Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene

In the spirit of shameless self-promotion I’m delighted to announce the release by Routledge of a new collection of essays, edited by Manuel Arias-Maldonado and myself, entitled Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene: Political Theory and Socionatural Relations in the New Geological Epoch. The book grew out of a workshop of environmental political theorists held in 2016. It brings together work by both established and emerging scholars–some of whom contributed initial versions of their ideas to this blog.

Click to download a flyer with the table of contents, and some endorsements. The flyer has a code you can use to purchase Rethinking the Environment directly from Routledge at a 20% discount.

This book brings together the most current thinking about the Anthropocene in the field of Environmental Political Theory (“EPT”). It displays the distinctive contribution EPT makes to the task of thinking through what “the environment” means in this time of pervasive human influence over natural systems. It will be of interest to scholars already engaged in EPT, but it will also serve as an introduction to the field for students of Political Theory, Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and related disciplines. The text will help readers interested in the Anthropocene from any disciplinary perspective develop a critical understanding of its political meanings.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1997.  Part IV, Letter XI (pp. 386-401) of Julie, or the New Heloise. Tr. Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché. In Collected Writings of Rousseau (Volume 6). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Julie is an epistolary novel set in mid-eighteenth century Switzerland. The plot involves the relationship between St. Preux, a young man who is hired as a tutor to the title character. They become lovers, but he is driven away by Julie’s father. Julie subsequently marries Wolmar, and much of the novel concerns their lives at their estate, Clarens, which after some years St. Preux visits. In the present letter St. Preux describes a private garden, called “Elysium,” Julie has created near the house. It appears to him to be “wild and rustic,” with “no marks of human industry”—i.e. he sees it as the product of spontaneous nature.  But Julie corrects him, saying that “It is true that Nature has done everything, but under my direction, and you see nothing but what has been done under my orders.” She then explains how she accomplished the effect of naturalness through the careful management of water and the use of native plants. The remainder of the letter features a discussion of the aesthetics of gardens; Rousseau’s views had a strong influence on the development of the taste for less formal garden layouts.

One of my interests on this blog has been to see whether figures in the western tradition of political philosophy can shed light on what seems to be a contemporary, indeed historically novel phenomenon, the Anthropocene. I hope some of my previous posts have made plausible my assumption that they can.

My assumption intersects with our present theme on perceiving the Anthropocene. For it suggests that as the Anthropocene comes into our awareness, part of what dawns on us is that we are not seeing something new as much as we are recognizing that something has been happening for a long time which we had not fully acknowledged. Going back to past theorists is motivated by the suspicion that maybe they were already thinking about the profoundly transformative role of human beings within the physical environment—perhaps developing concepts whose application to our situation we are now able to perceive.

In this post I want again to go back to an author whose work I think is incredibly rich in this regard—Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Even if, as is said, it took Kant to think Rousseau’s thoughts, I believe that Rousseau himself experienced our ambivalences, and wrote works that help us articulate them. His accounts of human beings’ experience of nature in particular help us unpack the complexity of that fundamental relationship—and the description of the garden “Elysium” in his novel Julie is a crucial text, which I’ll discuss in terms of our theme of perception.

In the Elysium passage Rousseau expresses an ideal found in a number of his works: making human influence imperceptible. The ideal is bound up in a paradox, whereby human effort is necessary to attain valued ends, but at the same time threatens to subvert those ends.

In this case, the goal of Julie’s effort is to provide a setting which would afford the experience of contemplative solitude, or reverie—an experience Rousseau associates with being in nature. But, Julie notes, in the social world humans occupy, that experience is not readily accessible: nature “flies from public places.” Providing that experience within the human domain therefore demands “some degree of illusion.”

The paradox as it regards Elysium derives from the fact that the site had previously been an ugly, disused orchard, unsuited to providing the valued experience of Nature. Thus, on the one hand, substantial human effort was required to reclaim the site, in order to make it look completely natural. But, on the other, if those efforts were noticeable, the place would not look natural, but would appear as a garden. And that would undermine its purpose. The perception of human effort would compromise the purity of the viewer’s response to the scene; the response would be experienced as deliberately evoked by another person, and not a direct reaction to natural stimuli.

