Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD
The “hyperthreat” concept draws from ecophilosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the “hyperobject” and the general field of “new materialism.” A brief explanation of the conceptual background and key terms is offered below, drawing on earlier research publications. Information is grouped into four areas: philosophical background; Morton’s hyperobject concept; the development of the hyperthreat concept; and quotes and metaphors by Morton.
New materialism explores the philosophical significance of “matter,” or the nonhuman.1 Acknowledging the dynamic activity that occurs at the molecular level of all matter—whether it is concrete, sand, a worm, or a dolphin—new materialism acknowledges matter’s lively properties and capacity for agency. For example, a rock boulder, through its weight and capacity to block sunlight or rainfall, can exert influence upon other matter. This occurs regardless of human’s knowledge of its existence. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things captures this new worldview of attempting to understand existence, meaning, and ethics through the lens of the nonhuman.2
Object-oriented ontology, first developed by Graham Harman in 1999, also explores the idea of how objects experience “being.”3 Here, the word object is analogous to the way in which matter is used: as an academic term for a thing that may or may not be human. Controversially, object-oriented ontology proposes that all forms of matter—from mosquitos, to eagles, to a piece of gold, to a thistle bush, to a human—have equal existential status. Like new materialism, and significant to the concept of the hyperobject, Harman proposes that objects can have agency, in that they are not merely reactive to other influences or networks, as is generally understood within fields such as systems thinking or ecology. Harman drew on German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s earlier explorations of the nature of being and “being in the world,” which Heidegger proposed might vary for humans, nonhuman life, or inert objects.4
Timothy Morton’s Hyperobject Concept
According to Morton, hyperobjects are “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.”5 While he focuses on global warming as a hyperobject, he explains that there are many types of hyperobjects, such the Agent Orange herbicide chemical; the city and idea of London, England; and the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.6
Hyperobjects, Morton explains, are physical things that typically elude human’s sensory or conceptual capacities to see or know them in their entirety. They are also conceptual in that they exert influence and effects through the power, weight, and presence of the “idea” of them. Morton goes to great lengths to describe hyperobjects, assigning them five characteristics. He relies heavily on metaphor to help convey the feeling and nature of this new type of “thing” that humanity has not previously encountered. The five characteristics are as follows:
- Viscosity. Like fog, the hyperobject is everywhere. It is infused through everything in the way that air with greater carbon dioxide content is in a person’s nostrils. It changes form as humans interact with it—like honey, it sticks to everything. It infiltrates into physical, emotional, social, and cultural spaces.
- Nonlocality. Distributed across vast geographical areas, the hyperobject is located everywhere—from the Mariana Trench; to the volcanoes of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia; to polar clouds in the mesosphere; to a high-rise studio apartment in Tokyo, Japan; to the quantum-particle level; to a fishing village on the coast of Ghana; to a hospital in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; to the soil of the Scottish Highlands, to the coral and sea bird habitat of the archipelagos in the South China Sea. Because a hyperobject’s cause-and-effect patterns are distributed across such vast scales and distances, it disrupts human’s normal capacities to discern patterns and conduct sense-making activities to “see” the hyperobject.
- Temporal undulation. The hyperobject operates across planetary––not human––time frames. While humans may read of the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, Morton proposes that humans can only properly comprehend time in terms of human generational lifetimes. The timeframe that the hyperthreat operates on is mismatched to human ways of planning and strategizing. Moreover, Morton toys with the idea that hyperobjects may also defy human understandings of time and space.
- Phasing. In the same way that creatures on Earth see phases of the Moon but cannot see the entire Moon at once, humanity only see “phase states” of the hyperobject. Yet, like a chaotic system, the hyperobject’s phasing patterns are far more complex than that of the simple Earth-Moon dynamic.
- Interobjectivity. The hyperobject operates through other objects and is never seen outright. People may see cracked soil in drought, experience more intense storms or hotter weather, or read of animal extinctions, but they do not see global warming as an entity or a thing. The hyperobject’s presence must be inferred through its impacts on other objects and from clues that are sometimes barely discernible from prehyperobject existence.
The collective impact of these characteristics is that humanity struggles to see and know what hyperobjects are. The hyperobject of global warming has arrived in a way that is mostly indiscernible, but has by now infiltrated into every component of planetary living. Humans may see traces of it, while it may also suddenly erupt in one location, then as quickly disappear, in the way that a wave is gone after it crashes. Morton’s long exploration and examination of the hyperobject’s characteristics and its modus operandi helps teach people how to look at the hyperthreat, how to see it, and how to understand it.
Considering Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s instruction on understanding the nature and character of a threat, Morton’s hyperobject concept offers valuable conceptual building blocks. Once global warming is given a conceptual identity, one can then use it as an analytical tool to ask further questions, such as what its arrival means for humanity.
Morton proposes that the advent of the global warming hyperobject fundamentally alters humanity’s ontological and epistemological experience, or the way in which humans experience “being in the world” and how they come to know or understand existence. Instead of perceiving themselves as being in control of their lives and activities, humanity is increasing forced to adopt a reactive stance. Humans lose agency, with the hyperobject becoming the main shaping agent on Earth. Humans are existentially “demoted” from regarding themselves as an apex species of Earth to merely one of many forms of life and matter on Earth that must coexist as a matter of survival and also face the hyperthreat onslaught together.
Morton proposes that the “time of hyperobjects” is a time of hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness, which emphasizes human powerlessness and vulnerability.7 Drawing on the Greek origins of the word hypocrisy, Morton writes that “hypo means under, hidden, or secret, while krisis means judgment, determination, or discernment. . . . Hypocrisy is a ‘secret doom’.”8 Humans are “weak and lame” in that their systems of laws, taxes, or nation states are portrayed as utterly ill-matched to the scale, magnitude, and modus operandi of the hyperobject. Humans have neither the tools nor capacity to understand or counter the hyperobject, which views them as humans might view ants. Ultimately, the hyperobject affects humans, not only through physical changes on Earth but also at a deep existential and psychological level. Morton describes this as feeling like being buried alive, or waking up inside the belly of a whale, or being inside a toxic womb. Morton suggests using Russian matryoshka dolls as a metaphor, with humans as the smallest doll, unable to get outside of the problem to see the problem and attempt to fix it.9
Development of the Hyperthreat Concept
The hyperthreat concept retains Morton’s five characteristics of hyperojects, but it differs from the hyperobject notion in several ways. First, though Morton frames global warming as a hyperobject, the hyperthreat concept refers to both global warming and general environmental destruction and degradation. Second, the word object in hyperobject is replaced with threat to highlight the harm, destruction, and violence that is associated with a warming climate and ecological crisis. This involves acknowledging violence towards the nonhuman, to include ecocide, mass extinction events, and factory farming and animal testing. It encapsulates the idea of a nonhuman-centred approach to threat and security, in which fish, animal, insect, bird, macrobacteria, and plant safety is considered in a new, holistic approach to the threat.
Third, the hyperthreat conception challenges Morton’s perception that humanity has lost all agency and occupies a powerless position. Instead, the hyperthreat notion proposes that humanity still possesses some agency in the capacity to impact the severity of global warming and ecological decline. There may also be capacity to rehabilitate some ecological systems. In confronting humanity’s greater vulnerability, a hyperthreat lens draws on the Clausewitzian understanding of moral forces and courage as well as general military studies on humanity’s capacity to mobilize, reorganize, strategize, and act in the face of an overwhelming threat.
Fourth, before the subject of global warming entered general societal discourse, there was a sharp distinction made within fields such as disaster studies, geography studies, and security studies between hazards and threats. Hazards were regarded as dangerous events that occurred naturally, such as a cyclone within normal weather bounds, or due to an unfortunate mistake or random event, such as a train driver falling asleep or a tree falling on a railway track, causing a train crash. The key distinction was that hazards involved no conscious hostile intent to cause harm, whereas a threat involved a conscious human brain that had decided to inflict harm.
While Morton’s hyperobject concept does not engage with the question of culpability, the hyperthreat notion does, proposing that the old delineation between hazards and threats needs review. If the hyperthreat is centered as the object of a threat analysis, it is clear that it involves new forms of conscious hostile intent. The “brain” behind the hyperthreat expresses its hostile intent in the same way that a hyperobject manifests. For example, reflecting on Morton’s nonlocality characteristic of hyperobjects, the cause-and-effect links are difficult to discern. Further, intent to cause harm exists on a wide spectrum, from unwitting participants in a fossil-fuel and resource-intensive society to lobbying or disinformation activity that effectively works to strengthen and empower the hyperthreat. This “hostile intent” involves viscosity, temporal undulation, and interobjectivity. Understanding that threat manifests in this diffuse and distributed way is an essential insight for later deliberations on how to counter the hyperthreat.
Other characteristics of the hyperthreat include slow violence, irreversible damage, and vast separation between victims and perpetrators. Slow violence is a major part of the hyperthreat’s modus operandi. It is defined by Rob Nixon as “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”10 While Nixon does briefly refer to global warming, his initial work focuses on the impacts of economic and industrial activity on the environment and human health. Examples he discusses include the Bhopal gas disaster in India, oil extraction in the Ogoni area of Nigeria, the construction of mega-dams in India, and the use of landmines and cluster bombs in Angola and Afghanistan. Such activities, Nixon argues, can remove livelihoods, damage agricultural production, erode water quality, and displace people, thereby slowly harming and killing.
