Monday, January 19, 2015

Democratic or Horrible: On what the Anthropocene will be like

            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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Anthropocene and the Ambiguity of "Responsibility"

Officially, for the last 11,700 years we have been living in the Holocene epoch.  From the Greek for “totally new,” the Holocene is a blink in the eye of geological time. In its nearly 12,000 years, plate tectonics has driven the continents a little more than half a mile: a reasonably fit person could cover the scale of planetary change in a brisk 8-minute walk.  It has been a warm time, when temperature has mattered as much as tectonics: sea levels rose 115 feet from ice melt, and northern landscapes rose almost 600 feet rebounding from the weight of now-melted glaciers.  But the real news in the Holocene has been people.  Estimates put the global human population between one million and 10 million at the start of the Holocene and keep it in that range until after the agricultural revolution, some 5,000 years ago.  Since then, we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and other industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.  Rising sea levels rise are now our doing.  As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.

  This is why more and more voices, from the earth sciences to English departments, propose that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans.  The term was coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and has gained prominence since 2000, when Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-winning atmospheric scientist, urged scientists to adopt it. In 2008, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London – the people who set and enforce the boundaries of eras, the Pleistocene Police – took up a proposal to add the Anthropocene to the official timeline of earth’s epochs.  (It is still pending: straigraphers are well acquainted with geological rates of motion.) The proposal suggests that we have entered a new era of the earth’s history, when humans are a force, maybe the force, shaping the planet.

The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents – the end of the division between people and nature – is rooted in hundreds of eminently practical problems. 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 – and change everything.  Geo-engineering, deliberately intervening in planetary systems, used to be the unspeakable proposal in climate policy.  Now it is in the mix and almost sure to grow more prominent. As climate change shifts ecological boundaries, issues like habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; we need to build corridors and help species migrate as their habitats move.  There is open talk in law-and-policy circles about triage in species preservation – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save.   We can call the sum of these changes, the vast and irreversible human impact on the planet, the Anthropocene Condition.

             The other side of the coin is something more conceptual, which we can call the Anthropocene Insight.  Part of the meaning of the Anthropocene is as a political and ethical idea. Calling this the age of humanity is a way of owning up to responsibility for shaping the world.
In this way, talking about the Anthropocene is involves two very different registers.  On the one hand, it is predictive, like speculating about next summer’s weather and how we will keep cool (if we even can).  On the other, people who use the term are trying to get listeners to see themselves, their problems, and other people’s problems as aspects of a single pattern, which “the Anthropocene” is meant to name.  In turn, this second, persuasive aspect of the Anthropocene splits into two further faces.  First, it simply offers to unify events that might otherwise seem unrelated.  In this way, “the Anthropocene” is an attempt to do the same work that “the environment” did in the 1960s and early 1970s: meld problems as disparate as extinction, sprawl, litter, national parks policy, and the atom bomb into a single phenomenon called “the ecological crisis.”  Such a classification is always somewhat arbitrary, though often only in the trivial sense that there are many ways to carve up the world.  However arbitrary, it can become real because people treat it as real – for instance, by forming movements, proposing changes, and passing laws aimed at “the environment.”

            Here the Anthropocene’s persuasive sense comes into its stranger version, at once the most charismatic and the most dubious.  Anthropocene talk is a discourse of responsibility, to borrow a term from Mark Greif’s brilliant study of mid- twentieth-century American thought and letters, The Age of the Crisis of Man.  Greif argues that a high-minded (but often middle-brow) strain of rhetoric responded to the horrors of the world wars and global struggles thereafter with a blend of urgent language and sweeping concepts (or pseudo-concepts): responsibility, the fate of man, the urgency of now.  Two example stand out particularly.  Albert Camus told a rapt audience at Columbia in 1946, “We must call things by their right names and realize that we kill millions of men each time we permit ourselves to think certain thoughts….  One is a murderer if one reasons badly.”  In 1950, William Faulkner, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, told his audience (in a widely republished speech), “I decline to accept the end of man….  I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.”  Whether you find this admirable or ridiculous (Greif leans toward ridiculous) it is an attempt to turn words and thoughts, uttered in a certain attitude called “responsibility,” into an effective, even imperative, way of engaging the world’s events.  It treats serious thinking, right naming, heroic intentions, as a high form of action.  In using the language of responsibility, it purports to bring into being the agent of responsibility.

