Nature has always been political. The human-nature binary has shaped politics for centuries, centuries that saw a handful of Western European nations and the United States (read, “human”) dominate the rest of the world (read, “nature”) through resource extraction, fossil-fueled industrialization, slavery, genocide, and war. That domination hasn’t ended, but the Manichaean ideology behind it has been unsettled by climate change and undermined by the idea of the Anthropocene: that Homo sapiens is now a geologic force. “Humans” are radically reshaping “nature,” whether we like it or not. What this means for human agency is perhaps the most urgent challenge the Anthropocene poses.
The old human-nature binary posed the problem of human agency as one of rational will against biological determinism. Conveniently, this logic helped divide Homo sapiens into rulers and ruled. “Natural” never applied just to the Appalachian Mountains, the forests of the New World, deer, buffalo, and salmon, but also to indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and women. These groups of humans were seen as being closer to nature than white men: naturally less rational, naturally less free, naturally less capable of self-determination. They were seen as beautiful and noble in their natural innocence, but also dangerous, requiring the ruling hand of white men to guide them to civilization.
As we face the changing politics of human agency in the Anthropocene, we can understand the end of nature in one of two ways. In the first, Jedediah Purdy’s “denaturalization of nature” means that humanity has won: political power has conquered the world, and technocratic reason reigns supreme. By becoming a geological force, humanity has finally achieved its supreme role as global decider. The power to destroy ourselves is also the potential to save ourselves. In this view, human agency is fundamentally unlimited. We are capable of anything we might imagine, if only we exert the political will. Suffering, famine, drought, war, global warming, and even death are merely engineering challenges to be solved with the right app: the food movement, solar power, better tech, more democracy. In this view, every human problem has a solution.
In the second way, the end of nature means realizing that humanity was natural all along, and that the distinction between human and nature was a self-serving political lie. In this view, human agency is fundamentally limited by the carrying capacity of the planet and the innumerable ways in which biology, chemistry, physics, and geology shape our everyday behavior. Humanity has to face the fact that on a geological scale, we are nothing but rocks. For all our incredible culture and technology, in the end we are no more than transient accretions of matter and energy, vexed by the dim awareness of our own mortality.
Purdy wants us to see the end of nature the first way. His politics offers an egalitarian, utopian apocalypse, but only by erasing the millions of bodies the war on nature has left in its wake and only by ignoring the reality of our present political situation. How do Syria, Ukraine, China, Israel, the Islamic State, Indonesia, and the other hundred and eighty-odd nations of the world fit into Purdy’s “democratic Anthropocene”? How does the current American electoral spectacle, in which 158 families have provided nearly half of the early money for the presidential election, offer any hope for democracy in our own country? How are we going to completely rebuild global energy infrastructure in the next decade through assemblies such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has been failing us for more than two decades?
The end of nature means waking up from the dream of escaping nature. What the Anthropocene has to teach us is that humanity has limits. We are all mortal, failing, failed beings, and trying to find ultimate solutions to the human condition will only cause more suffering. We are never going to solve the problem of being limited and mortal in a mortal and limited world. We can’t buy or innovate or Google our way out.
What we can do is learn to offer each other patience, compassion, courage, and love. We can learn to accept that just as every human life has its natural end, so too does every civilization. Contrary to what Purdy argues, we don’t need more politics. We need more hospice. We need to learn how to die.