Narratives of the Anthropocene are prone to essentialism: the human species is responsible for climate change, and some innate trait of ours is to blame. Jedediah Purdy’s essay is refreshingly free of such generalizations. It is sensitive to the particular forces that shape the biosphere: it registers the fields of inequality on which environmental disasters play out, notes the brutality of market-based allocation, and enjoins us to see catastrophe as a result of “political choices of distribution, not just natural facts.” In place of this neoliberal state of affairs, Purdy calls for more democracy.
All this is to be saluted. But less compelling is his conception of nature as malleable—subject to the human power to shape it.
Nature is not dead but more alive than ever. This is the paradox of our era.
“As a practical matter,” Purdy writes, “‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity.” Probably what he means is that nature is not unaffected by human activity. But immaculacy and independence are different qualities. I affect my partner, possibly profoundly, but still she is ontologically independent of me: she existed prior to our encounter and has her own ways. However I might influence her, she retains her autonomy. The same is true of the relationship between the social and the natural. Nature existed before us and will likely go on existing after us. That does not mean we do not affect it. In her new book Autonomous Nature, Carolyn Merchant emphasizes that “the way in which nature as an autonomous system behaves depends on how humans behave in relationship to it.”
At stake here, then, is precisely what we mean by “nature.” Kate Soper’s masterpiece What is Nature? (1995) defends the following answer: “those material structures and processes that are independent of human activity (in the sense that they are not a humanly created product), and whose forces and causal powers are the necessary conditions of every human practice, and determine the possible forms it can take.” This thing surely hasn’t come to an end, as climate change itself illustrates. Humans have dumped enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the Holocene, helping to raise levels from 280 to more than 400 parts per million. But we don’t carry out the complex chemical and geological processes that respond. Human activity is only one element of the system; nature plays a role, too. At whatever point one chooses to study global warming, one finds natural relations with no social input whatsoever—between the Arctic sea ice and the jet stream, for example, or between the color of surfaces and their absorption of heat, monsoons and moisture, storm surges and sea levels.
From this point of view, nature is not dead but more alive than ever. This is the paradox of our era: the more profoundly (some) humans have come to shape nature by burning fossil fuels, the more intensely nature comes to affect (some) human lives; the more social relations disrupt natural ones, the more the reverse.
What is to be done? We can treat either natural or social relations as malleable. Purdy seems to treat both that way. He is anxious to reject the conservative position that everything is eternal—the ultimate fraud of naturalization. His Anthropocene is meant to set us free. This progressive impulse is laudable, but even beyond the theoretical problems with his conception of nature, it is not clear it offers any strategic benefit.
Consider the movement 350.org, named for its goal: reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million. Fighting for 350 is the very opposite of embracing the Anthropocene. It may be quixotic, but it is not technically unfeasible. Rather than engineer a new climate, this movement would have us minimize our disturbance of it as best we can.
350.org has been instrumental in the surge of climate activism that has brought us fossil fuel divestment campaigns, the People’s Climate March, and the victory over the Keystone XL pipeline. Purdy condemns the use of “extra-political criteria” to solve political problems. But in the case of 350.org, using a scientifically based criterion seems to have been a successful recipe for denaturalizing and politicizing climate change. With the divestment campaign, even the circuits of financial capital, so far removed from public accountability, have been called into question. Why do some people profit from the extraction of fossil fuels? Shouldn’t all energy investment be placed under public control? Here the ideal is a democratic anti-Anthropocene. As much as it runs counter to all current trajectories, it seems to be the best hope we have.