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Memories of the future
Memories of the future Imagine this: Humanity never seriously tries to downsize our impact on the planet. Sea s rise, waste proliferates. Earth eventually becomes a giant flooded junkyard. Those with the resources to do so flee, Elon Musk-style, to Mars where they begin the whole cycle all over again. The Martians set up massive solar power arrays around the ruined Earth to send energy to their new settlements. This is the backdrop of “The Solar Grid,” a graphic novel from Ganzeer, one of the most important artists of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, who now lives in Houston. The novel began coming out in serial form last month. It’s a dystopian tale in many respects, but a powerful one. It shows what could happen if unfettered capitalism is allowed to devour all the resources of a planet, right down to its sunlight. Ganzeer’s vision is not our likeliest future. But I believe such visions help us imagine a future radically different than what we experienced up until now — something humans have a very hard time doing. Why is it so difficult to imagine a future that doesn’t repeat the past? It’s a question that has haunted philosophers, psychologists and even economists. John Maynard Keynes, the architect of the global economy as we know it, noticed something curious in the ups and downs of the stock market. He saw that investors tended to assume that market trends would continue indefinitely even though there was no rational reason for believing so. People invested into bubble markets thinking they could expand forever. But when the bubbles started to collapse investors could only see the way down. Panic selling and fear of investment drove recessions deeper and longer than they needed to be. The common denominator of the whiplash of economic booms and busts was an inability to accept that the future was not simply an extension of the now. As an anthropologist who studies how human beings across the world are adapting (or not) to a changing climate, Keynes’ insight speaks to me. The idea that the future is going to be different, maybe even dramatically different, from what we have experienced up until now is something that is proving hard for people to get their heads around. It’s not an emotional deficit because humans are quite skilled at hoping for better conditions and at fearing worse ones. We do that all the time. The problem really seems to lie with the future itself: It’s hard to imagine and so making the assumption it will be pretty much the same as the way things are now is a convenient shortcut that allows us to get through the day. As one of my teachers used to shrug, “The thing about the future is that it has no content.” But the truth is that the future does have content today. Climate scientists are getting increasingly adept at giving us glimpses of it. And it doesn’t look like any past that humans have experienced. For example, no humans, not even our hominid ancestors, ever breathed air with as much carbon dioxide in it as we do today (418 parts per million and increasing every year). The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch when the Earth was a much warmer and wetter place. The average sea level was about 65 feet higher than it is today. But unlike 3 million years ago, nearly 8 billion human beings now live on the planet and 40 percent of them reside in coastal areas that will be impacted by sea level rise. If you think Houston will be spared, think again. Downtown Houston is only 50 feet above sea level. The world’s ice sheets are melting furiously right now as Earth systems adjust to the rising concentration of potent greenhouse gases. It may take centuries to get there, but Houston is going coastal unless emissions are cut far faster and more dramatically than current plans on the table would deliver. By then, lower-lying coastal cities like Galveston, New Orleans and Miami will have become reefs. Unless, of course, they learn to live with water in new ways. That “unless” is really important. We have choices and there is time to make them. But this is where we circle back to the opening question. How can we learn to survive and even thrive in a warmer, wetter future if we have so much trouble imagining it? The problem is that if your gut instinct is telling you that the future is going to be a lot like the past then what the climate scientists are trying so desperately to tell us inevitably will seem unbelievable, like a horror story. The tragedy is that Act I of the horror story has already started. Every season there is news of record-breaking wildfires , heatwaves , droughts and rainfalls somewhere in the world. Yet a lot of humans — and not just the climate deniers — stare in disbelief. But there’s another option besides staying tied to the past and resisting the changes that are coming. What if we were to give the future a different kind of content? Stay with me, here. What if we were able to create memories of the future that could orient our actions and