I write this thinking of the toxic mine tailings spilling over First Nations lands in British Columbia and Colorado. I think of how fracking has created a mud volcano in Java, displacing forty thousand human residents and burying their crops and remaining wild places. As we reflect on such human-made environmental catastrophes, two additional insights must be added to those of Jedediah Purdy. First, with the livability of so many ecologies under threat, it is no longer possible to advocate for a political philosophy that addresses only human relations with other humans. Second, the insights, commitments, and mobilizations of people other than British and American philosophers will be essential.
Many commentators continue to put their hope in more engineering, more capitalism, and more human exceptionalism—in other words, a “good Anthropocene.” The most strident good-Anthropocene advocates—the ecomodernists—argue that attention to ecology should exclusively fulfill human dreams of profit and control; they oppose other views and goals as anti-modern. Purdy brings a critical eye and a more egalitarian vision of the good Anthropocene to the discussion, but his proposal retains the unlikely-to-be-fulfilled desire to see modern man in charge. It is time to fight for a “short Anthropocene,” that is, to endeavor to hold on to the cross-racial, cross-national, and cross-species entanglements that make our lives, human and nonhuman, possible.
As Audre Lorde advised, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” More plantations, for example, will not solve the problems caused by plantations. Plantations, indeed, are an important element of Anthropocene threats to biodiversity. The industrialization of plants and the plant industrial trade have bred and spread pathogens that endanger even those plants most happy to live with humans. Consider the disease called sudden oak death, which is destroying anthropogenic woodlands in California. It is caused by a water mold, a Phytophthora, which was introduced repeatedly, probably through the industrial nursery trade. Industrial nursery production has both spread the disease and augmented its virulence through hybridization of once-isolated strains. As botanist Oliver Rackham warns: “Catastrophes are not necessarily abnormal. . . . It is the rate of catastrophes—every few years instead of once in a millennium—that matters.” He continues, “Globalising tree-planting inevitably tends to globalise tree diseases.”
Rackham offers a clear program for halting the enhancement of Phytophthora virulence: the deindustrialization of the plant-nursery trade. He shows how care for woodlands is incompatible with shipping soil and seedlings around the world at the speed and scale of current commercial standards. This is a dangerous practice that has no practical advantages: it kills the familiar local trees that are its most common commercial objects.
This example points to emergent thinking about the possibilities of strategic deindustrialization and degrowth programs that might attend to the multispecies coordinations of Holocene ecologies—that is, those in which humans and other species continue to share common conditions for flourishing. And while it is important to begin with specifics, there is a big story here.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the Cold War sponsored a race toward the dream of the modern. Bigger and bigger earth-transforming projects were put into play as part of that race. The megadams of the twentieth century were each designed to be higher than the last—not for reasons of necessary irrigation, electric power, or flood control, but rather because doing so allowed developers and nations to promote themselves as successful in the game. In this process, modernist earth-changing projects were naturalized as the only way for humans to inhabit the earth. Other alternatives, such as small dams, an old vernacular practice, were denigrated as backward or unproductive. The “great acceleration” after 1950, with its characteristic J-curves connecting world systems and earth systems, resulted in large part from the Cold War race to the dream of the modern.
To mobilize for a short Anthropocene is to dismantle this race, much of which has made little contribution to wellbeing of any kind.
Non-environmental rejections of Cold War truths also pile up; we see them in the popular revalorization of other ways of being in the world (religious, indigenous, etc.). For the most part, these movements have not connected livability with the maintenance of Holocene ecologies. Still, they suggest that faith in Cold War modernity now seems strange to many people around the world—and perhaps especially to those who were impoverished, preyed upon, and displaced by the race. The key challenge ahead is to form productive alliances between struggles for more-than-human livable ecologies and struggles for political enfranchisement among humans.
To open Anthropocene discussions to a wider public will require hard work on the part of those elites accustomed to imagining their own goals as universal. At the same time, too, we will need to take cross-species interdependence much more seriously. Humans cannot live without plants, which produce the oxygen we breathe. We cannot digest our food without the help of intestinal bacteria. Our cross-species entanglements give us life—and make us vulnerable. Nonhumans are implicated in our politics; we need them in our deliberations.