot be known by philosophy or logic. The monsters that spring from the darkness in our imagination: — that's the true horror. Our inability to see past our limits. This is where Radiolab shines, and I encourage you to give it a listen

Essentially Thacker takes Nietzsche's idea as a jumping off point: 

Nietzsche suggests that the thought of the end of all thought is really the pinnacle of humanism, in which even the possibility of human extinction is recuperated by the heroic capacity of human beings to think it, to comprehend it, maybe even to accept it. Thus the speculative opportunity of extinction becomes, ironically, a form of therapy. this is what we see happen in culture today, where speculation about extinction is rampant, from pop science to books about "the world without us" or science documentaries on "life after people." Even the discourse around climate change and sustainability plays into this. It's been interesting to see it shift in subtle ways. At one point not so long ago, the rhetroic was about changing our habits so as to change the planet – little changes resulting in big changes. Now it seems that it's too late. We've pretty much fucked things up, and watched ourselves do it. So the rhetoric has changed from “saving the planet” (a ridiculous and naive proposition—that the planet     needs to be saved by us is the height of human presumptuousness), and more towards a new rhetoric of minimizing the negative effects, doing the least amount of damage, living in the “least worst” of all possible worlds. A strange, compromised pessimism.

Radiolab actually discusses this idea of Thacker's. Plus, why this image of Jaz-Z is cool:


But although in one respect Thacker is right — the planet will continue with or without us — in another he's completely wrong. When people talk about "saving the earth" they mean saving us, our civilization, our culture. Not just the rocks. We are the people called earth, as Neil Young put it in a recent song. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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