            Well, you might think, the worst it can achieve is nothing.  Unfortunately, that is overly optimistic.  Discourses of responsibility distract and confuse: they charge up the heart and blur the mind; they invite bloody-minded shadow-boxing and a misplaced sense of having done something by willing an argument over whether a thing is called by its right name, and about the difference between enduring and prevailing.  Indeed, the Anthropocene has inspired the New York Times to publish a piece of high-seriousness worthy of 1950, an essay titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” which concludes, “this civilization is already dead” (emphasis original) and that the only way forward is “to realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves” and therefore “get down to the hard work … without attachment or fear.”  It concludes, “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”
            Frankly, I have no idea what this is supposed to accomplish.  It makes me feel vaguely Stoic, which, in the twenty-first century, means vaguely American-Buddhist.  It confirms my sense that halfway measures won’t do much for climate change, and it also leaves me feeling that, if I compose my feelings in the right way – with a little help from some sonorous phrases – I will already be getting down to the hard work.

            Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Times you can read the paper’s roving environmental maven, Andrew Revkin, touting Peter Kareiva, the Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist, who has drawn controversy by trashing environmentalism as philosophically naïve and urging fellow conservationists to give up on wilderness and embrace what the writer Emma Marris calls the “rambunctious garden” of a world that is everywhere changed.  In other words, the Anthropocene is both a discourse of responsibility and a discourse of complacency.  In some hands, it is the ultimate catastrophe, the epochal disruption that will finally confront us with our real situation in the world (as earlier generations thought the atom bomb, or World War One, or the Holocaust might do).  In others, it is business as usual – and the business of business is business, as the Nature Conservancy’s partnerships with Dow, Monsanto, Coca Cola, Pepsi, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and the mining giant Rio Tinto remind us.

            This is the problem with a charismatic, all-inclusive idea like the Anthropocene: it becomes, more or less instantly and unavoidably, an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for whatever one happens to believe already.  Today, at least, it also becomes a branding strategy, a way to claim newness and relevance, and an opportunity to slosh around your old plonk in an ostentatiously factory-fresh and gleaming bottle.

            More interestingly, if no less frustratingly, Anthropocene talk also becomes an inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent of responsibility – a state, or even a movement – that could act on the scale of the problem.  Indeed, it reveals that there is no agent that could even define the problem; that is, if the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the planet, well, there is no “humanity” that agrees on any particular meaning and imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc., etc.  The different negotiating positions of India, China, Russia, Europe, and the United States over twenty-plus years to climate talks are as much evidence of this as the chattering schisms of elite media and even environmental movements.  To think about the Anthropocene is to think about being able to do nothing about everything.  No wonder the topic inspires compensatory fantasies that the solution lies in refining the bottom line or honing personal enlightenment – always, to be sure, in the name of some fictive “we.”

            The Anthropocene might be particularly susceptible to this kind of confusion.  Discourses of responsibility would make full and complete sense only in certain elusive circumstances: a religious context where words created an ontological community of meaning among speaker, listeners, and a created world; or a political setting where a genuine unity of attention made words in the public forum a fulcrum of joint action.  The first of these is an object of nostalgia, the second a project of utopia.  It is crushingly clear that neither of these conditions holds around here today.  But “nature” has always stood for the mind of God, and environmentalism has always traded in calls for “us,” the “community,” and “humanity” to act on its supposedly self-evident truths.  It has been a way of pretending to, or seeking, more unity and clarity, and more integrity and force for words, than there otherwise is.

            Without that prop, talk of the Anthropocene as a discourse of responsibility cannot make, to repeat, full and complete sense.  The question remains: what kind(s) of sense can it help to make?