Moreover, runaway climate change, in which Earth is tipped into a hothouse earth trajectory, is irreversible within meaningful human life time frames. Excepting novel technological interventions such as DNA cloning, generally extinctions of various flora and fauna species are irreversible.
There is a vast distance between victims of the hyperthreat and those decision makers who empower it. Major victim groups include nonhuman species, future generations, and impoverished populations. Presently, most victims of the hyperthreat are nonhuman species such as macrobacteria, plankton, birds, coral species, as well as many other animal, plant, and tree species. The other significant victim group is the very young or not-yet-born humans. Finally, of current-day humans, those who are impoverished—and especially those who are dependent on stable climates and healthy ecological systems, such as subsistence farmers—possess high vulnerability to hyperthreat impacts and limited political capacity to effect change.
This large separation factor may impact hyperthreat related decision-making. The hyperthreat enemy rarely sees or hears from its victims. It cannot hear their cries, which might evoke empathy. Like Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the banality of evil, decision makers are so far removed from the cause-and-effect impact of their actions that they risk abdicating their humanness, which allows ethical judgements to occur.11 The hyperthreat performs a type of remote killing and destruction that makes even the drone warfare ethics discussion seem simple in comparison. The separation factor between drone operator and victim has been the subject of much deliberation: Will it inhibit some of the moral safeguards that guide a person to only kill when essential and as a last-resort mechanism?12 This type of thinking needs to be applied to the hyperthreat, which has a far greater separation factor.13
The rationale behind the just war theory, that sometimes there are good reasons for human groups to mobilize and fight an aggressor, can be applied to the hyperthreat of climate and environmental change for the following reasons:14
- The risk of general destruction. The hyperthreat will destroy habitats, human or otherwise, as a warlike aggressor might. Buildings, roads, ports, railways, water sources, forests, and more are vulnerable to severe weather events such as cyclones, fires, floods, storms, and heatwaves. The hyperthreat can also destroy through slow violence tactics such as decadal droughts, algae infections in freshwater sources, and air pollution. Such tactics reduce the supply of food, water, and fresh air to nonhuman species while also hindering human’s capacity to grow food.
- Loss of autonomy or freedom. The hyperthreat attacks human autonomy from multiple directions. If allowed to reach its full strength, the hyperthreat threatens chaos, which in turn affects human autonomy. The autonomy of future generations will suffer attrition warfare, through which choices will disappear one by one. These choices may even disappear without people having known they once existed.
- Survival. Food and water availability are vulnerable, and in some cases they may be unable to be fortified against the hyperthreat’s methods of attack. Habitability of land and dwellings for humans and other species is also at risk.
The hyperthreat also defies existing nation-state security logic. Historically, nation states fund military forces to protect them from external threats. A prosperous nation state can afford to maintain military forces to continue to protect its quality of life and capacity to be productive. The arrival of the hyperthreat overturns this logic, as the hyperthreat attacks the nation state from within, eroding the state’s prosperity and quality of life. Life under the hyperthreat means that it is harder to produce food, that there are more costly disaster-response tasks, that infrastructure is disrupted more often, that people face more health risks, that materials may become scarcer and more expensive, and that instead of being industrious and creative, people are cleaning up after flood events, attempting to rebuild after bushfires, and moving or even migrating to more stable locations.
Further, the hyperthreat can concurrently hasten external threats by increasing the prevalence of fragile or failed states and thereby raising the risk of armed violent groups. Moreover, the hyperthreat’s destruction of the fundamentals for survival, such as fresh food, water, and shelter, may hasten geopolitical “race for what’s left” dynamics, also known as resource wars. While in theory such risks can be mitigated through political and cooperative measures, in practice this can be difficult to achieve and depends greatly on a range of other contextual factors.
In the end, the hyperthreat possesses warlike destructive capabilities that are so diffuse that it is hard to see the enormity of the destruction or who is responsible for its hostile actions. It defies existing human thought and institutional constructs. The hyperthreat is powered and energized by three key enablers: its invisibility; its ability to evade all existing human threat-response mechanisms; and human hesitancy, as the slower humans are to act, the stronger the hyperthreat becomes.
Rich Picture: Quotes and Metaphors by Timothy Morton
The following quotations from several of Morton’s works help provide a richer understanding of hyperobjects and the author’s ecological philosophy. His use of metaphors, creative writing, and descriptions of the emotional and philosophical significance of hyperobjects accords with cognitive science research on how to better communicate the significance of climate and environmental science.
