The time of an intellectual having an influence is over. Who has an influence? It is the climate.
— Paul Virilio, Grey Ecology
As we stare down the aftermath of another natural disaster, Paul Virilio’s words, unfortunately, ring as true as ever. Within a world that is in a headlong rush into synchronized global emotion, we can begin to understand his concept of the integral accident. Yesterday, the accident happened somewhere, it was relegated to one geo-location. Today, the accident is integral, it runs the show. It happens here and there. Paul Virilio has been dismissed by some as a negative thinker who does not have the capacity to think past the destruction of World War II, where, as an 11 year-old child, “war became his university”. Today, this university resonates with us to such an extent that we must begin to ask fundamental questions concerning the political economy of speed. According to Virilio, before the contemporary period one had time to prepare for war because strategists could foresee events. Today, within the dromosphere (the sphere of speed which produces the accident), the accident happens before we know it has happened. With any new invention, there is a loss. With the invention of the train, there was the train wreck. And so today, within a globalized culture, struggling to find novel ways of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and living within the aftermath of such fossil fuel disasters as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we must also have the courage to witness another “successful failure”.
Japan, site of the end of the last world war, itself predicated on the successful failure of the atomic bomb, now becomes the disaster site of invention once again. The atomic age was ushered in with the advent of nuclear power, a ?more efficient’ resource than fossil fuels. Hailed as an antidote to the depletion of out-dated energy sources, nuclear power also inaugurated the prospect of nuclear meltdown. As Hannah Arendt warned us so long ago, “miracle and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin”. If we can begin to assess this tragedy that has spread through real-time networks, Paul Virilio’s demand for a novel sort of ecology, a grey ecology for the man-made world of the dromosphere, can no longer be ignored. While the natural disaster of the tsunami belongs to the world of the natural climate, that domain where a green ecology can be examined in order to rethink the problematic of global warming, grey ecology makes it necessary to study and prevent the excesses of an almost fanatical human commitment to the idea of progress. A grey ecology signals the necessity to reflect, within the context of an accelerated culture, on the instant when “progress itself becomes propaganda”.
Today, there is no malevolent dictator behind it all. The accident and its political economy of speed dictate the agenda. Consequently, we will need courage to recognize other accidents of the dromosphere. As the economy of speed leaves its destruction and rubble in every aspect of existence, as the workers of Wisconsin and elsewhere strive to demand a grey ecology within the man-made structures of governance, education, and excess wealth, we begin to see that catastrophe can be flipped on its head to provide for the miraculous. As the global networks share the pain and distress of all those suffering, whether in Japan, Libya, Egypt, or on any neighborhood street, we can perhaps begin to acquire the courage to demand a new ecology of progress. When scientists created atomic weapons at the end of the last world war, they were supposedly not in a position to understand their totally destructive nature. Today, as we continue our headlong rush into the future-present, as we desperately allow new inventive ways of extracting energy through clean-coal technologies, as we embrace without question novelty in the realm of instantaneous connection, we must also have the courage to face this medusa of progress with a critical mirror. Paul Virilio envisions no other way of proceeding than slowing down — re-calibrating our position against the political economy of speed and unbridled “progress”. Virilio is not against progress, but unlike our technological predecessors, who perhaps could not have anticipated that train wrecks parallel the invention of the train, that shipwrecks are the inevitable fallout of the invention of the ship, Virilio challenges us, in the name of the future that is already here, to rethink an ethics of progress and invention. A grey ecology is needed now more than ever.