According to Jedediah Purdy, the Anthropocene has denaturalized nature. In a sense it represents the final triumph of human agency: there is no longer anything that we do not have a hand in making. Purdy’s argument is well intentioned, but I see in it the risk of further succumbing to Western capitalism’s delusion of its own omnipotence. Humanity must realize that its grandiose evaluation of the extent of its own agency is more fantasy than fact. In The Ecology of Law (2015), Fritjof Capra and I share with Purdy, Naomi Klein, and many others the conviction that the current state of ecological catastrophe changes everything. Unlike Purdy, though, Capra and I argue for a path of devolution rather than an insistence on even more human power.
Rather than demand that nature submit to human laws, we need an ecological understanding of those laws.
Politics is the vehicle of human agency, and law is its tool. Jurisprudence is largely responsible for the pernicious illusion of control that now leads many to feel that human laws trump the laws of nature. This evolution shows surprising kinship with the development of the natural sciences. As the two disciplines matured along parallel tracks during the modern period, so too did the conceptual relationship between the “laws of nature” and human laws. Mutually reliant on notions of a world governed by rigid (if occulted) principles, science and jurisprudence together undergird the dominant Western worldview that human control is perfectible.
Our juridically obsessed modernity has given rise to an ideology of domination that supports this century’s unsustainable extractive capitalism. In little more than three hundred years, we have used the law, science, and technology to transform our world from one of abundant commons and scarce capital into one of excessive capital and paltry ecological and social commons. The unlimited growth of private business has overthrown the sovereignty of the commons and privatized much of what formerly belonged to it. Yet even in the short term, the corporate world and the political process that colludes with it are manifestly unsustainable.
Offering hope for the future, cutting-edge science has begun to abandon the modernist vision of nature as an aggregate of discrete components, instead embracing a vision of nature that is based on patterns of relationships, systemic thinking, and ecological community. This turn began during the first three decades of the twentieth century, when two new theories of physics, quantum theory and relativity theory, shattered all the principles of scientific positivism. Perhaps the greatest shock was the discovery that the world could no longer be decomposed into independent, elementary units. A subatomic particle is in essence a set of relationships that reach outward to other things, which are themselves sets of relationships. A spectacular shift in emphasis from the parts to the whole followed, breaking the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm. Unfortunately, an equivalent paradigm shift in the designing and implementing of human laws has not followed, one that would move the center of our attention from the individual to relationships within the commons. The need for such a shift is urgent. For the first time in the history of Western thought, a dramatic separation has emerged between the laws of nature—which are self-sustaining and community based—and human laws that champion the extractive and the individual.
Rather than demand that nature submit to human laws, which serve our desire for accumulation, we need a profound change of legal paradigms and an ecological understanding of human laws. A new ecological-legal order would be based on legal and natural literacy, an embrace of resources held in common, and a concerted effort to limit the disasters of the Anthropocene. This new legal order can be neither designed nor imposed, but must instead be allowed to emerge organically from material processes, from collective subjectivities learning from nature rather than dictating to it. The Ecology of Law shows how we can all participate in creating this new Gaian Law by resisting the current positivist law of the Anthropocene, which seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a few.
We know that nature sustains life through a set of laws and ecological principles that are generative and never extractive. Allowing them to thrive and seeking to learn from them is better than making them the object of political projects.