The Anthropocene and the Perils of Abstraction

This essay is adapted from a talk first delivered at Akaki Tsereteli State University in Kutaisi, Georgia, November 1, 2019. It was part of the “International Multidisciplinary Conference: The Humanities in the Age of Globalization” and is forthcoming in those proceedings.

We all know and love nature in the particular: the tree in my yard, the wolf in Yellowstone National Park, or the peak of Kazbegi Mountain. We show a great deal of concern about nature as well, in both whole and part. We identify ourselves as nature lovers, we make nature preserves, and we encourage our children to spend more time in nature. But the borders of this category, the natural, are vague and shifting. Does it include the rats in city sewers? And when we talk about nature as a whole, we are often on logically treacherous ground, shifting quickly between different senses.

In 1989, , a now prominent climate activist, declared the End of Nature. Previously people have impacted particular places, he tells us, but with global warming, human influence has contaminated the whole world. Things are only natural to the extent that they are free of human impact, and so nature is over. At least it’s over on this planet. More recently he published a book titled Eaarth (2010), a new name with a new spelling for an essentially new planet. The one we are on now has been changed too fundamentally for us to even call it Earth anymore. On the other hand, we have the environmental philosopher , who writes that “the works of man, however precocious, are as natural as those of beavers, or termites, or any of the other species that dramatically modify their habitats” (1991). Even our greatest cultural capacities are fruits of the same evolutionary processes that generate all animal behavior.

Our concept of nature is so ambiguous that sweeping declarations of human belonging in nature and of human exclusion from nature are both non-controversial claims. Descriptively, humans are part of nature, in the sense of the whole material and biological order. We consist of the same molecules, eat in the same food web and drink from the same water cycle as all the other creatures. But there is another sense of nature, which excludes humanity by way of definition. In this sense nature includes only those things that are neither created nor transformed by human agency or technology. Here, nature is the opposite of the cultural, the civilized and the artificial.

So what sense of nature is at play when we talk about loving nature and saving it from the destructive potential of modern human industry and militancy? Which nature is preserved in our parks and protected areas? We cannot mean nature in its most inclusive sense. The cosmos is not endangered, and neither urban sprawl nor global warming poses any challenge to the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. And so it is often assumed, by McKibben for instance, that the nature we profess to love and seek to preserve is nature in the sense of the nonhuman. But this assumption, while common, is mistaken and frequently makes trouble. After spelling out this trouble, I’ll offer another interpretation of nature and how we should think about what needs preserving.

Casting our conception of nature in such a way that it excludes humanity and human culture by definition sets us up with the logical structure of a dualism. There are many distinctions that are not dualisms, where one side is not defined by its exclusion of the other. For many distinctions that we make, it is possible for something to be both. For instance, I could distinguish sports I like to watch from sports I like to play, and leave room for overlap. Other distinctions might not have overlap, as between coffee and tea, but neither is defined in opposition to the other. That definitional exclusion is what makes the dualism. The distinction between Jew and gentile is a dualism, because what makes one a gentile is simply the failure to be Jewish. The Inuit, the Swede and the Zulu need not share any cultural markers or identity between them to all be counted as gentiles. Likewise, to the ancient Greeks the category of barbarian simply referred to the state of not being Greek, regardless of any actual ethnic or national identity.

The American pragmatist perpetually sought to expose our troublesome reliance on dualisms. For him the problem often has to do with the neglect of context (Pappas 2008:26–29). A distinction that makes useful sense in one context, is artificially elevated to a universal rule. Holding rigidly to our categories then blinds us to real continuities, as we clumsily apply our rigid abstractions in contexts where they fit poorly if at all. Consider, for instance, the distinction between native and invasive species. These are often treated as absolutely exclusive categories, with a clear value/disvalue connotation. In some contexts, especially remote island ecosystems struggling with unprecedented types of predation or competition, such as brown tree snakes introduced on Guam, this distinction is quite functional. But when the same categories are applied to the coyote in the eastern United States, they fail us. The coyote has undergone a range expansion on the same continent, and is occupying a very similar ecological niche to the all-but-extinct red wolf, the coyote’s near cousin, which was historically abundant in the region. The coyote embodies the fuzzy boundary between native and invasive. Force fitting them into either category is likely to result in inappropriate wildlife policy.

