Afterword: Changed by the Climate

Simon Sellars Catastrophe, Digital culture


All photos by Simon Sellars, Christchurch 2011.

This piece was written in April 2011. It was originally published in October 2011 as the Afterword to Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe, eds Andrew Milner, Simon Sellars and Verity Burgmann (Melbourne: Arena Publications, 2011).


While this volume was being prepared, the Tohoku earthquake hit northern Japan. At a magnitude of 9.0, it was the fifth-largest quake in recorded history, triggering a devastating tsunami with waves reaching almost forty metres. For observers in the southern hemisphere, the shock of the quake capped what had been a long, strange and disturbing season, a time of unremitting chaos projected on a global screen. In September 2010 I was due to fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, to appear on a panel as part of the SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space when an earthquake struck the city three weeks before opening day. There were no fatalities but there was major infrastructural damage and SCAPE was cancelled and rescheduled for March 2011. Then as our Australian summer drew near, Queensland suffered severe floods, killing thirty-five people and forcing thousands more from their homes. The damage was calculated at $1 billion and most of the state was declared a disaster zone. A month later, in January 2011, rural Victoria was hit by heavy floods. Melbourne, Victoria’s capital, was not part of the flood zone, even though its summer had been non-existent, the sun hardly glimpsed and heavy monsoonal downpours a constant feature. In early February, Melbourne itself was subject to extensive flash flooding, which directly affected two of our three editors. At the outer limits of the disaster, we had received a small taste of what had devastated the north.

February 2011: I rebooked my tickets to New Zealand for the rescheduled SCAPE. With two weeks to go before opening day, Christchurch was rocked by yet another quake — an aftershock from the 2010 event — which actually killed 175 people. SCAPE was once again cancelled. Before it was reported in the Australian newspapers, I had heard about the second quake through Twitter. One of my Christchurch correspondents was in a state of shock and doing her best to respond in real time, tweeting events as they happened. I turned to the wider internet and watched the coverage from New Zealand’s TV3 of the afflicted city. This was barely believable, both in terms of the scale of the disaster and the manner in which it was reported, and soon become unwatchable as reporters thrust equipment into the bloodied faces of wounded and dazed citizens, who had literally just crawled out from the wreckage. All this was accompanied by close to meaningless statements and questions: ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Can you sum up the mood today?’ ‘New Zealand’s darkest hour’. While it is perhaps the case that the reporters were in a state of shock themselves, unable to do much to articulate the scale of the event except resort to cliché,[1] this voyeuristic spectacle was amplified by the Australian media in a kind of feeding frenzy, forcing journalist Jonathan Green to reach the conclusion that ‘the media does not empathise. The media is not there to help. The media does not feel your pain’.[2] The spectacle seemed to owe more to Hollywood disaster films than to objective journalism.

March 2011: the Japan quake. Again, I first learnt about it through Twitter, and again I watched the footage of the event, which seemed to bring us closer than ever to the epicentre of disaster. The images were relentless: a line of (occupied) cars on a highway suddenly swept away across agricultural fields by a massive water wall; a boat unable to escape a voracious whirlpool that had formed in the harbour; a surging wave sweeping aside vehicles and even planes at Sendai airport; people scrambling futilely up a hill to avoid drowning in the onrushing water. In sharp contrast to the nature of the Christchurch reportage, the camera operators pulled away from capturing people at the precise moment they lost their lives, apparently a result of Japanese taboos about recording death. Ishinomaki in northern Japan was among the hardest-hit towns, a place where I spent four months in 2001. I waited anxiously for news of my friends there. Had they survived? Did they have a home to return to? Meanwhile, the overall situation grew worse when it was revealed that the nuclear reactor at Fukushima was damaged and leaking radiation. The mainstream media were filled with reports of Japan’s resources stretched beyond capacity as expatriates panicked and began to leave the country. In The Age newspaper, Ben Doherty drew a picture of unrelenting horror, suggesting that the rush to escape had made Tokyo Airport ‘an outlet for this city’s fear … Outside, Tokyo is a city barely functioning. Its famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted. Power is unavailable for hours at a time. Supermarket shelves are empty, and petrol is almost completely unavailable’.[3]

