Dark Ecology: Ambiguity and the Anthropocene

Posted by on Jul 27, 2016
Dark Ecology: Ambiguity and the Anthropocene

“The time has come to rethink wilderness,” historian William Cronon famously announced over twenty years ago, in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” 1 Cronon questioned the stability of categories like “Nature” or “Wilderness,” arguing that the rigid contrast of urban and rural, natural and unnatural has reified ecological landscapes and fueled the commoditized rhetoric that would treat “Nature” as little more than increasingly complex modes of property.

tim_southend_headshot 288Timothy Morton, member of CENHS’ faculty steering committee and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, has taken such arguments considerably further, advocating for a concept of “Dark Ecology” in which, among other things, “the idea of Nature will have disappeared in a puff of smoke, as nonhuman beings swim into view.” 2 Indeed, in clouding the assumed fixedness of the term “Nature,” Morton reveals a fault line at the base of our environmental taxonomies. In effect, here he has begun to explore the darkness of ecological thought.

And that darkness always results in deep layers of ambiguity. “Maybe ambiguity could be a symbol of reality,” said Morton on episode 10 of our very own Cultures of Energy podcast. “A key component of [the Anthropocene] is ambiguity delusion. And in an ecological era, ambiguity tolerance is going to be very important.” 3 While Dark Ecology may suggest that there is a violent or thorny aspect of nature, it also signifies the process of coming to terms with the ambiguity that coexistence will involve. The Anthropocene, as Morton implies, is a result of denying the fundamental obscurities that define the relationship between human and nonhuman. In Morton’s latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016), he puts it this way: “There is an undecidability (not total indeterminacy) between two entities—me and not-me, the thing. There is a profound ambiguity.” 4

“Objects”—a word Morton and Object-Oriented Ontologists deploy in reference to all beings and things—withdraw from our experience or understanding. This is what is meant by human “finitude,” a word Morton defines as “the term that describes a world in which entities ‘withdraw’ from direct access. Every kind of access—a philosopher thinking about a stone, a scientist smashing a particle, a farmer watering a tree—is profoundly limited and incomplete.” 5 This incompleteness results in an ontological “gap between the human and everything else [that] can’t be filled in.” 6

bag_preview-800x400This is not a manner in which to escape the responsibilities issued by the advent of the Anthropocene. On the contrary, Dark Ecology challenges ecological thinkers to work productively in and through this posture of ambiguity. As a prime example, the Finnish curator Hilde Methi, in collaboration with the Dutch Sonic Acts, has recently completed a three-year art, research, and commissioning project entitled “Dark Ecology.” 7 Their initiative is informed by Morton’s research, characterizing Dark Ecology as that which “invites—or demands—that we think about our intimate interconnections with, for instance, iron ore, snowflakes, plankton, or radiation. Ecology does not privilege the human, it is not something beautiful, and it has no real use for the old concept of Nature.” 8

Dark Ecology holds the potential to signify a Copernican turn in ecological thought, powerfully demanding that we remove the human from the center of this ontological, political, or environmental “universe.” In fact, the very word “universe,” with its linguistic nod to singularity, may require revision in order to make room for the polyvocal and polyvalent realities of a world that is no longer beholden to a Western metaphysics of presence.

The Anthropocene has revealed a world in which the future is ambiguous and indeterminate, the advancements of science often prove discouraging or entrapping, and the dilemma of living in the present but preparing for something else is nothing short of “weird.” Those who study climate change and global warming must live in time while thinking outside of time. Scientists’ scales and models, philosophers’ thought and diagnostics, all of us living in the Anthropocene are both intimately connected and profoundly broken off from the darkness of ecology. And Morton has helped many find a way through that often maddening situation. He writes, “Ecological awareness is dark, insofar as its essence is unspeakable. It is dark, insofar as illumination leads to a greater sense of entrapment. It is dark, because it compels us to recognize the melancholic wounds that make us up … But it is also dark because it is weird.” 9

Morton and Methi, as well as other thinkers and researchers, have begun discussing the possibility of an annual “Dark Ecology” event, meeting in Arctic Norway. Clearly, the Anthropocene requires that we reframe our models and unfix our categorical divisions. Ecology—and our place in it—has always been dark and indeterminate. And yet, it is only lately that we’ve come to realize it.


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the intersection of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.


  1. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90,  http://www.williamcronon.net/writing /Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html.
  2. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007), 204.
  3. Morton, interview by Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, Cultures of Energy, podcast audio, http://culturesofenergy.com/ep-10-timothy-morton/, 33:33–34:00.
  4. Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 149.
  5. Ibid., 17.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “About,” Dark Ecology, accessed 27 Jul. 2016, http://www.darkecology.net/mobile/about.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Morton, Dark Ecology, 110.