Timothy Morton’s concept of hyperobjects provides a framework for understanding entities such as collectives of materials on long time scales: for instance, the use of fossil fuels for energy and the greenhouse gases they create. Most greenhouse gases are invisible and not immediately toxic to humans, which make them difficult for human brains to comprehend, but over a long time scale suffocate the earth. Thinking of the massive collective of carbon atoms—a hyperobject—previously buried deep in the earth as having been pulled into the atmosphere, forming a blanket over us, is a more visceral and intuitive way to understand this transformation of carbon. When you hold a piece of coal in your hands, it’s not singlehandedly causing climate collapse, but the 500 million tons burned in the U.S. annually are. The coal is a local manifestation of a larger whole that exists all over.
Hyperobjects exert non-local impacts—and greenhouse gases have unprecedentedly non-local impacts, ones that took humans a long time to understand, and ones that some continue to deny. The neighborhoods, countries, and continents emitting the most greenhouse gases overall see the least of their consequences: with exceptions, the top polluting nations have the most insulation from consequences like sea level rise, while low-lying areas that tend to be poorer suffer the most immediately.