DAY 19 /// RESPONDING TO ADRIAN LAHOUD — NOMOS AND COSMOS, by DAVID XU BORGONJON
In the final scene of Apocalypto (2006), the hero Jaguar Paw, chased closely by raiders who he’s picked off one by one over three harrowing days (and two long hours), finally catches sight of the coast. It’s a sign that he’s near his village, where his family is stranded. But as his pursuers break through the brush and emerge beside him, they are all stopped by a vision of people in iron wearing crosses on small barks.
There is an epistemological problem in depicting the end of the world, that Mel Gibson and his crew must work around. How can we surmise what it looks like? Not only will the world change its face completely, but—since we are in the world—the way in which we would apprehend that change will also be irrevocably altered. It’s not just what we see but how we see that will change. Apocalypto works around this problem by projecting backwards: a blind girl prophesies at one point that a jaguar will eat the sun, signaling the end of the world. It’s inferred that our hero, Jaguar Paw, is/will be/was the one who leads Mayan civilization to the brink of encounter. The future is modeled on the projection of the present into the past.
This game of tense-switching is common not just to the apocalypse, but to all events, especially when perceived through that special means we know as probability. Adrian Lahoud, who has worked in forensic climatology, asks in “Nomos and Cosmos” that we consider what a second colonization would look like, one that took the atmosphere rather than continents as its host. Just as in the instances of the Columbian conquest or the Scramble for Africa, the sky would have to be emptied, quantified and occupied in one single conceptual gesture.
The occasion for Lahoud’s discussion is the accusation of Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations, and the chair of the G77, a caucus of developing nations. In 2009, he called the Copenhagen Agreement’s non-binding limit of two degrees “climate genocide”: that average temperature is predicted to entail regional increases of up to 3.5 in hot, Saharan nations like Sudan.
We know that climate change disproportionately affects low-lying and equatorial lands: yet until recently, scientific evidence had been hard to come by. It is difficult to hold actions to account since they dissipate quickly into the complexity of atmospheric flows. But higher resolution models, “a different scale of calculus,” would allow the naming and prosecution of crimes.
Would it? Years after the 2008 crisis, and no-one in the banks has been held accountable. Not even for negligence! It is difficult to disentangle guilty ingredients from the hot financial stew, but much more so without an organized political will. Without better institutions (nomos) our deepening knowledge of the world (cosmos) will continue to fall flat.
The problem of better institutions, it so happens, is linked to that of better models, since these models provide impetus and fodder. Quantitative models don’t just measure but also create phenomena: in Donald McKenzie's words, they are engines and not cameras. A digression into the models of finance and their philosophical grounds is, I hope, useful here. Elie Ayache in Blank Swan has put forward a thorough rebuttal of not just the possibility of prediction, but possibility in general. Using the example of derivatives, he points out that the theory of how trades happen has nothing to do with the practice.
Supposedly, financial products’ prices are based on their predicted future payoff. Because markets are unpredictable, the equations used to price them have spaces where you can plug in volatility. Yet, as Ayache points out that, in practice traders take the market prices of derivatives and work out backwards what the volatility is. Prices are based on future states which they affect, creating loops that can’t be predicted in principle. He defines a market as the “surface” of all prices and only prices. Prices aren’t derived from value, but rather produce it!
Ayache’s observations are important for risk assessment in general. The difficulty of predicting even local, immediate weather is well-known. And like climate change, genocide tends to rely (at least apparently) on statistical science: weighty numbers like fifty million, six million, 1.3 million; or even ranges, like 40,000-200,000 which veer deeper into probability. “Climate genocide,” is the link between that earlier series and numbers like 2 (degrees Celsius of warming), or, say 350 (parts per million of CO2). As long as we are measuring and predicting deaths—Lahoud cites 250,000 a year excluding heat stress from malnutrition and disease—we continue to think probabilistically.
Prices aren’t the only numbers that produce the world rather than deriving from it. Take predicting weather or forecasting deaths. What if these numbers are not produced by underlying systems, like wars, pollution and laws, but actively set in such a way that they loop back into them?
Instead of shifting between two degrees of resolution at Lahoud suggests, how might we elaborate another kind of model? To what extent can we call a climate the surface of all temperatures and only temperatures? To what extent have climate negotiations already restructured the atmosphere as such a market?
David Xu Borgonjon is a Beijing and New York-based administrator and the managing editor of SCREEN.