decisions today? In Ganzeer’s dystopia, entrepreneurs keep proposing more and more outrageous technological solutions to solve humanity’s environmental dilemmas, all the way up to making artificial planets. What they seem incapable of understanding is that technology is only as good as the vision and values that power it. Technology that makes a future based on the assumptions of the past is a road to more of the same. This is why I firmly believe that the arts, humanities, architecture and design have so much to offer in terms of helping to adapt our civilization to a changing Earth. They represent a marvelous toolkit for filling the future with content, familiarizing us with bold and even bizarre ideas that will eventually register in our memory to expand our sense of what is possible. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Solar Grid,” those memories are cautionary tales, showing us futures we’d be wise to prevent. But they can also show us better ways forward. For example, the Houston we know and love is a sprawling and unsustainable megacity. From its chronic flooding and vulnerability to storm surge to its routine petrochemical emissions and explosions, it is an urban settlement that is utterly environmentally precarious. And yet our default perception of its future is to expect more of the same: more sprawl, more cars, more pipelines. But one of my colleagues at Rice University, Albert Pope , an architect and urban designer, is thinking against the grain and imagining a different future for Houston. Pope’s work shows a denser, more vertical and more walkable city. It has given its bayous more room to ebb and flow. It has restored more of its native vegetation that helps with floodwater retention and heat reduction. It has moved away from energy-intensive building materials such as concrete and toward renewable resources such as timber that’s strong enough to build skyscrapers out of (that timber, by the way, is already real and in use). This future Houston is a city of myriad interconnected green spaces, a city that has embraced its natural landscape instead of trying to pave over and engineer it. Another example is the work of local designer Ilse Harrison who has created some amazing glimpses of a truly amphibious Houston, a future coastal city organized around aquaculture that is modular and floating. Its structures can stack themselves high in times of surging seas and then redistribute in times of calm. Undoubtedly, this seems like science fiction. But I would counter that the real fiction is the idea that Houston — and other coastal cities around the world — can stay dry and impervious as the world ocean swells. These designs are only the beginning. The greatest challenge to Houston’s survival is not sea level rise or global warming itself but rather our willingness today to more creatively and seriously engage the problem of imagining and attaining a sustainable model of urban life within a warmer and wetter world. There’s an old line from John F. Kennedy that applies here, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Houston needs dreamers to make memories of its possible futures — those we want to inhabit and those we wish to avoid.
DEATH OF A GLACIER
DEATH OF A GLACIER
By Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer Sometime around the year 2000, no one knows exactly when, something small died in Iceland. Its name was Ok. And it was a glacier. Ok was relatively slight and not particularly handsome as Icelandic glaciers go. It hadn’t received much attention from Icelanders during its 700-year life. But Icelandic children did learn about it in school and some recalled laughing at its funny name. In old Icelandic the word “ok” meant “burden” or “yoke.” But in contemporary Iceland, under the potent influence of the English language, some people read the name like “OK.” As it turns out, Ok was not OK. It was gone—the first of Iceland’s named glaciers to be killed by anthropogenic climate change. One of Magnason’s big ideas is that what used to be geological time is becoming human time; we can now watch natural beings such as glaciers that took centuries to form disappear in just a few decades—easily within a human lifetime.
If you missed the news about Ok’s passing, you weren’t alone. The “body” was only discovered, so to speak, in 2014. A current affairs show aired a short feature on Icelandic public television. In it, glaciologist Oddur Sigurdsson ventured to the top of Ok mountain to confirm his suspicion that Ok glacier (more properly, “Okjökull” since “jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier) no longer had the mass to move under its own weight. Movement being one of the critical requirements for glacier status, Sigurdsson determined that Okjökull was no longer a glacier. Instead, as Sigurdsson put it, “he is only dead ice.” Beyond Iceland, the news barely circulated. By the time we heard of the story in 2016, there was just one English language report of Ok’s demise and it was a mere 79 words long. The world had essentially shrugged.
And yet, the first Icelandic glacier to die because of global warming seemed to us to be a rather big deal. Iceland—the “land of fire and ice” as it is often known—has over 400 glaciers, which are collectively losing 11 billion tons of ice a year. Okjökull was the first major Icelandic glacier to disappear but others will soon follow; the magnificent glacier, Snæfellsjökull, muse of the Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, and visible on a clear day from Reykjavík, is predicted to have 20 years left at most. It might not seem so significant that a little glacier dies in a place far from where most humans live. But these small casualties are mounting and beginning to look like a mass grave. At the current pace of melt—which is accelerating—all Iceland’s glaciers will have disappeared in under 200 years. And most of the rest of the world’s glaciers will be gone before then.
We struggled with how to process the loss of Okjökull. What could we do? Although we are not glaciologists, we recognized that the loss of glaciers in Iceland goes way beyond ice forms and the geological and weather conditions that shape them. As cultural anthropologists, we could see that people were implicated in the loss of glaciers in at least two ways: On the one hand, human activity—globally and historically—is ultimately responsible for today’s glacial melting. On the other, humans are bound to have a complex emotional and intellectual response to this changing natural environment, especially in a country like Iceland whose identity is so bound up with its glaciers. For many, climate change may seem to be an environmental problem but really, it is a human problem.
We thought that we could address this problem by bringing the story of Okjökull to a wider audience. But we recognized that our bread-and-butter media—academic articles and books — probably weren’t going to be the most effective vehicle. So, working together with Icelandic cinematographer Ragnar Hansson, we made a short documentary film instead, called Not Ok: A Little Movie about a Small Glacier at the End of the World. In that film, we talk to Icelanders from all walks of life about their landscape, the places they live, the losses they are seeing unfold before their eyes. And we ask about what little Ok’s death means to them.
One of the most moving conversations we had was with Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason, an ardent environmentalist and someone who is deeply concerned about the human impact on planetary ecosystems. One of Magnason’s big ideas is that what used to be geological time is becoming human time; we can now watch natural beings such as glaciers that took centuries to form disappear in just a few decades—easily within a human lifetime. He pointed out to us that a 10-year-old child today could very well have a grandchild alive in the year 2170, when there will no longer be glaciers in Iceland. Today’s 10-year-old could send a personal message to the ice-free future through their kin. And if they did, what might they say? That got us thinking about the possibility of creating some kind of memorial to Okjökull that would essentially materialize a message to the future. And so the world’s first memorial service for a glacier took shape.
FUNERALS ARE FOR THE LIVING
On a cold morning in mid-August 2019, we are aboard the largest bus-for-hire in the country and winding through the Icelandic Highlands across roads made of lava stone. The bus is full of mourners, activists, scientists, and journalists who have come to commemorate the passing of Okjökull. An Icelandic teenager reads aloud a poem she has written in memory of the little glacier that was. A glaciologist talks to the group about how global warming is destabilizing glaciers across the world. There is a feeling of anticipation, conversations in many languages. When we arrive at the base of Ok mountain, it is clear that there is no path to the top, no easy trail for people to follow. It is a two-kilometer, roughly three-hour scramble over rocks large and small; there are frequent pauses to help each other up. As we ascend, the moss-covered hillside gives way to lichens and jagged stones that still hold the fluid forms of hardened lava. The tiniest of flowers bloom in the shelter of rocks auspiciously situated to ensure their thriving. At times, the wind blows fiercely; the temperature drops; at the cusp of the summit we discover a small stream formed by the melting ice.
Every culture has its death rituals. They are a universal way of honoring and mourning the dead, throughout human history and everywhere on Earth. The objects and symbols people use to mark a passing are many. We decided on a memorial plaque for little Okjökull because memorials are monuments of mourning, recognizing lost lives or historical events; very often memorials materialize pride in human accomplishment. With the Ok memorial, we wanted to recall that climatological collapse is also a human accomplishment, though one we would be foolish to take pride in. Most people on Earth will never touch or smell or taste or listen to a glacier in their lifetimes. But we all know about the end of life because there is no avoiding it. Not for humans and now, because of humans, not for glaciers either. As we pause to rest by the stream, Magnason—whom we asked to write the text for the memorial plaque—observes that there has never before in human history been the need for a ritual to say goodbye to a glacier. We will have to invent one as we go. In the old Icelandic tradition of the sacred mountain Helgafell, climbers walk forward in silence, never looking back. If we hold good in our hearts, the folk legend goes, we will be granted three wishes.
