Nature Defends Itself
July 9, 2018
Jul 9, 2018
21 Min read time
A new book on climate change deploys an old theme, pitting man against nature. This is not only wrong; it stands in the way of a just future.
The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World
Verso, $24.95 (cloth)
In Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, two juvenile gorillas watch as a younger sibling is caught in a snare set by poachers. The infant, unable to free herself, dies of her wounds. The next time the gorillas come across a snare, they work together to destroy it. Soon their whole family joins in, destroying the traps wherever they pose a threat.
In Mozambique, an old elephant warns the younger members of her herd to avoid the hairless primates. She remembers the civil war that, decades ago, decimated the country’s elephant population. As her herd migrates through poacher-heavy areas, they’ve learned to travel by night.
And in Paris, climate activists push the assembled scientists and diplomats for stronger, more radical commitments. Some have set up a contest of sorts—the “Climate Games”—to see who can pull off the most innovative direct action. “We are not defending nature,” say the organizers. “We are nature defending itself.”
Is there a meaningful continuum among the gorillas, the elephants, and the activists? Are all three instances of “nature defending itself”? What, exactly, does it mean to be part of nature? Can we talk of a gorilla or elephant acting with intention at all—or a beaver, a bumblebee, a boreal forest?
To Malm, we aren’t part of nature. This is not only wrong; it is politically blinkered.
Parsing such questions is the task of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, the latest book from environmental historian Andreas Malm. While Malm acknowledges that “Theory does not seem like the most exigent business in a rapidly warming world,” he argues that that how we think about nature, society, and climate change informs how we act for climate justice. “Some theories can make the situation clearer while others might muddy it,” he writes, and he is here to wipe off the mud so that climate organizers may see clearly.
It’s a good book. Malm has a deep understanding of climate change, writes clearly, and presents a useful overview of environmental thought. He also introduces some compelling concepts of his own, with provocative implications for political struggle.
But he leaves no room for the Climate Games. The cornerstone of his nature philosophy is that certain human capacities make our societies not only unique but fundamentally distinct from the rest of existence. We can’t be “nature defending itself” because we aren’t part of nature. In this, Malm not only stands on shaky intellectual ground, but actually constrains the possibilities of a truly liberated ecosocialist future.
• • •
What Nature Isn’t
Given the magnitude of the climate threat, Malm writes, it is important that we avoid “blurry charts and foggy thinking.” And he sees a lot of fog.
Malm’s many intellectual foes fall into several camps. He begins with those who see nature as a social construction, a common view in academia. For British geographer Noel Castree, “Nature doesn’t exist ‘out there’ . . . waiting to be understood.” It is instead “a particularly powerful fiction,” one that “exists only so long as we collectively believe it to exist.” Most offensive to Malm is the claim that “global climate change is an idea,” not “a set of ‘real biophysical processes’ occurring regardless of our representations of it.” To Malm, this is postmodern babble, ludicrous on its face. The existence of a mountain, let alone climate change, is not contingent upon human representations.
Next in Malm’s lights are those thinkers, such as Bill McKibben and Jedediah Purdy, who define nature as that which is pristine, wholly separate from humans. On this view, as human settlements, pollution, and climate change affect ever more of the planet, nature is going if not gone. “In every respect,” Purdy writes in his book After Nature (2015) and echoes in these pages, “the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.” Malm has little patience for this approach, either. Just because society influences nature, he argues, does not mean nature is no more: “If I mix my coffee with sugar, I do not thereby come to believe that the coffee has ended.” Similarly, he writes that plastic waste, overfishing, and acidification do not mean the oceans have ended, nor that we have somehow “made” the ocean.
Malm moves rather quickly, and there is a chance he is being slightly unfair. For example, Castree has elsewhere written that his philosophy “is not at all a denial of the material reality of those things we routinely call natural—be they trees, rivers, animals, or anything else.” His argument rests instead on the (true) observations that social factors affect how we think about and define “nature,” and that many “natural” features in fact have a long history of human intervention.
But even then, much of Malm’s critique still goes through. Castree’s emphasis on the social means he loses sight of the ultimate independence of nonhuman nature. “Castree charges that talk of independent nature is pure ideology,” Malm writes, “but it would be more correct to say that independent nature is the only thing that cannot come to an end. The paradox of climate change is that it makes it appear more strangely alive than ever.” (Of course, history’s hunter-gatherers, horticulturists, and sailors—not to mention the myriad societies that have embraced animism or invented nature gods—have always adapted their lives to the rhythms and flows of nonhuman nature. Malm should not be quite so surprised to find it “strangely alive.”)
Castree’s neglect of this living world even leads him to exaggerate the scientific uncertainty of climate change. Despite paying lip service to an underlying “biophysical world,” he is more interested in how climate is perceived by humans than in what is actually happening.
One gets the feeling Malm is more concerned with the potential political effects of others’ ideas than their intellectual merit—less with whether they are true, or represent an internally consistent philosophy of nature, than whether they are useful to guide climate activism. To an extent, this approach is admirable: theory divorced from practice is often just navel-gazing, and as temperatures rise, action is the priority. But his quick pace gave him little space to engage counterarguments, and I often found myself nodding along but not entirely convinced.
More interesting than Castree, to Malm and to me, is an array of “hybridist” views. Hybridist thinkers see the human and nonhuman as wholly intertwined, and find it impossible to extricate Society from Nature. Malm’s poster child for this way of thinking—in fact, his primary nemesis throughout the book—is French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour. As of 2007, we are told, Latour was the tenth most cited writer in the humanities (“a full 26 [notches] above Karl Marx,” Malm laments). “I am aiming at blurring the distinction between nature and society durably,” Latour writes in Politics of Nature (1999), “so that we shall never have to go back to two distinct sets.”
What does this mean for climate change? Latour runs through a list of ecological issues—the ozone hole, warming, deforestation—and asks, “Are they human? Human because they are our work. Are they natural? Natural because they are not our doing.” They are hybrids—messy interactions of the human and the not human—just like everything else.
“Less of Latour, more of Lenin,” Malm says. “That is what the warming condition calls for.”
Malm doesn’t like this very much. He starts by observing that Latour’s “hybrid” framework implicitly concedes there are two separate things to be hybridized. I suppose this is right, but it misses what makes the hybridist view compelling. Aren’t the boundaries blurred, after all? Malm’s more provocative disagreement is political. Just because two things interact—perhaps even are intertwined—does not mean they are indistinguishable. If we are to confront climate change, he argues, we are going to need to pick out and confront its cause in the human component. To say the social and the natural are one, he claims, obscures this necessary task.
Malm is right that Latour himself can get muddled in questions of causation, and is likely not the best inspiration for climate politics: Latour has been described as a “benevolent French centrist,” and gives such advice as, “Don’t focus on capitalism.” But Malm’s outright rejection of hybridism goes further than is necessary. We could say that society is part of nature without losing sight of society. We do say that beavers are part of nature, and still we recognize that beavers build dams. We can say that asteroids are part of nature, and still hypothesize that an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. So why can’t we concede that human society is part of nature, and still recognize that these societies produce climate change?
Malm is right that we need to pick out the human cause of warming, but this in itself is not a reason to keep nature and society separate. To bolster his claim, he sets out to define the key differences between humans, asteroids, and beavers.
• • •
What Nature Is
If the constructionists and hybridists are all wrong, who is right? Malm’s answer is the British philosopher Kate Soper, who defines nature as follows:
those material structures and processes that are independent of human activity (in the sense that they are not a humanly created product), and whose forces and causal powers are the necessary conditions of every human practice, and determine the possible forms it can take.
Malm says this passage “deserves to be read again and memorized,” and he refers to it repeatedly as a more sensible alternative to the McKibbens and Latours of the world, one that offers a coherent way of thinking about anthropogenic climate change.
What does this definition mean for the relation between nature and society? Malm sketches out what he calls a “substance monist, property dualist” view. Substance monism: Nature and human society are made of the same physical stuff, and the latter depends upon and emerges out of the former. Property dualism: Nature and society have fundamentally different properties.
