This interview was conducted by Rebecca Herbert
Can you talk a bit about your background and how that influenced your approach to the question of ‘how do we save the planet?’
It was the day after I returned from Iraq in 2004, that I wondered into a book store and saw the book ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins, which changed my life. I hadn’t heard of ‘global warming’ before and as I read this book and became aware of the impacts of unchecked dangerous global warming and ecological breakdown; I was staggered that little action was being undertaken. I had seen the phenomenal expense and effort of the Iraq War over the apparent possibility of “weapons of mass destruction” so I couldn’t understand why such large-scale action was not being undertaken for a far greater threat – where far more people would die and suffer.
I had previously worked NGOs etc in Africa and had seen some of the suffering associated with food shortages so that aspect jolted me as well. Also, I loved the outdoors and nature, and the thought of that perishing was upsetting. That book led me to make a career change and move into the area of climate and sustainability.
So, from the start, from the moment I read that book, I viewed the climate and environmental problem as a type of ‘threat’ – something that would kill, destroy, and harm. Because I had a military background, I started wondering about how to apply traditional military style threat analysis and response methods to the ‘threat’ of climate and environment change, and this became the question I explored in my PhD.
One of those methods I applied is called “center of gravity” (COG) analysis. The idea with COG analysis is that you study a threat, and you try and determine what is its main source of its power. What is the ‘thing’ that, if targeted, would have the most impact in terms of eradicating the threat? (Would upset its balance…and cause it to topple?)
When I applied ‘COG’ analysis thinking to the climate-security problem, drawing upon neuroscience and other climate communication and policy research and eco-humanities work, I determined that the COG was human’s ‘deep frames’. That is, their entrenched world views and philosophical outlooks, that are hard-wired into them from birth. In turn, these influence the design of our institutions, policies, governance and so on. In other words – philosophical and conceptual understanding of threat and killing, in my view, was an area, that if shifted, could change the whole game.
Accordingly, after that, I focused more exclusively, in fact, most of my thesis, is oriented around reconceptualizing threat, at a ‘deep’ or philosophical level.
My argument is that if humanity can see climate and ecological issues as the ‘major threat’ – (and they often do describe it this way, as an existential threat or catastrophic threat) – then we could pivot our entire threat posture, and institutions towards counting the hyperthreat.
I’m envisioning raising a massive global ‘hyper-response force’ which would work at great intensity over the next five years. It would involve billions of people.
What is a hyperthreat – can you explain that idea?
I defined the hyperthreat of climate and environmental change in a paper called ‘Climate Change as a hyperthreat’ published in 2018.
The definition I developed is as follows:
The hyperthreat has warlike destructive capabilities that are so diffuse that it is hard to see the enormity of the destruction coherently nor who is responsible for its hostile actions. It defies existing human thought and institutional constructs. It is powered and energised by three key enablers; its invisibility, its ability to evade all existing human threat-response mechanisms, and by human hesitancy––the slower humans are to act, the stronger it becomes.
A key point to emphasize is that the environment is not ‘the’ threat, rather the threat emanates from an acutely stressed environment. The environment, nature is our number one ally. A four-minute you-tube video explains the concept:
The idea draws from eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s concept of global warming as a hyperobject. It might be easiest to start with explaining a bit about Morton’s work. His book on hyperobjects is terrific, but difficult because simply reading it, while very frustrating helps to ‘re-wire’ our deep frames. He bombards the reader with metaphors which are the best way to help convey new thought.
As he explains, and as many researchers in the fields of ‘framing’ have discussed, when our ‘deep’ worldviews are challenged, it evokes a biophysical response. That is people ‘flood out’ or may feel agitated and angry, because their neuron structures don’t yet exist to hold this new knowledge. So, when you read his book and get annoyed, just know that it is like muscles being worked at a gym, it’s uncomfortable, but you are building important new neuron pathways. In fact, because his book evoked a strong irritated response in me, I knew it was onto something new.
Morton describes how the hyperobject of global warming is something we can often not see or know, it operates like fog, infused through everything, and may suddenly erupt. Crucially, he argues that because it is beyond the capacity of human sensory systems and cognitive capacities to understand, humanity is essentially defeated. Morton proposes, I think he is right on this, that they hyperobject will be the major shaping agent of the future, humans will no longer be “in control” of their worlds, rather we will increasingly be in a reactive stance.
Our new notion of who we are (our epistemology) fundamentally shifts – as a species, we are no longer the most powerful phenomena on the planet, and maybe that’s a good thing in some ways as we haven’t used our power well.
