Risk and the Hyperobject

A similar way of understanding risk

In making podcasts for this project, we had the pleasure of talking with Elizabeth Boulton, a PhD researcher studying the work of Timothy Morton, who developed the concept of a hyperobject in attempting to better account for how exactly existential risks like climate change are a ‘different beast’, as Bostrom describes.

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding. Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place[1].

The idea of a hyperobject can be confusing, but echoes concepts from Bostrom. Global warming, for example, is a process that occurs over geological timescales. This is not our default mode of thinking due to our biology limiting us to far shorter lifespans. When Bostrom says ‘we have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks’[2] he ultimately alludes to a very basic, truth about our biology and the kind of mindset it locks us into. An argument like Morton’s is essentially building upon this idea in greater detail, arguing that climate change is an example of something so vast in time and space that it defies the ability of biologically-evolved human minds to comprehend (See also: Building a Map, about how AI and other technological progress might help us meet sustainability challenges beyond the human mind’s ability to solve).

Natural selection did not equip us for problems like this, for the simple reason that natural selection only works with endurable threats: there must be something alive left with favourable traits to select for. Since these are terminal risks, there is no room for natural selection, and therefore, no (or exceedingly little) room for our biology to help us.

One obvious point here is that technology may help us overcome that complexity. Climate models, for example, already employ tremendously advanced AI and other technological innovations that allow us to reduce informational complexity to levels a human mind can understand and respond to[3].

Going further, this idea of technology-driven innovation can be a key argument in transhuman or posthuman interpretation of sustainability. In short: smarter, more capable humans can solve bigger, more challenging problems. Bostrom suggests we need new societal institutions, new priorities, new policies, and new norms – all to face new threats. Similarly, if human minds cannot comprehend these new threats, then perhaps we need new minds and maybe even new bodies, too?

‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene

Published by The Guardian as part of their Long Reads in 2017. Read the full article here.

Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking.

His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers.

He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.

Check out Ecology without Nature


[1] University of Minnesota Press. (2019). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Retrieved from University of Minnesota Press: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/hyperobjects

[2] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[3] Cho, R. (2018, June 5). Artificial Intelligence – A Game Changer for Climate Change and the Environment. State of the Planet – Earth Institute, Columbia University.


Environmental sociology

The way we speak and think about sustainability can be further informed by the discipline of environmental sociology, which focuses on the ‘reciprocal relationship between the environment and larger society’. This field offers a history of thought on many core ideas of relevance to sustainability and provides well-developed terms and definitions. Given this, it’s worth including summaries of some important ideas that illustrate the relevance of environmental sociology to sustainability.

The powerful lens provided by environmental sociology is important not only to understand the current environmental problems and challenges, but also to devise solutions for a sustainable earth’.[1]

Metabolic rift

The narrative of ‘man versus nature’ is a good example of an idea that environmental sociology has explored at length. This separation of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ is still today embedded in much of our thought and actions, even when it comes to sustainability, and therefore is an assumption that is worth questioning. The idea that we are separate from nature is contentious to some environmental sociologists, who argue that it has helped humans rationalize the destruction of nature, by considering themselves as its master – a belief that necessitates “othering”; separating ourselves from the object of our subjugation. This idea is referred to as metabolic rift.

‘Metabolic rift is an important neo-Marxist theory as explained by John B. Foster and Karl Marx. It describes how society and ecology should not be classified as two different entities. Instead, they should be seen as one metabolism as one cannot function without the other. The theory explains that man started to view society and ecology as two separate entities with the rise of the capitalist system, creating a “rift” between humans and earth[2].’

The Treadmill of Production

One important relationship between society and the environment relates to resource extraction and production. The growth-focused model of capitalism often implies infinite growth, creating ever-greater resource extraction which obviously unsustainable on a long enough timescale. This idea of endless growth is known as the treadmill production theory.

In his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity[3], Allan Schnaiberg, who coined the term, described what he saw as a never-ending cycle of production, arguing that it was the central characteristic of capitalism.

This idea is built upon by Alier[4] who argues that endless economic growth is not compatible with sustainability. Looking at recent history, he notes that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 is the only time in which global emissions reductions were sustainable. This suggests, according to Alier, that alternative economic models which do not rely on growth are more sustainable. This the idea of degrowth economics.

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability. The effort to push up the rate of growth by increasing obligations to repay financial debts is in direct conflict with the availability of exhaustible resources and with the capacity of waste sinks. The economic crisis of 2008–09 has resulted in a welcome change to the totally unsustainable trend of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.[5]

These ideas will be explored in future episodes, when we look more closely at economic theory, and alternative, non-mainstream economic models like Alier’s ‘degrowth’.