For the most part, Malm makes this argument carefully. He clarifies that these differences do not make humans “better” than nonhumans, nor justify the abuse of the latter. (A mutual acquaintance tells me Malm is vegetarian.) He is also clear that the distinctions between society and nature mark just one divide in a greater “property pluralism,” a wider universe of sames and differences. But he still thinks this particular distinction is crucial to climate politics, in particular when it comes to the question of agency. Who or what is causing climate change, and who or what can stop it?
On agency, philosophers take a wide range of views. Latour and the “new materialists” define agency as “making some difference to a state of affairs,” and thus pretty much anything is an agent. Malm, a materialist of the old variety, isn’t having it. To divorce agency from intentionality, he argues, is to make the word meaningless. If humans (who act with intention) and carbon dioxide atoms (which presumably do not) are lumped together as agents, it is harder to assign responsibility.
Next are those thinkers, such as ecofeminist Val Plumwood, who put forth a theory of “weak pansychism”—again, pretty much anything is an agent, but this time because pretty much anything possesses something akin to a mind. So maybe the carbon dioxide atoms do act intentionally. For Malm, this is unserious, as “a river or a mountain . . . evidently do not have brains, which means that they cannot have minds, which ought to imply that they lack the ability to form intentions, as the term is commonly used.” This may well miss Plumwood’s point, which is that animal brains might not be needed to produce mindlike qualities. But, even conceding that trees and rocks lack conscious intentionality, what about nonhuman animals?
Say we do scrap fossil fuels, shrimp trawlers, gold mines, slaughterhouses, monocultures, and the government. What are the alternatives? Malm offers little guidance.
Malm allows that a baboon or a beaver might perhaps be an agent, but he argues that humans and our communities exercise greater degrees of agency. He’s correct, of course, that our species has certain unique aspects (as do chimpanzees, for that matter, or giant sequoias). But he exaggerates this uniqueness, often underestimating nonhumans and overestimating—or at least misunderstanding—humans. The expansive gulf he perceives between humans and nature structures not just his theory but his vision of the future—so it is worth taking the time to deflate it.
For example, Malm explores a number of ways in which our capacity for abstract thought sets us apart and contributes to greater agency. In some examples he is simply wrong. For instance, he cites our “special ability to think about . . . the thoughts of others,” but there is evidence of this phenomenon in nonhuman animals, including ravens and our fellow primates. In one experiment, rhesus macaque monkeys chose to steal a grape from a human who couldn’t see them rather than from one who could. They appear to understand what humans “can perceive based on where they are looking,” wrote the study’s authors, “an essential component of [theory of mind].” In other examples Malm is on firmer ground—that humans alone conceive of and carve tools out of stone, or have a particularly complex language. But what is it these abilities supposedly signify?
He differentiates humans using three levels of agency, the framework of Marxist historian Perry Anderson. The first level is personal, private agency, which Malm admits is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Second, Malm writes, is “the pursuit not of private but of ‘public’ goals. . . . Staple examples include political campaigns, military confrontations, religious crusades, the signing of treaties, the erection of monuments, the exploration of distant lands. . . . Here the individual no longer acts to further her own goal, but acts together with others to achieve something they have jointly set their minds on.” While Malm writes that this level is only rarely achieved by nonhuman animals, the evidence suggests otherwise. To the list of staple examples—individuals acting with others in pursuit of a shared goal—I might add a chimpanzee raid on a neighboring troop, a wolf pack’s hunt, a team of gorillas dismantling a trap, an elephant herd’s migration. (In all of these animals, intelligence is relatively uncontroversial. More speculatively, an ant colony’s war for territory or a beehive’s search for food might belong as well.)
It is the third and final level of agency, however, that Malm sees as truly unique. This is the agency, to quote Anderson, in which humans embark “in a conscious programme aimed at creating or remodeling whole social structures . . . to produce a premeditated future.” This “unprecedented form of agency,” Anderson writes, was inaugurated in the Russian Revolution. As Malm puts it, “Less of Latour, more of Lenin: that is what the warming condition calls for.” I confess I do not know of any nonhuman animal that could successfully pull off the conception and implementation of an entirely new social system. But neither did the Bolsheviks. As anthropologist David Graeber has written, “Every attempt to apply such a scientific approach to human society—whether by right or left, whether it takes the form of neoclassical economics or historical materialism—has proved . . . disastrous.” We should note that these disasters have been both social and ecological—neither humans nor ecosystems respond well to sweeping, top-down impositions. This third level of agency, then, may be unique to humans, but it is something of an illusion. A wiser climate politics might rein in the hubris, as it helped get us into this mess.
