Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Losing Nature: Living in the Anthropocene

            My starting point is that we are in a new era of the earth’s history, and that this changes everything.  This is not an original idea.  It is becoming standard, in a TED-talk kind of way, to say that earth has entered the anthropocene, an era when humans are a force, maybe the force, shaping the planet.

            A key aspect of this idea is that there is no more nature that is independent of human beings.  There is no place or living thing that humans haven’t changed.  Our mark is on the chemistry of the upper atmosphere and the deep sea, the cycle of weather and seasons, and the DNA that organizes matter into life.  This is the effect of climate change, mass extinctions, the new toxicity that’s everywhere from oceans to soil, and the sheer weight of the human presence on most of the earth’s surface.

            The anthropocene presents new kinds of questions, and it dissolves old ones.  It doesn’t make sense anymore to try to honor and preserve nature, a natural world that is outside of us, a nature that is defined partly by being not human, a nature that is purest in wilderness, rain forests, and the ocean.  Instead, in a world we can’t help shaping, the question is what kind of world we will shape.

            This change shows up in a series of concrete ways.  The conversation about climate change has shifted from whether we can keep greenhouse-gas concentrations below key thresholds to how we are going to adapt when they cross those thresholds.  Geo-engineering, which used to be the unspeakable proposal, is in the mix, and I predict it will become more prominent.  Other areas of law are shifting as climate change takes away their stable baselines: habitat preservation, for instance, now includes assisted migration because species’ habitable zones are moving outside the boundaries where we have been trying to protect them.  There is more open talk about species preservation as triage – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save.  These are only examples.

            Paradoxically, even though human power is greater than it has ever been, human control in some ways is weaker than ever.  Climate change distills this paradox: we brew the storms, bring the droughts, and raise the seas, but we can’t decide or even understand the shape these changes will take. 

            Living in the anthropocene is a practical problem for law and politics.  I think it is also a philosophical problem: it involves how we understand the human place in the world.   It involves how we should pose questions, and what kinds of answers we can give to them.  I think its philosophical aspect is not merely abstract; it is useful in getting a grip on the practical problems.

            Let’s think for a minute about what sort of concept the anthropocene is.  People who study the earth’s history, including some who embrace the idea of the anthropocene, tend to say that it’s not grounded in straightforward scientific facts.  The classic way to delineate geological eras is via breaks in the fossil record.  It’s true that the extinctions we’re causing will change the mix of future fossils; but that doesn’t get at many of the issues that define the anthropocene.  Because the anthropocene concept is, in important ways, a slogan for the age of climate change, some people would date it to the industrial revolution and the spike in carbon concentrations; but if you focus on atmospheric chemistry, methane begins to rise rapidly about halfway through the Holocene – four to five thousand years ago.  Maybe this was human-caused, a result of rice cultivation springing up in Asia.  We aren’t sure.  Students of other paleo-ecological indicators would point to other markers, like the decline of forest pollen in eastern North America in the 1700s and the spike in ragweed pollen, a sign of clearing and agriculture.  Some theorists of the anthropocene would agree: for them, the great change came with agriculture, when people began transforming land rather than just competing the other species that lived on it, and for them the history of soils and plant records are key.
            So saying we’re in the anthropocene is not like saying we’re related to apes and roundworms, or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old rather than 6,000.  It’s more like saying like we’re living in modernity, or in post-modernity, or that we’re a secular country, or a religious one.  It’s not a statement of facts as much as a way of organizing facts to give them a certain kind of importance.   The real meaning of the anthropocene is as a political and ethical idea.  Calling this the age of humanity is a way of saying that we have to own up to our responsibility for shaping the world.  The term draws our attention to a reality that has been true for a long time and is now so intensified that it would be reckless to deny or ignore it.
            I think a few things are driving the idea of the anthropocene.  The most obvious, and probably the biggest, is the accumulation of ways that we are massively changing the earth.  One reason there’s no clean scientific borderline for the anthropocene is that there are so many basic, human-driven changes in natural systems over the last five to ten thousand years.  The term anthropocene arranges these many changes into a single human responsibility.
I think another driver, which may be less obvious, is an intellectual development.  For more than two decades, humanists, historians, and philosophers have been arguing that it’s a mistake to think of nature as something separate from humanity.  More specifically, they have argued that nature is not separate from culture.   Whether we are protecting wilderness, worrying about an environmental apocalypse, or discovering the value of biodiversity, the nature we are concerned with has always been partly a cultural thing, a product of the hopes and anxieties of the time.  Take one example.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, at the opening of the modern environmental era, expressed a whole new set of cultural anxieties: that technology was out of control in the era of the atomic bomb, that technocratic mastery was turning into hubris in the time of the Vietnam War.  And why was Carson so persuasive?  She had facts on her side, but she also had a very old cultural way of talking about nature, the apocalyptic narrative, which treated disruptions in nature as symptoms of, and judgments on, disruptions in social life.  You can find this in the disturbed heavens in Macbeth, and in Puritan sermons on earthquakes as the judgment of God.  In Silent Spring, these old ways of using nature to express anxiety about sin became a secular sermon about human pride and its dangers.

Another example, a favorite one for the cultural critics of nature, is the history of wilderness.  We’re culturally trained to think of wilderness as the primordial environment, unchanged forever.  But the wilderness areas we protect in this country are products of deliberate management and transformation, including clearing Native Americans out of them.  They are not primordial, but intentionally created examples of an aesthetic ideal of wild nature.  That ideal, in turn, has a cultural history.  In the course of European settlement in North America, even in the history of the US, wilderness has gone from being a negative term, something to be overcome, to a place charged with aesthetic and spiritual values.  If this is true of the places we think of as most “natural,” then it seems that all nature must be as much cultural as natural.
            The idea of the anthropocene fits easily into this approach to nature.  If we’ve always been creating nature, then saying we live in the anthropocene is just a way of owning what we were already doing.  This fits the thought that it’s an ethical and political idea as much as a scientific one. 
            So, if it’s an ethical and political idea, what shall we do with it?  One answer that comes up a lot is, “Get over environmentalism.”  It was based on a philosophical mistake, and wrapped up in a lot of bad history.   It tried to honor and preserve a nature that was imagined as being independent of us.   So Timothy Morton, a smart and influential literary scholar, says “Environmentalism has been trapped in ideologies of masculinity … the ultimate imitation of Nature.”[1]  William Cronon, an environmental historian who wrote a foundational essay on this topic, called “The Trouble with Wilderness,” argued that environmentalism was obsessed with wilderness and pristine landscapes, and used these as excuses to ignore hard problems about how everyday life shapes and harms the world.  Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger wrote an attention-getting essay called “The Death of Environmentalism” where they argue that “the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ have been thoroughly deconstructed.  Yet they retain their mythic and debilitating power with the environmental movement and the public at large.”[2]

            On this take, most of environmental thought is the inherited history of a mistake.  Now we know better.  We know that nature is not the kind of thing that has wishes or makes judgments.  It doesn’t want to be developed or preserved.  It isn’t coming with a terrible swift sword to judgment us.  And contrary to what Thoreau and John Muir and a bunch of their followers thought, it can’t teach us how to live.   The ideas that formed environmental politics were not only addressed to pre-anthropocene problems; they were also derived from a pre-anthropocene picture of people and the natural world.

If this is right, grasping the anthropocene means we’ve grown up and have to put aside childish things, including charming but childish ideas about nature.  That’s why the past is irrelevant.  Environmentalism was theology.  The anthropocene needs science.

That’s one way of looking at where we are. 

            Here’s a different way of looking at it.  Once we understand our anthropocene situation, the history of environmental ideas becomes more relevant than ever.  And, when we look at that history from an anthropocene perspective, we can understand it better.

Take this country.  The history of environmental ideas in the US is also the history of American democracy.  Ideas have mattered, not because they exist in some crystalline form that people can follow, but because people have used them in concrete ways.  Social movements, social critics, presidents and dissenters have all drawn on ideas of nature to advance arguments about slavery, Indian policy, mining law, zoning, agricultural subsidies, irrigation systems, the nature of citizenship, and the meaning of life.

