“Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change”

Dipesh Chakrabarty. 2012. New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 1-18.
This article begins by describing how the figure of the human has been thought in anticolonial and postcolonial writing—as that of the rights-bearing citizen and as the “subject under erasure” of deconstructive thinking, respectively. The essay then goes on to show how the science of climate change foregrounds the idea of human beings’ collective geological agency in determining the climate of the planet, a move that makes the other two figures not redundant but inadequate to the task of imagining the human in the age of the Anthropocene. The article ends by arguing the necessity of our having to think of the human on multiple and incommensurable scales simultaneously, keeping all the three figures of the human in disjunctive association with one another.

How do we imagine the Anthropocene?  When I hear the term, my mind readily fills with images of melting glaciers, burning forests, hybrid “pizzly” bears, and colorful layers of “plastiglomerate.”  These are all tangible consequences of our cumulative impacts on the planet.  But what image do we have of ourselves for the new epoch?  Building on concerns I raised in my initial post, I would like to consider this question here.

According to the eminent postcolonial thinker Dipesh Chakrabarty, it is very difficult  to conceptualize the “anthro” of the Anthropocene using any of our familiar frameworks.  We can think of ourselves as a species with an exceptional if often unintentional ability to transform its biosphere.  Or we can portion out accountability  to subpopulations of humanity, locating, say, members of the jet-setting global elite at one extreme and displaced Bangladeshi farmers at the other.  The former image (of human-as-species) can guide us toward an explanation for how we arrived at the Anthropocene, while the latter (differentiated) human can bring questions of justice into our discussions of mitigation and adaptation.  Indeed, we need both self-images if we hope to address climate change in a socially just manner.

But neither of these figurations, Chakrabarty reminds us, brings us to a solid understanding of the human as a “geophysical force:”

This nonhuman, forcelike mode of existence of the human tells us that we are no longer simply a form of life that is endowed with a sense of ontology…  in becoming a geophysical force on the planet, we have also developed a form of collective existence that has no ontological dimension.  Our thinking about ourselves now stretches our capacity for interpretive understanding.  We need nonontological ways of thinking the human. (p.13)

As a result, we seem to be in search of a new self-image—one that can account for our relationships not just with other organisms or with regional geophysical processes, but with complex webs of interaction at a scale we cannot even perceive without the use of machines that traverse outer space.  From the perspective of climate science, planetary-scale processes have always existed, but are now in certain ways basically shaped by our cumulative activities.  What this means for us phenomenologically and ontologically are questions that the interpretive disciplines are only beginning to investigate.  It is, therefore, ironic if not entirely surprising that certain cosmologies from beyond technoscience, including religious and Indigenous ones, seem better positioned to offer satisfying interpretations (but see also Zev’s recent post).

The fact that the crisis of climate change will be routed through all our “anthropological differences” can only mean that, however anthropogenic the current global warming may be in its origins, there is no corresponding “humanity” that in its oneness can act as a political agent. (p. 14)

And therein lie potentially paralyzing challenges.  Chakrabarty’s words inspire me to ponder what it is to be human in a world that is at once profoundly impacted by us, largely beyond our control, and always exceeding our comprehension.

Those of us grappling with these questions from within academic institutions have our work cut out for us.[1, 2]  We need to collaborate extensively with those who can explain the Anthropocene, and we need to look with fully open minds to novel possibilities for interpreting it.  If, as Chakrabarty suggests, we cannot at present experience ourselves as a planetary force, we will do well to pursue broader horizons of experience.  Without them, we may fail to develop a compelling normative template for action, and we may find ourselves without an inhabitable planet on which to dwell.

  1. Chakrabarty has previously argued that climate change upends the epistemological and institutional apparatus dividing natural history from human history.
  2. Recent posts by Ingo and Zev suggest some of the interesting ways in which the Anthropocene is a time of both biological and epistemological hybrids.

Dipesh Chakrabarty. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 197-222This widely cited piece lays out Chakrabarty’s nuanced perspective on how climate change and the Anthropocene complicate prevailing ways of imagining the human.
Gregory Cajete. 1999. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers. This text suggests one among many possible opportunities for broadening hegemonic horizons of experience.

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