Booked: What Is the Anthropocene?

Booked: What Is the Anthropocene?

Flooding in the Pacific island of Tonga, 2010 (Asian Development Bank / Flickr)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Jedediah Purdy about After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). 

Everybody talks about the weather, the old joke goes, but nobody does anything about it. That is, of course, wrong. Humanity has been determining the trajectory of life on Earth since at least the eighteenth century. People are the chief forces shaping conditions on the planet today, and climate change is one product of our influence. We are living in what the scientist Paul Crutzen has labeled the Anthropocene, and our species has been doing it for quite a while.

Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature offers the best guide yet to navigating this terrain. Both a diagnosis of our present crisis and a history of its origins, After Nature weaves together studies of politics, economics, culture, the law, and, of course, the environment (although, as Purdy demonstrates, the idea of the environment turns out to have a surprising conceptual history of its own). Combining academic rigor, a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges ahead, and hope in the capacity of democratic citizens to confront these problems together, he has supplied a model for how, in the twenty-first century, we might understand our world, and change it—this time without breaking records for carbon dioxide emissions.

Timothy Shenk: Talk about the “anthropocene” has been a staple of academic conversations for the last few years, and the term has started to break into the wider world, but I’d still bet that if pressed most people would have a hard time offering up a definition. What is the anthropocene?

Jedediah Purdy: It’s kind of a portmanteau term for “the age of humanity.” The idea is that, for the first time, humanity has become a force, and maybe the dominant force, shaping the planet. When an imaginary future generation of geologists looks back on the layers of soil that we’re putting down now, they will find our mark.

Taken beyond this stratigraphic sense, it means there is no more “nature” that’s independent of human activity. There’s no natural out there for us to preserve or get back to. There’s only the halfway artificial world we have made and are going on making.

I think you can actually separate out two meanings that are both real. This huge increase in human impact I would call the Anthropocene Condition. This is separate from what I call the Anthropocene Insight, which is owning that, in a deep way, nature has never been separate from culture and politics. Talking about the value of nature, the order of nature, and our place in nature: these have always been ways of arguing with other people about how we should live, what sort of world we should try to make, and so forth.

Shenk: As anyone who makes it to After Nature’s subtitle will figure out, the anthropocene is a crucial concept for the book. But you express some ambivalence over how it has been used. What concerns do you have, and why do you want us to hold onto the idea anyway?

Purdy: One use of the Anthropocene that I resist says, in effect, if the world is just what we make it, let’s get busy. Environmentalism is obsolete, at least if it means a concern for the non-human world for its own sake, or a sense that we should accept some limits on what we do. Peter Kareiva, the head scientist for the Nature Conservancy, has used arguments like this to press for a more economics-minded, business-friendly, people-centered version of conservation.

Then there’s another problem, which is that the anthro- in Anthropocene can suggest that humanity is a unified thing that’s responsible together for what’s happening to the planet. In reality humanity is radically differentiated and unequal—including in its contribution to environmental crises and its vulnerability to their results. Talking as if there were one humanity hides how much our current planet is the product of, and if left alone may well perpetuate, really deep inequalities.

These come together. Karevia’s version of Anthropocene conservation is what I think of as a blueprint for a neoliberal Anthropocene: it treats a fairly narrow economic rationality as capturing the full scope of human interests, and it also accepts existing levels of inequality and concentrations of economic power as our starting point. The “progressive” version of neoliberal environmental policy would put a price on all environmental costs and benefits and then continue as before, with a “greener” bottom line; but the prices would all be derived from current attitudes and current distributions of wealth and power. It would just absorb ecology into the economy, as a technocratic topic.

I think embracing the Anthropocene Insight means accepting that the future of the world is an unavoidably political question. World-making is a collective project, like it or not. Because the economy is, in a sense, what produces ecological reality under Anthropocene conditions, this means the economy, too, has to be a political problem. Instead of absorbing ecology into the existing economy, we should think about possible economies in relation to the possible ecologies we’d like to inhabit.

Alder wildfire in Yellowstone National Park (Mike Lewelling / National Park Service)

Shenk: After Nature was prompted by issues of pressing immediate concern, but the book that emerged from this confrontation is deeply engaged with the past. This is a work of history, in your words, “an intellectual history of the natural world in America, and also a political history of American ideas”—a history of the “environmental imagination.” Why look back?

Purdy: When I say imagination, what I mean is ways of seeing, encountering, and valuing the natural world. So much of what was being written five years ago was meditation on why we were not going to do anything about this slow crisis. It was an erudite (or often pseudo-erudite) literature of despair.