This history of ideas is really a history of shared imagination: ways that people have envisioned the world, often without even putting the whole picture in words.  These ideas are distilled out of life.  Their raw materials are experience, activity, and feeling.  Environmental politics and law has been about how images of nature can become parts of true descriptions of where and how we live.   


So, talk about nature, about its meaning and value, has always been a constructive discourse.  It doesn’t just describe the world.  It helps bring into being the world it describes, by guiding action – both individual and collective action.  Abolitionism was a constructive discourse.  So is feminism.  So is economics, I’d argue, though it pretends to be a descriptive, scientific discourse.  Physics is about as close as we get to a descriptive discourse.  To imagine all older environmental thought as resting on a philosophical mistake is to imagine its description of nature as a failed physics, when it might be better to compare it to a feminist description of social life.

A constructive discourse is exactly what we need for talking about nature now.  It speaks to the kinds of problems we now have to address: what kind of world to shape, with huge power, no way to avoid using it, and a lot of uncertainty about how to control it.  It is a way of talking that enables people to do things together by giving them a vocabulary, and conceptual tools, for envisioning the world they want, the distance between it and the world they live in now, and some of the ways they might bridge that gap.

So the fact that we have always had a constructive discourse about nature means that the history of environmental ideas might be full of the kinds of resources we need now.    

            When I say that a constructive discourse has shaped nature, I mean something very concrete and practical.  Human beings, as a species, are engaged in a kind of collective geo-engineering that shapes landscapes, biodiversity, atmospheric chemistry, everything.  We each contribute to it through the ways we get our food and shelter, how we get around, where our energy comes from.  This is the basic anthropocene insight.

And the way we shape the world is shaped in turn by law.  Through politics, and the law that politics creates, we orchestrate our use of the earth and so we shape a world.

            The easiest example is the national parks and wilderness areas, because these are explicitly governed to serve an idea.  The idea, that spectacular places, extreme landscapes, are good for the soul, was one that more and more Americans came around to in the nineteenth century.  Then new movements for preservation brought it into politics.  These ideas succeeded so well that in the 1960’s a Senator from Idaho could say in a debate on the Wilderness Act, “Without wilderness, this country would become a cage.”  Public wild lands are dedicated to a picture of nature as a spiritual destination, a place to make a pilgrimage, to get in touch with yourself and the universe.  In turn, they make that cultural idea of nature seem natural, a physical and metaphysical reality, for people who visit them.  They are the material landscape that make possible a cultural practice of aesthetics and spirituality; the landscapes were inspired by the ideas, but the ideas take life, and enter people’s real experience, only because the landscapes exist.

            And really, every American landscape is a meditation on what people have valued in nature, and a product of their putting those priorities into action.  The agricultural terrain of the Midwest – that  patchwork-quilt geometry of crops that  you know from airplane windows – is the artifact of how the federal government turned public land, which had recently been Indian land, into private property.  The survey system of squares-within-squares was a model of how a free republic should live on the land – each family with its own sufficient plot, tied together by schools, and townships, and county seats.  Those squares galloped over streams and wetlands and on into the arid High Plains, where there isn’t enough rainfall to support farming.  After a few bizarrely wet summers and warm winters, the usual seasons came back, and hundreds of thousands of settlers fled Kansas and Nebraska in the 1880s.  They were the first modern ecological refugees in North America.  Of course they were fleeing an ecological crisis they had made themselves, that those rectangles had guided them into making.  The survey system was just one part of a whole legal architecture that channeled human energy into clearing, settling, and planting the continent – Homestead laws, laws that granted land in exchange for planting trees, or clearing trees, or draining wetlands, or irrigating drylands, or mining gold and silver, or gathering stone. 

There was a vision behind all of this clearing and settlement, a picture of nature that was derived from religious and philosophical sources.  Nature was a garden in potential.  It existed to serve human needs richly, but it did that only conditionally – only if people completed it, filled it up with labor and settlement.  This is how turning a continent into private property became a national mission, framed in a public language where the word wilderness was always paired with the word redeem, we needed to redeem the wilderness.  The public agency that built the vast irrigation systems of the West that conquered dryness for a while and carried private property across the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada was called the Bureau of Reclamation.

