Tag Archives: perspectivism

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.

Intersecting narratives: The anthropocene and the spirit of capitalism

This is the first 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.”

“Human activities are exerting increasing impacts on the environment on all scales, in many ways outcompeting natural processes. This includes the manufacturing of hazardous chemical compounds which are not produced by nature, such as for instance the chlorofluorocarbon gases which are responsible for the “ozone hole”. Because human activities have also grown to become significant geological forces, for instance through land use changes, deforestation and fossil fuel burning, it is justified to assign the term “anthropocene” to the current geological epoch. This epoch may be defined to have started about two centuries ago, coinciding with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.”

~Paul J. Crutzen

Considering the suitability of the name “anthropocene” to characterize the present geological era, there are several competing and overlapping narratives. There is a tension within many of the narratives about exactly which humans are the ones leaving their geological imprint on the earth. Paul Crutzen, who is credited with originally coining the term, along with many other climate scientists, exemplifies what Cristophe Bonneuil has called a naturalist narrative. This type of narrative emphasizes that the climatic and geological changes occurring in the earth’s biosphere have been caused by human activities, particularly in the time period since the industrial revolution. However, the question remains for many, which humans? And are these geological imprints essential qualities of humans, or more specifically of capitalism?

I argue, along with others, that blaming the human species may not accurately reflect the particular capitalist relations that led to recent ecological and geological changes. Most science narratives do recognize that the impacts of humans on the earth are very unequally distributed, with the responsibility falling mostly to the few wealthiest countries and corporations. However, while this may be acknowledged within most narratives about the anthropocene, Naomi Klein and others argue that the term “anthropocene” serves to homogenize those differences, attributing responsibility to all humans, and erasing the place-based Eurocentric values that led to the exploitative capitalist-industrial economy. Furthermore, this term does not address or recognize that these environmental responsibilities and burdens are linked to differences in class, race, and gender on a global scale.

Costello et al from Mirzoeff
From Mirzoeff. The upper map shows country’s sizes relative to their carbon output, and the lower map shows country sizes relative to mortality rates.

Anthropologist and historian Dipesh Chakrabarty believes that the term “anthropocene” makes strides toward bridging the modern divide between nature and culture, human history and environmental history, by allowing humans to become aware of their interconnectedness with the earth and the severity of their impacts. However, I would counter that this did not happen by accident. The domination of nature has been part of the project of modernity from the beginning. Colonizers and imperialists very intentionally and knowingly endeavored to exploit nature to serve progress and civilization. To me it seems that the naturalist narrative about the anthropocene serves to reinforce this view of humans as dominant, but now with the earth in need of rescuing. Cristophe Bonneuil further points out that this narrative also positions the sciences (and technology) as saviors of the earth, without recognizing its instrumental part in contributing to many of these planetary changes.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Amazonian perspectivism inspires a shift in our understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to have agency. According to this take on Amazonian cosmology, all beings have agency and spirit, and each occupies an embodied perspective defined by a distinct relationality, giving rise to separate ontological understandings of the world. If we view capitalism as a way of organizing nature which has come to define the epoch of the anthropocene, (or “Capitalocene”, as Jason Moore has renamed it), I argue that capitalism as a “world-ecology”, has its own relationality, and essentially its own spirit or agentive persepective, with a very specific set of relations defining it. Capitalist relations link labor and natural resources as objects of capitalism, which are exploited for the accumulation of capital. As Moore contends, this exploitation blurs the Cartesian boundaries between mind and matter, and places the  objects of capitalism into the realm of nature, concealing both inter- and intra-species differentiations. This is part of the distinct ontological understanding of the spirit of capitalism.

I wonder, if we view both human and non-human beings as having agency, can we truly say that human laborers have more agency than natural resources in powering the capitalist machine? It can certainly be said that the climatic and geological changes evident in the anthropocene could not have been achieved without humans, but equally, they could not have been achieved without coal, water, trees, and fossil fuels. I would agree with Bonneuil in stressing that a plurality of narratives and voices about the anthropocene are needed in order to understand where the burdens of responsibility lie, and whether the environmental and geological changes of the modern era can be attributed to humans as a species, or to capitalist relations that play out in a global ecological system.

 

Works Cited:

Angus, Ian. 2015. “Does Anthropocene science blame all humanity?” from climateandcapitalism.comhttp://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/05/31/does-anthropocene-science-blame-all- humanity/

Bonneuil, Cristophe. 2015. “The Geological Turn: Narratives of the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, C., and Gemenne, F. (eds). Routledge.

Crutzen, Paul J. 2006. “The ‘Anthropocene’.” Springer.

Klein, Naomi. 2015. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster.

Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis” 2014.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004. “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 463–84.