Our group arrives at a large slab of basalt where the bronze memorial plaque will be installed. Glaciologist Oddur Sigurdsson produces a death certificate from his backpack that he has submitted to the authorities. The cause of death, he announces, is “excessive heat” and “humans.” The Icelandic Minister of Environment shares some words, as do a handful of others. Thoughts cluster around what has been lost and the need to act. The question of how future generations will judge us for what we do, or don’t do, hangs in the air. The ceremony ends with another long moment of silence where we commit ourselves to an action to prevent further harm to the climate and all our earth systems.
Children push the plaque into place, cementing an unknown future. There is some sadness, but more present is the feeling of determination. This was an experimental funeral, a modest memorial for a little glacier in small country. We know it will not be the last glacier to die. And we know that many other natural forms will eventually need to be memorialized as human-made environmental effects take their toll. But funerals exist to inspire togetherness and purpose among the living, not only to honor the dead. As if on cue, the Icelanders among us spontaneously break into song. Then we descend.
ONLY YOU KNOW IF WE DID IT
The installation of the memorial plaque on Ok mountain was a media event covered in nearly every country in the world — Reuters, the Associated Press, and the BBC carried the story among other international media. It appeared in the New York Times , the Washington Post , and Time; Der Spiege l and Le Monde ; the Guardian and CNN ; and was televised in Australia, Germany, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We found that the story also resonated in unexpected places like Popular Mechanics and the Vietnamese edition of Elle magazine; we could not in fact keep track of all the stories. We are not sure why this event captured the popular imagination far beyond Iceland. But here is our thinking. Climate change is such a massive and complex problem that it is can be emotionally paralyzing. It is hard to know where to look or how to feel. The disappearance of a little glacier in a small country is meanwhile a loss at a scale that all of us can understand. Strangely perhaps, the story of Okjökull seems to have humanized climate change for a lot of people. It put a face and a name to an abstract problem. In climate change, as in life as a whole, small deaths matter. “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as
a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument
is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if
we did it.” Yet small actions matter too. This is perhaps the moral we would offer to public anthropology. Climate change is the defining civilizational challenge of the twenty-first century. There are no guarantees of further centuries if we cannot find a less ecocidal trajectory. Climate science must become the basis of social policy at a global level, but getting there is going to involve more than just finding better ways of communicating climate science. Equally important to changing our ways of being in the world is the power of language and poetry, ritual and ceremony, symbolism and collective actions. Art and culture can help reshape our sense of time, place, and responsibility. And anthropologists, with their capacity to observe and understand the intimacies of living in the Anthropocene, can be a huge help in conveying the multiple messages that need to be heard.
Gunnhildur Fríða Hallgrímsdóttir, the teenage climate striker who wrote the poem for little Ok, “The Burdened Glacier,” offers us inspiration. “I know” she said that day on top of the mountain, “that my grandchild will ask me where I was this day. And then they will ask, ‘What did you do to stop the destruction of the world?’ And I will have to answer for that.” In truth, all of us who live in the Global North will have to answer to future generations for our actions and inactions. We need to care for our future relations today.