            The landscapes that we shape through law don’t just express ideals.  They can also make vivid what people might rather not admit.  They are articulate in ways that we avoid being, because they make our collective priorities explicit.  When mountaintop-removal strip-mining dynamites hills and hollows into a flat, treeless terrain and buries many hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams, that wrecked landscape states the values of the energy economy as clearly as anything could.  It is no surprise that coal companies make it as hard to see a mountaintop-removal site in action as it is to look inside a slaughterhouse.  The effort that goes into concealing these places is unintended testament to how vividly and precisely they express what we think nature is worth.

This is what I mean when I say that thinking about nature has been a constructive discourse.  Democracy and law are key parts of this argument because they are deliberately constructive, ways of organizing a shared social world.  The history of American environmental ideas has been thoroughly entangled with law and democracy.  It has taken its shape from political arguments and lent its shape to law. In a way, the anthropocene situation is not new at all.

So we need environmental law, environmental politics, and environmental ethics for the anthropocene.  That means law, politics, and ethics based on a radical acceptance that we shape the world, and therefore shape ourselves, with every choice. 

I want to say a little about how the history of environmental imagination remains useful here, and then a little more about new forms of environmental imagination that would be good to cultivate.

To make past approaches to nature useful, we will have to grasp that these really are what they have always secretly been: not theology or metaphysics but ways of talking to one another.  The apocalyptic tradition that gave shape and power to Silent Spring is a way of experiencing the alienness and terror of natural forces, the ways that the world has never been shaped to our convenience and never will be, the ways it has always been dangerous and always will be.  Thinking of environmental crisis as a judgment on us, as the apocalyptic narrative does, is a way of grasping that, when we change the world, the changes can recoil against us in terrifying ways. 

Or take tradition of treasuring wilderness.  This is not just a fantasy that we can preserve a pre-anthropocene picture of the world with pristine nature apart from human culture.  It is also a way to take one kind of human attitude toward parts of the world: letting them be.  It announces that human uses will not govern everywhere.  Not every forest will be timbered, not every mineral will be mined, and not every vista will be a house site or scenic overlook.  Of course respecting wilderness is as much a human and cultural value as building houses there; but it is a different one, and as far as it goes it make us different people, on a different landscape.

Or consider the pastoral tradition that made possible Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and all the seeing people have done that draws on them.  In that tradition, the narrator enters a moral relationship with nature, a nature that shows us something about how to live.  Can this make sense where there is no nature that simply stands apart from us?

Yes: a kind of sense.  We can see those works not as about talking to a capital-N nature that stands in for God and takes sides in human arguments, but as building relationships with particular landscapes, paying them a quality of attention that become inseparable from the authors’ own ways of seeing and speaking. 

Having these ways of relating to nature in circulation gives us resources to imagine the apocalypse of climate change, the pastoral of neo-traditional farming, the ironic power of seeing a wilderness in the deserted land around the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in 1986.  We are talking about ways of forming the self by training the ethical and aesthetic eye.  We are also talking about real relations to the world’s places and forces, though ones that are mysterious in a different way from our relations with other people.

I also want to talk about new challenges for the imagination, new resources to create.

We need better ways of thinking about problems that have systemic and planetary scale.   Take climate change as the model.  Now, it is too easy to argue that anything we can actually do about it would be futile, and anything that wouldn’t be futile is impossible.  This is how too much of the conversation about the Keystone XL Pipeline has gone., the climate action group, made Keystone a pivotal issue because it was actionable.  They were following the old lesson of political organizing: mobilize around concrete disputes, where victory is possible, to try to shift broader consciousness and recruit allies.  But it became conventional wisdom to say that rejecting the pipeline wouldn’t change the dynamics of global energy markets or affect total atmospheric carbon.  Well, no.  The nature of the problem is that nothing that’s now feasible would make much difference that way.