What we desperately need is an appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma—indeed, the ecological trauma of our age, the very thing that defines the Anthropocene as such. That is why I shall be sticking with the phrase global warming in this book.15
. . . we humans find ourselves embedded in earthly reality, not circling above it in geostationary orbit.16
Yet statistics tell me, obliquely, never able to point to a direct causal link, that my cancer may have come from an endocrine disrupter. Hyperobjects seem to inhabit a Humean causal system in which association, correlation, and probability are the only things we have to go on, for now. That’s why it’s so easy for Big Tobacco and global warming deniers: of course there is no direct proof of a causal link.17
I have decided to call these timescales the horrifying, the terrifying, and the petrifying.18
The half life of plutonium-239 . . . [is] 24,100 years.19
This aporia gives rise to a dilemma: we have no time to learn fully about hyperobjects. But we have to handle them anyway.20
Hyperobjects seem to come and go, but this coming and going is a function of our limited human access to them.21
Mathematics in this sense, beyond number, is the way the mind acclimatizes itself to reality. The Lorenz attractor is a way for us to breathe the rarefied conceptual oxygen of a higher-dimensional being, the climate. The climate is not a “space” or an “environment,” just a higher-dimensional object that we don’t see directly.22
A hyperobject passes through a thousand sieves, emerging as translated information at the end of the mesh.23
Hyperobjects provide great examples of interobjectivity—namely, the way in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space. We never hear the wind in itself, argues Heidegger, only the wind in the door, the wind in the trees. This means that for every interobjective system, there is at least one entity that is withdrawn.24
Global warming is a big problem, because along with melting glaciers it has melted or ideas of world and worlding. Thus, the tools that humanists have at their disposal for talking about the ecological emergency are now revealed, by global warming itself, to be as useless as the proverbial chocolate teapot. It is rather like the idea of using an antique (or better, antiqued) Christmas ornament as a weapon.25
Worlds need horizons and horizons need backgrounds, which need foregrounds. When we can see everywhere (when I can use Google Earth to see the fish in my mom’s pond in her garden in London), the world—as a significant, bound, horizoning entity—disappears. We have no world because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved.26
The time of hyperobjects is the time during which we discover ourselves on the inside of some big objects (bigger than us, that is): Earth, global warming, evolution. Again, that’s what the eco in ecology originally means: oikos, home.27
Hyperobjects are futural . . . [they] loom into human time like the lengthening shadow of a tree across the garden lawn in the bright sunshine of an ending afternoon. The end of the world is not a sudden punctuation point, but rather it is a matter of deep time.28
Our increasing knowledge of global warming ends all kinds of ideas, but it creates other ones. The essence of these new ideas is the notion of coexistence—that is after all what ecology profoundly means. We coexist with human lifeforms, nonhuman lifeforms, and non-lifeforms, on the insides of a series of gigantic entities with whom we also coexist: the ecosystem, biosphere, climate, planet, solar system. A multiple series of nested Russian dolls. Whales within whales within whales.29
But no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which they all fit; in particular we won’t find an umbrella that unifies them, such as world, environment, ecosystem, or even, astonishingly, Earth. What we discover instead is an open-ended mesh that consists of grass, iron ore, popsicles, sunlight, the galaxy Sagittarius, and mushroom spores. Earth exists, no doubt, but not as some special enormous bowl that contains all the “ecological” objects. Earth is one object coexisting with mice, sugar, elephants and Turin.30
The work withdraws precisely because it executes. . . . The fact that we only see flickering pieces of a hyperobjects is an indication of a hyperobject’s reality, not of its nonexistence.31
- Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2010); and Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (London, Open Humanities Press, 2012).
- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2010).
- See Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2002).
- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrier and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).
- Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1.
- Morgan Meis, “Timothy Morton's Hyper-Pandemic,” New Yorker, 8 June 2021.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 148, 176, 195.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, n.p.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 128.
- Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.
- See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1963).
- See Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun, “The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition,” Ethics and International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 337–58, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679411000281; and Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory (London: Penguin, 2015).
- Elizabeth G. Boulton, “Climate Change as a Hyperthreat,” in Australian Contributions to Strategic and Military Geography, ed. Stuart Pearson, Jane L. Holloway, and Richard Thackway (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 80.
- Nicholas Fotion, War and Ethics: A New Just War Theory (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007).
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 8–9. This quote is part of Morton’s explanation as to why he rejects the term climate change and insists on using the term global warming.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 36.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 39.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 59.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 59.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 67.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 74.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 75–76.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 77.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 86.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 103.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 104.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 118. Emphasis added.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 122.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 127–28.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 129.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 186.