Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
9th September 2012

On Planetary Scale Disasters

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The new millenium has brought with it new disasters of unprecedented scale and scope. These disasters have not only grown larger than they were in Neomodernity, but they are now coterminous with the sphere of the entire globe. There is nowhere where disaster is not. The days of peering safely over the fence at the catastrophes which have befallen the misfortunate Other are over with, for no matter who we are, or where we find ourselves on the map — First World or Third World no longer makes any difference since, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, these two worlds have now become tightly intermeshed — disaster, sooner or later, is going to find us.

The third and final part of this book, then, proceeds to analyze a series of disasters of planetary scale: the September 11 terrorist attacks upon New York City; the devastations wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans; the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China; an obscure and little known disaster that took place in the Exosphere above the earth in 2009, when two orbiting satellites, for the first time ever, crashed into each other; the BP oil spill; and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, though they were localized to New York and Washington, D.C., were nonetheless global precisely because they were inflicted by a global terrorist network, an example of what Arjun Appadurai has termed diasporic public spheres. These are groups of people living in exile from their home states who are able, nonetheless, to connect with each other via the use of globalized technologies like cell phones and the Internet. Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups affiliated with it, such as the Islamic Group or al-Jihad, represent a new kind of enemy to the nation state, one that is diffuse, non-localized and stateless. As a result, it is a near impossibility to eradicate such social formations brought into being by global technologies, for they are like cancer in the sense that in order to get rid of them, you would have to attack the entire global system, which would have to be shut down and unplugged. At that point, they would cease to exist, but so, unfortunately, would everything else. Al-Qaeda and groups like them compose the shadow side of globalization, for with global technology comes global terrorism.

The attacks themselves — and those that followed in Madrid and Britain in the subsequent years — are also planetary in another sense, one specified by Ulrich Beck, in which he pointed out that such attacks demonstrate that there is no longer any safe place anywhere on the planet that is not under threat by terrorist attack. The apparent randomness of the attacks points up the fact that the entire planet is now their target, for there is no longer a battlefield of any sort. In traditional wars, the front was where the tanks were, but today there is no front precisely because the front is right where you and I are standing. Anyone, anywhere could be hit: that subway, this bus, that building over there, this train station over here. No place is safe, and the entire planet, therefore, is now, for the first time, under military threat (before that, nuclear threat was planetary, too, but not a particularly credible one).

This, of course, thrusts the contemporary human being into a new existential situation in the world in which, far worse than Heidegger’s Angst, the individual as a member of a molar population now finds himself a potential target. We are all targets today. The disintegration of the polarity of battlefield vs. domus — together with so many other such traditional philosophical polarities as nature vs. culture, inside vs. outside — is now upon us.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, another apparently localized catastrophe, the “natural” catastrophe of a hurricane that nearly wiped out an entire metropolis, we find ourselves facing the results of another planetary catastrophe, in this case, that of global warming. As many of our climate scientists have demonstrated, 2005 was the hottest year on record, with a record number of storms. A warmed planet means warming oceans, and that means more energy in the atmosphere. Global warming is an ongoing planetary catastrophe that is happening, in slow motion, all around us right this very moment. As you read these words, CO2 levels continue to rise; Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt; and sea levels continue to elevate. In one hundred years, most climate scientists are now saying, we will be living in a very different, indeed, scarcely recognizable, world.

With the 2008 earthquake that took place in the Sichuan Province of China, we are dealing with the world’s first man-made earthquake (or at least, the first that we know of). As the result of the pressure and weight of the reservoir at Zipingpu Dam, which sits right on a fault line, the tectonic plates were disrupted and loosed enormous amounts of energy in the form of a 7.9 earthquake. This, too, is a global problem, since massive industrial engineering projects have been built everywhere on the planet, and it is within the bounds of possibility that such projects are somehow destabilizing the lithosphere beneath our feet. Geologists have suggested recently that earthquakes are on the rise and getting bigger, and more of them may be man-made than we care to want to realize. Our technologies have taken on a truly vast, gargantuan nature, and now they seem to be disrupting the very cosmic forces that hold the planet together.

The 2009 crash of two orbiting satellites in the Exosphere above the earth is the first dromospheric accident to take place in orbit. The implications of this accident, as the essay explores, are that the entire planet is now surrounded by a thermo- and exospheric envelope of crashes and collisions which, according to the Kessler Syndrome, are waiting to unfold over the next few decades.

So, consistent with the planetary scale of our industrial undertakings, the accidents and disasters that such projects inevitably bring along with them have now been scaled up in magnitude to the size of the entire planet. Indeed, the value of this technological experiment undertaken by Western civilization has never seemed to be more in question than it is now.

In attempting to surround himself with a technospheric exoskeleton in order to compensate for the loss of the ancient planetary spheres that once protected him from the impact of “too much reality,” the human being has now walled himself inside of a metallic shell in which catastrophes have become a daily occurrence. Indeed, the belt of satellites in the Thermosphere has now become the modern equivalent of the Roman limes, that ancient wall stretching across the middle of Europe that demarcated the civilized world of the Romans from the lawless and chaotic wilderness of the German barbarians. It is only in the Exosphere above and beyond the satellized Thermosphere where today the artifacts of human technological civilization begin to thin out and shade off into the chaotic wildernesses of outer space.

And now, the option of escape from this techno-shell has vanished, for there is no longer any such thing as an “outside” of civilization to escape to. In the cosmologies of the ancient Gnostics, the cosmos was a sort of prison constructed by evil cosmic architects known as Archons, who built it as a machine for trapping and confining human souls into physical bodies. The only way out of such confinement was to attain, through gnosis, an escape of the soul from the body, which could then ascend out beyond the whirling spheres governed by the Archons to the cosmic Plenum that lay beyond them. Today, such an outside would exist only somewhere beyond the pale above the Exosphere, but then, that is a realm that is inherently hostile to biological life and no place for man to build space rafts for himself as substitute vehicles of ascension with which to escape from a decimated earth and its techno-polluted solar system.

Like it or not, the earth is an orb upon which we find ourselves stranded for the forseeable future.

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