Intersubjective explorations: autonomy and control in the anthropocene

This is the fourth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

The autonomy of the natural world, inclusive of and not subservient to humans, is something that many people already recognize individually, but this stance is not seen in dominant and global scientific, economic and political structures and discourse. Carolyn Merchant calls for recognition of the autonomy of nature, using chaos and complexity theory to underscore the unpredictable, uncontrollable, and perhaps willful aspects of the natural world. She asserts that acknowledging the autonomy of nature could lead to new (and better) ways of engaging with the world. It would also lead to different understandings of humanity, and ways of conducting ecological science. The intrinsic value in the natural world, inclusive of humans, is independent of valuation by an external valuer. Intrinsic value implies only that there is value to the subject in itself, as stance that may require a generous view of subjectivity. Thomas Heyd claims that any argument for intrinsic value hinges on the recognition of autonomy. Both of these terms imply that the thing in question is self-determining. According to Heyd, the recognition of autonomy also marks the thing in question as a candidate for moral consideration, and this recognition is dependent on a capacity for intersubjective exploration, requiring different and new ways of knowing. Here, I am reminded of Viveiros de Castro’s description of Amazonian perspectivism, and the idea that in order to know, one must embody the perspective of the other (a way of knowing I am developing within my own work). Heyd asks, which ways of knowing do not objectify the very nature we wish to know?

Present-day land management, restoration, and other environmental sciences tend to view nature paternalistically, as if it were our duty to decide what is best for it, viewing nature as an object to be managed rather than as its own autonomous subject. Management plans often operate under the pretense that they are acting in nature’s own interest, when they are really imposing human interests onto landscapes. Peterson’s chapter was exemplary of this point of view, whose management foci were on increasing control, and limiting uncertainty. This goes counter to the recognition of nature as autonomous, uncontrollable, and unpredictable (Merchant), and instead strives to keep it within the bounds of human control “so we can produce a world that we want rather than the world we will otherwise get (Peterson 391).” Katz, cited by Heyd, has a different ethical stance on land management, and believes that liberating nature lies in withdrawing human interference in natural processes, including limiting management interference.

Peterson’s anxiety about losing control of these managed systems, is perhaps related to the Ecological Anxiety Disorder discussed by Robbins and Moore. Peterson’s fearful response to the “negative normative influence of humans on the earth (anthrophobia) (Robbins and Moore 4), seems to be expressed as a grasping for control, which is linked to a nostalgia that desires to return to some prior “edenic” state. The prescription for this anxiety, according to Robbins and Moore, is to express the truth of our desires, and to be radically and explicitly honest about the stakes of differing outcomes for the various actors involved. This requires acknowledging the entanglement of politics of control over the natural world, even within the sciences. Soule’s article on conservation biology begins to do this, acknowledging the normative aspects of the science. Soule also acknowledges the disconnect often present in the natural sciences of scientists who believe in the intrinsic value of nature, while their funding is often only concerned with human benefits from natural resources.

“In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8
Illustration by Michael Harney from Margolin’s The Ohlone Way, 1978. “In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8

Margolin’s piece on the Ohlone way provides a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in a society in which nature and other species were considered autonomous, and not within the domain of human control. Perhaps, however, this edenic view is something that is no longer attainable, and we have to look for futures embracing hybrid landscapes, in which the autonomy of nature and the autonomy of humans are not opposing forces. For me, a crux of the issue remains that the political, scientific, and economic systems within which we operate do not allow for the inclusion of non-humans as autonomous political subjects, nor do they necessarily reflect the moral stance of human individuals, including politicians, scientists, and economists, but instead force us into certain exploitative moral configurations and value systems.

Works Cited:

  1. Merchant, Carolyn. Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution. New York: Routledge, 2016, “Introduction: Can Nature be Controlled?” pp. 1-17.
  2. Heyd, Thomas, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, “Introduction,” pp. 1-22.
  3. Keekok Lee, “Is Nature Autonomous?” in Thomas Heyd, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 54-74.
  4. Peterson, Garry D. “Ecological Management: Control, Uncertainty, and Understanding,” in Kim Cuddington and Beatrix Beisner, eds. Ecological Paradigms Lost: Routes of Theory Change. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, Ch. 17, pp. 371-395.
  5. Robbins, Paul and Sarah A. Moore. “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene.” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 1 (2012): 3-19.
  6. Soulé, Michael E. “What is Conservation Biology.” BioScience 35, no. 11, “The Biodiversity Crisis.” (Dec. 1985): 727-734.
  7. Margolin, Malcolm. The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1978, pp. 1-12.
  8. Brashares, Justin, et al. “Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict.” Science, 345, no. 6195 (25 July 2014): 376-378.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *