The World We’ve Built

The World We’ve Built

To be human is to shape the world, to create the infrastructure of our common lives. What do we do when that infrastructure becomes a trap?

The Delhi Faridabad Skyway, India, 2011 (Tahir Hashmi / Flickr)

This essay forms the first part of an exchange that originally took place at the Sovereignty, Economy and Global Histories of Natural Resources Symposium in December 2017 at the University of Cambridge, organized by Tehila Sasson. Read Katrina Forrester’s response, in dialogue with Jedediah Purdy, here.

The idea of “nature” went out with the twentieth century. Part of the reason is physical: It keeps getting harder to distinguish the natural world from everything else. Between 1950 and 2015, nitrogen synthesized for fertilizers rose from less than 4 million tons annually to more than 85 million, and plastics production increased in weight from under 1 million tons to over 300 million. A 2017 study estimated the mass of the global “technosphere,” the material habitat that humans have created in roads, cities, rural housing, the active soil in cropland, and so forth, at 30 trillion tons, some five orders of magnitude greater than the weight of the human beings that it sustains. That is approximately four thousand tons of transformed earth per human being, or twenty-seven tons of technosphere for each pound of a 150-pound person.

Another reason is growing understanding that “nature” is always political. The meaning and value of the non-human world are always partly human creations, involved in gender, race, imperialism, capitalism—all of them offered up as “natural.” In my writing on ecology, law, and politics, I’ve written about living “after nature,” meaning, once we understand humans as thoroughly involved in the materiality and meaning of the world. This might seem to mean living against nature or without a nature. But here I would like to make a different point, one with many sources including Rousseau and Marx. Humans do have a nature, but a dynamic one: our nature is to create ourselves by creating the material and political worlds in which we live together. Humanity is the political animal, the species that explicitly makes its own rules and institutions. And in ecological and material terms we are an infrastructure species.

When I say infrastructure, I mean it in a few ways. First is the classic sense of the word: roads, rails, and utility lines—artificial systems that are open to most or all and enable people to reach one another for communication or other cooperation. Second, I mean those immaterial systems of interconnection and cooperation that do the same kind of work, such as the law of contract and, more generally, the market—which both economists and lawyers know is always built in a legal framework. Although this second type of infrastructure may be immaterial, its effects are very material: it produces the economics of the global carbon cycle, the food system, and everything else that is remaking the world. Third is the basic domains and cycles of the natural world: the global atmosphere, the water cycles and the waterways that it passes through, the soil and its fertility. These, too, are infrastructure: the conditions of all human action and interaction. Human activity increasingly shapes them and will do so even more intensively.

Because humanity is an infrastructure species, there is scarcely any such thing as a human being apart from a shared and artificial world: concrete and cable and energy flows; legal regimes for coordinating activity, from property and contract to the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy; and orders of power and authority, including ways of changing the other systems through political decisions and state power. It is within this complex housing that we variously answer the question, “What shall we do today?” which, answered many times over, generates responses to the questions, “Who are we?” and “What sort of world is this?” The human species is remaking the planet as an integrated piece of global infrastructure—in its artificial carbon and nitrogen cycles, climatic patterns, energy flows, biodiversity, and its skin of roads, farmland, and settlements.

What, then, of the further question, “What sort of world shall we make?” There are two ways to coordinate world-making without open conflict: through markets, decentralized agreements by willing parties, and through political decisions centered in a state. Each one is associated with an ideal image, really a utopia, of coordination among free and equal persons: the utopia of the marketplace, which reconciles competing interests and goals through voluntary agreement, and the utopia of politics, which subjects laws and material arrangements to the theoretically equal voice or vote of those who must live under them. The two utopias come down to contracts versus voting, individual consent versus majority decisions.