This time, I followed tweets from ABC radio journalist Mark Colvin as he interrogated various links and sources in an attempt to see behind the public misinformation and government disinformation surrounding Fukushima. I followed closely the Twitter stream of science fiction novelist William Gibson, as he tweeted about the devastation wreaked on Japan, a country he has long admired and which has influenced him since his earliest work. It seemed possible to inhabit two parallel worlds in stereoscopic overlay: the realm of broadcast media on the one hand, where we are virtually told what to see and feel; and the other – networked culture, where conflicting or contrasting opinions were only a mouse click away. The first seemed to draw on the worst excesses of clichéd ‘sci fi’, while the second seemed the province of only the most radical and farsighted ‘speculative fiction’. Who, even five years ago, could have predicted the shape, form and extent of social media as practised and implemented today?

I relate these personal reminiscences not to suggest that my experience of the past few months is special, but rather — without taking away from the tragedy of Christchurch, Queensland and Tohoku — that it is utterly commonplace. Like many, I have not been at the epicentre of any of these events, yet I have been deeply touched by them, even linked to them (at a remove). Our physical experiences can yoke together these events, enabled, for example, by the importance of ultra-cheap air travel: ‘I visited Japan once’; ‘I was meant to be in Christchurch when the quake happened’; ‘When I was in Queensland, I met someone later caught in the floods’. Or else the connection can be enabled by collapsed private/public spheres, where, among the fabric of networked, globalised communications, even a marginal academic such as myself can co-exist in a blurred, digital non-space with a writer of Gibson’s stature or an established journalist like Colvin.

This terrain may be virtual, but it can be traversed nonetheless, and is in fact overlaid on the physical landscape (as in my SCAPE encounter).[4] It is also multiplicitous, overlapping and ‘atemporal’, to quote Gibson’s contemporary Bruce Sterling. On Twitter, while I conversed with contacts in Japan about the tsunami, other colleagues and friends continued to report on the psychological after-effects of the Christchurch clean up. Previously Christchurch had overlapped with Brisbane, through a string of eyewitness reports from Queensland streaming in over Twitter’s ‘wires’. In the Western world, disaster no longer seems so remote, no longer abstracted in the back pages of a newspaper reporting on a third-world crisis, but increasingly close to home. This might constitute a deep ontological shock to many, but also a deep moment of truth, corresponding to what theorist Paul Virilio has identified as the need

 (alongside the ecological approaches that relate to the various ways in which the biosphere is polluted) for the beginnings of an eschatological approach to technical progress to emerge — an approach to that finitude without which the much-vaunted globalization is in danger of itself becoming a life-size catastrophe.

Both a natural and a man-made catastrophe, a general catastrophe and not one specific to any particular technology or region of the world, which would far exceed the disasters currently covered by the insurance companies — a catastrophe of which the long-term drama of Chernobyl remains emblematic.[5]



For Sterling, the peculiar ‘atemporal’ effect of network culture and social media is characterised by

 the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips… There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’ … it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurrilous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.[6]

This loss of historical stability might well engender such discontent, but it also ensures that the post-immediate terrain is bracing and honest. When I shared a link to Doherty’s article on Twitter, I received immediate feedback from an angry Tokyo resident, informing me that the city was indeed operational. ‘I suppose to some’, my correspondent replied, ‘Tokyo without the pretty lights is “barely functioning” [the city’s famous neon displays had gone dark due to power outages]. Otherwise, it’s pretty normal here’.[7] Another told me: ‘That’s just plain irresponsible “journalism”. Tokyo functioning OK here. Cherry picking anecdotes from most panicky’.[8]

As Colvin noted in an article about how his ABC team uses social media, a technology like Twitter can completely transform the journalist’s traditional methods. It can actively erase the ‘third-world abstraction’ and replace it with the positive flipside of Sterling’s atemporal perspective:

in the last year or so, social media has brought [to journalism] an even more revolutionary development. It’s one which is transforming our approach, particularly to conflict reporting.

