Thinking Past the Anthropocene
As Sylvia Wynter, Aph Ko, and many other decolonial theorists argue (not to mention post-humanists, indigenous scholars, queer theorists, and other critical theorists of race, gender, sex, and ableness), the “human” of “the humanities” in modern western educational institutions was based upon a very specific ideal of what counted as “human”: white, European, able-bodied, straight males. Furthermore, this human is thought of as separated from the rest of the natural world (hence the separation of sciences in the nineteenth century into “human sciences” and “natural sciences”). Thus, built into modern western educational institutions are a whole host of problematic isms that reinforce human exceptionalism from nature, and hierarchies of discrimination among humans. The current disciplinary divisions and assumptions in modern western educational institutions helped to materialize this specific modern western version of the human, which has brought us “the Anthropocene.” If we want to address the violence inherent in modern western thought, then we need to undiscipline our thinking and re-attune it to our evolving, embodied contexts on a planet marked by climate change and globalization. What types of different planetary futures might we co-imagine and begin to work towards? Unfortunately, too many peoples and governments seem to be falling into four primary answers to that question.
The first is a return to nationalisms and parochialisms, adopted by many people on the so-called conservative and right end of the spectrum. Circle the wagons, retreat from global connections, and take care of one’s own citizenry and people. Of course, these types of nationalisms always lead to discourses and actions that are ethnocentric, xenophobic, and racist. The question of who counts as a citizen of X country often provokes answers that lead to the purification of a country’s identity. I’m thinking of the return to nationalisms across Europe and discourse around Muslims and Syrian refugees; the return to nationalism in the United States with Trumpism and the backlash against immigrants, Black Lives Matter movements, and anti-wokeness discourse in general; Hindu nationalism in India that seeks to exclude Muslims from full citizenship; the neo-Confucian based nationalism in China and the treatment of the Uyghurs there; the attempt by conversative Muslims in Indonesia to equate Indonesian identity with a particular brand of Islam; not to mention the situation between Russia and the Ukraine, and between Israel and Palestine. The list goes on. It seems we haven’t learned from the hard lessons of two World Wars.
The second group follows a sort of localism or bioregionalism in the form of a return to “place” and a return to more “natural” ways of living. These ideas can be found among those on the political left. The answer to the problems of climate change and globalization is to retreat to local living, which also involves an imagined return to an earlier, “more natural” way of living. This usually means less technology and connectivity with the rest of the world, and though it doesn’t necessarily lead to isolationism and NIMBY type politics, it does have that potential. This option is not possible for people who can’t afford to buy land and exit the global economy (not that anyone ever fully can). Interestingly, the far left and the far right often make strange bedfellows when it comes to things like the anti-vax movement and promoting policies against globalization.
The third general reaction is the continuation of the globalization of neoliberal economics and policies as usual, with social justice and environmental concerns tacked on. This is usually adopted by the so-called liberals who are at the center of the political spectrum (or just to left or right of center). Indeed, it is this very neoliberalism that has fed climate catastrophe and gross economic inequity, in a sense fueling the desire for people to return to the local and national. The answer here lies with an amended version of “more of the same.” These amendments, however, are at best greenwashing and bluewashing the environmental and social problems resulting from globalization and climate change.
The fourth general reaction is quite literally “out of this world.” It is not even clear where they fall on the political spectrum (though often in support of the most fiscally conservative economic policies). These are the trans-humanists types that want to put all their faith in modern western reductive and productive science and find ways to either overcome our biological bodies, or, in the cases of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, flee the planet all together. (Rubenstein) Though I do think space exploration is a needed and valuable branch of technology and science, it ought not be done in an effort to flee our own planet, but rather to learn more about our planet’s place in the universe. Furthermore, this elite vision is one that leaves most bodies (human and non) behind.
What visions might we co-construct for the multiple futures of our worlds if we begin with the idea that we are first and foremost planetary creatures and citizens, among many other different types of creatures? What if we begin with the idea that our humanity is not exceptional to the rest of the natural world, but that it only exists because of our location in evolving planetary contexts? I say “worlds” here because our futures will be multiple. (Mignolo) The planetary is not a preformed container into which all worlds must fit, but rather the collection of linked up worlds and assemblages therein at any one moment make up the planetary.
This line of thinking adheres to a “cosmopolitanism from below” and to an embodied, evolving pluriverse. (Kurasawa) From within this immanent framework of the planetary, truth and knowledge are produced through gathering as many different perspectives as possible and moving forward from the common grounds constructed by those positions. Of course, some perspectives (fake news, alternative facts, violent conspiracy theories) are just simply destructive. The litmus test for inclusion is twofold: 1) is your position monolithic and incapable of taking in other perspectives; and 2) does your position create blatant violence toward others (human and non). If the answer is yes to either, then it is not a perspective capable of co-constructing.
There are all sorts of gray areas, but this is not a relativistic framework; it is a multiperspectival, embodied framework that pays deep attention to contexts, and to how ideas, values, policies, and laws materialize in worlds in ways that affect different embodiments differently (both good and bad). As in Bruno Latour’s understanding of “the collective,” the point is not to come to a final utopia, but to collect, assess what bodies are being harmed or left out, and invite those bodies into the collective, and then collect again, ad infinitum.
Whitney A. Bauman is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, FL. His publications include: Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic (Columbia University Press 2014), and co-authored with Kevin O’Brien, Environmental Ethics and Uncertainty: Tackling Wicked Problems (Routledge 2019). His forthcoming book is entitled, A Critical Planetary Romanticism: Literary and Scientific Origins of New Materialism (Columbia University Press, Forthcoming 2023).
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Photo credits: Official logo for the current G20 meeting held in Bali, Indonesia. It was impossible to find public domain images of protests, because protesters have been severely restricted there and the news coming out of the G20 is highly curated.