Thus the need for illusion. Note that the illusion is not that the trees and flowers are actually paper—the living things present in Elysium exist by way of their spontaneous organic processes. The illusion is that the landscape emerged spontaneously by way of some ecological process—rather than having been arranged by its human designer precisely to work an effect on the viewer. A spontaneous landscape would evoke a spontaneous response; for a managed landscape to have the same effect its constructedness must be concealed.

The wild garden - - 821002

But as much as Rousseau makes these ideas available to the reader, what actually happens in the scene is that St. Preux is taught by Julie and Wolmar to see through the illusion they have crafted so carefully. St. Preux enters Elysium and perceives a natural wilderness; the following pages depict him learning to perceive Elysium as Julie’s creation.

This is why I think this text has something to say about our theme of perceiving the Anthropocene. For the letter shows St. Preux having an extended “a ha! moment”—akin to the moments described in the posts this fall, in which some immediately perceived object (or condition) prompts a perception (or recognition) of the broad human influence on the broader environment.

In the first part of the letter Julie and Wolmar reveal the horticultural “stagecraft” that has produced the illusion. The trick is to arrange a setting in which natural processes can play out on their own, rather than, as is conventional, forcing the results of those processes into patterns dictated by fashion, as with topiary and geometric design. “Does nature constantly make use of the square or rule?” Wolmar asks rhetorically, referring to conventional garden designers. “Are they afraid lest she should be visible in some spots, notwithstanding all their care to disfigure her?” The characters’ discussion of conventional landscape aesthetics reveals the motivation they attribute to the taste for it: the vanity of the owners of estates (and the designers they commission), who seek to manipulate natural forms into unnatural configurations solely to impress others, in an effort to enhance their own self-esteem.

As the letter proceeds, therefore, we see that St. Preux’s a ha! moment is multi-leveled. It starts with the revelation that Elysium is not, as in his first impression, remote from humanity, but is actually the product of human effort. As the details of Elysium’s construction are revealed, St. Preux comes to perceive more—about possibilities for human action in nature.

In the first instance, Julie and Wolmar’s description of their techniques demonstrates, quite literally, how human design can deploy natural processes, in ways that do not distort natural forms; this idea is, of course quite familiar today, under rubrics like design with nature and ecological engineering.

But further, Rousseau depicts St. Preux coming to perceive that human influence on nature can be moralized—specifically, he perceives how human design can invest a landscape with moral meaning. I want to focus on this general reading—for to be sure, a key meaning St. Preux perceives in Elysium is specifically linked to themes in the novel as a whole, involving the characters’ relationships. But it is this general point that is relevant to the perceptions of the Anthropocene we have noted on this blog.

Wildfire California Santa ClaritaOf course there is an obvious difference between St. Preux’s perception in Elysium and the perceptions of the Anthropocene described in recent posts. The posts have described becoming aware of a complex of unseen global processes, unwittingly initiated by humans. These revelations are threatening: an uncontrolled, perhaps uncontrollable power is manifesting itself through a cascade of damaging events. The violence is sometimes fast and indiscriminate, sometimes slow and inequitably distributed, but ultimately threatening to all.

The emotional valence of these perceptions, in other words, is the opposite of St. Preux’s. He perceives a gentle human hand, providing for redemption rather than unthinking destruction. We might think, therefore, that his perceptions have no bearing on ours, which present the salient reality, with all of its danger. Elysium might seem apart from our world, in keeping with its name.

But note that Rousseau is certainly mindful of the environmentally destructive potential of human activity, in particular when it is motivated by commerce and the desire for social domination (whose linkages he theorizes). Indeed, it can be argued that his social thought is an attempt to account for just that potential for human activity to have bad effects, which can be reflected in their environmental ramifications. The relevant passages are spread across Rousseau’s work, including in Julie; the Elysium passage, however, is for the most part a counterpoint to them.

For Elysium instead represents a different potential for human action—that when it is guided properly it can redeem the evil sown when it is guided wrongly. Elysium, that is, expresses a redemptive project Rousseau announces in the draft of the Social Contract, where he sees in “perfected art the reparation of the ills that the beginnings of art caused to nature” (Bk II, ch. ii). The beginnings of art left an abandoned orchard; Julie’s perfected art repaired the site, producing Elysium.

In the context of a passage praising Rousseau, Kant elaborates the thought of “perfected art,” referring to it as “second nature” (“Speculative Beginning of Human History,” p. 55). That phrase can be construed simply as the world human beings have made for themselves out of the materials taken from nature as they found it. Kant, building on Rousseau, sees human constructedness as a necessary feature of second nature—but not as sufficient. For what is also necessary is the perfection of art: the application of human ingenuity to the repair of damage due to human failure, due, it must be stressed, to humans’ failure to overcome their “impulses to vice.”

This, I suppose, is what St. Preux perceives in Elysium: a place created not by nature, but by Julie as a figure for second nature—who acts not simply by directing natural processes, but by directing them toward a moral end. And by dramatizing St. Preux’s perception, Rousseau offers it to us. I end, then, with this deeply felt question: in this moment, now, is it possible to sustain Rousseau’s vision? In the glare of the Anthropocene, that is, is it possible to for us to perceive second nature?


Pondering a diorama to perceive the Anthropocene

“This sprawling epic is as lively as a natural history museum diorama.” (Stephanie Zacharek, review of “10,000 BC”)

Perceiving means to become conscious of, to realize, to understand, to grasp. Natural history museums strive to enable the public to perceive, commonly in re-creations of past worlds. Who hasn’t gazed over a diorama of the Carboniferous Period, for example, Continue reading

One geologist’s perception of the Anthropocene

Berlin, 2014. The Anthropocene Working Group (“AWG,” of which I am a member) was convening for the first time to deliberate the proposal to formalize a new geological time unit in Earth’s history. This was personal to me, because Continue reading

Neptune’s Treasure: Confronting the Anthropocene with the Ancient Aroma of Ambergris

Ambergris found in New Zealand. Image from Ambergis NZ

I find examining human history more comforting than considering the ever-encroaching future promised (or threatened?) by talk of the Anthropocene. This preference informs my work as an artist: Continue reading

Why Say “Weed” in the Anthropocene?


White clover growing in the lawn outside the New York Hall of Science, where the author and Environmental Performance Agency collaborators held the workshop “Plant Talk, Human Talk: An EPA Training for the Beginning of the World” (image by the Environmental Performance Agency)

In my post last week, I used a recent study on the urban evolution of white clover and its coverage in the popular press to start thinking about how traits described as “weedy” relate to Continue reading

“Contrasting the effects of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow on urban evolution in white clover (Trifolium repens)”

Marc T. J. Johnson, Cindy M. Prashad, Mélanie Lavoignat, Hargurdeep S. Saini. 2018.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 285, no. 1883, published on-line July 25, 2018: pp. 8-33.
Urbanization is a global phenomenon with profound effects on the ecology and evolution of organisms. We examined the relative roles of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow in influencing the evolution of white clover (Trifolium repens), which thrives in urban and rural areas. Continue reading

There Goes the Neighborhood: Urban Coyotes in Pennsylvania and California

Coyote in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

This post was co-authored by Christian Hunold, Drexel University
and Teresa Lloro-Bidart, Cal Poly Pomona

Coyotes have incorporated themselves into nearly every major city in North America. Coyotes’ ability to thrive in cities testifies not only to the Anthropocene’s blurring of human-wildlife boundaries; it also undermines the idea that Continue reading

Sensing High Water in Venice

Venice High Water

Flood warning siren in Venice (from Sounds Like Noise)

Visiting Venice this summer suggested some intellectual bridges between cities (see our previous series on the Urban Anthropocene), and our new theme (Perceiving the Anthropocene). How do cities help us perceive the Anthropocene— Continue reading

Seeing Artful Traces in the Geologic Record

This is the first in a series of posts on Perceiving the Anthropocene.

After escaping Polyphemus’s cave, Odysseus, ignoring protests from his men, shouts back in anger at the giant:

Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
Destroyed your sight.

— Homer, The Odyssey, IX.502-506, Emily Wilson, trans.

Odysseus’s announcement functions like a signature Continue reading

Video of “Cities and Our Future” panel discussion

Earlier this spring, Cindy Simon Rosenthal offered a series of three posts on the topic of “Cities and Our Future: Governance in the Anthropocene.” On March 6, 2018 (rescheduled
Continue reading