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.


[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).


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

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.

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.

5 thoughts on “Stewarding the planet? The Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies

  1. The determination that the Anthropocene has begun requires that human impacts to the planet be carefully and scientifically distinguished from natural processes so that one can see if and when the human impacts are of sufficient scale to declare a new geologic era. Thus scientists try to rigorously determine the natural background rate of extinction and natural contributions to climate change in order to separate from them the distinct timing and extent of anthropogenically caused extinctions and climate change. It is precisely the dualistic separation of the anthropogenic from the natural that justifies designation of an Anthropocene era. If no separation can be established, or if the anthropogenic effect is not sufficiently large, then we are still in the Holocene because the dualistic Anthropocene criteria have not been met. Accordingly, there is a huge body of scientific debate in the Anthropocene literature over whether this or that planetary impact was caused by natural or anthropogenic agency. Distinguishing the latter from the former is the scientific mission of Anthropocene researchers.

    Thus the supposed “unity of the human and natural” inherent in the idea of the Anthropocene does not at all come from viewing humans as natural or humans and nature as forming a single system. To the contrary, the “unity” is a declaration that one entity (humans) thoroughly dominates and controls another entity (nature). It plots the relative power of each change over time.

    I would submit that this extraordinarily energy intensive act of domination, colonization, appropriation and extinction is not at all what most intellectuals and religious thinkers of the past 2000 years have meant by “overcoming dualism.” For example, would most thinkers trying to overcome the human/nature divide conclude that we have acheived it in the complete paving of the Los Angeles River and the appropriation of all its water? Would they conclude that more unity has been achieved there, than in our relationship with the Yellowstone River? If unity is proven by dominance, are we to conclude that European culture is no longer alienated and seperate from Native American tribes because it has destroyed or dominated them? The influence of western culture is now pervasive throughout virtually all aspects of Native American. Is this what we mean by recognizing/effecting the unity of cultures? Are we more at one with the species we’ve driven extinct than those existing far from human settlements in the last remaining patches of old growth forest?

    Domination is not unity. It does not overcome dualism, it reifies it in a master-slave relationship. Unity does not obliterate separateness, it respects autonomy and otherness.

    In this light, the Anthropocene idea/accomplishment looks very much like the culmination of the western dualistic, colonial, anthropocentric project, not a deviation from it.

    • I am happy that my post seems to start off on the right foot, raising precisely the type of discussion I was wishing for. I am grateful to Kieran for a very insightful comment, which I think deserves a reply, to clarify my point.

      It seems to me that Kieran and I agree on how prevailing understandings of the Anthropocene align with the dominative tradition of western civilization. The issue, then, is how such domination is sought and performed.

      Anthropologists have documented how human cultures have elaborated different accounts of their relationship with the nonhuman world. Western modernity is characterized by ‘naturalism’, whereby humans are regarded as the only entities provided with reason and spirituality, while being physically similar to nonhuman entities (see P. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2013). This corresponds to a neat distinction between nature and culture, and represents the basis of western dualisms.

      At the same time, Adorno tells us that domination of nature is based on a distorted mimetic attitude, whereby the tendency all living beings share to get closer, or better fit, to their surroundings, ‘making oneself like the other’, is turned upside down, becoming a thrust to ‘make the other like oneself’, to transform otherness into sameness. This is what Adorno calls ‘identity thinking’ (see Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment).

      So, western modernity’s dominative inclination works, we can say, according to a double movement: first, by setting a divide between the human and the nonhuman (naturalism); second, by assimilating the separated entity to itself (identity thinking). Giorgio Agamben insists that this is the distinctive feature of western ontology, as governed by a mechanism of exclusive inclusion, whereby something is divided from something else, to be immediately recaptured as a governable exterior. This is the basis of the ‘state of exception’ one finds at work in Guantanamo and similar camps, or in ‘humanitarian’ wars, where law applies through its own suspension, so that prisoners, migrants or populations are simultaneously within and outside law, living in a legalized lawlessness (see Agamben, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, 2005).

      Coming back to our discussion, the question is whether the Anthropocene framework merely reproduces the dominative approach of western modernity, or signals a sort of qualitative change. Kieran rightly stresses that the notion of the Anthropocene only makes sense to the extent that it is possible to distinguish human impacts from natural processes. At the same time, however, if ‘culture’ is declared to override ‘nature,’ the distinction loses traction and otherness is increasingly assimilated to sameness. In the double movement above, the first step loses relevance, to the benefit of the second. Identity thinking intensifies in unprecedented ways, opening avenues to equally unprecedented hubris. It is important not to forget that, as I say in my post, the sciences and technologies supposedly capable of leading humanity towards a ‘good’ Anthropocene – from biology to cybernetics, from nanotechnologies to neurosciences – increasingly adopt nondualist standpoints, with distinctions such as subject/object, organic/inorganic, matter/cognition, organism/environment becoming increasingly porous, if not outright blurred. Human hubris can be served, that is, by the collapse of dualism.

      To conclude, I agree with Kieran that the alleged overcoming of the nature/culture distinction corresponds in fact to a ‘declaration that one entity (humans) thoroughly dominates and controls another entity (nature)’. In this sense, the western dominative program remains in place, in a much intensified form. It is not pointless, however, to grasp and address the shift in the balance between the two steps (naturalization and identity thinking) that the Anthropocene narrative and the broader scientific enterprise are making.