Joe Nocera from the New York Times, who recently committed some Aggravated Punditry against Bill McKibben of, made a typical move when he wrote that protesting over Keystone was silly but a carbon tax – now that would be worth getting arrested for.  But we know a carbon tax isn’t happening with anything like this Congress; dismissing the activists for being concrete in their issue choice is like saying that boycotting segregated buses in Montgomery wouldn’t change the racial attitudes of the South, so instead activists should have been walking to work or sitting in at lunch counters to demand the total dismantling of white supremacy – because that was worth fighting over.  But of course that’s what they were doing; step by step, sometimes with symbolic action.     

And it’s worse than that, because it’s not hard to make the case that even a carbon tax would also be futile.  Outside of a global system of binding emissions controls, it would just burden the US economy and maybe cause capital flight, while other countries went right on emitting.  Anyway, no country can make a difference except at the margins.  A lot of smart people spent a lot energy proving this, back when it seemed cap-and-trade or a carbon tax might happen soon.  With an issue this big, almost anything that becomes feasible can be recast as futile.

The basic mistake here is thinking of global climate as a technocratic problem, as if each of these issues were a proposed EPA rule that should be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis at OIRA.  In fact, these fights are about moving the limits of political possibility – making feasible something that isn’t feasible yet; they’re also struggles over which values are going to be at the center of this debate.  If you want to move this debate, you can’t just accept the current cost-benefit tradeoffs, because those incorporate current dominant values, including the premise that the global energy economy is basically legitimate.  If that’s what you’re contesting, it makes sense to act like building Keystone XL would be wrong, and try to bring people along with you to that view.  You might lose, but it’s not because you’re confused; it’s because you’re trying to create a politics we don’t have yet, one where our options aren’t restricted to a coin flip that’s heads-futile, tails-impossible.

This kind of problem is a sign that we need to find a way out of the thinking that keeps generating the problem. 

At the highest level of abstraction, the issue is about the relationship between ecology and economics in the anthropocene.  The conventional view – which I think is wrong – is that, because everything is connected, because the social and economic worlds permeate the natural world and the other way around, we should rationalize our use of nature by putting a price on everything – carbon, so-called ecosystem services or green infrastructure like pollination and natural filtration, the option value of non-extinct species, that sort of thing.  Where nothing is outside the economy, including ecology, we should use economic value to assess everything.

But consider it from the other side: nothing is outside ecology, either; the economy sure isn’t.  We need to assess our economic decisions in terms of the world, the nature, they create.  That is a cultural and political question whose answer economic accounting can’t provide, because it gets its values – its prices – from the ways people have learned to live in and relate to the world they have made so far.      

In that direction:

We need a philosophy of energy and a politics of agriculture.  I mention those two together because energy and agriculture are parts of our most basic, everyday metabolism with the rest of the world.  They were nearly invisible to the classic environmentalism of John Muir and the early Sierra Club, who were indifferent to farmers.  For them, cultivated land was the profane opposite of their sacred mountains and redwood groves.  They didn’t think about the source of the coal that powered trains to Yellowstone and Glacier.  But how we power our bodies and machines, what we take from the earth and put back into its systems, matters as much to the planet we shape as any amount of wilderness. 

In the last few decades, a genuine philosophy of agriculture has come on the scene.  It treats farming as a microcosm of an ecological relationship to the whole living world: a way of expressing our interdependence by getting our living from other things knowledgeably, with a rich understanding of all the soil science and plant biology and seasonal cycles that are at work; sustainably, knowing this is a way of using the land that could go on for a long time; and appreciatively, taking pleasure in the power to work this way.  This idea has roots in the writing of Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, and Michael Pollan has done a lot to spread it.  Just as important, many people have experimented with it concretely.  Their ways of growing, distributing, and preparing food are all experiments in how to make an ecological sense of the world as vivid and real in your own life as Yosemite Valley made John Muir’s spiritual sense of it.

