Every day, scientific studies, media reports, and visceral experiences of the rapidly deteriorating state of the environment hit us with a growing and disconcerting force. In drinking water, microplastics abound, and, by 2050, the total mass of synthetic, human-made materials in the oceans is predicted to surpass that of fish biomass. Megalopolises on different continents languish under a stew of airborne toxins during the intensifying and protracted periods of extreme smog. Forest fires consume large swathes of wooded land, due to a combination of rising global temperatures, droughts, monoculture plantations, and meagre investments into (as well as the unwillingness to rely on local knowledges for) fire prevention. Topsoil degradation, threatening the health and fertility of the earth, entails acidification, sharp increases in salinity, and toxicity, coupled with diminishing nutrient capacity and oxygen availability to plant roots.
Preoccupying as these raw empirical trends are in their own right, they are also indicative of a subtler alteration in the delicate conditions that have been up until now sustaining life on the planet. Water, air, earth and even fire (the four classical elements that, though they admit further additions, are shared by disparate philosophical and mythic traditions) no longer correspond to our mental representations of what they are. The image of water that automatically forms in the mind of a person hearing the word rarely includes plastic debris, cadmium, mercury, and lead, coliform bacteria and petroleum hydrocarbons. Thinking of air, we do not usually associate it with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter from forest fires or fossil fuel powered factories. The meaning of soil does not tend to encompass heavy metals, phosphates, inorganic acids, pesticides and nitrates, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, chlorinated aromatic compounds, detergents, and radionuclides. Whereas some of the elemental changes are visible (for example, those manifest in photochemical smog), a vast majority elude our senses and do not figure in the sphere of cognition.
The balance between the rule and the exception has tipped. Compared to the not-so-distant past, when the worry was about geographically circumscribed pockets of pollution, the regular environmental conditions nowadays are such that “clean” air, soil, and water deviate from the norm. We are yet to catch up with the strange reality the unintended cumulative consequences of our technologies and economies have spawned. Drawing near the current condition of water and other elements in thinking would satisfy infinitely more than the demand for accuracy that would culminate in an adequate representation of the altered object and a mental adjustment on the part of the subject. With such a sobering adjustment, we would also do justice to the rapidly vanishing, if not already vanished, world.
Though philosophy begins in wonder, it may end in dread. When profound enough, both these affective states shake whomever is in them to the core. Contrary to the complacent perspective on the world according to the prefabricated structures of understanding, philosophy at its most radical is an encounter with existence, which comes to pass in an atmosphere of an acutely felt dearth of understanding, as if one has not experienced that which is so encountered before. It is this feature that immunizes philosophers (I mean philosophy not as a profession but as a vocation, a calling, a dedication, a way of life even) to a kind of jadedness, a familiarity with one’s surroundings, seemingly undeserving of as little as a side glance. It is also this quality that imbues the philosophical attitude with a child’s joy and curiosity or, on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, with fear and caution in the face of the unknown. Among possible reactions to the latest transformations in the environmental elements and conditions, a benumbed business-as-usual approach, fostered by governments, corporations, and dominant ideologies, is not a viable option. Philosophy’s flair for arranging an unparalleled rendezvous with the world is indispensable today, because we are confronted with a largely unknown world, sculpted by the lingering effects of industrial activity, for the first time in the twenty-first century.
So, it is vitally necessary to tap into the discipline’s unique strength of switching on an unorthodox vision of reality and to take stock of what the earth—the earthly fold synecdochically combining the rest of the natural elements—is, what it has become. My hypothesis is that every elemental region, all domains above and below, as well as the inbetween, including plant growth and decay, are at an advanced stage of being converted into a dump for industrial output and its by-products, not to mention for consumerism and its excesses. The release of huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the indiscriminate use of plastic bottles, bags, fishing nets, food wrappers and containers now ubiquitous in marine ecosystems are sufficient to qualify as dumping. Separate from these practices in space and time, their residues are no longer insubstantial traces in the air or in the water, but forces that reshape habitats, climates, and elemental milieus.
Assuming that we are not placated by clichés about the embeddedness of our lives and bodies in the environmental context, with which we are mutually constituted, we will be quick to discover that the environment’s becoming-dump bears directly on our existence. Our diets, sensory possibilities, and statistically prevalent diseases (cancer, cardiac and respiratory ailments, diabetes, and so forth) are under such a powerful sway of the elemental mutation that corporeality, the physical or physiological fact of embodiment, is implicated in the workings of the dump. If we further subscribe to the view of the mind integrated into, rather than split from, the body, then we will see that the vicissitudes of corporeality have a profound influence on our ways of thinking. Ideas boil down to sound bites and buzzwords arranged in chains of free association; the flood of information submerges perception and cognition alike. The mind is no less affected than the body by the elemental mutation it has helped instigate. The dump penetrates the very fibres of our being, the processes and events that make us who we are: our humanity, animality, and vegetality, our reasoning and organicity, sensation and perception, nutritive, emotive, and discerning capacities. Becoming entrenched in multiple registers of existence, it scrambles them, reproducing the effects it has had on the environmental elements.
In order to begin the journey toward reclaiming the ability to act not only within the dump but also on it, we will have to evaluate the full extent, to which we are bogged down in the toxic pile that claims us for itself, body and soul. Onerous as it may be, the next step will be coming up with the strategies of undumping: uncluttering, revitalizing physiological, cognitive, ecological, and planetary metabolisms, reactivating becoming beyond the mutations provoked by the dreams of immutability at every one of these levels. To use Hannah Arendt’s expression, we will need to think without banisters, in the absence of tried-and-tested support structures for thinking in action. We do not have the luxury of leaning on catchphrases (renewable energy, geoengineering, entanglement, the philosophical levelling of hierarchies…) because, in one way or another, they participate in the logistics of the dump. We must grope for answers and, even more so, for the right questions in semidarkness, at the dusk of thinking and being.
The Owl of Minerva, whom Hegel credited with the dialectical vision of the twilight, and the soaring crane, who is one of Lady Yun-hua’s (also known as Yao-chi, Jasper Lady) apparitions, are taking flight over scenes of devastation, many of them inaccessible to the naked eye, blanketed by smog, or otherwise obscure. Under their wings—a planet ecologically and ontologically mutilated, a dump for the mounting and non-metabolizable waste of human industries and a desert encroaching on biological, cultural, linguistic, and ideational diversity. In the dimming and desolate light marking off their silhouettes, devastation itself recedes from our senses and thoughts. But how does the disaster appear (in the afterglow of which pyrodump?) through the eyes of the owl and the crane, gliding on the flows of the aerodump above the vast expanses of the geo- and hydrodumps? At the frontiers of imagination, now is the time to survey extant being from the bird’s-eye view of Minerva’s owl and Lady Yun-hua’s crane.