Verdant Optimism: On How Capitalism Will Never Save the World together with Cymene Howe Earth systems continue their collapse and the shadow of recognition spreads that humans (northern capitalist moderns anyway) are to blame. Still, a weird optimism rings out, promising a sustainable way of doing more of the same—the same consuming, the same ways of moving, the same models of living in the world, the same impulse to growth and ballooning wealth. The optimism roots in the idea that capital can be dyed green rather than the tar-gray that shades everything in these days marked “Anthropocene.” In this green imaginary, renewable energy operates with a salvational promise to retain the status quo, undo past bad practices and generate a more verdant future. A better future is not impossible. But it is certainly not likely if the plan is to rely upon an imaginary future capitalism to solve the problems that actually existing capitalism has wrought (Rajković, this series). And, as we have found in our research over the past decade, achieving ecological equilibrium will almost certainly not come through the capitalist growth-logic, which inherently militates against any steady state. To paraphrase Marx, capital knows no color; what sustainability aspirants might wishfully view as green only appears to capital and its agents in the monochrome of profit and accumulation. Our research on wind power in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Boyer 2019; Howe 2019) addressed a central question of our anthropocenic times: what are the political forces that shape the possibilities for low carbon futures? Who sets the agenda for transitions and who—human and otherwise—is affected by massive infrastructural shifts to the energy systems upon which the whole world now runs? The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is home to the densest concentration of terrestrial wind parks anywhere in the world. What we found blowing in the turbulent and powerful wind of the Isthmus were what we called “aeolian politics” (Howe and Boyer 2015). These politics involved hierarchies of access to renewable futures and the marginalization of indigenous people and mestizo farmers. Our research illustrated that it is all too easy for renewable energy development to occur with little or no social, political, or economic “transition” attached to it. We often heard wind parks likened to mines and Walmarts by those who viewed the wind sector as the latest chapter in a centuries-old colonial process of exploitation. Under the mantel of green capitalism it is both possible and, often, commonplace to revert to models of resource extraction that mirror those of global fossil fuels and mining (Howe and Boyer 2016). Where human desires for energy take no heed of environmental context and carrying capacity, and where corporate and private finance (often in partnership with governments) are allowed to lead, there is little hope of remediating the ill effects of climate change either locally or globally. And yet that is what we must do. To put it more bluntly, we have seen that there will be no “renewable energy transition” worth having without a more holistic reimagination of relations in order to avoid simply greening the predatory and accumulative enterprises of modern statecraft and capitalism. Capitalist flows of value, energy, and power reinforce one another, buttressed by intricate legal regimes, national and international, which are only slowly becoming informed by scientific diagnostics of climate and ecology. Ornate webs of policy, infrastructure, and governance both actively enable climate change and actively resist energy transition, especially when those policies presume that the logics and actors born from fossil fuels will facilitate that change. Even as nation states adopt bold energy transition targets, as Mexico has done, the methods of transition can turn out to be deeply problematic. And while renewable energy development and climate change mitigation are most commonly left in the hands of engineers, economists, climate scientists, and politicians, we might do better to think of energy transition and a decarbonized climate as problems that necessitate broader and more inclusive conversation and experimentation. The chaotic forces of the Anthropocene, and the relative novelty of renewable energy forms, which continue to grow and transform, demonstrate the experimental plasticity of our era. The planet is thirsting for change. Capitalism, on the other hand, is playing its same old games, extracting value and propagating itself. Sustainability is anathema to the petrocapitalism that continues to govern the global order today (Mitchell 2011). Rather than recommitting to the global capitalist relations promoted by northern elites for their own luxury, we ought to be looking to the creative energies emerging in the global South as well as among indigenous communities with long records of relatively innocuous co-habitation between humans and ecological systems (Simpson 2017; White 2018; Estes 2019; Gilio-Whitaker 2019). We should be committing to developing communal models of renewable energy oriented to humbler kinds of sustenance rather than the juggernaut of high-energy modernity. There are pathways to better political, social, and ecological futures; to achieve them, we need to leave capitalism behind. References Boyer, Dominic. 2019. Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene . Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso.
Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. 2019. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock . Boston: Beacon.
Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene . Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2015. “ Aeolian Politics .” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 1: 31–48.
Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2016. “ Aeolian Extractivism and Community Wind in Southern Mexico .” Public Culture 28, no. 2: 215–35.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
White, Kyle Powys. 2018. “Way Beyond the Lifeboat: An Indigenous Allegory of Climate Justice.” In Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice , edited by Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi, 11–17. London: Zed.
