Emancipation In The Anthropocene

Emancipation In The Anthropocene | Green Agenda

In 1958 Hannah Arendt published, The Human Condition.(1) At the beginning of this wide-ranging work, Arendt proposes “a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears.”(2) The major historical event which motivated this study was the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union and the prospect this technological advance engendered for humankind breaking its earthly bonds and traveling “in the proximity of the heavenly bodies.”(3) However, while Arendt was writing at a time when scientific achievements threatened to ‘[cut] the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature’, (4) today the Anthropocene sends us hurtling back to Earth. There has never been a time when human history and the history of the Earth were so intertwined. Attempts to grapple with this insight cannot be resolved through scientific questioning alone and ought to give rise to an appreciation of the uniqueness and integrity of each component of the Earth system (humans included) and the world as a relational whole.

In this essay, I argue that the insights provided by Earth systems science are so great as to constitute a ‘paradigm shift’ in our assumptions and patterns of thought.(5) While Arendt was inspired to think about those elementary activities that are “within the range of every human being” (labour, work and action) the Anthropocene compels us to re-think our separability from the Earth system and to doubt conceptual frameworks inherited from the past. As Clive Hamilton writes, “we are faced with the discomforting choice between groping unsteadily toward new conceptions that attempt to build on a new real, or clinging to old conceptions rooted in a world that has been left behind.”(6) Nothing should be beyond suspicion but the power of our work will be amplified if we can follow J. Ron Engel’s example and proceed in the “spirit of self-reflective criticism” and with a “critical loyalty” to our comrades in the environment movement.(7)

This essay proceeds in three sections. In Part 1, I provide a summary of the latest literature on the Anthropocene and Earth systems science. Following this, Part 2 considers how this literature might challenge orthodox thinking in environmental philosophy and politics. Finally, in Part 3 I look to past justice movements for clues on how to frame environmental demands in the language of liberation. As part of this discussion I argue that Australia ought to think about its own Green New Deal as a way of reshaping the economy to advance the common good.

The Anthropocene: An Overview

The Anthropocene is fundamentally an insight from Earth system science.(8)Perhaps the best overview of the current literature can be found in Ian Angus’s recent book, Facing the Anthropocene.(9) Despite a wide variety of interpretations, the Anthropocene generally refers to a ‘crisis of the earth system’(10) caused by human activity between the 18th century to 1945. While aspects of the Earth have been studied in biology, geology, ecology and physics, the Earth system only fully emerged as an object of analysis during the 1980s and 1990s.(11) As Angus explains: “Studying Earth as a system became possible…when new scientific instruments became available—in particular, satellites designed to gather data about the state of the entire Earth and computer systems capable of collecting, transmitting, and analyzing vast quantities of scientific data.”(12)

Earth system thinking refers to the “integrative meta-science of the whole planet understood as a unified, complex, evolving system beyond the sum of its parts.”(13) Its method is transdisciplinary and brings together the “earth sciences and life sciences as well as the “industrial metabolism” of humankind.”(14) Because of its focus on the Earth system as a whole, earth systems thinking “transcends and encompasses”(15) the ecological sciences which have informed much of the literature in environmental ethics and environmental law. Earth systems science is making a much deeper and far reaching claim than that humans are interconnected and mutually dependant on the environment and non-human animals.

One important insight comes from Dipesh Chakrabarty who argues that the Anthropocene calls into question the traditional separation between human history and natural history.(16) Jacob Burckhardt described this separation in 1868, arguing (correctly, I think) that “history is not the same thing as nature” and that history “is the breach with nature caused by the awakening of human consciousness.”(17) Writers such as Fernand Braudel(18) and Aldo Leopold(19) added some nuance to this argument by bringing our attention to the ways the environment itself shaped the development of human society. Further to this material, scholars writing about the Anthropocene have begun to say something quite new. Chakrabarty writes: “In unwittingly destroying the artificial but time-honored distinction between natural and human histories, climate scientists posit that the human being has become something much larger than the simple biological …[h]umans now wield a geological force.”(20)

The transformation of humankind into geological agents(21) represents the convergence of human history with geological history.(22) Human history will forever be tied to the fate of the planet. As Isabella Stengers suggests:

[N]o human future ‘can be foreseen in which [Gaia] will give back to us the liberty of ignoring her. It is not a matter of a “bad moment that will pass,” followed by any kind of happy ending—in the shoddy sense of a “problem solved.” We are no longer authorized to forget her. We will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications.(23)

2. Implications of the Anthropocene

Facing the environmental crisis, the dominant response from environmental philosophers and lawyers has been to advocate a shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. In this conversation, anthropocentrism is usually interpreted to mean not just a human centred perspective, but a presupposition whereby the environment is thought to exist for human use and exploitation.(24) It might also mean that human beings alone have more standing and that we are separate, unique and more important than anything else in nature. Ecocentrism, by contrast, seeks to position humankind in relationship with non-human animals and ecosystems and is commonly associated with notions of mutual dependence, intrinsic value, the rights of nature, ecological integrity and human responsibility. A version of ecocentrism is explicit in most covenantal approaches to global ethics, such as the Earth Charter.(25)

However, how many of these principles still make sense once we have grappled with the implications of the Anthropocene? Or to put the question another way—in what ways has the Anthropocene altered the human conditions?

To begin, we might argue that the Earth system no longer has its own independent integrity and some of the impacts human activity has had on the Earth system are irreversible.(26) The idea that the Earth will return to some pristine state if human beings withdraw and minimise our impact on the Earth is ‘Holocene thinking.’ It is too late for humans to withdraw or relinquish our capacity to change the future of the Earth. We may not have chosen this condition but the Anthropocene casts us as geological agents.(27) Human beings are (in this specific sense) undeniably unique. Hamilton makes a similar point: “there is no going back to the Holocene” and to pretend otherwise or deny our responsibility for the earth system would be grossly irresponsible.(28)

Further to these points, the human proffered by the Anthropocene is one in which the strict separation between subject (human beings) and object (nature) no longer makes sense. Earth systems science offers an alternative description of reality to Kant’s argument that human action is free while objects act from necessity or in accordance with natural laws.(29) Today human freedom is exercised not on a compliant object but on an Earth that is self-organising, spontaneous and increasingly unpredictable. This is a more profound reality than descriptions of interconnectedness or mutual dependence offered by the ecological sciences. While much of the private sector continues to assume that humans can enforce our will on a passive Earth, the Anthropocene has rendered that vision of redundant. Today, human freedom and action cannot operate outside of the realm of necessity. Human freedom, in other words, is embedded and woven into nature.(30) In one sense, this is a less anthropocentric description of the human than was offered by modernity. However, it is also more anthropocentric in the sense that the influence of human beings to the future of the Earth system has increased.(31)

Toward a Politics of Freedom

The above argument is ripe for misinterpretation. To be very clear, I am just trying to think through the implications of Earth systems science for environmental thinking. That is not the same thing as advocating anthropocentrism as a normative claim or welcoming our present condition as an opportunity for humankind to “shape the planetary environment.”(32) Rather, humankind’s accession to a “force of nature”(33) suggests a version of anthropocentrism as a scientific fact.(34) That we have arrived at this situation is the greatest tragedy in human history. And yet it is folly to deny the increased power and responsibility that human beings have going into the future. Equally, we ought to be uneasy about ideas which place the Earth system above human beings and so simply invert the hierarchy of anthropocentrism. If Earth systems science is accurate, the only interesting question is—how do we respond?

I would like to preface these comments by reaffirming the importance of democratic principles to this discussion. This means committing to defending democratic principles beyond elections(35) and frameworks for allowing first nations peoples a substantive voice as recognised in the Uluru statement. With this in mind, any ideas are really “proposals” which ought to be refined in discourse and owned by the community implementing them. Further, the hollowing out of major political parties and the rise of independent candidates in Australian politics (and in other countries(36)) attest to the fact that people are weary of centre politics. As Jeff Sparrow has argued, in the face of overwhelming problems such as climate change, people increasingly feel that leaders who are not offering radical solutions are not serious.(37) That the right have successfully framed demands such as “no new coal mines” as radical is a problem which we tend to avoid but we must confront.

With this noted, I have increasingly sought to push environmental thinking into conversation with the international justice movements of the 1960s and 70s.(38) This might be surprising given the revised human condition that I have outlined above. However, as Sparrow recently noted:

The great social movements of the sixties and seventies still shape the terrain of radical politics. It’s not simply that anyone who wants to fight for climate justice today must look at lessons from the Vietnam struggle, women’s liberation, black liberation, gay liberation and (of course) the early environmental movement. It’s also that many people either inspired by or directly involved in those campaigns are still fighting for social change, including in respect to the climate.(39)

This approach has the virtue of adding a historical dimension to our thinking and affirms that the past has lessons to teach us going forward. We need not reinvent the wheel. Further, past movements expressed legitimate concerns for human communities (particularly those in the majority world) which some environmental thinking ignores and which I think are fundamental to grappling with the Anthropocene and planning for a just transition.

Some readers will recall that, during the 1970s, justice movements articulated their demands using the language of liberation. Today, I suspect most people would not understand what liberation means. In part, this is because we have forgotten a critical distinction between political emancipation and full emancipation. Briefly—political emancipation refers to demands for equality before the law and equal rights. While a crucial improvement, liberation movements understood that political emancipation represented a very narrow form of freedom and did not necessarily challenge sites of power. This is a simple point and one can find plenty of examples in Australian legal history, e.g. the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. While both reforms ushered in crucial improvements for women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, nobody could claim that they have emancipated either group or stamped out the powers of racism and sexism that course through civil society and the economy, and foreclose certain kinds of access (a fact which the #Blacklivesmatter and #Metoo movements powerfully attest).

In contrast, full emancipation is much deeper and is premised on the view that positive reform can generate substantive freedoms in law and in civil society. We are not practised in talking like this. Politicians tend to talk in an economised way such as “we should protect the great barrier reef for tourism”. A different example of the same logic is Bill Shorten’s refusal to positively oppose the Adani coal mine and instead to rely on market forces to defeat the project.(40) Full emancipation is quite different and the demands tend to emerge through a movement (rather than given in a top-down structure). To be more concrete, a campaign to project the Great Barrier Reef might articulate the value of the ecosystem for its own sake and because it contributes to public happiness and wonder. Campaign goals might include demands to share decision-making power over the ecosystem, the placement of concrete responsibilities on landowners, or positive interventions in the market to ban new coal mines. Whatever the specific demands, the goal is to close the gap between political society and civil society, to have our legal status reflect our actual experience and do away with laws that make abstract proclamations of our status or experience.

More broadly, the path to liberation might be assisted through programs such as the Green New Deal (GND) which is currently being promoted in the United States(41) (a version was also promoted by the Australian Greens in 2009). A lot could be said here, but as Jedediah Britton-Purdy has argued—the GND is what realistic environmental policy looks like: “In the 21st century, environmental policy is economic policy. Keeping the two separate isn’t a feat of intellectual discipline. It’s an anachronism.”(42) Part of the shock of this approach is that such a far-reaching spending program would come from the public purse—many of us have bought into the idea that such a large spending program could only be provided by the private sector. But the ambitions of the GND mark out the ground where future climate fights will take place and dovetail into other projects for a just transition that are being rolled out in countries like Spain.(43)

Moreover, the GND is explicitly talking in the language of freedom—territory which has long been ceded to the right. What kinds of freedom? Drawing on Franklin Delano Roosevelt,(44) proponents of the GND are promoting five freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from toil, freedom to move, freedom from domination, and the freedom to live.(45) Proponents have expanded on each of these ideas, but the important point for now is that they are talking about freedom in a way that is far more expansive than legal rights or the economised version whereby we have freedom to invest and freedom to purchase (so long as we can afford it).

Of course, the GND is only one of many proposals for advancing the goal of liberation. Like other policy ideas being debated within the Green movement (such as Universal Basic Income) it understands the necessity of re-working our economy to advance environmental goals. The broad parameters of the GND can also be pushed in various directions—to the right we can expect to see calls for projects to come under the control of the private sector. And to the left there will be debates about whether to nationalise Australia’s energy grid, for example. Whatever the exact parameters, it is useful to think about the GND as a massive system upgrade for the economy which will reverberate into the social and environmental spheres. Of course, such a program will be expensive, but as the Financial Times reported:

The problems the Green New Deal addresses require solutions where bigger is better, imperative and, paradoxically, more affordable…When you are fighting for your very survival, you do not pinch pennies. That would be false economy. In this case it would also be suicide.(46)

1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
2 Ibid 5.
3 Ibid 1.
4 Ibid.
5 Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016) 27. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1996) 43 defined a paradigm as: ‘A constellation of achievements—concepts, values, techniques, etc.—shared by a scientific community and used by that community to define legitimate problems and solutions.’
6 Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Allen and Unwin, 2017).
7 J. Ronald Engel, ‘Summons to a New Axial Age: The Promise, Limits, and Future of the Earth Charter’ in Laura Westra and Mirian Vilela (eds), Ecological Integrity, and Social Movements (Earthscan, 2014) xv.
8 Hamilton, above n 6, 9.
9 Angus, above n 5, 25–106. For an excellent overview of other seminal books on the Anthropocene see Benjamin Kunkel, ‘The Capitalocene’, 39(5) London Review of Books 2 March 2017, pp. 22–28.
10 Hamilton, above n 6, 20. In this context, the Earth system means ‘the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles (often called biogeochemical cycles) and energy fluxes which provide the conditions necessary for life on the planet.’ See further Will Steffen et al, Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure (Springer, 2004) 8.
11 Hamilton, above n 6, 11.
12 Angus, above n 5, 29.
13 Hamilton, above n 6, 11.
14 Ibid 12.
15 Ibid.
16 Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ (2009) 35(2) Critical Inquiry 197: 201.
17 Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History (Liberty Fund, 1979 [1868]) 31.
18 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (University of California Press, 1996) 26: “I could not…be satisfied with the traditional geographical introduction to history that often figures to little purpose at the beginning of so many books, with its descriptions of the mineral deposits, types of agriculture, and typical flora, briefly listed and never mentioned again, as if the flowers did not come back every spring, the flocks of sheep migrate every year or the ships sail on a real sea that changes with the seasons.”
19 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Ballantine Books, 1986) 241: “Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and the land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.
20 Chakrabarty, above n 16, 206.
21 Ibid.
22 Hamilton, above n 6, 8.
23 Isabella Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Open Humanities Press, 2015) 47.
24 For a gratuitous example, see comments made by Rush Limbaugh in the context of debates surrounding the preservation of the spotted owl in America’s Northwest: “If the owl can’t adapt to the superiority of humans, screw it…if a spotted owl can’t adapt, does the Earth really need that particular species so much that hardship to human beings is worth enduring in the process of saving it?” Rush Limbaugh, quoted in Dale Jamieson, Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008) 181–82.
25 For example, see principle 1(a) which recognises “that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.
26 Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney, ‘Effects of Climate Change ‘Irreversible,’ U.N. Panel Warns in Report’, The Washington Post, November 2, 2014 https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/effects-of-climate-change-irreversible-un-panel-warns-inreport/2014/11/01/2d49aeec-6142-11e4-8b9e-2ccdac31a031_story.html?utm_term=.c82f8b37c1b9
27 In saying this I am deeply conscious of critiques of the Anthropocene which correctly point out that human beings are not equally responsible and that the term risks casting the victims of environmental harm as equally culpable.
28 Hamilton, above n 6, 43.
29 Ibid 139. See also Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Penguin Classics, 2008) and Chris Naticchia, ‘Kant on the Third Antinomy: Is Freedom Possible in a World of Natural Necessity?’ (1994) 11(4) History of Philosophy Quarterly 393–403.
30 Ibid 141.
31 Ibid.
32 David Keith, A Case for Climate Engineering (MIT Press, 2013) 172.
33 David Suzuki, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future (Gravestone Books, 2010) 17.
34 Hamilton, above n 6, 43.
35 Here I wholeheartedly endorse the role of participatory democracy. See Sally Whyte, ‘Greens try and win back trust with ‘participatory democracy’ project’ 10 December 2018 https://www.canberratimes.com.au/politics/act/greens-try-and-win-back-trust-with-participatorydemocracy-project-20181208-p50l2n.html See also Peter Burdon, ‘Realizing Earth Democracy: Governance from Below’ in L. Westra, & M. Vilela (Eds.), The Earth Charter, Ecological Integrity and Social Movements (Routledge, 2014).
36 Peter Mair, Ruling the Void (Verso, 2013).
37 Jeff Sparrow, Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right (Scribe 2018).
38 See Peter Burdon, ‘Earth jurisprudence and the Project of Earth Democracy’ in Michelle Maloney and Peter Burdon (eds), Wild Law— In Practice (Routledge, 2015).
39 Jeff Sparrow, ‘Many Generations in Flames’ 6 February 2019 Overland Journal https://overland.org.au/2019/02/many-generations-inflames/
40 This explains why the strongest commitment Labor will give about the mind is: “I don’t want to give a dollar to Adani.” See David Uren, ‘No Adani Ban on my Watch: Chris Bowen’ 5 February 2019 The Australian https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/noadani-ban-on-my-watch-chris-bowen/news-story/48bb7df7d794675d9d4379c729c91b30
41 For details see https://www.dataforprogress.org/green-new-deal/
42 Jedediah Britton-Purdy, ‘The Green New Deal Is What Realistic Environmental Policy Looks Like’ 14 February 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/opinion/green-new-deal-ocasio-cortez-.html
43 Leslie Hook, ‘Spain unveils ambitious green energy plan’ 4 December 2018, The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/b31f99b8- ce31-11e8-8d0b-a6539b949662
44 Roosevelt’s four freedoms were employment, medical care, housing, education, and social security.
45 For more detail see Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen & Thea Riofrancos, ‘The Green New Deal’s Five Freedoms’ 14 Feburary 2019 Jacobin Magazine https://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/green-new-deal-four-freedoms-fdr
46 Robert Hockett, ‘Pay for Green New Deal Now or Spend Even More Later’ 3 February 2019, The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/ content/046e7c30-23c8-11e9-b20d-5376ca5216eb

Image Source: Australian Marine Conservation Society.