In my hyperthreat conception, I build upon Morton. I include all range of environmental degradation and destruction aspects, as I believe climate and environment are so integrally connected it makes no sense to separate them. Secondly, I start considering “Just War Ethics” in relation to the hyperthreat, which guides us on ‘when’ humanity should mobilize against a threat. In short, there are 3 reasons to ‘fight’ or mobilize all of which apply to the hyperthreat:
- Risk of general destruction
- Loss of freedom and autonomy (which can come about through descent into chaos or deprivation)
- Survival – food, water, shelter etc is threatened
I also start analyzing the ‘hyperthreat’ to consider what is enabling its power, and this sets the scene to the start strategizing how to take it on. We can never defeat it, as too much carbon is already in the atmosphere, but we may be able to contain the worst of its destructive power.
To explain this further, if its’ enablers are: its invisibility, its ability to evade all existing human threat-response mechanisms, and human hesitancy, then the strategy to contain it orientates around making ’it’ and harmful contributing actions seen; raising new methods to prevent new sorts of harm (laws, institutions, etc) and addressing the passivity of humans, and increasing their agency and capacity to act; to free them up to respond faster.
Please Explain PLAN E and what is the purpose of this naming?
PLAN E is the name for Phase I of a Grand Strategy to save the planet. E stands for Earth, everyone, everywhere, everything and everybody. You could add emergency, enthusiasm, entanglement, embarkation, and any other E word you like. It is a mere coincidence that my name is Elizabeth 😊. The full PLAN is in chapter 14 of the thesis which is online here.
How do you think humanity responds to global warming and the environmental crisis? Please explain about this.
Currently we are treating it as a governance issue, as a routine science and economic policy matter. The problem with this, as we have seen from the limited progress at the Glasgow climate talks, is that we are not really confronting the nature of harm and threat that is involved in a way that is commensurate to the problem; nor are we moving fast enough – or going into emergency mode. We need a whole of society approach, and a new form of mobilization if we are to succeed, and the capacity to intervene and prevent those who are consciously intent upon creating harm for others.
Also, we have restricted ourselves to an international governance structure developed in the post-WW2 environment, which has Colonial over-tones and no longer suits many other Nations. The world has changed, but that model is linked to the industrial era. It’s time to think of new models, which may still link or bridge to the old.
If we want new ideas, we also need to be more alert to how people really respond to the new and factor that in. So, we need to coach people to be aware that they may have a ‘flooding out’ reaction as their neuron pathways respond to the ideas. It’s time for intellectual courage which means that even if you become irritated or confused, consider persevering because this is how we learn to think in a new way and save ourselves. We need new cognitive software! New ways of thinking open new doors to creation, response design and so on.
If you want to say something to our audience, we will be happy to hear it.
My work involves re-imaging military theory, so that it works to protect people and planetary life in the Anthropocene, where the nature of killing, violence and harm has fundamentally changed.
What I didn’t realise when I began this inquiry, was how much resistance I’d meet to not only the idea, but also, I think the very idea of a female military strategist.
I have found myself structurally blocked and enormous efforts to sabotage the work and silence me. This did affect my mental health and on finishing the PhD I struggled to write. I’m getting a bit better now, but I would ask readers that if they think the ideas are helpful, please share and use, but please acknowledge or cite the work.
Also, acknowledging voices outside the extant power structure, like mine, helps to unravel old ideas about ‘who’ is an authority on security and climate strategy. The point is, old authority is getting it wrong, (or are corrupted), so survival and creation of new pathways depends upon all of us creating space for new voices.
In a competitive narrative environment, where all sorts of powerful groups are trying to shape perceptions of reality, and the powerful control much of our media, and are encroaching upon universities and determining what gets researched and what does not, one of the ways civil society can hedge its bets and protect itself, is to actively create space for ‘truth tellers’ and new voices. This is already happening, through you-tube and other channels, but it is still hard for everyone to discern what is true and what is not.
Guarding our capacity to accurately conduct sense-making becomes a survival imperative – it’s what helps us to adapt. That means, at a practical level, really protecting truth-speakers, and helping them to be heard, giving them a platform. Testimony is a form of knowledge, it may not appear in a peer reviewed journal, but it is often very crucial information which helps us navigate a changing world. Julian Assange makes the point, that few academics cite documents released on WikiLeaks, and while academics dispute how important this is, it is something to remain aware of.
In general, my view that any fair-minded security analysis, that is oriented towards the greater good, that does not acknowledge the corrupted information environment, is not working hard enough. There are many forces working to silence truth and disrupt and confuse our perceptions of what is really going on, so helping people to give testimony, speak truth, and offer new ideas is one way global citizens can fight back and regain a sense of control and agency over their future.
We are glad to hear your opinion about the tired earth site.
Thanks for creating space for the new! I am keen to help replenish our tired earth and the weary soul of humanity; their health and well-being is interconnected.