Pandemic Nostalgia. What we can learn from a seventeenth-century medical dissertation The invisible virus devouring the routines and comforts of everyday life has an emotional companion: mourning for all that has been lost. Tales of grief are circulating everywhere. Some are specific and focused, little yearnings for simple things. Some express giant feelings, the incalculable losses of loved ones and careers. But then there is also the more peregrine mode of grief, of having so many patterns of life swept away at once that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what one is mourning. Certain qualities of loss resist words. But the feelings recur. Like an avalanche, some memory surges out of the past and overwhelms. My best friend’s daughter will just begin to sob, not about anything in particular. My mother, long a self-proclaimed homebody, says she should be fine being shut in. But now she can’t stop thinking about going outside. By now, we’ve all been there. The past is always present in these strange days not least because the future seems so distant. There is a name for this kind of longing— nostalgia . And before the poets and philosophers took charge of the concept, nostalgia was a diagnosed medical condition, itself a serious public health concern for more than two centuries. I want to return to where nostalgia began, because the original diagnosis of the disease offers important insights about what the world is going through now and perhaps even offers some comfort as we seek to pry a future from the jaws of pandemic. Nostalgia came into the world at the University of Basel in 1688. Johannes Hofer was a medical student working on a dissertation. He was not even twenty years old, an ethnic German from the Alsatian town of Mulhouse, about 35 kilometers northwest of Basel. He called his project a “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia, or, Homesickness.” Hofer apologizes for burdening the reader with this curious new term, “nostalgia,” given that Heimweh (homesickness) is already so widely known. But he feels that Heimweh lacks medical specificity. Moreover, it scarcely conveys the seriousness of some of the fatal and near-fatal cases of homesickness that have come to his attention. Hofer explains: Nor in truth, deliberating on a name, did a more suitable one occur to me, defining the thing to be explained, more concisely than the word Nostalgias , Greek in origin and indeed composed of two sounds, the one of which is Nostos , return to the native land; the other Algos , signifies suffering or grief; so that thus far it is possible from the force of the sound Nostalgia to define the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land. Besides neologism, there are some other peculiarities to Hofer’s dissertation. He seems a bit preoccupied with refuting the Swiss claim that homesickness is their own national affliction, proof of some special dearness of their native land. And the physiological details are sketchy. Hofer characterizes nostalgia as an “afflicted imagination” caused when the “fibers of the middle brain” have been disturbed by the “quite continuous vibration of animal spirits.” Still, his diagnostics of nostalgia are truly fascinating. Two case studies flesh out the specificities of the condition. The first case concerns a young student “of excellent nature” from Bern who had spent much of his youth in Basel for the sake of his studies. At first he was beset by sadness, a longing for a return to the city of his birth. Out of the sadness developed a constant fever fed by “desires of the heart.” Worse symptoms arrived daily and those who lived with him suspected death’s approach. A doctor was called in to administer a variety of medicines by enema but none appeared to help. The patient was clearly weak, half dead even, at which point it was decided that he would have to be returned to his family in Bern. No sooner was this plan settled than the tranquility of the young man’s mind improved. And just a few miles away from Basel his symptoms began to abate, improving so quickly that the young man was “his whole sane self” by the time he reached Bern. The second case is a country girl working as a servant in a foreign town. In the course of her labors she fell, hit her head, and was so seriously hurt that she lost consciousness and had to be taken to a hospital for several days. As she regained awareness she discovered herself stranded among caregivers who were “wrangling and querulous old women.” Homesickness set in. The feeling gripped her so deeply that she refused both food and medication, wailing only “ Ich will Heim !” (“I want to go home!”) until her parents were finally convinced to allow her to return home. Once reunited with her family, Hofer testifies, “within a few days she got wholly well, entirely without the aid of medicine.” This yearning for the return home is the essence of nostalgia. Yet Hofer remarks that he is actually flexible as to what the disease should be called. He offers two alternative neologisms: nostomania and philopatridomania . The blurring of algos and mania, grief and obsession, is telling. In many ways, it is easy to read into Hofer’s thesis a premonition of later research on psychopathology. For example, in Freud’s theory of neurosis, a traumatic memory or pathological idea often becomes a gathering point for psychic energy in ways that generate all manner of seemingly unrelated psychic maladies and physiological symptoms. Yet nostalgia isn’t a universal psychic condition according to Hofer. He is certain that some people are more susceptible than others. For example, young people and adolescents who have been sent for extended stays in “foreign lands with alien customs.” The young are less equipped to handle the misfortunes