The Comfort of Uncertainty

by Alex Brown

There are two baby goats, named Yogurt and Milkshake, in my backyard. They’re both white, with scruffy hair, and from far away they look indistinguishable from one another. Most mornings I walk to their shed, which stands close to the fence, on damp, muddy ground littered with pale straw, and they wait to greet me, their hair glowing in the morning sun, their eyes alive, curious. When I get close, I notice that Yogurt’s horns are a little shorter, with a small nick in the right one, and Milkshake’s hair is slightly longer. Their personalities are different, too. Yogurt is shy, docile; Milkshake is more social, will approach the electric fence with little fear. With my hand outstretched, I have to gently remind him not to get too close. Of course he cannot make sense of my words, but he still understands.

We—humans—can understand things we cannot fully make sense of. Unknowingness and uncertainty, after all, are two different things.

When I was in Italy, nineteen years old, in a market trying to find a bathroom, I asked a local to point me the right way. He had graying hair and light congenial eyes, shorter than me, and plump. He spoke no English (me, no Italian), but, through smiles and expressive gestures, we still managed to communicate, and a few moments later I was walking to a bathroom. The man was uncertain what I was asking, but he could guess, which was enough. He was uncertain, but not unknowing. The difference is subtle, but it wouldn’t be accurate to retrospectively conclude that he did not know.

Like trying to pick apart a language we cannot speak, there are phenomena that we witness, perhaps even daily, that we understand just enough to get by, but cannot fully grasp. There’s a word for this, coined by Timothy Morton: “hyperobjects,” a term that describes “objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change.” The term serves as a cognitive device for mapping these sorts of things.

The internet would be another example of a hyperobject. I use the internet daily, compulsively; in fact, I am using it right now, writing on a Google doc sitting in a café. From the debit card I used to pay for my coffee, to the Spotify playlist streaming over the café speakers, the internet is everywhere, inimitably dispersed such that it would exhaust me to be perpetually conscious of it. Still, I am well aware of the internet; our civilization relies on it. Without it, everything would crumble in a matter of days. But it is staggeringly complex, permeates everything, and shapes our experience in subtle, nuanced, and invisible ways.

It is raining outside the café—it was heavy at first, big, fat drops, the kind of rain that complete strangers pause to acknowledge, softly muttering “should have brought an umbrella, but I always lose them” or “good thing I didn’t water my ferns today.” I would have been drenched just walking twenty feet to my car. It died down after about ten minutes, and now there is only a light sprinkle.

The weather (and by proxy, climate change), in terms of both time and space, is the best example of a hyperobject that we have. Since humans first evolved, the weather has been among the most central aspects of both civilization and individual experience, from agriculture to transportation to shelter to our conception(s) of the divine. Its opaque mechanisms, however, remain mysterious to most of us, and as climate change sets in, even weather forecasters—who have made astonishing progress over the last century, and can now reliably predict weather patterns seven to ten days out—are increasingly less confident in their ability to forecast weather using traditional models and historical data.

Our changing climate might be mystifying; what we do know about it is enough to spell out disaster in the coming decades. Like a baby goat venturing too close to an electric fence, we know that climate change is real, and that it will hurt us. We just don’t know how. And unlike the goat, we cannot simply choose to walk away from it. But that does not mean we can’t figure out a way through it.

The rain outside has stopped now, but the streets are wet, the grass damp. Puddles will be omnipresent at least for the next few hours. When I walk to my car, I will breathe air saturated with spring, my lungs will taste the verdure of the new season, and perhaps I will feel slight moisture on my face. I will avoid a small puddle illuminated by glowing clouds as I step into my car. I will turn on the wipers and see drops of water dance off my windshield. And that will be that. I will not know why it rained, much less how, and I won’t be able to tell if it will rain tomorrow without consulting my weather app, which usually tells the truth, so much so that it rarely occurs to me to take their predictions with a grain of salt. But I know the rain like an old friend; it is familiar, and sometimes it feels like home.

It is a comfort of uncertainty that I don’t much think about the weather but can still more or less get by without fully understanding it. Uncertainty can take the labor away from knowledge, and absolves us the responsibility of explanation. It is enough, until, of course, it is not. At that point, we must contemplate the unknowable in search for answers. If we do not, we are left walking through darkness with arms outstretched, searching for an exit that is not there.

The prognosis of climate change is grim. We know this, or at least specialists know this, and the rest of us are beginning to. I am not an environmentalist, not vegan or vegetarian. I don’t even particularly care for the outdoors, at least not how I used to. I enjoyed camping years ago, and spent a lot of time outside as a child, but haven’t so much as hiked in what feels like an eternity. Despite living in the mountains, despite the awe I feel gazing at the blue haze suspended over distant landscapes, despite fond memories of trudging through muddy forests and playing on the banks of rivers as a child, I don’t feel an intimate link with nature, and, until recently, just assumed humans functioned outside of it. Like many, perhaps most, I’m more at home around civilization, around people, culture, technology, and convenience. The world I live in is comfortable—and I, like everyone, am addicted to that comfort.

Of course, I accepted long ago that climate change is happening, that coral reefs are dying, habitats of all kinds are being destroyed, CO2 is filling the atmosphere. But numbers and scientific facts are difficult to conceptualize, much less humanize. Sadly, we Americans must prepare for climate disaster in an economy and sociopolitical framework poorly suited for rapid conceptualization and collectivization. Our government’s environmental policies have been lackluster, to say the least. And thus far, the best the market has done is position environmental awareness as an individual responsibility, that recycling, purchasing a Prius, or avoiding straws is enough. At best, these gestures are performative, a meager affirmation that we’re not totally out of control. At worst, these lifestyle changes are laughably useless, especially when one considers that the vast majority of climate pollution is perpetrated by a handful of corporations. Air travel alone would emit enough CO2 to warm the globe more than 2 degrees Celsius within the next century, even if we were to miraculously eliminate all other emissions. Individual responsibility and limits on government overreach are practical in some contexts, but are poorly suited for the rapid overhauls and sweeping policy changes necessary to prepare for (and hopefully curb) climate disaster.

Veganism, progressivism, concern for global warming—these things are marketed toward particular demographics and socialized such that anyone engaging in environmental concerns lends themselves to a stereotype, whether that’s privilege, being a hippie, or whatever else. Perhaps that’s why I have pushed it to the side for so long—disillusionment with the way overt concern for the environment exists when embedded in market relations, so relentlessly dehumanized into trendy social movements that may or may not be fashionable come next year.

The ramifications, however, are more human than anything. Videos of people standing on rooftops waving at helicopters for help that won’t or can’t come, the poor masses abandoned, videos and stories of people hurting, dying, fleeing. I can understand that. Now that climate change is beginning to irrevocably affect my own species, and myself, I am beginning to care a lot more. It feels too late, and on some level, selfish.

I love animals, enjoy being around them, and even find it ethically lamentable that we kill them for food. I look at Yogurt and Milkshake, the baby goats. I laugh and recognize them and they feel like friends, their eyes glinting, their soft ears perking up when I tease them. I feel the same affection toward dogs and cats and all kinds of animals. I do find solace in the woods and understand—to some extent envy—people who spend their lives hiking, kayaking, camping, and whatever else. But when it comes down to it, until the past year, I didn’t give much thought to the destruction of nature or climate change. It seems like not many did.

I am not a scientist, so I don’t feel it is my place to offer the hard evidence supporting the inevitability of climate change and the unimaginable tragedy it will bestow. Because it’s a hyperobject, it’s easy to turn away from climate change out of confusion. But if anything, we should be turning toward it. We don’t need to be certain of climate change to know it or to talk about it. Science is only part of the human experience, and as such, it is only part of the climate change experience. If climate change is inexplicable, then it will take a variety of stories and perspectives to prepare for it. If we are to break down the hyperobject of climate change into something we can grasp, we must come together, tell our stories, and out of a variety of experiences and perspectives, synthesize a plan. We need not be scientists to explain the taste of the tepid, suffocating air floating ghostlike over a flooded coastal city; we don’t need experts to retell the biblical terror of being trapped in a forest fire; we don’t need anyone to lay out our own experiences and ideas except ourselves.

The more I learn about climate change, the more anxiety I feel, which makes it all the more tempting to ignore. But I do find some hollow comfort in the fact that civilization has been doomed before. In medieval times, the black plague killed so many that European society was nearly unrecognizable after. Centuries before medicine would explain the underlying causes of the plague, people assumed they were powerless, that God’s unstoppable wrath would bring certain Armageddon for humanity as they knew it. In a way, they weren’t entirely wrong. The plague was the great equalizer, killing off both the peasants and nobility with abandon, reshaping kingdoms, dissolving economic and political structures that had been firmly rooted for centuries. It was everywhere, and it was a virtual certainty. It couldn’t be solved so much as endured. It was a hyperobject, it was their climate change. Whether we’re rich or poor, educated or not, climate change will permeate the globe in unprecedented ways, spelling out certain doom in ways hitherto unpredictable. Will humanity, if it still exists as we know it, look back on the 2000s as a medieval era?

Glaciers fall into the ocean, giant hunks of ice as heavy as skyscrapers. As they plunge into the water, the violent splash will disturb much more than what’s below. Forests in California will feel the resonant fury of glaciers shattered into the sea as fires dance around homes and streets where children were trick-or-treating just a year ago. In the flames, cars will tear through billowing smoke in a frenzy, and inside there will be families, perhaps a mother clutching a phone taking a video in a desperate attempt to document the horror, because the hope of making it out with a video provides something to hold on to. Almost certainly there will be cell phone videos that will never be seen.

Far away in Miami, the glaciers’ crashes will flood the city in broad daylight. As hydraulic pumps malfunction, Florida’s highways will bulge, congested with vehicles like coagulated blood, people fleeing as their homes become uninhabitable. A hurricane is headed for the panhandle, and people are growing desperate, frenzied, irate. Soon they will turn violent. In some areas, looting will become a necessity for survival as the poor are left behind, unable to leave.

In a desert city, drought and famine have driven away even the most resilient citizens. Nobody is here now. Temperatures exceed 110 degrees in the dead of night. During the day it gets so hot that a human would die if outside for more than twenty minutes. The sun bakes a desolate wasteland that hasn’t seen rain in decades. No life is visible, not even small rodents. It is so hot that even the wind has abandoned the forlorn landscape. Everything is still. The silence is as loud as ice crashing into the ocean.

Will anyone remember?

In her 2014 essay for The New Yorker titled “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” Rebecca Solnit quotes a 1915 journal entry by Virginia Woolf during the dawn of WWI: The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think. Solnit then writes, “It’s an extraordinary declaration, asserting that the unknown need not be turned into the known through false divination, or the projection of grim political or ideological narratives; it’s a celebration of darkness, willing—as that ‘I think’ indicates—to be uncertain even about its own assertion.”

Over a hundred years later, here we are again, at the brink of a disaster unprecedented and largely unimaginable, much like world war and modernity must have been for Woolf. I do not feel much hope—not yet. But I do feel darkness, which is where hope can be found. I will join Solnit in the Woolfian tradition of celebrating darkness; embracing the unknowable as an opportunity. In the face of uncertainty, we can either choose complacent ignorance or begin on the arduous path toward illumination. How we will get there I am not so sure, but I am willing to try. And there is some comfort in that.

Alex Brown is a writer and musician based in Asheville, North Carolina. He writes essays and reviews for Tiny Mix Tapes, a music/culture webzine. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in English.