As the political animal, we theoretically have the power to decide which infrastructure to make—which means, in a real way, choosing what sort of species we are going to be. But this power is often more notional than real. Consider a comment in the journal Bioscience that appeared late last year. It is a sequel to a 1992 document called the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” Both the 1992 and the 2017 pieces are built around a kind of graphic that readers will know well: trend lines for key environmental indicators such as fresh water per capita (down), populations of wild vertebrates (down), carbon dioxide emissions (up), deforestation (up), and oxygen-starved “dead zones” in bodies of water that receive large doses of agricultural runoff (up). The graphs portray a planet moving deeper into mass extinction, strain or exhaustion of life-giving resources like water, and massive climate change. The 1992 version of the warning had more than 1700 scientist signatories, including more than half the living Nobel laureates in the sciences. The 2017 version has more than 15,000 scientist signatories from 184 countries—a rate of growth that resembles its other trend-lines.

The scientists’ warning is addressed to “humanity,” and the text includes the declaration that “humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative” as well as a list of “steps humanity can take to transition to sustainability.” On one level, the phrases name a bare fact. If these changes do not happen, we know, roughly, what the alternative is, even if many of us have trouble really fathoming how bad it will be. Familiar formulas still spring to the lips, or to the tweeting fingertips: If not now, when? We are all in this together!

On another level, the “humanity” that the self-described “world scientists” address does not exist. There is no “we” that could take the actions that the scientists call for. Collective decisions, world-shaping decisions, come through political institutions with the power to issue and enforce regimes of cooperation—legal infrastructure—and those political institutions do not exist. The “humanity” that the scientists appeal to floats insubstantially above actual political choices.

The appeal to humanity is at once cogent and nonsensical, urgent and pointless. The heavy facts of a fragmented and unequal world contradict the scientists’ call at every point, but they don’t disestablish it. Here is our paradox: The world can’t go on this way; and it can’t do otherwise. It was the collective power of some—not all—human beings that got us into this: power over resources, power over the seasons, power over one another. That power has created a global humanity, entangled in a Frankenstein ecology. But it does not yet include the power of accountability or restraint, the power we need. To face the Anthropocene, humans would need a way of facing one another. We would need, first, to be a we.

What makes a we? Apart from small, face-to-face settings, the first-person plural is an achievement of politics. The machine of political decision-making—the institutions and practices, like elections, that count as collective decisions—have the unique power to establish binding rules for living together. These rules answer questions like: Will roads, rails, or bicycle paths be built here? Will coal be mined, or solar panels erected? If we answer these questions through markets, what are the rules that define the markets? How much does carbon cost? Do prices reflect an attempt to value the whole living world and future generations, or just the marginal convenience of current buyers and sellers? Taken together, these rules make a world.  For an infrastructure species, sovereignty can transform world-making—which is also collective self-making—into a deliberate act.

This uniquely constructive power of political sovereignty is especially worth insisting on now, when the world’s (still) most powerful state is in the hands of an Axis of Denial, in which refusing to seriously acknowledge or do anything about climate change is a point of convergence for constituencies from the coal industry to the evangelical right. Climate denial is also a kind of ecological symbol of a broader denial: denial that U.S. demographics are changing, that the revolution in gender roles and identity is imperative and permanent, that the racial history of the United States is still mainly without reparation. Border walls have become the emblem of this deployment of sovereignty: to secure the fragmentation of the planet into gated communities and sacrifice zones. Sovereignty in these uses works to create, ratify, and extend unequal and exploitative relations. Humanity has achieved its inequality. But the state, the weaponized tool of the worst things we do and also the vehicle of our decentralized violence—slow violence as well as fast—against one another and the rest of life, is also the way to a different situation.

Let me now restate what I was saying about the Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, but in more abstract terms. Theirs is a well-established way of arguing about sovereignty. Show what problems a sovereign—meaning the collective decision-making of a political community—must be able to solve. If you show that the existing form or theory of sovereignty can’t address that problem successfully, then you’ve shown its inadequacy. In a certain way you’ve refuted it. Thomas Hobbes famously argued in this way that the problem of order among human beings was too deep-seated and persistent to be resolved by any regime that lacked certain kinds of scope and decisiveness: with weak, uncertain, or divided sovereignty, the sources of conflict that political institutions were meant to tame would instead colonize politics, producing irresolvable conflict. The force of Hobbes’s argument was that basic forms of order and the security they bring are preconditions of any tolerable social life. A putative sovereign that can’t secure such order has no claim on obedience.