My first reaction was historical. I was thinking, for instance, of the history of humanitarianism and anti-slavery, and all the reasons the best minds of the day had for thinking change was impossible. And of course that’s not the only example. History is actually surprising; it doesn’t just seem that way. In the face of a new crisis, it seemed important to reject this end-of-history stuff.

I went back to see whether ideas about nature, and the human place in it, had changed as much as, say, ideas about people. The answer is yes, radically different perceptions of why the world matters and how we should fit into it have been regnant, even seemed inevitable.

Why focus on ideas—imagination? Partly because, as David Brion Davis has emphasized in his histories of anti-slavery, what people believe and value, how they see the world, can enable them to organize and act politically in ways that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, otherwise. Imagination frames problems and changes the boundaries of possible response.

One key thing is that politically effective ideas about the natural world and how people fit into it get worked into material form—they get embodied—through law. They are written on the land. Parks and wilderness areas are memorials to a certain aesthetic, even spiritual, ideal of landscape and the kind of person who can appreciate it. The national forests are a record of an idea about government and natural resources that was central to Teddy Roosevelt’s state-building. The farmland of the Midwest is only the most iconic expression of an older idea, that nature wanted to be developed by yeomen settlers, that the world was created by this. These ideas start out as interpretations of the natural world, often tendentious ones; but they get put to work in shaping landscapes that actually support the interpretations, make the ways of seeing and thinking seem obvious, even natural.

Shenk: The history you outline here starts in the seventeenth century and runs into the present, but my favorite part is the discussion of the mania for “conservation” that swept Progressive reformers in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Why did figures like Roosevelt become so infatuated with conservation? What consequences did it have for American politics?

Purdy: Conservation meant, for the people who were into it, something that sounds very technical: using resources to maximize their benefit over time to the whole political community, a simple formula of managerial utilitarianism.

But it meant much more to them because it was a rhetorical and conceptual key to a new agenda for governance. It was part of the Progressive claim that the laissez-faire scheme of the nineteenth century (partly imaginary, but not entirely) was no longer adequate to managing a complex national economy. They argued that nature itself showed this: systems like forests, soil regions, and rivers were too complicated, large in scope, and interdependent to be managed by self-interested and fragmented private owners. They had to be administered at their own scale, of space and of complexity, which required government regulation by experts.

For many of these reformers, what was true of the natural world was also true of the social. The conservation of human vitality—the human resource—required managing big and complex social systems: antitrust, labor law, city planning, education, public health, were all described as exercises in human conservation. Roosevelt said that his whole domestic agenda was nothing but an extension of the principle of conservation. So a politics of nature was key to the program of building a strong national administrative state.

I talk about two big problems with this. One is that managing human resources, for many reformers, included eugenics, and their cultural and racial attitudes were very ugly indeed. Roosevelt wrote a glowing blurb for a book by a major conservationist pioneer, Madison Grant, who was also a racist polemicist whom Hitler admired and who helped shape the racially restrictive 1924 immigration law. Roosevelt’s chief architect of conservation policy, Gifford Pinchot, was at the heart of the American eugenics movement.

The other problem, which is subtler but just as basic, is that treating all these areas of social and economic policy as aspects of “conservation,” a consummate technocratic enterprise, was a way of turning them into technocratic problems. Labor and capital, concentration of industry: Roosevelt argued that the principle of conservation, which he sometimes paraphrased as “national efficiency,” was the basis of all his domestic policy. This was a key way for him and his people to reconcile being pro-labor in certain ways with being adamantly anti-socialist, very skeptical of unions, and hostile to any kind of social disorder. The economy could remain as individualistic and hierarchical as before, as long as it were regulated by a proper scheme of administration. Technocracy, even when progressive in its nominal goals, is the most conservative kind of radicalism, and that is the mix of attitudes that Roosevelt helped to build around conservation.

Shenk: Ultimately, I think, this is a book about democracy, and more specifically about how democracies today should respond to the tests presented by the ongoing environmental crisis. You believe democracies offer the only defensible way to respond to these challenges, but you also note “the awkwardness of calling for more democracy when democracy seems a formula for failure.” There are practical issues about how to use nation-states to deal with global problems that affect different parts of the world in very different ways. Then there are the specific difficulties presented by the current American political system. But underlying all this is an even deeper problem. “No political system,” you write, “has succeeded by contradicting the demand for more: more energy, more calories, more technology, and so more pressure on natural resources of all kinds.” If that’s the case, what grounds for hope does an advocate for collective self-restraint have?