What we don’t really have, where law and policy are still hurrying to catch up to the culture, is a picture of how the ecological ideal of agriculture could be widespread.  Agriculture is thoroughly shaped by law, from environmental regulation to public-health safeguards to the farm bill.  The food system would look really different without legal permission for waste lagoons and fertilizer runoff, without using antibiotics in confined feeding operations, without subsidies for big commodity crops and big producers.  But what would a legal regime look like that actively shaped the food system toward an ecological ideal, and that tried to enable people to engage ecology in a self-aware way, the way the parks let them encounter wilderness?  We don’t really know yet, and that is a missing piece of a movement that, without big concrete goals, tends to eddy into very local initiatives like farmers markets and high-end grocery shopping.

As for energy, we have begun to understand that energy policy is at the heart of environmental policy.  This is a very anthropocene insight: energy ties sacrifice zones of mining and drilling to the cleanest, brightest cities and gadgets that can seem post-natural.  Of course the energy economy also drives the climate change that has made the whole world, even the wild places, decisively post-natural. 

But we don’t yet have a vocabulary for a real debate about energy.  The debate we have is mainly technical, and there is much more at stake here than the ratio of units of greenhouse gases to units of energy, or any of the other technical measures that dominate the field.  Different energy sources mean different futures for the landscapes that will be fracked, or drilled, or mined, or will host wind farms, geothermal facilities, or hydropower dams.  Different trajectories out of fossil-fuel use mean different degrees of climate change – different kinds of storms and droughts, different levels of coastal flooding, different risks of catastrophic ocean acidification.  Choices about energy are choices about the world this generation and the next will have to live in, about what kinds of world might be foreclosed to future generations, and about what risks we are willing to impose on them.  These questions of value might eventually be expressed in technical terms; but technical formulas won’t substitute for engaging them as questions of value.  Imagining otherwise is as unreal as ignoring our externalized harms because no one has presented us with a bill for them.  Living in the anthropocene means taking responsibility for the world that our energy economy makes; but to do that, we need a richer ethical and cultural vocabulary about energy and its effects.

We also need much richer ways of imagining the experience of other living things, beginning with conscious animals.  To interpret the Marine Mammal Protection Act properly, for instance, we need to understand more about what it means to send undersea noise rippling through the body of a whale.  For a whale, sound is communication but also orientation in space, and sonic vibration literally changes the texture of the water where it lives.  Maybe for a whale an explosion is like a deafening boom, a blinding light, and an earthquake all at once.  Maybe constant vibrations are a refined form of torture, constant low-level shocks that disrupt communication, sensation, and orientation.  To understand our obligations toward intelligent, social, communicating animals that are so different from us, we have to develop ways to imagine this.

How should we understand the poaching and culling of elephants, animals that communicate, appear to grieve, and seem to suffer post-traumatic stress and, maybe, cultural breakdowns that lead to brutality, including rape and killing of members of other species and greatly increased rates of killing among elephants?  Closer to home, what should we make of the worlds we have created for farm animals, which live and die as literal commodities?  We flip back and forth between the sentimental mistake of imagining other animals as just like us and the brutal (and self-brutalizing) habit of treating them as insensate things.  Both attitudes deny the mysteriousness of other life.  The world around us really is full of awareness, experience, perception, that is like our own and also unbridgeably different.  We have to try to develop appreciation and respect for what we cannot entirely understand.


We also need an expanded aesthetics, a way of appreciating imperfection, decay, and damage.  Aldo Leopold remarked that an ecological education meant living alone in a world of wounds, seeing the harm that others overlooked because they took it for granted.  He also said that humans would save only what they loved.  In a world where nothing is undamaged, where even the line between destroying and creating can be obscure, we had better learn to see a kind of beauty in landscapes that are repositories of wounds, palimpsests of disruption.  We do not need to love, or tolerate, drilling or strip-mining, but we need some way to appreciate landscapes that these and other forces have transformed.  Otherwise, we will have to write off too much of the world.

There may be an ironic benefit to this difficult thought.  Natural beauty has been mostly about peaceful pastoral landscapes on the one hand, wild and pristine ones on the other.  People being what we are, both landscape ideals are in good part about us; they are ways of imagining ourselves as more as gentle and orderly, or more pure and free.  But the nature we have to learn to see now, in the age of extreme energy and climate change, is not peaceful or pristine, and we may not like what it shows us in ourselves.  But maybe learning to appreciate the broken and scarred landscapes we have made will somehow help us tend to our own damage and imperfection.  Maybe that, in turn, will help us do less damage to others, human and non-human.