Modernization and Risk Society

We often talk about how we live now in the Anthropocene. The idea behind this word is that the -cene suffix represents a geological era, and the anthro- prefix denotes us – humans. In other words, the era of humans. This idea can be viewed in terms of the humanity’s geological and ecological impacts. In many areas, human impacts now exceed the natural cycles of the planet. The rising global temperature, most famously, is now a cycle driven more by human impacts than it is by natural processes.

One obvious cause of this development is modernization. This study of modernity in sociology examines a range of historical developments including The Enlightenment, where the importance of science and rationality became embedded in Western society, through to the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for vast increases in production, through to the current Information Age, an era of computerization and global interconnectivity. Modernization represents a broad sweep of time, with some considering even earlier events, such as humanity’s first attempts at agriculture, as the beginning of our technological progress.

The scientific method, the discovery of oil and fossil fuels, the invention of automobiles and the atomic bomb, the rise of international trade, globalization, capitalism, factories, pollution, and climate change – these are all ideas related to our increasing trend globally towards modernization. Industrialization, computerization, globalization, militarization, democratization, and many other -zations suffixes can be said to also fall under this area!

And, as some examples like climate change and the atomic bomb represent – modernization comes with risk. How society manages risk is an area of interest to sociologists in particular, who described the modernizing world as a “risk society“.

‘According to Beck, as cited in Adam, Beck and Van Loon[6] (p. 5), a risk society can be understood as “a particular mode of organization as a response to new challenges enforced upon the world by technologies and practices”. Present society is said to be fraught with risks as a result of modernization where there has been a rapid increase in the advancement and employment of new technologies. While such technologies have brought about increased convenience, productivity and benefits, they are not without risks.’[7]

This idea paints human society against the backdrop of increasing risks, many manufactured from our own increasing production and consumption.

‘The danger here is that as Beck has claimed, there is no form of insurance against the kind of risks that emerge out of risk societies, yet societies continue to take deliberate risks in the name of modernization.’[8]

How a society is structured affects these dangers, according to some analyses. In the capitalist model, according to the treadmill method of production an unsustainable hunger for growth (and through that, modernization) will create increasing amounts of risk. This idea is supported by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who differentiates natural from anthropogenic risks, arguing that we now face an era dominated by the latter:

Humanity has survived what we might call natural existential risks for hundreds of thousands of years; thus, it is prima facie unlikely that any of them will do us in within the next hundred … Empirical impact distributions and scientific models suggest that the likelihood of extinction because of these kinds of risk is extremely small on a time scale of a century or so[9].  In contrast, our species is introducing entirely new kinds of existential risk —threats we have no track record of surviving. Our longevity as a species therefore offers no strong prior grounds for confident optimism. Consideration of specific existential-risk scenarios bears out the suspicion that the great bulk of existential risk in the foreseeable future consists of anthropogenic existential risks —that is, those arising from human activity.[10]


Evident in these perspectives is the idea of the Anthropocene and human-created risk. Perhaps more accurately, we are in the Anthro (human), apeili (threat), cene (era). Anthroapelicene may not have the same ring it, granted, but it arguably captures this era of modernization and its consequences better than the often ecologically-focused concept of the Anthropocene.

The Grass Ceiling seeks to push beyond definitions of sustainability that are purely ecologically-focused, and this reconceptualization of our geological era is an example of under-explored idea want to shed further light on.

Ecological modernization

Some elements of sociology and other disciplines have a more optimistic view of human progress, and of capitalism specifically. The idea that we can reconfigure capitalism to be compatible with sustainability is known as ecological modernization and is another concept worthy of further exploration. For now, it’s important to note the existence of a seemingly contradictory idea, captured bluntly by Alier who proposes an alternative economic model known as degrowth:

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability.

Joan Martinez Alier, Socially Sustainable Economic De‐growth


[1] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[2] Foster, J.B. Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology. Am. J. Sociol. 1999, 105, 366–405.

[3] Allan, S. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1980.

[4] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[5] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[6] Adam, B.; Ulrich, B.; Van Loon, J. (Eds.) The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory; Sage Publications: London, UK, 2000.

[7] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[8] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[9] Smil, V. (2008) Global catastrophes and trends: the next fifty years. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, Cambridge.

[10] Bostrom, N. (2013, February). Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority. Global Policy, 4(1), pp. 15-31. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12002