Is Obama a Geophysical Force?

As the American Presidential elections draw near, as a European, I too turn my eyes across the Atlantic, with clear memories of the 2008 elections and the immense hope and joy of my Swedish countrymen at the prospect of Obama becoming the President of the USA. This election narrative, so American and so unlike our own, was tense and we bought into it, and even though we too experienced a regime change around the same time, we were far more concerned with the path the world’s greatest superpower would take.

In last Swedish elections, climate issues were among our greatest concerns and our green party always has some political purchase. Despite difference between the left and the right, our parties generally agree about the necessity to address climate issues. The green party in particular argues that the entire globe needs to take responsibility for the future of our planet. What makes this harder than it seems is exactly the fact that the proper response to climate change also entails a rethinking of who or what we are as human beings.

Following the cue of Paul J. Krutzen, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that human beings can no longer think of themselves as mere national subjects and modern individuals, but they have to understand themselves as geological force. A force is essentially non-human. A volcanic eruption has no ontology, no subjectivity, no sense of duty and rights. As a force, it is, in principle, equal to for instance a hurricane, regardless of the sheer strength of it. We have all trebled at the sight of the tsunami that hit Japan. The question is how can we understand ourselves as a sort of a tsunami and remain human and political creatures? Can the understanding of human beings as national subjects, along the belief that nature is his object, work with this new demand to de-ontologize ourselves and start thinking about ourselves as being two things? What if any of the Presidential candidates endorsed such a view and urged us all to try and rethink who we are as humans?

If Obama were, at any point, to say he was a geophysical force this would be seen as a delusion of grandeur on a whole other level. He would appear like one of those characters from the Marvel and DC universes who harness some power of nature like the wind or radiation. And yet, this is exactly this that is at stake. Speaking of comics, those imaginary characters who embody some natural force are hardest to relate to exactly because they do not seem human, by which I mean political creatures. This non-ontological self-understanding is so bizarre to us because at the same time we also have to remain citizens with full-fledged civic duties, civic imagination, and civic engagement. What is more, since we all know that some citizens hold more power than others, that we really are not equal, not even in our beautiful democracies, the question is, is the American President more of a geophysical force than anyone else? Can we even think of individuals, groups of individuals, and nations separately in terms what percent of this global force they may constitute?

It is hard to offer an ethics or political agenda that properly responds to this scientific demand that we rethink ourselves. What would such a new understanding of what we are as humans do to us in election times? How would we, thinking of ourselves as a geophysical force, choose our political representatives? And most importantly, how would this make them relate to us? It would be interesting to see a successful political narrative that incorporates this scientific thinking and demand without sounding like something taken from science fiction. The question is also can the globe itself speak?

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