and troubles of living abroad, Hofer suspects, and thus are particularly susceptible to becoming fixated on the “charm of the Fatherland.” They often did not choose to go abroad, rather were sent there. Over time, cultural differences grind against them: “foreign manners, diverse kinds of food, make for them injuries to be borne, and various other troublesome accidents, and one might add six hundred other things.” Those suffering nostalgia typically have already experienced disease or some other misfortune that reminds them of their vulnerability and distance and that eventually feeds an obsessive desire to return home. You know nostalgia is coming on when you encounter people who frequently wander about sad, who scorn foreign manners, who make a show of the delights of their places of origin. It may seem as though Hofer is just describing routine pathologies of nationalism. And, in a way, he is crafting an image of the psychic health of home contrasted to the constant irritations and unknowns of other places. But one also has to bear in mind that what counted as competing Fatherlands in Hofer’s time could be nothing more than two Swiss towns a few dozen kilometers apart. The idea of “Fatherland” captures the security and familiarity of one’s hometown. Little is known of the young Dr. Hofer’s life. But one gets the sense from his writing that he is intimately familiar with the emotional burden of nostalgia. At 19 years old, living far from his own native town, Hofer would have known personally the precarity of living far from his family. And he wasn’t alone in suspecting that extended travel could create physiological harm. Long before Hofer’s dissertation, the damage of dislocation had been documented by doctors treating soldiers and refugees during the Thirty Years’ War, which had wreaked havoc across Central Europe. War eventually proved to be one of the most reliable vectors of nostalgia. As late as the American Civil War, over five thousand cases of nostalgia were medically documented among soldiers. The epidemiology of nostalgia is a commentary on the pain of social dislocation. Hofer is obsessed with dislocations of place; others, for example the philosopher Immanuel Kant, were convinced that nostalgia is grieving for time, especially one’s youth. Reading between the lines of Hofer’s thesis one gets the sense from the case studies that the afflicted are suffering the loss of comfort, familiarity and above all closeness to relations who care for them. If nostalgia was about “returning home,” it was about returning to the metaphorical home of care and comfort. All these kinds of loss speak to our present grieving. Shut in at home—or forced to work in fear—we mourn comforts we can no longer assume, routines we can no longer reenact. Everyone is missing someone they want to hug without shame. Many joyful forms of sociality have become taboo and the kinds of virtual interaction that remain often leave us feeling dissatisfied, even exhausted. Under these circumstances who can blame us for yearning for the past? I want to end on a positive note and with a modest suggestion for self-care in these trying times. Remarkably enough, Hofer stumbled on to a cure for nostalgia without appearing to realize it. Throughout the text he continually asserts that the only treatment for the afflicted is to actually, physically return to their place of origin. Obviously, return to the pre-pandemic world is not a luxury currently available to us. But listen to the story with which Hofer ends his dissertation: "Thus not long since it was told me by a Parisian that he himself had a Helvetian bound servant who was sad and melancholy at all times so that he began to work with lessened desire; finally, he came to him and sought dismissal with insistent entreaties, of which he could have no hope beyond him. When the merchant granted this immediately, the servant changed from sudden joy, excused from his mind these phantasma for several days, and after a while remained in Paris, broken up no longer by this disease." What Hofer drops as a kind of afterthought actually contains the key to reimagining the entire diagnosis. The freed Helvetian longed not for a return to his place of origin—even though this is what both he and his master were convinced afflicted him—he longed instead for the right to determine his own future. Having won that right, he surprised all parties, including doubtless the young Dr. Hofer, by remaining happily where he was. There is a lesson here for coping with pandemic nostalgia. We feel trapped in the present and have convinced ourselves that we are yearning to return to the pre-pandemic lives we knew. But maybe what would actually make us feel better is claiming the right to make a better future. An obsession with returning to the past conveniently disregards that our pre-COVID lifeworld was also deeply troubled, verging on catastrophe even. My day job is studying the social impact of climate change. The world that the pandemic interrupted was on an ecocidal trajectory that we should be in no hurry to restore. That same world was also beset by deep social and economic inequality, by rising extremist movements, by the burden of a literal white “Fatherland” of gender and racial hierarchy, and, as Hofer would say, “six hundred other things.” We didn’t choose to be here in this pandemic so we have every right to mourn our disempowerment. And that we all need comfort and care right now is indisputable. But I think there will be less melancholy if we can use this time to focus energy and attention on bringing a better future into focus, one that does not fall back into the grooves of the past. As soon as it’s possible to do so, let’s make that better future, and commit to returning to a different world.
Redistributions: From Atmospheric Carbon to Melting Cryospheres to the World Ocean with Cymene Howe Accumulation figures prominently in the environmental concerns of the twenty-first century. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. Toxins accumulate in biomes. Plastic accumulates on land and sea and in avian and aquatic forms of life. Waste accumulates on the margins of settlements and industry. These forms of accumulation are closely tied to the northern capitalist modernity whose world hegemony was achieved through colonialism and imperialism. Accumulation marks this modernity’s relentless work to constitute and drain resource frontiers, its making of things wildly in excess of need, its solicitation of avid and restless consumption, and its obscuring of the limits and consequences of a growth- and luxury-oriented economy. Accumulation originated as a concept in early modern Europe as part of a new lexicon related to the growth of the thingly world. Literally, “accumulation” meant the act of making heaps. Our contemporary concern with heaping maintains this broader attention to thingly amassment—beyond environment, we live also in a time of mounting awareness of the efficacy of growing heaps of capital, weapons, income, and power. Yet as much as some heaps are coming together, other heaps are coming apart. And still other things are undergoing phase shifts in reaction to other modes of physical and social accumulation. For if there is one thing not accumulating in the twenty-first century, it is ice. Dis-accumulation by Accumulation Over the last two decades, ice has become a climatological signal, rendering visible the rising temperatures of anthropogenic climate change. In melting ice both heat and its carbon source are made visible. Diminishing cryospheres have become observable, materialized sites of atmospheric accumulation, as greenhouse heat works its way across and through the bodies of ice forms. Put another way, accumulation in the atmospheric domain creates dis-accumulation in the cryosphere. Polar ice melt is widely understood as the key index that temperatures at the planet’s axes are increasing dramatically. And ice is melting nowhere faster, and faster than expected, than in the Arctic region.1 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers glacial diminishment to be the “highest confidence temperature indicator in the climate system.”2 Scientists have also concurred that the rate of melt in polar zones has been considerably underestimated.3 The transformation of the world’s ice, and the implications of this cryo-human outcome are vivid indicators of what Timothy Morton has called the “Age of Asymmetry.”4 However, the asymmetrical distribution of climate crises, and the skewed centers of power and resource exploitation that have created them, also reveal a kind of symmetry: an equation between melting cryospheres and carbon intensive modernities. Few places on earth have experienced the great melting more dramatically than Iceland, where ten percent of the island’s surface is covered by over 400 glaciers and ice caps. Since human settlement in 874, glaciers have played an important role in Icelandic culture and history, most often as ominous presence, threatening to displace villages with encroachment or destroy homes and farms with glacial outburst floods.5 Iceland’s glaciers are now losing 11,000,000,000 tons of ice per year, and scientists predict that by 2170 all of the country’s glaciers will be gone.6 In their disappearance, Icelandic glaciers index atmospheric temperature elevation. As they recede, failing to re-grow and re-accumulate their mass, they become observable signs of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation that global capitalist modernity has abetted and accelerated.