            Nature has always stood for a kind of reassurance: nature was here before us, it will go on after us, if we follow it nature will not let us down.  A world without nature is a world where it is less easy, and maybe impossible, to feel entirely at home.  It requires a different idea of home.

            Nature has also stood for limitations: nature shows us the one right way, and we must not cross it.   Law and culture have assigned subordinate roles to women, gay people, and non-white people because that was what “nature” required.  For this reason, there is a long tradition in philosophy, and a somewhat shorter one in politics, devoted to freeing people from these so-called natural roles, and getting rid of the idea that nature teaches us anything directly relevant to being human.    

            Recognizing that nature is what I called a constructive topic fits this tradition of human self-emancipation.  At many times and places, politics, law, and marriage have been imagined as natural things, perpetual, hierarchical, and beyond question.  Now we say we understand that they are real but not natural, things we make, which we make partly by how we imagine and talk about them.  Sometimes, though not always, we even act as if we believed it.

            Now we can add nature to the list of things that are not natural, whose meaning we will have to work out democratically and without certainty.  Recognizing this is a loss but also a gain.  To put it in a phrase: lose nature, gain a world.

            I do not think losing Nature means losing the meaning of the living world.  The old mistake was believing in a world that was humanized, full of minds, or one vast mind, like our own.  The root of this mistake was sometimes religion, sometimes sentimentality, sometimes Disney.  But trying to drive all meaning out of our relations to nature would be a mistake in the opposite direction.

The world is full of awareness, experience, and perception – like ours, and also unlike it.  It’s also full of pattern, order, life that tie us to it to everything else chemically and biologically but also aesthetically and symbolically.  Each way of seeing nature that people have found has created a circuit between humans and the rest of the world, a way of seeing it and knowing how to act toward it.  As a matter of meaning, each image creates a world.  Within that world, new relations and new kinds of seeing become possible.

            Where does law fit, as part of this circuit among politics, imagination, and the living world?  Here is  For one, it can serve as a resource for imagination.  For example: a law requiring confined feeding operations and slaughterhouses to install webcams and requiring marketers to list the URL’s on the packaging would peel back the veil that conceals the everyday violence of the food system.  It would be a tool for kids arguing with their parents about the meal, or just for people trying to think about what to eat and why.  Programs that support local and youth engagement in food production – for instance through school gardens and local sourcing for meals – let more people engage practically with the value of understanding food ecologically.  Support, or requirements, for real-time displays of energy efficiency in your house and car help to visualize the energy system as part of our ongoing metabolism with the planet.  It would be even better if as with the slaughterhouses, there were ready visual access to strip-mining and fracking operations, with some sense of how abstract units of energy use tie you to these concrete impacts.

            These kinds of transparency requirements are, in some ways, the least that law does.  I have emphasized that law shapes landscapes and the planet by structuring the massive human impact on both.  Law is the essential link between politics, values, and imagination on the one hand and the economic and technological use of the earth on the other.  Every past version of environmental imagination has produced a distinctive body of law, and future ones will, too.  Maybe that will mean a comprehensive greenhouse-gas tax.  Maybe it will mean more, like a democratic decision to support renewable energy sources and build an energy infrastructure that makes our damage as small as possible.  Maybe it will mean a law of agriculture that treats farm policy as a part of cultural policy, the way the national parks are – a way of making it possible for people to have relations with nature that they really value, and that make their ideas about nature into concrete ways of life.  Maybe it will mean appreciating that because managing nature is a political problem with a global scale, we need political, which is to say democratic, institutions that work internationally.
            In any event, it will require appreciating, as with Keystone, that activists and innovators are not trying to be technocrats, and failing.  They are trying to change values and institutions.

