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Considering Global Warming as a Hyperobject with Definitive Presence


[1] The mid-day skies darkened as an acrid-smelling cloud of haze rolled in over the city of Kota Kinabalu this past September. From my perch at the seminary, atop a jungle-clad hill in the center of the city, my usual expansive view was reduced to being best measured in yards rather than miles.  Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah, the Northernmost state in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. The Southeast Asian haze is a regular occurrence, but the 2019 edition was worse than usual in Sabah. From my vantage point living and serving at Sabah Theological Seminary it was the thickest cloud of haze since 2013.

[2] The haze is generated by the burning of rainforests in the region, particularly in Borneo and Sumatra. The burning is done primarily by farmers clearing the land for agricultural use, particularly planting oil palm trees.[1] As highlighted by a recent CNN Special Report, these fires not only destroy the jungles and fill the air with pollution, they also destroy the underlying peatlands, which are the earth’s largest terrestrial carbon sink. Meanwhile, between August and October 2019 the Borneo fires alone released 626 megatons of carbon dioxide.[2] These fires, then, not only deforest an ancient rainforest, they are also intimately linked to issues of global warming. Yet they are not global warming itself. They are a visible component of a complex system of land use, commercial interest, economic systems, and environmental issues, to name but a few elements. Together, the fires are a component of the larger phenomenon that goes under the name “global warming.”

[3] Such a vast system of issues and concerns is difficult for the human mind to comprehend. We can see traces of a variety of issues, and abstractly connect them as related. However, without a concrete object that we can identify as “global warming,” it can be a challenge for many people to think in such an abstract manner. More pointedly, without the threat of climate change being a clearly defined object that presents danger, for many people it is a threat that slips away from everyday consciousness. Even more dangerously, the abstract nature of the concept presents an opportunity for some to dismiss its reality all together.

[4] The ecological theorist Timothy Morton deems global warming to be what he calls a “hyperobject.” A hyperobject is an object that exists on too large of a scale for human perception. Such an immense scale causes problems for humanity in seeking an ethical response because we can only observe symptoms of the problem and not the thing itself. Science can interpret what is observable, and can theorize about broader phenomena, but cannot “prove” the existence of more than the symptoms of global warming. We can only see the footprints of global warming, as it were, rather than global warming as such. 

[5] Morton’s concept of hyperobjects provides a helpful way of speaking about large-scale issues of many types, including global warming. Yet I wish to suggest that theologically Martin Luther’s theological discussion of modes of presence can work with Morton’s concepts to help us speak about these elusive objects. In particular, I find Luther’s use of the idea of “definitive presence” to be an under-utilized concept that can function as a theological complement to Morton’s notion of hyperobjects. To better understand this claim, let us first look briefly at what Morton means by “hyperobject” before turning to Luther’s description of definitive presence.

Morton’s Hyperobjects[3]

[6] Hyperobject is Morton’s term for large-scale phenomena that occur over time. The term is not intended as a mental construct for conceptualizing processes that span vast time scales. Rather, Morton considers hyperobjects to be existing objects that exceed human perception. He explains, “hyperobjects are not simply mental (or otherwise ideal) constructs, but are real entities whose primordial reality is withdrawn from humans.”[4] Hyperobjects are true objects, yet as humans we cannot engage them as such because they exceed our existence. Since humanity cannot sense or recognize hyperobjects directly, they can only be detected through technological tools and inferred from the footprints. The widespread nature of a hyperobject means that technology only gives us glimpses of them. “You would have to occupy some high-dimensional space to see it unfolding explicitly,” Morton contends.[5] Yet there is no such vantage-point available to us.

[7] In fact, we cannot see a hyperobject, Morton insists, because we are always inside of the object. We cannot see the fullness of the haze. Not only does it cover too large an area, but it persists over time. Even more fundamentally, it engulfs us. As the haze spread around my apartment, there was no way to avoid breathing in at least some of the fumes, no matter how well sealed my doors and windows were. The particles of pollution in that air then became part of me, so that I could no longer be fully separate from the haze. I became embedded in it, or as Morton terms it, the haze is, and all hyperobjects are, viscous.[6]

[8] The key underlying concept behind Morton’s description is that hyperobjects are objects that exist on a scale larger than the human mind can perceive.  He suggests that there is a range of existent entities which have as an essential property the aspect of withdrawal.[7] In terms of the haze, it is withdrawn because it is diffuse. We cannot touch the haze as such, define precise boundaries for it, or even give a precise chemical composition of it. It is amorphous, but it is very much a real entity. A withdrawn entity, in other words, is never fully there. There is no objective place from which to recognize the object as object. For Morton, we are always inside a hyperobject, and thus there is no away space from which to view it. Rather, hyperobjects are massively distributed. This means that they not only lack a specific locality, but also lack concrete temporality. Hyperobjects extend over space and time. That is, hyperobjects do not quite exist in the present; they cannot be confined to a single moment. Again using global warming as the prime example, he notes that it “covers the entire surface of Earth, and 75 percent of it extends five hundred years into the future.”[8]  Thus he understands global warming to be a thing, but a thing that can never be fully present to us.