In the last few weeks, it has brought us (to name just a handful) the voices of a senior Yemeni government minister, Mohammed Abulahoum, a young man living in the besieged city of Zawiya in Libya, Sara, an Egyptian woman telling of how she’d just been inside the sacked Secret Service headquarters, Mohammed, a Bahraini photographer describing, live, how advancing troops were firing on a crowd of protesters, and Danie Tregonning, an Australian woman on the 10th floor of a hotel in Honolulu after the Japanese earthquake describing Hawaii’s preparations for the expected tsunami.

We got all those interviews through the use of Twitter, Facebook and Skype.[9]

This ‘revolution’ forces us to acknowledge that there is an underside, a dark or light shadow accompanying each sliver of information, including the hitherto untouchable, traditional, top-down, transmitter-receiver broadcast media. Sterling’s atemporality means that the media’s apocalyptic, doom-and-gloom reportage can be judged a particular type of dangerous fantasy masquerading as objective truth, a ‘sci fi’ spectacle focused on heightened drama and hyperreal conflict, better suited to Hollywood than the news. Here Virilio is again instructive, his purpose, as Steve Redhead describes it, even more equivocal: ‘to underline what he had been teaching those of us willing to listen for some years now: that much media imagery is a strategy of war, and that the modern accident is becoming indistinguishable from attack’.[10]

For the rest of us, science fiction happens not on blockbuster movie screens (or indeed their imitation by televised news) but in the margins of our day-to-day lives. What is the root concept of ‘atemporality’ — the collapsing of time and space — if not the stuff of a thousand SF stories?



In 2007, Gibson told an interviewer that his novel Pattern Recognition was set in the present day because

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way [as his previous, explicitly science fiction, work]. In the ’80s and ’90s — as strange as it may seem to say this — we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.[11]

He said that if he had gone to a publisher in 1977 with the outline for Pattern Recognition in its 2007 setting, he would have been met with utter bewilderment. The world today is too complex, with ‘too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country’. What’s more, it’s all happening at the same time, which means that if Gibson had told his 1977 publisher that he wanted the novel to portray all these scenarios simultaneously on a near-future Earth, ‘they’d not only show you the door, they’d probably call security’.[12]

In 2010, Gibson told another interviewer that when he wants ideas and a steady info stream to underwrite his next story, he turns to Twitter.[13] So too does Colvin, in an entirely different profession.[14] When the rest of us want to get to the bottom of large-scale disasters, we too are increasingly turning to the ‘collective intelligence’ for on-the-ground reports and unfiltered opinions. However, as the animating spirit of this present volume, Kim Stanley Robinson, suggests, this communal organism should also properly include

The biosphere … our extended body [which] we can no more live without … than we could live without our kidneys or our bones. The old paradigm of the world as a machine is being replaced, in modern science and in the culture at large, by a more accurate and sophisticated paradigm of the world as a vast organism, complexly interpenetrative in ways not previously imagined. The world is not a machine we can use and then replace: it is our extended body. If we try to cut it away we will die.[15]

Can the Christchurch and Tohoku quakes be considered an effect of climate change? Perhaps not, although there have been attempts to connect natural phenomena in this way.[16] Regardless, the disaster grows exponentially as a result of human intervention. The threat of extensive nuclear radiation from Fukushima echoes the SF apocalypses of the 1960s through to the 1980s, the terrible promise of an irradiated Earth reproduced in so many books and films. However, like Chernobyl, Fukushima has not come about from war or alien invasion, but through our own incompetence and ignorance, building a nuclear reactor with outdated seismic safeguards on a notorious, constantly shifting fault line. In that sense, the human species, traditionally a controlling force, must step back and acknowledge a certain symbiosis, perhaps even its own weaker position in the partnership.

Let me end with another observation from Virilio, often stereotyped as the most ‘apocalyptic’ of thinkers and criticised for the negativity of his work, because it tends to predict the eclipse of humankind by advanced, autonomous technologies. Virilio is misunderstood in this respect, however, for he does not exult in these predictions, but rather encodes within them the ultimate warning as to where we are headed should we replace the autonomy of nature with the autonomy of technology.

For Virilio, the equation is simple: ‘The time of an intellectual having an influence is over. Who has an influence? It is the climate’.[17]

NB: As my photos indicate, I did eventually make it to Christchurch, and SCAPE. My report on that experience can be found here.


[1] This observation was suggested to me by my Christchurch correspondent @CherylBernstein (Lara Strongman). On Twitter, when @secondzeit (Philip Matthews) tweeted, ‘Sick of hearing about the triumph or persistence of the human spirit from news presenters’, she replied, ‘We’re reduced to cliche, as well as rubble’, 27 February 2011, <!/CherylBernstein/statuses/41580553711001600>, accessed 21 April 2011.

[2] J. Green, ‘The media is not there to help. It does not feel your pain’, The Drum, 23 February 2011, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[3] B. Doherty, ‘Exodus overwhelms Tokyo airport’, The Age, 18 March 2011, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[4] For example, I was initially invited to appear at SCAPE through contacts and conversations enacted on Twitter. Meanwhile, Gibson contributed to a ‘Twitter-sourced charity book about how the Japanese Earthquake at 2:46 on March 11, 2011 affected us all. All revenue goes to the Japan Red Cross’, <>. The book, 2:46 Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, was assembled, printed and published independently within a month of the quake.

[5] P. Virilio, ‘The Museum of Accidents’, trans. Chris Turner, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, July 2006, <>, accessed 21 April 2011.

[6] B. Sterling, ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’, Wired, 25 February 2010, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[7] This response was offered on Twitter by @southtopia (Jon South), 18 March 2011, <!/southtopia/status/48540501288292352>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[8] From @gotanda (Ted O’Neill), 18 March 2011, <!/gotanda/status/48536777853632512>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[9] M. Colvin, ‘Journalism’s New Wave: The World in a Tweet’, The Drum, 14 April 2011, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[10] See endnotes, Virilio, ‘The Museum of Accidents’.

[11] Quoted in T. Nissley, ‘Across the Border to Spook Country: An Interview with William Gibson’,, August 2007, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[12] Quoted in A. Leonard, ‘William Gibson: The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary Interview’, Rolling Stone, 15 November 2007.

[13] For example, when Richard Metzger asked Gibson, ‘Where does someone whose often called a prophet get their information?’, Gibson replied, ‘Twitter at this point. I find Twitter to be the most powerful aggregator of sheer novelty that humanity has yet possessed’. Metzger, ‘William Gibson: Devo World’, 21C, 2011, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[14] Colvin writes: ‘Twitter has also been one of the keys to covering Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. On the day they established the 20km evacuation zone, and published the number of people who’d have to leave, they also established a 30km “stay indoors” zone without saying how many would be affected. I asked the question on Twitter, and within five minutes people had sent me the exact census figures for the Fukushima area and analysed them to extrapolate the figures for the Zone. Twitter figures like @TimeOutTokyo, @tokyoreporter and @W7VOA (Voice of America’s Steve Herman) have kept us ahead of the curve in reporting aftershocks, tsunami effects and nuclear crisis developments’. Colvin, ‘Journalism’s New Wave’.

[15] K.S. Robinson, ‘Introduction’, in Robinson (ed.), Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias, New York, Tor Books, 1997, p. 9.

[16] According to an uncredited article in The Age, ‘Long-term climate change could be responsible for moving the Earth’s tectonic plates. A team of scientists based in Australia, France and Germany has established a link between monsoons in India over the past 10 million years and the motion of the Indian plate. “It is known that certain geologic events caused by plate motions have the ability to influence climate patterns over a period of a million years,” Dr Giampiero Iaffaldano from the Australian National University said in a statement. “Now we know that the opposite holds as well … Ultimately, we aim at understanding what caused plate motions to change and which regions are currently more prone to large earthquakes … To that end, we may also have to consider the history of climate over the past million years”.’ ‘Long-term Climate Change Link to Earthquakes’, The Age, 13 April 2011, <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[17] Quoted in D. Burk, ‘A Grey Ecology is Needed Now More Than Ever’, CTheory, 17 March 2011 <>, accessed 20 April 2011.