      I am especially concerned with the possibility of a robust critique. If prominent scholars, in philosophy, the social sciences and elsewhere, continue to attack western dualism in the belief that non-dualism necessarily entails a caring and respectful attitude toward nature, while emergent dominative programs can be built on those very same non-dualist premises, then a big question mark raises about the adequacy of our critical weapons. In my recent works I seek to address precisely this issue. Of course, there is an enormous task lying ahead.

  2. Hi Luigi!

    I am sorry that it has taken me so long to catch up with your work here. I genuinely enjoyed your contributions at the Pisa workshop — wise and ironic (in a human way).

    This is a good post. I think teasing out the complicity of the new process monisms with (a) the neo-liberal financialization of everything and with (b) the loss of a coherent view of accountability is excellent and much (more) needed. As to (a), I think it worth saying that neo-liberalism as a conversion of non-market spheres and values to market values modeled on finance capital needs — to conduct its bits and pulses — an imaginary. This imaginary makes it easier to adopt the view that value can cave inward into a single, monotonous, monetized stream. The imaginary is helped by much in post-modern and contemporary monism: ironically, by both Deleuze and Guattari’s adepts and by the monism of vital materialism and actor network theory. These allow us to see life as a flow of a continuum — the pretension of the imagery of neo-liberalism.

    Much the same can be said of (b): by construing the human as the passive, determined side of the third Kantian antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason, the resistance of agency –of autonomy– is lost. This fundamental passivity — the collapse of the standpoint of resistance and self-determination — is just what is needed to create the imaginary of the inexorable flow of the market which converts everything into its finance investments and returns: the common good, the person, the public sphere, rights, everything else that is human (beauty, love, even truth in the “market of ideas” and the economic investments of governments in “human capital development”).

    You are right to caution the further creation of the imaginary of neo-liberalism in its purported opponents.

    Speculative realism and OOO, however, might be interesting counterpoints. To the extent that they articulate the withdrawal of objects, they bring us to become accountable to our impotence to control things. I think it is worth considering their position as a critique of narcissism, as non-identitarian thinking that cannot even support a dualism, because the numbering of the plural spheres of being implies our comprehension of them. OOO and speculative realism, it seems to me, lead coherently to Wittgensteinian description and a kind of attentive realism. They might not like that, but I don’t see how else it could go. And attentive realism is a good thing. For one thing, it will not abide neo-liberal abstraction and reduction.

    I have to confess to not actually understanding why people concerned with how much we are treating other people and our created environment as modes of injustice turn at all to ontology. It seems to me the only useful move is the basic one Heidegger made: our being always involves an understanding of how to be (and ethics); any ethics is historical — we inherit it filled with contradictions and areas where it has ceased to get a grip on our situation, and we ourselves are finite and get caught up in it and in our everyday activities; also, any real ethics is social, worked into our practices and their often conflicting purposes. We have to work collectively to change them, and this is always messy and incomplete.

    Is that a dualism? A monism? It seems neither. The “what” of those ontological debates seems to have stayed back in the problems of “objective presence,” whereas actual ontology is something mostly practical, found by engaging collectively and thoughtfully with the ways we find and sometimes make sense in our lives out of the historical situation embedded in our very approach to life. To be simple, I’d say this: the question is not about monism or dualism, but about whether someone approaches our situation historically or ahistorically, and about whether they see how we are as a problem of collective decisions and discoveries as opposed to some theory in a thinker’s –or plutocrat’s, or technocrat’s- head.

    • Hi Jeremy,
      sorry for late reaction, I have been overwhelmed by things and still I am not able to work out a more elaborate reflection on your insightful comment. I just want to say that I fully agree with you about the centrality of the historical vs. ahistorical standpoint. Indeed, I believe that either one assumes that history comes first (hence ideas belong to history and cannot claim any undisputable closer approximation to an ultimate truth) or vice versa (hence history belongs to ideas, and the history of ideas is a history of growing closeness to truth), and there is no way to accommodate these two positions, choosing between which I suspect depends not only on theoretical justifications but also on existential and temperamental inclinations, outside the possibility of a full account.
      As for speculative realism and OOO, I also agree that they offer interesting arguments. Yet they raise also problems, it seems to me. There are remarkable differences in the positions of the authors who can be associated with this perspective, so one cannot generalize. However, if one takes for example Meillassoux (who is widely recognized as a prominent exponent of this strand) and looks at his confutation of correlationism, one finds that it builds on what he takes as irrefutable evidence of ancestral geological or cosmic events completely independent of the human observing subject. So, science is taken to provide evidence of undisputable objective facts, rather than evidence to and for human beings (and moreover historically located beings, not ‘humanity’ as such). I find this problematic for its disregard of decades of inquiry into science practices and the role therein of symbols, metaphors and cultural mediations. Indeed, the identification of ancestral or cosmic events relies on physical processes to detect which one needs instrumental and conceptual mediators, with related assumptions and limitations. For example, as regards relative and absolute dating of geological events, there are a number of assumptions, such as the principle of uniformitarianism (by which the way geological processes work today is assumed to be the same as billion years ago), as well as a number of problems, such as the limited reliability of radiometric techniques (to say nothing of the fact that the latter’s underlying principles are drawn from nuclear physics, with its own assumptions and unresolved issues). In this sense there is a risk of (at least some) speculative realist positions to fall back onto disguised forms of traditional realism, being less innovative than it may seem.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.