For all the talk of crisis that swirls around the Anthropocene, it is unlikely that a changing Earth will feel catastrophic or apocalyptic. Some environmentalists still warn of apocalypse to motivate could-be, should-be activists; but geologic time remains far slower than political time, even when human powers add a wobble to the planet. Instead, the Anthropocene will be like today, only more so: many systems, from weather to soil to your local ecosystem, will be in a slow-perennial crisis. And where apocalyptic change is a rupture in time, a slow crisis feels normal. It feels, in fact, natural.
The Anthropocene will feel natural. This is a problem for its potential as a discourse of responsibility. Planetary changes are sure to amplify existing inequalities and produce new ones; but these inequalities, just as surely, are going to feel as if they were built into the world itself – at least for the lucky billions who watch rather than undergo them.
Consider: Nature has always served to launder inequalities that people have produced. Are enslaved people kept illiterate and punished brutally when they are not servile? Then ignorance and servility must be in their nature, an idea that goes back in a continuous line to Aristotle. The same goes for women, with some edits to their nature: docile, nurturing, delicate, hysterical, etc. It was not until Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill worked together on The Subjection of Women (published under his name alone in 1869), that English-language philosophy produced a basic challenge to millennia of nature-talk about sexual difference. The expulsion of Native Americans was “justified” on several versions of nature. Maybe they were racially different. Maybe their climate made them weak and irrational, unable to cultivate the land or resist European settlement. (Colonists briefly embraced this idea, then grew uneasy when they realized that the North American climate was now theirs; by the time of American independent, they racing to reject climatic theories of racial character.) Maybe Native Americans had simply failed to fulfill the natural duty of all mankind, to clear and plant the wilderness and make it bloom like an English garden – an idea that many theorists of natural law advanced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One way or another, nature was a kind of ontological insurance policy for human injustice.
And now? Well, it’s common wisdom that rising sea levels will first affect some of the world’s poorest people, notably in Bangladesh and coastal India. True. But it’s much worse than that grim geographic coincidence. Wealth has always meant some protection from nature’s cruel measures. In fact, that is the first spur to technology and development of all kinds: not to be killed. Tropical diseases with changing range will find some populations well equipped with vaccination and medicine, others struggling with bad government and derelict health systems. When seas rise fast, even the feckless but rich United States will begin adapting fast, and coastal flooding will be classified in the rich-world mind as a catastrophe of the poor.
So will starvation. A legal regime of unequal Anthropocene vulnerability is well underway. Take the vast, long-term leases that Chinese companies have entered into for some of Africa’s richest farmland. When drought, soil exhaustion, or crop crisis puts a pinch on global food supply, contracts and commerce will pull trillions of calories to fat-and-happy Beijing. This is, of course, only the latest chapter in centuries of imperialism and post-imperial, officially voluntary global inequality. But it is the chapter that we the living are writing.
For the moment, Anthropocene inequality has a special affinity with neoliberalism, the global extension of a dogmatic market logic and increasingly homogenous market forms – along with an accompanying ideology insisting that, if the market is not beyond reproach, it is at least beyond reform: there is no alternative. Where previous episodes of global ecological inequality took place under direct imperial administration – witness the Indian famines of the late nineteenth century, suffered under British rule- ours is emerging under the sign of free contract. Anthropocene inequality is thus being doubly laundered: first as natural, second as the voluntary (and presumptively efficient) product of markets. Because human activity now shapes the “natural” world at every point, it is especially convenient for that world-shaping activity to proceed in its own pseudo-natural market.
But Anthropocene problems also put pressure on the authority of economics. Much of environmental economics has been built on the concept of the externality, economist-speak for a side-effect: a harm or benefit that has no price tag, and so is ignored in market decisions. Air pollution – free to the polluter – is the classic bad side-effect, or “negative externality.” Wetlands – not valued on the real-estate market, but great sources of filtration, purification, and fertility, which would otherwise cost a lot to replicate – produce model of positive externalities. So neoliberal environmental, which Peter Kareiva’s Nature Conservancy has begun to exemplify, aims to bring nature fully into the market, finding a place in the bottom line for all former side-effects and fully merging ecology and economy.
In a climate-changed Anthropocene, the side-effects overwhelm the “regular” market in scale and consequence. And there is no “neutral,” purely market-based way to put a value on side-effects. Take the example of carbon emissions. It is possible to create a market for emissions, as Europe, California, and other jurisdictions have done; but at the base of that market is a political decision about how to value the economic activity that emits carbon against all the (uncertain and even speculative) effects of the emissions. The same point holds for every (post-) natural system on an Anthropocene planet. Ultimately, the question is the value of life, and ways of life. There is no correct technocratic answer.
The shape of the Anthropocene is a political, ethical, and aesthetic question. It will answer questions about what life is worth, what people owe one another, and what in the world is awesome or beautiful enough to preserve or (re-) create. Either the answers will reproduce and amplify existing inequality or they will set in motion a different logic of power. Either the Anthropocene will be democratic or it will be horrible.
A democratic Anthropocene would start from a famous observation of economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: no minimally democratic society has ever suffered a famine. That is, natural catastrophes are the joint products of natural and human systems. Your vulnerability to disaster is often a direct expression of one’s standing in a political (and economic) order. The Anthropocene stands for the intensifying merger of ecology, economics, and politics, and one’s standing in those systems will increasingly be a single question.
This returns us to the basic problem that the Anthropocene drives home: as Hannah Arendt famously observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the idea of human rights – such as the right to democratic standing in planetary change – is a chimera and a cruel taunt without a political community that can make it good through robust institutions and practices. Once again, the Anthropocene shows how far the world is from being such a polity, or a federation of such polities, and how much is at stake in that absence. The world is too much with us. Worse, there is no we to be with it.