Sunday, January 29, 2012
Let's start with the misconception. If I had been asked to guess what force majeure meant, I would have said that it meant something like 'the upper hand'. In fact, I would have thought it came from the realm of card games, and meant a serious hand, or some sort of decisive superiority of resources, such as in a military victory.
It turns out, though, that force majeure is a legal term and a fairly technical one at that. It refers to an inability to fulfill a contract due to an unpreventable and unforeseeable event, like a hurricane or a flood (though not all hurricanes or floods, because some are predictable or at least foreseeable). "An act of God" is one of the situations it covers, but war and unanticipated failures by third parties also fall within its purview. As you can imagine, there are a lot of legal battles over whether force majeure is really at play in a given circumstance. Wikipedia cites a couple of cases in French law, for example where the reason of force majeure was denied, once for a flood because a flood had occurred in the same area 69 years before, and once for an avalanche that occurred in the same area as one fifty years before. It would be interesting to know if American law has as long a memory on such things.
The reason this all came up at the Penny University the other night, though, had nothing to do with contract law. When I walked in, late as usual, there were a couple of guest speakers up front. These turned out to be Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, who currently have a post in the Digital arts department up at UCSC. I hadn't heard of them before but they are apparently internationally acclaimed eco-artists. The list of projects they've worked on since the seventies is vast and impressive.
One of the projects they worked on recently is called "Force Majeure". Here is how they explain the use of the term in word:
We developed the name “the Force Majeure” to explain the accelerating transaction between aspects of the Global Warming phenomenon and their interaction with the many ecosystems that are under stress or in actual turbulence from over-demand by human activity. This work envisions a counter to the reduction of production and consumption due to market contraction and turbulence that mirrors the shrinking productivity and wellbeing of the world ocean and many, many other overstressed planetary sub-systems.
I have to admit that this is not the easiest text to parse, but they are a lot more down to earth in person. Here is a link to the project on their website at The Harrison Studio , and here is a link to the first section of their keynote speech at UCSC.