Stewarding the planet? The Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies

We welcome to the blog Luigi Pellizzoni, of the University of Trieste, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.


The ontological claims embroiled in the notion of the Anthropocene have so far attracted less attention than other issues. However, as I will try to show, it is important to engage in a thorough reflection on them—which I hope to kick start with the following contribution.

The notion of the Anthropocene conveys the idea that human intermingling with the biophysical world has reached such a level that talking of nature as a separate entity is nonsensical and misleading. Yet, one might observe, there is nothing really new in this standpoint. Marx, for example, already claimed that humans cannot be conceived as separated from nature, and that their relation with it is increasingly mediated by technology, which is the product of human labor under specific social conditions. Even Descartes and Kant don’t go so far as to affirm that mind, as responsible for the technological transformation of materiality, is completely detached from the physical world.

But the novelty of the Anthropocene can also be questioned also by noting how it seems to reproduce classic western dualist thinking, whereby humans’ increased ability to ‘steer’ biophysical processes is the result of a ‘distancing’ or externalization of human agency from the materiality it works on. Thus, implicit in the Anthropocene notion is the idea that humans can—indeed should—become effective ‘stewards’ of the Earth system. To be sure there can be different views about the purported power of human ingenuity to overcome the ‘recalcitrance’ of matter. Nonetheless a core presupposition of the Anthropocene argument is that matter is indeed pliable to human will. This presupposition underlies the re-emergence of the theme of human exceptionalism, as seen, for example, in Manuel Arias-Maldonado’s post on this blog.

Yet, does this mean the Anthropocene merely “rebrands” traditional western metaphysics? Not at all, I would say. The Anthropocene ontology is in fact resolutely nondualist. Some versions of the Anthropocene narrative make this especially clear–for example the one proposed by the Breakthrough Institute’s Ecomodernist Manifesto (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015). In a nutshell, the Manifesto’s argument is that humankind has flourished despite growing damage to natural systems, where the damage is itself the consequence of human beings’ use of the biosphere to meet their needs, and desires. To escape pending threats, therefore, human societies should increasingly decouple themselves from natural biophysical systems, i.e. the systems not directly under human technical control. We can and should do without nature in that sense of the word; conservation or preservation of non-human natural areas is more a matter of aesthetic and moral commitments than of utilitarian ones.

Such an outsized role for technology, as effectively a replacement for nature, implies a total blurring of the human and the nonhuman. The historical record of human transformation of nature is reframed as a testimony that nature is nothing more than what we want it to be. Technology replaces nature because it is ultimately indistinguishable from it. Better, technology produces nature as an purely internal differentiation – what is let be, as deliberately unexploited possibilities.

Though of course the Ecomodernist Manifesto cannot be taken to represent the whole array of positions in the Anthropocene debate, especially considering the neoliberal leanings of the Breakthrough Institute[1], I think most, if not all, such positions subscribe to a version of this ontological standpoint. In this sense (and this may help explain the concept’s rapid, amazing success), the case for the Anthropocene can be seen as a resonant instance of a broader intellectual move towards nondualist ontologies which has been taking place since the 1990’s, at an increased pace in recent years.

In the social sciences and humanities (SSH), for example, the so-called ‘new materialism’ (see e.g. Coole and Frost 2010) is characterized precisely by a rejection of the binaries traditional to modern thinking (nature/culture, mind/body, subject/object, matter/language, reality/knowledge, sensuous/ideal, etc.). SSH scholars, it has to be noted, find major inspiration in contemporaneous developments in the biophysical sciences and technologies, where the boundaries between life and nonlife, material and informational, bodily and mental, real and virtual, mechanical and organic, become increasingly porous. As a result, fluidity, contingency and endless variation appear to constitute the basic fabric of reality. If there is anything current SSH and natural sciences share, it is this move towards a nondualist ontological framework.[2]

From such a framework new materialist scholars generally draw ‘emancipatory’ implications. The overcoming of binaries, they stress, entails a distributed account of liveliness and agency, countering the dominative implications of dualist thinking, where one polarity always ends up claiming predominance over the other. Human agency, as a result, takes a post-humanist outlook: disempowered, defective, decentered, hence also modest, restrained, careful and responsible.

Far less noticed is the fact that the same ontological claims can be conducive to opposite outcomes.[3] If the world is inherently contingent and fluid, including the agent’s own ‘center’, then there is no limit to what such an agent, eventually identifiable only as the source point of a will to be(come), can do to the material world, including to his or her own physical constitution. This agent becomes a “world-maker” in the fullest sense of the expression, as the psychical and corporeal ‘self’ can be molded and remolded together with its own framing conditions. The blurring of internal and external (relative to the self) is analogous to the way a big-bang universe simultaneously deploys both its material contents and the framework of time and space in which they exist.

Needless to say, in this framework any notion of responsibility evaporates, replaced by a radical experimentalism where error is reframed from threat to opportunity. Cutting-edge neoliberal managerial literature, for example, claims that non-predictive decision making enables people ‘to do things without understanding them – and to do them well’, and further that any distinction between epistemic and ontic sources of indeterminacy, between ignorance and randomness, is pointless, since their practical effects are ‘completely equivalent’ (Taleb 2012: 4, 13). The very possibility of distinguishing between ‘humble’ and ‘hubristic’ standpoints is problematic, as evidenced by a number of emergent techno-human assemblages, from new prosthetics to brain-computer interfaces, where ‘reparation’ and ‘enhancement’ are often hard to disentangle.

The ambivalent, or ambiguous, implications of nondualist ontologies lie, I believe, at the basis of much of the controversy over the Anthropocene. There is a lesson to be drawn from the relative blindness of new materialist scholars to the fact that the same ontological claims used to argue against dominative relationships and programs (concerning humans and nonhumans) are endorsed by those who they frequently identify as the ‘bad guys’–from advocates of pre-emptive war, for whom there is no difference between reality and imagination, to biotech patent holders who, according to convenience, claim property rights over either information or materiality, genes or seeds.

The lesson is that, by itself, the notion of Anthropocene tells absolutely nothing about what one ought to do. We are left, therefore, with an ideal of stewardship.

This word, as far as I can see, still floats somewhat in the air, as an evocative term rather than something that has analytical and policy substance. What does it mean, precisely, to become ‘stewards’ of the planet? And how are we supposed to accommodate different, possibly incompatible outlooks on that? Stewardship is primarily neither a scientific nor a moral, but a political question, through which the Anthropocene is thrown in the political arena. The reference it implies to an ‘Anthropos’ that should serve as planetary steward is at the same time appropriate and unfortunate, correct and misleading. Because it is not an ‘Anthropos’ as such that is responsible for the sour state of our planet, but specific historical configurations of human societies, in particular those implicated by capitalist industrialism and its techno-scientific underpinnings.

Only by fully recognizing the political character of the case for the Anthropocene will we be able to address what a non-dominative approach to stewarding the planet may look like and require.


Notes

[1] Describing the Breakthrough Institute as neoliberal seems accurate, given its argument about the ‘planning fallacy’ of embedded liberalism and its case for market-driven innovation within a regulatory framework established by institutions like the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (see e.g. Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2007).

[2] The conceptual traffic between natural sciences and SSH occurs in both directions, as research testifies (see e.g. Tauber 1997; Hayles 1999; Keller 2002). In this sense, the interdisciplinary ‘conversation’ pleaded for by various scholars (see posts on this blog by Trachtenberg and Meyer) is already strong, though mostly in the form of unaccounted for metaphorical transfers (Pellizzoni 2014).

[3] I provide a thorough development of this problematic in Pellizzoni (2015) and, in condensed versions, in Pellizzoni (2014; 2016).

References

Asafu-Adjaye, J., L. Blomqvist, S. Brand, B. Brook, R. Defries, E. Ellis, C. Foreman et al. 2015. An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Available at: http://www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto.

Coole, D. and S. Frost. 2010. (Eds.) New Materialisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Post-Human. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keller, E. F. 2002. Making Sense of Life. Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nordhaus, T. and M. Shellenberger. 2007. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Pellizzoni, L. 2014. ‘Metaphors and problematizations. Notes for a research programme on new materialism’. Tecnoscienza. Italian Journal of Science and Technology Studies, 2: 73-91.

Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Farnham: Ashgate.

Pellizzoni, L. 2016. ‘Catching up with things? Environmental sociology and the material turn in social theory’. Environmental Sociology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2016.1190490

Taleb, N.N. 2012. Antifragile. Things That Gain from Disorder. London: Penguin.

Tauber, A. 1997. The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor? Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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