[9] The aspect of hyperobjects being withdrawn from human perception means that we can only see the footprints of a hyperobject, and not the thing itself. We can sense hints of its appearance that bring us to some sense of its essence.  In fact, this would lead us to understand the haze not solely as a hyperobject itself, but also as the footprint of the hyperobject commonly called “deforestation,” which is itself then a footprint of global warming through the carbon released and carbon sinks lost through it. Deforestation as such cannot be seen. Of course trees being burned can be seen, but deforestation is more than any particular instance of a section of trees being destroyed.  That action is but another footprint of the hyperobject. Deforestation also includes the people involved in clearing the forests, and the economic systems that give financial incentive to engage in the deforestation, and the many other instances of deforestation through logging and fires over the centuries past and future, such as the fires in the Amazon rainforest.  All of these actors play a part in the ongoing manifestation of deforestation, and Morton sees each of these myriad relationships to be an object within the hyperobject. All are enmeshed in deforestation. The pollution in the haze does not leave, but rather dissipates or settles.  Indeed, as we breathe it in it becomes part of us. We are also part of the economic systems that propel deforestation, so that we cannot be dissociated with either cause or effect. In this sense the haze becomes part of our very being, so that it cannot be separated from ourselves. The net ensnaring those responsible for deforestation – as if causation could so easily be tracked – is quite wide.

[10] Morton’s motivation for championing of an object-oriented understanding of phenomena such as global warming is to clarify the ethical demands such hyperobjects present us. While the scale of the hyperobject is beyond any one person’s ability to control, the viscosity of it means that we are embedded within the object and therefore our actions do have an impact on it. Hyperobjects, then, call on us to see beyond self-interest. “Twenty-four thousand years into the future, no one will be meaningfully related to me,” he explains. “Yet everything will be influenced by the tiniest decisions I make right now.”[9] Morton’s focus is on understanding a hyperobject such as global warming as a clear object rather than seeing it as a set of processes. He gives a variety of reasons for this, some of which are more helpful than others. For my part, I would suggest that the ethical value in considering the haze or deforestation as an object rather than a process is practical. If viewed as a process, it is tempting to suggest that only one component of the process needs to be changed to alter the outcome of the process. Thus farmers who burn the land, for example, could end up receiving the entirety of the blame for the problem and be told they are the ones who must change. All too easily in such a scenario it is the poorest and least capable of change who are told they must, while the privileged continue unaffected.  This seems to be Morton’s intent behind his protest against understanding pollution or global warming as “flows or processes that can be managed.”[10] To frame the issue as being confronted by the complex object known as deforestation, however, would force the discussion to deal with the broader reality of the problem.

[11] The concept of hyperobjects aims to move human thinking beyond just the human timescale. It suggests a world in which many different types of beings exist, including those not readily available to the human eye but which have an immense impact on human life and require engagement from humanity. In a sense, it is a new way of framing a more traditional sensibility of humans inhabiting a world filled with real but non-corporeal beings that impact human life. We might even call this broader reality a “spiritual dimension” of sorts. It is in this vein that I suggest we turn to Martin Luther’s discussion of definitive presence.

Luther and Modes of Presence

[12] Luther outlines his understanding of modes of presence in his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper. In this work, he distinguishes between three types of presence: local, definitive, and complete or repletive.[11] Local presence is the most straightforward. Luther explains, “In this mode, space and object correspond exactly, item by item, just like the pewter-smith measures, pours off, and molds the tankard in its form.”[12] Local presence is a material presence: the object does not exceed the physically perceptible dimensions of length, width, and depth. This type of presence is the type to which scientific inquiry classically attends.

[13] Theologically, there is a tendency to skip on to repletive presence. This mode is certainly Luther’s focus in the writing, because it is central to his Eucharistic theology. Repletive presence speaks of a mode of presence proper to God alone. Of this mode of presence, Luther explains that it occurs, “if it is simultaneously present in all places whole and entire, and fills all places, yet without being measured or circumscribed by any place, in terms of the space which it occupies.”[13] Such presence, he continues, is incomprehensible for human reason and so can be intuited by faith alone. It is this type of presence that describes the presence of Christ in bread and wine of communion. Indeed, it describes the presence of Christ in all creation.

[14] It is the middle type of presence, definitive presence, that is my primary concern here, however. It is a type of presence often overlooked by contemporary theologians. In fact, in my experience if Lutheran theologians mention it at all, it is often done rather sheepishly. For Luther, it is the type of presence exhibited by angels, spirits, and demons, and so is frequently glossed over by modern-minded thinkers who put little stock in such entities. Yet more specifically, Luther describes definitive presence as being “in an uncircumscribed manner, if the object or body is not palpably in one place and is not measurable according to the dimensions of the place where it is, but can occupy either more room or less.”[14] In addition to angels, demons, and spirits, Luther includes the resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples while also being able to pass through walls as an example of this type of presence. We can understand it, then, as a type of presence that both is present in a particular place while at the same time not being fully physical. An object with definitive presence exceeds perceptible dimensions; its finitude does not correspond to the dimensions of length, width, and depth.

[15] I will confess to having not given much thought to definitive presence until recently. Over the last few years, however, I have found that my students in Malaysia have responded quite strongly to the concept. Most come from a worldview that assumes the reality of spirits and spiritual forces that are not limited to physically perceptible dimensions, but are also not omnipresent. The reality of the world cannot be so easily reduced to the measurable world. Entities exist that exceed the measurable expression of reality.

[16] My intention here is not to argue for or against the existence of angels, demons, or spirits. Rather, I wish to argue for the existence of entities that exceed the measurable understanding of the world. Specifically, the haze and global warming are entities that cannot be measured as such, but most certainly exist. They are real even if they can only be perceived in traces and footprints. They may differ from what Luther had in mind in speaking of angels and demons in that these cataclysmic environmental entities are human-made. Nonetheless, their reality – we might even say their demonic reality – threatens human life even though we cannot fully comprehend them or conclusively prove their existence empirically. Therefore, these definitively present entities call out for our ethical response in combating them and their effects.

Hyperobjects and Definitive Presence

[17] Might we employ concepts of hyperobjects and definitive presence in concert to help us more thoroughly identify entities by which we are now confronted, such as global warming? Before answering this question, let us recognize the differences between the concepts. Luther uses definitive presence to speak of a spiritual reality that exceeds the physical. This reality is not unconnected from the physical, but cannot be confined to it. This reality does not stem from human action, but he assumes that it is part of human experience. Because this type of presence is linked to the created world, it is experienced on a human time scale. In contrast, Morton’s hyperobjects are physical phenomena produced by human actions that have accumulated to such an extent that they pervade the physical world now and well into the future, beyond the limits of human perception.

[18] Despite these differences, both concepts deal with realities beyond the human capacity to observe and yet have a profound impact on human existence. Both recognize the power in this physical world of finite entities that nonetheless cannot be contained by circumscribed boundaries and descriptions nor can they be encountered in their fullness by human senses. Both, then, insist on the presence of things that cannot be reduced to an empirical account of reality. Three physical dimensions are insufficient to account for the fullness of reality.

[19] Can we then expand our understanding of definitive presence to account for hyperobjects? I suggest so. Hyperobjects are not the same type of objects as the spiritual realities that Luther references, but there is a similarity in the elusive type of presence they present. Returning to Luther’s description, definitive presence is recognized when “the object or body is not palpably in one place and is not measurable according to the dimensions of the place where it is, but can occupy either more room or less.”[15] Hyperobjects, I propose, fit this criteria. The massive distribution of a hyperobject means that it is not palpably in one place, is not measurable according to the dimensions of its place, and occupies more space than our encounter with it. A hyperobject exceeds the measurable in many ways. It exceeds the dimension of time that we experience as the present. In its viscosity it also overflows the boundaries of one object into others.

[20] Considering hyperobjects as having definitive presence can enhance both concepts. Definitive presence need not be seen only as a matter of angels and demons in the present time, but also includes widespread destructive entities that humanity faces, such as the haze and global warming. Hyperobjects call on us to see the definitive presence as encompassing things that exceed the limits of our temporal experience as well, a dimension upon which Luther does not dwell.

[21] Conversely, the concept of definitive presence also enriches the idea of hyperobjects. In particular, it calls on us to theologically reflect on the spiritual aspects of hyperobjects. For instance, spiritual attitudes and values shape the formation of hyperobjects: attitudes towards economic practices and the value of terrestrial ecosystems lie behind the motivations for burning the rainforests. Theologically, we can name entities that lead to destruction as being demonic. The characteristics of viscosity and being withdrawn, too, can be heard with spiritual and theological overtones. Just as traditional worldviews often understand the human experience of the world to be but one level of reality, with spiritual realities present but hidden from human perception, so too the viscosity and withdrawn nature of hyperobjects posits humanity as enmeshed in broader unseen levels of reality in the world. Theologically we can speak of this as being one way in which humanity is engulfed in a deeper and more complex reality than we perceive; we can name this a form of spiritual reality that is connected to but exceeds the physical dimensions of reality. The recognition of such a reality helps to counter the human propensity to see humanity as the central and most powerful actors in the world.

[22] In addition, Luther’s Eucharistic theology opens a pathway for engaging hyperobjects that have definitive presence. Luther assumes the ordinariness of the human experience of encountering spiritual entities with definitive presence, in particular demons. One might say that for him the world was filled with such entities, such that our lives are filled with encounters with malevolent spiritual beings that could lead us into danger and despair.[16] Yet through faith in the promise of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, our eyes are opened to the broader reality of the repletive presence of Christ in the world. There may be many evil and demonic beings in the world, but the entirety of the world is deeply imbued with the liberating presence of Christ. Faith gives us eyes to see this repletive presence that gives us hope in the face of the definitive presence of the demonic. So too, hyperobjects such as global warming may induce despair at being enveloped within a massively destructive reality, but faith that Christ is with us in a repletive manner in the midst of such environmental calamity can give us hope and inspiration to persevere and remain active despite the seeming hopelessness brought by such destructive hyperobjects.

[23] Pairing hyperobjects with definitive presence, then, helps to orient us in a world in which we recognize that there are powerful objects beyond our capacity for perception – that are withdrawn from us – which impact our world and our lives. Such powerful objects on the one hand place a burden of response upon us, while at the same time are beyond what our individual actions can overcome and so turn us to pair our action with prayerful trust in God’s repletive presence that we know in Christ. Such a framing provides a theological sense of ethical urgency to confronting these entities that exceed human comprehension.

 

Eric Trozzo is an ordained pastor with the ELCA who has most recently served with ELCA Global Mission as a missionary professor at Sabah Theological Seminary in Malaysia and is an Honorary Research Associate with Australian Lutheran College, University of Divinity.



[1] Questions of responsibility for the Southeast Asian haze are complex and politically charged. For a summary of the debates and issues surrounding the issue since 1997, see Kate Mayberry, “Southeast Asia Struggles to Tackle Haze Despite Long-term Dangers,” aljazeera.com, Oct. 6, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/southeast-asia-takes-haze-problem-long-term-danger-looms-191007003643261.html (accessed Jan. 14, 2020)

[2] Rebecca Wright, Ivan Watson, Tom Booth, Masrur Jamaluddin, “Borneo is Burning: How the World’s Demand for Palm Oil is Driving Deforestation in Indonesia,” CNN.com Special Report, Dec. 3, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/11/asia/borneo-climate-bomb-intl-hnk/index.html?fbclid=IwAR0UZ3ASaWZ3LSpFSoaeHcqzXpz0Qr5bEUje0efixsQfWcMGhrxKcD1QUrs (accessed Jan. 10, 2020)

[3] This discussion of hyperobjects and the haze is adapted from my forthcoming article: “Expanding Eco-Theological Object Theory: I-You, I-Ens, and Hyperobjects” Asia Journal of Theology, forthcoming in April 2020, which considers hyperobjects in greater detail and toward a different purpose.

[4] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 15.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] Ibid, 28.

[7] Philosophically, Morton draws on Graham Harman’s “object-oriented ontology” which in turn relies on Harmon’s constructive retrieval of Heidegger’s tool-analysis as a basis for speaking of objects that have the property of being withdrawn.  See Morton, Hyperobjects, 14.

[8] Morton, Hyperobjects, 103.

[9] Ibid, 122.

[10] Ibid, 125.

[11] The Formula of Concord affirms its support of Luther’s discussion of these modes of presence: Solid Declaration VII:97-102.

[12]Martin Luther, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition, ed. William R. Russell, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2012), 267.

[13] Ibid, 268.

[14] Ibid, 267.

[15] Ibid.

[16] I particularly have in mind Heiko A. Oberman’s portrait of Luther in Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989) on this point.



Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​



© February/March 2020
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 20, Issue 1