The ecofeminist (1998) takes the critique in another direction. In part because a dualistic category tends both to hide continuities across the divide and also hide the differences lumped together — as with the Inuit and the Zulus, both lumped into the category gentile — dualisms feature prominently in the rationalizations offered for oppressive and exploitative systems. In fact the same dualisms occur repeatedly across many contexts of oppression, constituting a core feature of what ecofeminists refer to as the logic of oppression: us/them, active/passive, rational/irrational, civilized/savage, and cultural/natural.

Humans have long justified the abuse of nonhuman animals on the grounds that only humans are rational agents, beings who have reason and who do things based on reason, as compared to the instinct driven automatons that the other animals are thought to be. And likewise, to justify the oppression of women, they are declared to be sub-rational creatures, whose actions are determined by some combination of emotion, intuition and instinct. In patriarchal contexts, a women’s virtue and value is implied to depend not on her actions but on whether she has been the recipient of a man’s actions, underscoring her essential passivity. And to justify the displacement of indigenous people everywhere, they are described as sub-rational, having not religion or culture but superstition, and as not really capable of working or improving the land. To justify the enslavement of Africans, they are also described as being like animals, impressive physically perhaps, but not rational enough to manage their own lives.

Sometimes the value connotation of the dualism is flipped, as with the ideal of the noble savage or the reverence of the sacred virgin, without challenging the underlying denial of agency and reason. Plumwood thinks something like this happened with the idea of wilderness. At first wilderness was despised as wasteland and barren, because it had not been developed by the labor of man. And then it was celebrated as sacred and virgin, because it had not been spoiled by the impact of man. In both cases the significant agency is reserved for man. Wilderness, like subjugated woman, is measured only as the object of man’s conquest or restraint.

The problems with this way of valuing nature are many. The dualism between touched and untouched land is absolute, and allows no distinction between healing touches and destructive ones. It can give us no guidance on the lands we do inhabit, for the organic farm and the toxic dump are equally on the touched side of divide. If human touch is by definition the environmental problem, then the solution is always the removal of people. Such an ideal, points out (1995), can counsel only suicide. But the history of wilderness preservation is full of people who love nature for what it is, who have spent their lives studying its plants and animals, its rocks and waters, its complex systems and cycles. These do not disappear simply for being touched. Solitude on a backcountry trail is better than solitude in your closet, not because the absence of other people is more pronounced but because of the presence of what is there: tree and breeze, bird and stream. Plumwood suggests we reconceive of wilderness as land that is single, that is about its own purposes, rather than as land that is virgin or untouched. And indeed, the United States Wilderness Act of 1964 is careful to avoid using dualistic language, such as virgin, untouched or pristine. Instead, it is grounded on the practical recognition that some parts of the Earth’s community of life fare better when they are kept free from roads.

It is only when we recognize nature as up to something, as comprising active communities of life and systems functioning according to often complex and subtle logics, that we can manage our relationship to it wisely. Sometimes human presence is integral to those communities, as with the birds that have come to depend on the hedgerows of European farms, maintained over the centuries. Sometimes human presence is inimical to them, as with the very fragile ecosystems of caves and high rocky outcrops. Knowing how to preserve nature, how to maintain its health, requires knowing which natural systems, which communities of plants and animals, are in question.

If we do not attempt to discuss nature as whole and human impact in general, but instead talk specifically about the Great Barrier Reef, the leopard population, or even atmospheric carbon levels, we shall be able to judge between helpful and harmful actions with some intelligence. There will be no space for absolute pronouncements about whether people are or are not natural, but instead there will be inquiry into our historical and present roles within the systems and communities in question.