Purdy: I think this is where the link between environmentalism and the left is more necessary than it’s ever been. There is a contradiction between the appetite for boundless material growth and the limits, let alone the health and beauty, of the world. The way this appetite is putting pressure on global systems is going to amplify inequality in a variety of ways, from vulnerability to tropical disease and rising sea levels to the contracts poor-country governments are entering into leasing their fertile land to rich-country companies. Disaster and constraint amplify material and social vulnerability, so they make inequality worse. Maybe we could try generalizing from Amartya Sen’s famous observation that a famine has never happened in a democracy—that is, that these iconic “natural disasters” are joint productions of material and political forces, and are deeply about political inclusion or exclusion—and say a democratic Anthropocene would not write off some people’s misfortunes as natural, inevitable, beyond politics.

It’s true that democracies have mostly failed to limit pressure on the systems that sustain the world, and that in fact they’ve made continuing economic expansion necessary to winning elections, basically a criterion of legitimacy. But there is nothing special about democracies in this respect! It seems to be true of authoritarian regimes as well, as far as anyone can tell from the way that, say, China’s government has staked its legitimacy on economic growth. Or Putin’s Russia. Some cocktail of economic growth and nationalism, with uncertain mixing ratios, is the legitimating formula for a lot of governments. There’s a conservative way of thinking about democracy that, following Plato, identifies it with rampant appetite, self-indulgence. When I say democracies are failing in collective self-restraint, I don’t mean this.

I think that, ironically, collective self-restraint would be more possible if only people individually and in groups felt less sharply constrained. The insecurity that neoliberal policies don’t just tolerate, but actively produce, is the greatest impediment to easing this appetite. What’s needed is to produce a social world that is secure enough for the cultivation of non-material satisfactions. Old reformers like J.S. Mill and J.M. Keynes expected that transition to happen organically. But no! It turns out that the problem of material scarcity is relative, not absolute: after a certain point, it’s not actually a material problem, but a social problem, which is to say a political problem. It needs a left agenda to address it, to create the social space for democracy to work.

But that kind of left agenda also departs from the focus on material emancipation—simply growing our way out of inequality—that was the focus for a lot of the left tradition. In that way, and maybe not surprisingly, it shares a lot with the so-called new social movements and the left humanism of the 1970s. One of the reasons imagination is important is that people can develop, and democracies can pursue, new ways of valuing natural systems, parts and places of the world, the experiences and relationships that they make possible. And these can make life better worth living. This is, concretely, what the Romantic social movement around the early Sierra Club did, or what certain aspects of the food movement are doing now. Start with something that was regarded as a burden or a bad thing—deserted and unfruitful high mountains, labor in the dirt—and turn it into a source of satisfaction, build new kinds of community and identity around those, and feed them back into the political system as demands to create the infrastructure that makes those newly valued ways of living possible.

Garbage off the coast of Hawaii, 2012 (Lindsey Hoshaw / Flickr)

Shenk: In the academy, discussions of the anthropocene are often linked to calls for extending the definition of political actor beyond the human—for a post-humanist democracy, as one of the preferred constructions has it. You sympathize with parts of that position but hold back from a full embrace. “I would like,” you say, “to resist the choice between the post-humanist position and the humanist riposte, and instead adopt both, but each for a different sort of work.” What are the lines of battle as you see them, and what is your alternative?

Purdy: I see a pretty straightforward distinction here. There’s some trend in the humanities to carry on a certain kind of post-Enlightenment, post-humanist project by blurring or dissolving the boundaries between people and everything else: animals, but also plants, ecosystems, other kinds of self-replicating order. And in some ways, I think this is valuable. Ontologically, our borders are more porous and ambiguous than it has been convenient to imagine: bacteria within, the food system and the energy economy outside—upward angel, downward fish, as Robert Lowell put it. And ethically, a huge part of environmentalism has been to take seriously these qualities of continuity and interdependence and to draw out what they might mean. The idea that other forms of life and order matter and command concern just because they exist is radical, new, and a very generative part of environmental politics.

But as you say, there is also this impulse to say, well, political membership, citizenship, is just another human conceit, another exclusionary and self-congratulating device, and we should find a way to include, let’s say for the moment, other species in the polity. As anything more than a provocation, this is silly. The very fact that it is sayable today highlights how impoverished our understanding of politics has become.

The core thing it fails to understand is the linguistic element in politics. If you are going to arrive at common, binding rules governing shared conditions—which is the preeminent work of modern politics—language just is the only medium to do this. Forgetting this is simply forgetting politics, and just when we need it.

