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January 11, 2016
With Responses From
Jan 11, 2016
8 Min read time
This is a congenial group, at least in the sense that I suspect we would all wish to see the same kind of world in 500 years: greener, more egalitarian and cooperative, more peaceful at every level, from the geopolitical to the psychological to relations among species. I suspect that if we set down our polemical armor, most of us would admit that we do not really know which political and intellectual strategies are most likely to move us in that direction. Our time is brief, as Roy Scranton reminds us in his eloquent echoes of Montaigne’s skepticism and Stoicism, and our vision is dim.
In this exchange, we also work under this disadvantage: we are arguing about a word, and what it might imply for attitudes toward everything from the species line to W. E. B. Du Bois’s color line, from future democracy to past and continuing imperialism. A shadow theater of the mind is almost inevitable. And of course, in summarizing arguments I develop in my book, After Nature, my essay fails to head off certain misunderstandings.
So this reply has some elaboration and tidying-up to do. There are also some genuine disagreements here, and those are worth getting as clear as possible.
First, the illusory disagreements.
For one, the Anthropocene does not imply anthropocentrism or hubris. Several respondents—Scranton, Anna Tsing, Vandana Shiva, and Andreas Malm—see the term as a confirmation or amplification of a certain Francis-Bacon-on-speed picture of man as the king and master-engineer of the universe. Instead, the Anthropocene is marked by increased human influence and diminished human control, all at once, setting free or amplifying disruptive forces that put us in the position of destructive apprentices without a master sorcerer. In this respect, the Anthropocene is not exactly an achievement; it is more nearly a condition that has fallen clattering around our heads.
And now we have to deal with it. The condition is not optional, so the question is what kind of “we” can be politically constituted and how to navigate this situation. Beginning to engage that situation constructively—rather than permitting it to drift along the lines set out by present patterns of unequal political and economic power (which is not really “drift” but the agency of some people over others)—is what I am getting at in pointing toward a democratic Anthropocene rather than a neoliberal one. It doesn’t matter to me if others don’t adopt the term “Anthropocene” for this program. I am not getting royalties on its use. But nothing in the term implies the hopped-up Bacon view of things.
Nature is not egalitarian, peaceful, or loving in any of the ways we care about.
Furthermore, the Anthropocene does not mean naïveté about imperialism or capitalism. Of course it is true, as Jairus Grove and Tsing point out, that this world has been shaped ecologically—as it has been politically, demographically, and otherwise—by these two world-historical forces, both birthed in Europe. And of course a favorite strategy of apologists for those forces has been to identify their domination with “humanity,” or man. I am concerned with how ideas about nature have been involved in this kind of domination, sometimes as the less-than-human that man can ignore, sometimes as an alibi for technocratic governance that short-circuits democracy.
But a world made by those forces—materially made by imperialism and capitalism at every point—is now the world with which people have to contend. The scale of those shaping forces is global. The Anthropocene condition has made a species, an Anthropos in itself, to borrow Marx’s term. The question of Anthropocene politics is whether, and on what terms, a species for itself, that is, politically constructed for self-conscious action through sovereign institutions, can arise on the scale of these planet-shaping forces. It is not the first time that people have had to try to make history under circumstances they did not get to choose.
Lastly, I don’t think Robert Paarlberg and I disagree. A rapid and universal switch to neo-artisanal agriculture is a straw proposal; I don’t make it, and don’t know of anyone who does. My point is that, if the country’s interest in food systems is more than narrowly utilitarian, then it makes sense to ask what kinds of landscapes, work, and experiences our systems foster, as well as their input-output ratios. The food movement is one of the contexts in which such questions are being raised, as the early Sierra Club was for landscape conservation 120 years ago. I think we should look to it for intimations of where policy might go in this landscape-shaping aspect of our world-shaping economy. On work: young people with options today are lining up to get into farm labor, not out of it, suggesting that reducing workforce participation in agriculture no longer self-evidently counts as progress. On justice: surely if we are thinking of a different economy, we can hold open the possibility of greater social provision alongside an increase in the relative cost of food. Let us not be impractical, but let us also give the political and environmental imagination some room.
Now, the real disagreements.
First, the idea of inter-species democracy is nonsense. To be clear: I spend some time arguing in my book that ethical and imaginative engagement with the rest of the living world, especially other animals (and certainly we are animals) is important now, as it has been in shaping earlier eras of what I call environmental imagination. So I celebrate proposals such as Tsing’s as experiments in consciousness and experience. But when Shiva argues for a democracy of all beings or among species, then democracy is simply standing for a certain sentiment of relationality or moral interest. This may be, and often has been, part of the meaning of democracy—it is a word to conjure with, after all—but at its heart, democracy is a form of political community, and having politics with other species is an incoherent idea.
The sense of politics that is urgent for the Anthropocene is this: the capacity to set and bind ourselves to a distinctly artificial body of principles that forms the architecture of our interdependence and shapes a common world. The medium of this achievement is language. A politics may actively seek to imagine, engage, and take account of other species, even non-animals, even a planetary being, if you like; environmental politics and its many precursors have always done this, and should continue doing so. But, as Paul Waldau suggests, that is the task and burden of those who can participate in the democracy. To speak of democracy across impassable linguistic barriers takes away its distinctive meaning.
Is this the arrogance of humanism? I think it is a cause more for sadness than for pride that we cannot enter into alliances with the rest of the living world and achieve a genuine collective freedom all together. The call for inter-species democracy strikes me as a way of expressing this sadness in the form of a wish to overcome it. But there is no overcoming it.
Second, the world does not tell us how to value it—or one another. From Ugo Mattei’s call for ecological law to Shiva’s Ecocene, respondents propose honoring and following nature as a way beyond the limits of anthropocentrism, rationalist hubris, the legacies of empire and racism, and so forth. Materials and systems engineers may take some cues from nature, but ethicists and democratic citizens are fooling themselves if they think they can follow suit. Let us say that, at a minimum, democratic politics, ethics, and law have something to do with liberty, equality, mutuality, and concern with suffering. They are, in various ways, efforts at pivoting collective institutions and principles around these values.
Can we find these values in nature? I mean, you can pick your examples—no one has a problem with the bonobos—but the counterexamples flow fast: slaver ants that take pupae from other nests and chemically convert them to work in their own; wasps that paralyze their prey so larvae can eat them alive, with sensation fully intact; slaughters of the innocent every few years as interdependent populations of plants, herbivores, and carnivores go boom and bust, retaining a version of balance at the cost of death, so much death. When Aldo Leopold famously wrote of “thinking like a mountain,” or ecologically, he meant recognizing that the alternative to overpopulation is to let things die in vast numbers.
Nature is not egalitarian, peaceful, or loving in any of the ways we care about. It is beautiful, wondrous, the site and necessary condition of everything we love, and also a monstrous charnel house. If we open our minds to it, it has too many meanings to guide us; if we let our minds be calm, we will see that it is not the sort of thing that has a meaning. The Anthropocene insight is that, with respect to the nonhuman world, we have ultimate responsibility for meaning-making, strange as that may seem. Jo Guldi and David Keith embrace that challenge and suggest ways to imagine new institutions that might emerge from the Anthropocene insight. I agree entirely with Keith that our questions are not just technocratic but visionary, that parts-per-million won’t tell us anything about what kind of world to shape. And I welcome Guldi’s looking to history—and those oldest and most concrete forms of environmental (in)justice, land ownership and reform—for inspiration going forward.
Finally, I think there is a diffuse disagreement here over the meaning of the last five hundred years of human history, one not quite reducible to capitalism, imperialism, or anthropocentrism, but resonant with all of those and more. I believe the insight that social relations are made things, shaped through politics, and that we can aim toward a community of equals as the closest human thing to paradise, is a true and precious achievement. Its entanglement with many of the crimes and harms of five centuries is not evidence of inherent error but of tragedy. The idea of intentional, democratic human community remains ahead of us, not behind or to be set aside. The ecological recognition that social life and the natural world are entangled and mutually constitutive, that to shape one is always to shape the other, to value one is to imply ways of valuing the other, both complicates and enriches this project. That is the starting point, and also the beyond-the-horizon goal, of my democratic politics for the Anthropocene.
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