There is a new voice that is rising to prominence in discussions of conservation and environmental policy. It is associated with the proposed declaration of the Anthropocene, and is called ecomodernism or the new conservation. The (Asado-Adjaye et al. 2015) makes heavy use of sweeping declarations about the human relationship to nature. Humans have remade the earth, and we must accept the totality and ubiquity of our footprint — “Earth is a human planet.” At the same time, the ecomodernists are eager to recognize the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” that our planetary control might be managed with intelligence toward good ends, including the flourishing of people and the natural world (Asado-Adjaye et al. 2015). But humans must reduce our detrimental impact on nature, the manifesto declares, not by achieving or restoring greater harmony between human systems and natural systems, but by further decoupling the human economy from nature. We can be benevolent managers of nature, but we can no longer be part of nature. We have grown incompatible, and a divorce is the only merciful thing to do. Ecomodernists paint visions of nuclear-powered, urban communities, with a small footprint of intensive and efficient agriculture. Our relationship to the wild ecosystems that gave us birth can be spiritual and aesthetic but neither consumptive nor participatory. Bringing everyone into a fully technological society is the only way to save nature.

I appreciate that this new movement intends to reject the misanthropy which has sometimes characterized environmental preservation, the tendency to council only suicide, as Cronon said. It envisions flourishing human industry and community as well as flourishing nature, maintained through a more complete segregation. The manifesto doubles down on the dualism between humanity and nature at the most abstract level. The management of the earth ultimately means managing ourselves, and the only good touch is a small touch.

If we only care about the wildest parts of nature, this may be fine. Grizzly bears and rattlesnakes have always been easiest to appreciate from the comfort of a little distance. Because the categories of humanity and nature are already completely sundered in the ecomodernists’ logic, they fail to appreciate the violence of sundering them in practice, where there are substantial areas of deep entanglement. Consider agricultural biodiversity, the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties that have co-evolved with us, each in a particular landscape. Industrially intensified agriculture has room for so very few of these. And there are the wild organisms, which for some ten millennia have been adapting to the niche spaces created by agriculture. What is to become of the innumerable birds that depend on hedgerows of old farms? It is not only our agriculture but our homes and cities that have been exploited by nonhuman nature, from raccoons to house spiders. Even some animals that we prefer to think of as wild, such as coyotes, flourish better in the urban habitats which they have used since the days of the ancient Aztec cities (Flores 2016). And there are truly wild landscapes where particular species have still come to rely on regular human interaction, such as sweetgrass, and those where whole ecosystems have been shaped and preserved by deep historical burning practices (Kimmerer 2013; Budiansky 1995). Nor should we be so sanguine about our capacity to survive and flourish in an environment of our own remaking. We barely understand the ecology of our own guts, and proximity to wild nature still has significant health correlations for us. Divorcing humanity from nature tears deep wounds in both.

Our relation to the broader biotic community is deeply troubled, and our role in various physical and chemical systems and cycles has become dysfunctional. We need the kind of imaginative energy that the ecomodernists bring to their vision, this bold assertion of new possibilities. But we need that vision and energy at the level of particular problems, systems and landscapes. It is easy to sound revolutionary when speaking abstractly of man and nature. But sweeping metaphysical declarations are likely to blind us to the details that matter, in the familiar tendency of all dogmatism, and to provoke fruitless, irresolvable disagreements. Yet if we will temper our abstraction and adapt the categories to fit the context at hand, then, while our logic may be messier, our deliberations will be more likely to yield intelligent action.

Bibliography

Asado-Adjaye et al. (2015). “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”

Budiansky, Stephen. (1995). Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of nature Management. Free Press.

Callicott, J. Baird. (1991). “The Wilderness Idea Revisited: The Sustainable Development Alternative.” The Environmental Professional13: 235–47.

Cronon, William. (1995). “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In William Cronon (ed.). Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W. W. Norton & Co. 69–90.

Flores, Dan. (2016). Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Basic Books.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions.

McKibben, Bill. (1989). The End of Nature.Anchor Books.

McKibben, Bill. (2010). Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet.Times Books.

Pappas, Gregory Fernando. (2008). John Dewey’s Ethics: Democracy as Experience. Indiana University Press.

Plumwood, Val. “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism.” In J. Baird Callicott & Michael Nelson (eds.). (1998).The Great New Wilderness Debate.University of Georgia Press:652–690.

David is an environmental philosopher who teaches at Western Carolina University in the southern Appalachian mountains.

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