Saturday, 4 October 2014

Be careful who you dance with; or, The dangers of modernist post-naturalism; or, The discordant choreographies of the Anthropocene

For some commentators, the advent of the Anthropocene as a geohistorically timely concept has been a cause for celebration in at least one respect: it has thumped the final nail into the coffin of 'Nature' qua absolute, immutable outside. This post argues at possibly interminable length what can also be stated simply and with pith:

Those dancing on the grave of Nature should be careful who they dance with.

Because there are those for whom Nature's demise signals the coming of nothing less than a new White Man's Burden—this time it is the burden of Humans tending a prostrate, pathetic, infantilised and mostly lower-case nature. As though perturbation implied control.

Take this from Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist writing in Wired magazine in 2009:
You are living on a used planet. 
If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces. 
Yes, nature is still around ― back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background ― but definitely in no position to take the wheel. That’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.
Or these excerpts from Ellis' article in New Scientist magazine in 2011:
[…] it's high time that we – and I do mean all of us – take stock of the new Earth we have created. 
Earth’s biodiversity, biogeochemistry and evolution are now profoundly reshaped by us – and are therefore in our hands. 
It is no longer Mother Nature who will care for us, but us who must care for her. 
[…] can we create a good Anthropocene? In the distant future will we be able to look back with pride? […] We most certainly can […] In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature.
Or these snippets from Mark Lynas, a British journalist and consultant to the President of Mauritius; for Lynas human beings are now nothing less than The God Species (2011):
On a planetary scale, humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things. 
[…] playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris. The truth of the Anthropocene is that the Earth is far out of balance, and we must help it regain the stability it needs to function as a self-regulating, highly dynamic, and complex system. It cannot do so alone. 
[…] the first responsibility of a conquering army is always to govern. 
In reality we can build our way out of climate change […] 
[…] simply knowing what we are doing means that none of our actions in the future that affect the climate can be called unwitting. Our hands are on the thermostat whether we like it or not, so sooner or later we are going to have to face up to the need to make a decision about what temperature we want our planet to be at over the longer term. 
Finally, this introductory remark from Emma Marris' book Rambunctious Garden (2011):
We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammelled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us. (p.2)
It is not at all difficult to hear the unabashed reclamation of the modernist telos in these claims, as well-intentioned and agreeable as each of the above authors may otherwise be. This is a problem. We are not, in the above, so very far away from the high modernist idealism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his book Building the Earth [Construire La Terre] (1958):
[…] mankind is not an accidental phenomenon occurring by chance on one of the smallest stars in the sky. Mankind represents the culmination of the whole movement of matter and life, so far as it is within the range of our experience. 
[…] real unity, to the extent to which all the world is finally at one in recognising that the function of man is to build and direct the whole of the Earth.

In us the evolution of the World towards the spirit becomes conscious. 
Intellectually, the progress of science is proceeding to construct a synthesis of the laws of Matter and Life, which, fundamentally, is nothing else but a collective act of perception; the World seen in the same coherent perspective by the whole of Mankind. The future of the Earth is in our hands. How shall we decide?
Nor is it so different from the thoughts of the Russian geochemist and philosopher Vladimir Vernadsky, writing just after the Second World War:
If man understands [that the strength of mankind is derived from its brain] an immense future is open before him in the geological history of the biosphere. […] we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. 
We are entering this new spontaneous process at a terrible time, at the end of a destructive world war. But the important thing for us is the fact that the ideals of our democracy correspond to a spontaneous geological process, to natural laws – the noösphere. So we can look at the future with confidence.
The neo-noöspheric pretensions of the modernist Anthropocene celebrators are widely evidenced. If the above references are a little obscure then take this from Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves (2003):
We are outnumbered on this planet [by other species] but though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future–a comet on a collision course, or global warming–and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
The final sentence of that paragraph is taken as the epigraph to James Lovelock's most recent book A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), a book that I've written about on this blog previously.

Evidently, dancing on the grave of Nature qua absolute, immutable outside in no way necessitates the abandonment of modernist onto-imperialism, nor human exceptionalism, nor anything of the sort.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm not dancing too, it's just that I'm finding myself more and more wary of those that I'm dancing with.

No one has made more of a cause célèbre of the Anthropocene than Bruno Latour; he has literally monumentalised it. This short essay written for The Breakthrough Institute (2011) chimes fully and loudly with the above:
France, for its part, has never believed in the notion of a pristine Nature that has so confused the "defense of the environment" in other countries. What we call a "national park" is a rural ecosystem complete with post offices, well-tended roads, highly subsidized cows, and handsome villages. 
Those who wish to protect natural ecosystems learn, to their stupefaction, that they have to work harder and harder—that is, to intervene even more, at always greater levels of detail, with ever more subtle care—to keep them "natural enough" for Nature-intoxicated tourists to remain happy. 
Like France's parks, all of Nature needs our constant care, our undivided attention, our costly instruments, our hundreds of thousands of scientists, our huge institutions, our careful funding. But though we have Nature, and we have nurture, we don't know what it would mean for Nature itself to be nurtured.
Nigel Clark has criticised Latour's work for hewing too close to an excessive constructivism in his book Inhuman Nature. However, the obvious resonances of this extract with the foregoing should not be taken altogether out of context; particularly, Latour's more recent work supplements his constructivism. The crucial importance of Gaia for Latour (and, in fairness, for Lovelock) is precisely that she is utterly beyond our ken and unquestionably outside of our control, even if she is essentially immanent to our atmo-chemically effluent perturbations. It is Gaia that wreaks revenge, not us; we are little more than 'tics on her mane.' There is no possibility of mastery here.

This is the crucial difference: It is not enough to simply celebrate the end of 'Nature'—one must also recognise that its successor, Gaia, is more not less fearsome.

There's a saying, supposedly Inuit, that appears on motivational posters and in books of popular quotations: When you're walking on thin ice you might as well dance. Are we dancing because we are fully cognisant that the ice might crack at any moment or because we are so very excited see such a great and glorious future laid out before us? Nothing could be more crucial than this difference.

Are these the last days of Rome or the first?—Our entire Anthropocene choreography pivots on this crucial geopolitical distinction. Entirely different terrestrial ensembles will result from the following through of these distinct plans of movement. They are worlds apart.

It's a ghoulish thought, dancing on the fragilely interred. Might we yet plunge into Nature's icy grave? Might we follow the path of Nature after all; that is, out of existence? I, for one, am disinclined to link arms with anyone who fails to see this as all too real of a possibility.

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