Shenk: After Nature spends a lot of time defending a robust notion of politics as more than just a way for technocrats to decide on the common good and execute their programs with the occasional nod of consent from an otherwise disconnected electorate. Similarly, you oppose the notion that the magic of markets can be trusted to take care of the problem. But in the book you don’t locate your position on the left. You don’t reject the idea either; it’s more like you put it to the side. Even the political history doesn’t spend much time mapping the arguments you discuss onto conventional left-right distinctions. Often—as in a discussion of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine—you seem more concerned with muddying ideological boundaries than with drawing them. And near the end comes this revision of Marx: “There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped.” All of this brought to mind a recent essay of yours in n+1 where you remarked that between the collapse of the USSR and the financial crisis of 2008, in American politics “The absent left was like a brooding silence in a psychoanalysis session, occupying a dark space that bent other topics around it in avoidance.” That’s started to change, but it doesn’t figure much in After Nature. Where does the left, past and present, fit into your argument here?

Purdy: That brooding absence has shaped my writing in ways I’m still trying to overcome. That said, I think the book’s orientation breaks pretty squarely to the left. The basic contemporary analysis is (1) nature is entirely political; (2) much of the problem with environmental politics is rooted in its history as an anti-politics (though also its historical involvement with racism and eugenics) and the anti-politics that poses the most salient danger today is environmental neoliberalism; (3) technocratic approaches won’t do; (4) and democracy, whatever we can make it mean, has to be the standard for responses to environmental problems. All of these are left positions, of a sort.

But I agree: the book’s history is not at all an account of the left, nor do I make much of the left profile of the contemporary arguments. As for history, it’s really not until the 1970s that environmentalism became squarely part of the left-of-center position in the United States—and even there it was contingent: President Nixon thought he could claim environmentalism for his post-Civil Rights conservative coalition, and made a major bid for it in his 1970 State of the Union Address. Leftists were skeptical of the sentimentality, escapism, and consumerist appeal that they detected even in early environmentalism. And before that, the major strains of environmental politics were frequently imperialist, technocratic, racist, elitist. There is an organic link with abolitionism in seminal figures like Emerson and Thoreau, but John Muir and the early Sierra Club were indifferent at best to the labor struggles of the time, and had nothing to say about race. But there are ways in which all these figures were interested in the limits to capitalism, the moral claims of non-human life, the need for a strong state to manage and shape our relation to the natural world. So left-right just wasn’t the most illuminating lens.

Shenk: Speaking of that n+1 essay, did you think of this book as a response to what your piece called “the politics of seriousness”—i.e., the calls to reject utopian illusions and take up the burdens of governance that were so important to the New Republic left in this period? One of the things I loved about your piece was its attention to the shallowness of those exhortations to responsibility. Reading After Nature, I couldn’t help but see your politics for the anthropocene as an implicit reply to all of this. Is the book, at least in part, an attempt to rescue the notion of responsibility from these gatekeepers?

Purdy: Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Freedom is what Americans talk about when they want to go to war. And responsibility is what skeptical liberals say when they are talking themselves into supporting a neo-con war. I think the sense that this happened in roughly 2001–04, with Bush and Cheney’s war is an acute haunting right now. And behind that was, as you say, an adolescent High Seriousness where, every time someone proposes rent control or a pro-union law, millions of innocent peasants are suddenly dead on the ground, massacred for the utopian dreams of the left. It’s fatuous, really.

I recently read some of the great expositors of the politics of ethical responsibility—really serious people like Camus and Havel, who took risks in the battles of their times. I realized how much of their ethics was based in refusal: refusal of assent, of complicity, of support, for programs that were happening around them. Very good. But where does an injunction like “Refuse lies” and “Do not kill the innocent” get you today? It’s a boring point, but most political decisions are tradeoffs, and the hardest are often tragic. So if the ethics of responsibility, or integrity you might also say, was often in practice a kind of ethics of purity in the face of someone else’s vast and destructive action, what help is that in a time of political torpor and ambiguity? Going off looking for dragons to demur from is no answer.

So it’s not surprising that the rhetoric of responsibility seems so hollow and self-important. Part of the problem is the total lack of political capacity to match the scale of the problems. You can talk a person into taking responsibility for, I don’t know, her pet goat and its little pasture. You can talk a town into taking responsibility for its park. In the 1960s and ’70s, it wasn’t crazy to say the U.S. Congress had been talked into taking responsibility for American wilderness reserves and endangered species, which it passed laws to protect in 1964 and 1973. But there are no institutions, movements, or even feelings of commonality that could support acting on the scale of climate change, or the other global crises for which it’s become a kind of symbolic stand-in. So while some responsibility talk may be intrinsically vague and unactionable—“We should be good and look out for one another”—here the problem may not be a lack of concreteness, but a lack of capacity to make a response concrete. In that situation, I’m not prepared to say we should treat our contingently broken and incapable politics as if it were some kind of intrinsic ethical constraint.