            Environmental law and politics may not have the same boundaries they have now.  If energy and climate change are both environmental topics, what is not?  Isn’t biotechnology just as basic to how we deal with the living world as biodiversity, and, if so, is it an environmental issue, too?  Maybe environmental is starting to mean, not a set of topics, but a kind of question: how does any part of human living express a vision of our place in the natural world, and what kind of world does it help to shape?

            I mentioned some modest transparency reforms first because they would contribute to the imaginative and political work behind any legal regime that is halfway adequate to anthropocene challenges.  They would be helps in envisioning our place in a world we have shaped at every point, a world we can’t understand unless we can see all the hidden wounds, and how they trace back to us.  It’s a world we can’t help re-creating in every anthropocene generation. 

 In this world Aldo Leopold’s warning, that we must love it in order to save it, does not quite capture the stakes.  Saving it is not really the question anymore, if it ever was.  But to know how we will to shape it, and what relations we can have with the living things and places in it, we will have to be as clear as we can about how we love it, how we fear it, and how we respect it.  These have always been the essential questions of environmental imagination, and they still are.

            6,256 words = 44:30 minutes



[1] Ecological Thought 81.
[2] Death of Environmentalism 12


  1. Random Thoughts:

    (1) So as I was reading, I thought about Stanley Fish and his fabulous argument that post-modernism did no more really than to clear the table of any claims to Truth with a capital T (or in your case, Nature with a capital N.) When post-environmentalists deconstructed the boundary between Nature and Humanity, they cleared the table of arguments that claimed authority from the purity of Nature with a capital N. Which is something. But if it's just table clearing, maybe they didn't get as far as they thought they had.

    As Fish points out, once the table is clear, we still have to set it, we still have to make political arguments for the things we care about, now without the ability to claim "capital N authority," but that's really a pretty small constraint as political arguments go. There are plenty of really good political and moral arguments to be made, many of which you touched on. And all quite powerful, even without capital N authority.

    I've always been grateful to Fish for that idea. It makes me think we ought to really get on with things. I love your jujitsu move, and I know it requires that you fully explore the post-environmental deconstruction with the thoroughness that you do, before you flip it then to talk about political arguments. But it struck me that once again the table clearers have gotten so much attention, and pride of place in the beginning of the essay. All they really did was clear the table. ;-)

    (2) Can you say even more about ecology? It's such a great post post-environmentalist constructive political discourse, my favorite for awhile now. If industrialists see nature as something to master, and environmentalists see nature as something to protect by walling off, then ecologists see human activity take its place in the ecology, along with all other kinds of activities and processes and species, etc., having to negotiate and then renegotiate its place in the web as time passes.

    I have been thinking about ecology these days in terms of co-evolutionary relationships. So we create global warming. And then global warming makes us raise our cities on stilts. An arms race of sorts, at the moment, and one we are likely to lose, unless we can figure out co-existence. If we are co-inhabitants in the ecology, then mastery is out of the question, but then so is protection. I really haven't said anything here that you haven't said.

    (3) I have thought a lot about whether the political values that once animated our view of Nature with a capital N work very well anymore as political arguments. I don't think so, though I could be persuaded I'm wrong, mostly because they still animate me so much. But much as I love them, maybe those earlier arguments relied too much on the authority of that capital N, and too much on the view of walling off the wilderness with the humans as caretakers rather than as humans as co-inhabitants.

    I'm totally with you on figuring out what has made sustainable food catch fire. Have you heard of transition towns, by the way? You might already know about them, but if not, Google the phrase and read all about them. The idea is to move away from government and towards emergent social movement as the model.

    What is so cool about transition towns is the notion that no one is in charge. Anyone can create a project. So if you want to coordinate with your neighbors so that you can approach a vendor to negotiate a big volume discount on solar panels, you just do it. Without asking permission. Measured effects from transition towns on carbon emissions are small but impressive, given that not too many communities have been at it for more than ten years. But in my view, the real value of transition towns is as a way of both reflecting and then creating changed hearts and minds.

    Okay. Those are just some random thoughts. Which might or might not be helpful. Thanks for letting us read!

    1. This is fascinating and helpful. Thank you! Email me and let's continue this exchange - or I'll just be thinking about it for the next stage.