Today, what Hobbes claimed about social order is true of global ecological order. The bare logic of our behavior, from individual choice through corporations and states, places a crushing strain on planetary systems, systems whose health is just as essential to shared life as basic order and security are, and arguably even more important. So among the preconditions of going on living together is the shaping of a global ecological regime. Our forms of sovereignty signally fail to achieve this, not by happenstance, but for reasons well canvassed in the literature of collective action: our choices are self-interested, short-term, and, at their largest scale, national, while our problems are interdependent, long-term, and global. Our infrastructures of choice—markets and governments—systemically lead us away from the most important problems. So we live within institutions and practices have been refuted by circumstances, shown to be inadequate, but which nevertheless persist.

And it’s worse than that. It’s not just that there is no political, sovereign “humanity” that can legislate its way to a better world, or even a viable one. It is not that we are in Hobbes’s notorious state of nature. There is another way in which the species has already legislated for itself, not with laws, but with another kind of infrastructure, with concrete, steel, and wire. The world we make tells us how to live in it, makes us know our place. We live within a global, though also intensely differentiated and unequal, order that dictates to us what we shall do. If you want to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, communicate with others, work, feel yourself a part of the cultures in which you share, here is what you must do: enter onto these roads and rails and flights routes, tap into these power grids and data networks, use these tools infused with rare earths.

The form that humans give the built world is the condition of our survival, and ties that survival directly ongoing, devastating damage to planetary systems that we, it turns out, depend on for nearly every “human” capacity we exercise.

Hobbes’s artificial Leviathan is most famous for its terrifyingly unlimited power over its subjects, its status as an earthly God. But there is another, more promising way of seeing it. In this view, the terrifying aspect of Hobbes’s sovereignty is offset by an emancipating, democratic potential: It rules us, but it is also something that the ruled can create self-consciously. We are always ruled; but sometimes we can also make our own ruling power. In Hobbes’s absolutism is a seed of self-rule.

The way to understand the authority that the global infrastructure Leviathan of concrete and wires has over us, though, is not as self-rule. Human beings made this earthly God, but not in free and lucid choice. Not at all. We have made something unremitting in its command over its inhabitants, but in a deep way unchosen.

The legal construction of transnational and global markets for capital and goods has created a situation in which the world’s resources, from rare earths and soil fertility to the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb carbon, are involved in a potentially universal cash nexus. That means the fate of the earth’s resources is already sketched out in the future of supply and demand, written in the markets as if in the stars. Although technological innovation can change cost structures, the larger logic of directing resources toward those who can pay for them is as comprehensive and unrelenting as a Stalinist five-year plan. This increasingly global market is one of the most fateful aspects of planetary infrastructure.

The power of our made world—its technological infrastructure and its markets—is part of the reason that Elon Musk and other charismatics of tech have nearly salvific status in today’s centrist optimism. They exemplify the kind of agency that is easiest to imagine in our infrastructure Leviathan: the hack. The hack is for the technosphere what the prayer of an adept was for seeking divine intervention: a way of getting inside the mind of the ultimate sovereign. The hack is a way of pursuing system-level agency in the absence of the political capacity to act at the scale of the system. Seen in this way, it is a new expression of one of the oldest forms of action: murmuring just the formula that will move the mind and hand of a sovereign that is not accountable, but is susceptible to an aptly phrased appeal. The apt chemical or software or other engineering formula really can flow into the infrastructure Leviathan’s circuitry and make it cleaner, faster, cheaper—change, in other words, its dictates to us, and make this infrastructure species over into a different species, one less ontologically devoted to ravaging the planet to live. Such a hack really may be the only readily imaginable form of agency that promises today to do what Rousseau said a lawgiver must be prepared to do: to change the nature of human beings by changing the world that orchestrates our choices, actions, and lives.

But I can’t celebrate the hack. Hoping to be saved by a hack is like adopting the mindset of Homeric protagonists, anxious for some capricious god to tweak the rules on their behalf. It is not a way of facing one another, a form of collective power over our own direction, or an ambition to count every voice equally. In this moment of elite pessimism about democracy, ecological disaster can seem one more reason to suppose that we cannot save ourselves—only a god of tech can save us.