We are not, it turns out, quite the agents we would like to be. Malm seems to take as a given that we possess a strong form of individual free will and self-determination, with our minds having ultimate control over what “we” (our human bodies) do. But evidence for this claim is debatable, at best. Even our more banal acts of intentionality are influenced by uncountable factors beyond our control: our gut bacteria, what color tie someone is wearing, subtle scents, billions of years of evolution. At some level, Malm acknowledges this. He accepts that, in the words of environmental historian Linda Nash, “so-called human agency cannot be separated from the environments in which that agency emerges.” But he balks at any suggestion that this means those environments share agency, and undersells the degree of this influence.
In the end, Malm relies on a gut instinct that human societies represent something of a rupture in the path of evolution. It seems to him obviously indefensible to define nature as all that is; to use his example, he defies anyone to suggest that the “gentrification of a neighbourhood is exactly as natural as the rotation of a planet.”
I get this instinct. Habitats change dramatically for a variety of reasons, but it can be hard to see a continuum between glaciation and urbanization, planetary rotation and gentrification. But then again: Displacement, competing populations, the rise and fall of thriving communities—is this not the stuff of ecology? In A Scientist in the City (1994), physicist James Trefil wrote that cities
aren’t unnatural, any more than beaver dams or anthills are unnatural. Beavers, ants, and human beings are all products of evolution, part of the web of life that exists on our planet. As part of their survival, they alter their environments and build shelters. There’s nothing ‘unnatural’ about this.
(Of course, this does not mean that whatever humans do, naturally, is ethical. If human societies engage in destructive behavior, toward humans or other life, the problem is not that this is ‘unnatural’ but that it creates avoidable harm.) Recent research has even suggested that wildlife ecology can be influenced by individual nonhuman personalities, as well as the collective action of groups. To maintain that this is natural while human societies are unnatural is to robotize the nonhuman world, robbing agency and intentionality from our fellow creatures and denying Darwin’s claim that the difference between ourselves and other animals “is one of degree and not of kind.”
So either other sentient animals are social (and thus unnatural), human society is natural, or we redefine society to represent only that narrow range of the human experience that is truly unique. Malm would probably opt for the third option, and nothing I have said has quite refuted it. I concede that humans are political and moral actors to a degree that other animals, so far as we know, are not (though to treat this as a defining trait privileges certain ages and abilities). And even if we are embedded in and influenced by a complex ecological network, human collective action will be key to fighting climate change and all of our other woes.
In the end, though, I ask the same question Malm does: Which theory is the better guide for climate organizing?
• • •
What Nature Can Be
Malm is genuinely stirring in his militant calls to action: “We should conclude, first of all, that building a new coal-fired power plant, or continuing to operate an old one, or drilling for oil, or expanding an airport, or planning for a highway is now irrational violence.” He praises McKibben as an activist (if not as a theorist), and cites 350.org as a group acting according to sound philosophy, laser-focused on the primary social cause of climate change: the fossil-fuel industry. He endorses the urge to “physically cut off fossil fuel combustion, deflate the tyres, block the runways, lay siege to the platforms, invade the mines.” We must “commit to the most militant and unwavering opposition to this system, or sit watching as it all goes down the drain.”
All of this is powerful, but it leaves two main questions. First, what is “this system” we are supposed to oppose and dismantle? For Malm it is what he calls “fossil capitalism,” but this is too narrow. The broader ecological crisis—not just warming but deforestation, pollution, overfishing—stems from patterns of food production and land use (not to mention social inequities) as old as states themselves; it is not reducible to coal, oil, and natural gas. Capitalism made it worse, of course, but the troubles run deeper.
If we follow Malm’s logic and scrap not only fossil fuels but shrimp trawlers, gold mines, slaughterhouses, monocultures and the government, the second question becomes even more obvious: What alternatives must we build? Unfortunately, Malm’s framework offers little (though not no) guidance.
He does reject “a policy of non-engagement,” as “humans must combine with nature,” and rightly opposes any attempt at mastery over the nonhuman, which he sees as fundamentally uncontrollable. He quotes Naomi Klein’s prediction that, because “The sun, wind and waves . . . can never be fully possessed,” embracing renewables will cause “a fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend.” He proposes this politics of humility alongside a goal of retreat. “What victory would look like,” he writes, is leaving land for indigenous groups “all to themselves, with no one there to drive them into mines and cut the trees down.” All this marks “the death of affirmative politics. Negativity is our only chance now.”
I am all for humility and decolonization, leaving vast swathes of the planet for indigenous peoples and wildlife restoration. But like it or not, there are 7.6 billion humans swarming around, and a strategy that amounts to “destroy and retreat” leaves little room for a positive future. This failure, it seems to me, stems from a theoretical basis emphasizing disjuncture.
In Malm’s final, most interesting chapter, “On Unruly Nature,” he offers the germ of an alternative. He tentatively puts forward a theory of “ecological autonomism,” analogous to autonomist Marxism. Capitalism pursues ever more control over nonhuman nature, as it pursues the same over workers. But this attempt at control, over labor or soil, is doomed to backfire: it breeds the conditions of its own demise. Through the strike or the storm, the backlash of uncontrollable workers and nature spells capitalism’s undoing.
It is not a perfect analogy, Malm admits. For one, a storm is less desirable than a strike, as it will take out the global poor first. But there’s a recognition of something shared between human and nonhuman, an unbreakable independent spirit that makes a villain out of top-down control itself. Henry David Thoreau called it “wildness”; we might call it the democratic instinct. It is from this recognition that any vision for an ecological future must begin. It looks away from our supposedly unique “third level of agency” toward more universal features of the natural world: adaptation, spontaneity, experimentation, freedom. It centers empathy and cooperation—think of gorillas dismantling traps—and uplifts the sort of care and subsistence labor that has traditionally been devalued by nature/society binaries, justifying the exploitation of women, indigenous groups and nonhumans. It draws on an evolutionary history of mutual aid, a lineage from beetles to humans famously drawn by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Less Lenin, more lemur.
It may not be enough to rewild the forests, the prairies, the oceans, and the deserts—though of course we must do those things. We must also rewild ourselves.
To develop these qualities, I submit, it helps to conceive of human society as a subset of the natural. It may not be enough to rewild the forests, the prairies, the oceans and the deserts (although of course we must do those things). Perhaps we must rewild ourselves. The goal should be what left-green theorist Murray Bookchin called “Third Nature,” a harmonious, fecund synthesis of the nonhuman world (“First Nature”) and human communities (“Second Nature”). There are shortcomings to Bookchin’s approach—the First/Second distinction is sometimes exaggerated, much like Malm’s Nature/Society distinction—but by grouping everything together as “nature,” he was able to emphasize the shared aspects among all life.
What we need, in a word, is integration. In food production, where permaculture and agro-ecological techniques are finding that the same land can feed humans and sustain wildlife, if we orient ourselves toward cooperation rather than control. In energy, where, as Klein suggests, we may have to adapt our lives to the ebb and flow of wind and sun. In land use, where we must create space and introduce vanished animals to allow ecosystems to restore themselves (“let the rodent do the work,” says one beaver proponent, responding to the animal’s ability to almost single-handedly restore wetlands). In leisure, where low-work, low-carbon lives will bring more of us outdoors for the pure joy of it. And in our minds, where many cultures must unlearn millennia of dualist, supremacist thinking toward the nonhuman world. All strategies in which humans and nonhumans work together as co-agents to build a diverse and vibrant world.
Malm might agree with at least some of this prescription, but I don’t think he finds it exciting. “It . . . seems a rather dispiriting and demobilising move,” he writes, “to tell [humans] that they are nothing special, that nothing separates them from an animal or a machine, that they have no centrally placed agency on which everything else depends.” But properly conceived, this move can be liberating. For myself, the recognition that the world is not mine to command, that many of its inhabitants have inner lives comparable to yet different from my own, has been a source of wonder, curiosity, awe, and inspiration. It has made this planet a fuller, less lonely place to be—and made the living world something I would fight for.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
July 09, 2018
21 Min read time