The hacker conception of agency gives up dramatically on specifically political, let alone democratic, responses to environmental questions. This is in contrast to the moment, now almost fifty years ago, when U.S. lawmakers passed national laws in response to the pollution and extinction crises that had arisen from the post–Second World War acceleration of the human ecological impact on the planet. The public and legislative discourse around those crises combined apocalyptic warnings with supreme confidence in the capacity of the institutions that had to avert apocalypse. The world might be ending, if we did nothing; but we had the power to do what needed doing.

That, anyway, was the story that got told again and again in those years. The beginning of modern environmental lawmaking was the last domestic act of the New Deal state (which was also of course the Cold War state and, accordingly, the state of U.S. hegemony over much of the world). Legislators assumed that they could retool national capitalism. The activist and radical wings of organized labor talked about striking to enforce environmental and health-and-safety standards. Most of that would seem fantastical today. But maybe it need not.

I would like to end with three propositions about the global situation. First and most familiar is that distributional questions, questions of global justice, are inevitable. Ecological and other planetary systems impose real limits on the lives they can sustain among billions of people. The global-market solution to these questions is to suppress them in favor of an implicit assumption that an economic tide rising eventually reaches and lifts all boats.  Joint decisions about priorities and needs get handed over to rising prices in an unequal world—which is just a way of making the same decisions sub silentio. But even if that were acceptable to begin with—which I would not accept—ecologically speaking, there may well be no “eventually,” and the metaphor of rising tides is now an image of selective catastrophe, not universal bounty.

My second proposition is that the world belongs in principle to all who are born into it. It is morally arbitrary that we open our eyes in a world already parceled out and owned. This is a difficult thought to put to work, but it is a necessary egalitarian starting point. The world’s inequalities, however written they are into its many material and legal infrastructures, must be seen as subject to judgment and revision. Addressing a question posed in these terms is one version of what it would mean to have a politics on the scale of the problem.

Third is the fact that humanity is not the only infrastructure species. The transformation of the planet means that all other species live, if they do, on structural sufferance. Hobbes famously wrote that humanity is both a wolf to itself and a god to itself; we also have this double character for actual wolves, and for every other living, non-human thing.

These propositions leave us with many dilemmas, but one is especially disheartening. We need forms of sovereignty, nationally and internationally, that can be trusted with decisions of how to distribute our finite resources, and make those decisions stick. But the sovereigns we have are instead grotesque impresarios of denialism, like the American president. People of conscience end up being, de facto, against the state, because they encounter it mainly as a vehicle of this kind of politics—and why would you not oppose that? Seeing the state as a site of adequate responses to the present has, ironically, the cast of utopianism right now.

So we need, at least, to be able to name an agent of politics that could orient itself toward these territorial states with the right kind of demands. But what is that agent? The left has been looking for it since the failure of working-class internationalism to emerge as a democratic and revolutionary force. The neoliberals have the market-making state, the corporation, and the self-rearrangement of human relations under the joint sway of these (which they may like to call spontaneous order); and they have the human figure of the entrepreneur. The neocons have the militaries. The new populists of the right have the resentments and enthusiasms of nationalism—now, in many countries, at the reins of the market-making state. None of these really tries to grapple with our tyrannical global Leviathan. All can be read as, in some way, symptoms of it. The left risks being merely symptomatic too, the chattering conscience of this world.

We need an internationalism that works through national sovereignties, because our problems are global and our power to change the rules collectively is mostly national. We need an internationalism that raises questions of distribution and justice within the limits of an ultimately finite planet. We need deeper forms of security and solidarity, because those are the beginnings of possibility for a politics that doesn’t aim always at growth, which for the rich world is an imperative of both rational and irrational anxiety more than of hope. We need these things to arise within the relentless global infrastructure of markets and material interdependence that I have already described. It seems only fair to say that it might not be possible.

Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a member of the Dissent editorial board.

Continue reading: Katrina Forrester responds, in dialogue with Jedediah Purdy.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: