A presence that disturbs

What if our most closely held ideas about nature are reactionary? What if the project of restoring wildernesses that we (humans or moderns) have defiled – is misconceived and counterproductive? What if the deeply inscribed understanding of prelapsarian nature, as McKenzie Wark proposes, ‘an ecology that was self-correcting, self-balancing and self-healing’, is a way of surreptitiously reviving a God who might regulate and constrain human appetites? How would abandoning such ideas help us to address the interlocking emergencies – climatic, economic, humanitarian – that are already underway?

These questions are crystallised in the debate about whether we – not just humans, but all life – have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene. For now, we are still officially in the Holocene period. Etymologically, that word means ‘entirely recent’, a categorisation that needs to be qualified. The Holocene is only ‘recent’ relative to the long sweep of geological time – the period began 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, and encompasses all of human history, from the Neolithic Revolution to the present. The term is seen by some to be an inadequate description of what we are living through, given that humans have in this period covered and transformed the planet, from its deepest soils to the thinnest vestiges of our atmosphere, right at the edge of space.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ – derived from the Greek for ‘human’ – was coined in the 1980s, and was later brought to prominence by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen, who formalised a widely held sense that ‘human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature’. His position resonates more forcefully now that the effects of climate change have become apparent, and the deadlock around our response continues. Those who find arguments like Crutzen’s plausible point to the scale of change humans have wrought.

Those changes begin with plants and other animals, which are going extinct at the rate of dozens a day – in other words, 1000–10,000 times the ‘background rate’ expected outside of a catastrophic event, such as an asteroid impact. This is all because we have claimed and polluted habitats, or consumed other life forms directly. We have also redistributed species around the world, especially through European colonialism, either in accordance with our own preferences or because they tagged along uninvited. Wheat and rats, roses and dogs, dandelions and pigs – all of which were once localised species – can now be found on every continent. In some cases, they have displaced other species. Altogether, they make considerable demands on the planet’s life-supporting capacities: along with seven billion humans, the planet now carries nine billion chickens, one and a half billion cows and a billion pigs. The agricultural systems necessary to sustain these levels produce more nitrogen than is developed in all natural processes.

In our efforts to support ourselves, we have not only commandeered other forms of life, but also entire planetary systems. Our need for water – for ourselves and for our crops – has seen us build dams, develop irrigation systems, divert watercourses and suck up artesian basins, actions that have altered the planet’s morphology and even its weather patterns. With our plastics, chemicals, radioactive residue and other forms of pollution, we are leaving a distinct sedimentary layer on the planet’s surface. Finally, with the carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur dioxide and other chemical by-products of our global food and industrial systems, we have changed the climate and, in doing so, altered the chemical composition of the oceans, the size of the polar ice caps and, slowly but steadily, the border between sea and land.

It is for this reason – the possibility that humans have left a permanent mark on the planet – that the International Union of Geological Sciences is debating whether to officially designate the current era as the Anthropocene. Geologists disagree as to whether these changes are significant enough to constitute epochal change, but many already speak in such terms. Since 2012, Anthropocene, an interdisciplinary journal published by Elsevier, has featured ‘works addressing the nature, scale, and extent of the interactions that people have with Earth’. In the first half of this year alone, over 2000 scholarly articles have appeared that employ the concept in analysing everything from Western Australian coral growth and the path of the Seine, to changing patterns of forest­ation in southwest Africa.

The call for a new epoch classification has become part of a more expansive debate, one that reaches far beyond the limits of the sciences. It seems that many writers who take the Anthropocene seriously are led to reframe their understanding of nature, politics and history. Curiously, the recognition of the scale of human intervention has not always led to despair, but rather to a re-emergence of left-wing optimism, and even to the stirrings of a new kind of utopianism. This is most evident in debates about ecology and conservation. A growing number of writers are advocating for a paradigm shift: what is required, the argument goes, is less emphasis on preserving ‘pristine wildernesses’ and more on self-consciously safeguarding the planet we have created.

In her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris famously argues that ‘we are already running the whole earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it.’ For Marris, too much environmental activism is premised on the idea that nature is something ‘out there’, that it only exists in places untouched by human or Western hands. (She calls this version of environmental politics the ‘Yellowstone model’ because of its emphasis on setting aside patches of landscape as ecological museum pieces.)

Marris acknowledges the value of trying to preserve species and habitats that are endangered, but remains critical of conservation models that seek to rewind ecosystems to an ecological ‘baseline’. Such an approach, she argues, is not only too piecemeal, expensive and difficult, but also at odds with the realities of climate change. We need to recognise that, in many instances, there is no ‘climax’ community – no fully developed, stable and balanced ecosystem to which we can return. The preservation of particular species, ecosystems and biodiversity more generally will not come as a result of human withdrawal from natural processes, but rather through human decisions, human actions and human politics. One of the most decisive moves would be for the rights of other species to be formally acknowledged and balanced with human rights.

In The New Wild, published this year, veteran environmental journalist Fred Pearce makes a similar argument in an even more pointed fashion. His central concern is getting us to rethink our treatment of what have hitherto been called ‘invasive species’. Australia’s cane toads, rabbits and prickly pears are often positioned as evil villains wreaking havoc on balanced, fragile ecosystems, and this in turn drives policy and activist responses centred on restoring ‘original’ wildernesses. The theory is that climax ecosystems will reassert themselves once alien influences are removed.

For Pearce, this amounts to a kind of ecological xenophobia. Like Marris, he is keen to debunk the idea that ‘natural’ ecosystems are characterised by stasis and balance. During the relatively short interglacial period of the Holocene, almost every system has changed radically, or been colonised by species on the move. He also points out that some New World ecologies lauded as ‘virgin’ wilderness have turned out to be farmlands reclaimed by the forest after whole communities succumbed to the calamities of colonialism.

Pearce shows that species introduced by humans – whether deliberately or accidentally – are frequently treated as villains in an environmental morality tale. But these species usually only find a foothold in systems that are already deeply disturbed, and therefore should be treated as a symptom rather than as the cause of environmental degradation.

We should recognise, Pearce argues, that introduced species often prepare the ground for the return of other species and thus play a role in renewing ecosystems.

After an initial population boom, invasive species tend to decline in numbers and become a part of the local ecology. We can also observe introduced and native species establishing surprising, and often productive, interrelationships (a good example is the European honeybee, which now plays a crucial role in pollinating a wide range of native plants in the New World). From this point of view, invasive species are actually signs of nature’s resilience. They are signs of hope.

Marris and Pearce both consider the concept of untouched wildernesses to be a delusion, and reject the doctrine that humans must restore nature’s eternal balance. Both argue for a variety of experiments in our stewardship of the earth, including allowing some introduced species to run wild alongside natives in order to see what happens. Both concede the grim truth that it may not always be possible to save threatened species. But their arguments for a future-oriented, improvisational approach – for humans to accept responsibility in courageous new ways – will feel to some like a shaft of light in the gloom of a movement that is so often preoccupied with loss.

Experimentation and utopia are also on the agenda in Molecular Red, McKenzie Wark’s effort to renovate theory and politics in light of the Anthropocene. Wark takes aim at another calcified intellectual patrimony: the canon of critical theory derived from the likes of Althusser, Benjamin and Focuault. Wark presents an alternative tradition of heterodox thought that might enable the Left to formulate new struggles, adopt new comrades and dream of new worlds. This tradition includes forgotten Soviet Marxists Alexander Bogdanov and Andrey Platonov, cyborg theorist Donna Haraway and utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson.

For Wark, the Anthropocene is ‘not the end of the world, but the end of prehistory’. Viewing history through its lens enables us to see Soviet projects like the draining of the Aral Sea for cotton production as continuous with the other ‘metabolic rifts’ that have characterised capitalist modernity, like leaching nutrients from the soil into crops and then eventually flushing them as effluent into the sea. The most serious of these metabolic rifts has been the ‘redistribution … of molecules’ by the ‘Carbon Liberation Front’, which has released into the atmosphere enormous quantities of earthbound carbon and, in doing so, pushed ‘the climate into the red zone’. From this viewpoint, the Soviet collapse, which is partly environmental, merely prefigures the capitalist collapse.

Wark sets himself the task of constructing a ‘labour perspective’ on the events of the Anthropocene. He seeks to put our current historical tasks in the hands of working people of all kinds, bringing big problems into contact with ‘everyday experiences, technical hacks, and … utopian speculations’. He follows Bogdanov in seeing nature as the arena of labour, and as something defined by labour – that which labour is both in and against. Stripping nature of its quasi-divine status is, he argues, a necessary step towards a bottom-up effort to address these metabolic rifts.

One key concept in Wark’s theoretically rich book is ‘tektology’, borrowed from Bogdanov’s voluminous philosophical writings (the same ones that allowed Lenin, Bogdanov’s great rival, to purge him). Bogdanov theorised that new labour processes under communism would require a new practice of knowledge, where solutions in one discipline, field or context were experimentally transposed to other situations to see if they worked. (Wark gives the historical example of the dissemination of steam power to a range of new contexts early in the industrial revolution.)

While humanists and engineers police their disciplinary boundaries, and each treats the other with suspicion, the challenges of the Anthropocene will continue. What is required is a new kind of promiscuity across disciplines, as hacks are passed around and heterogeneous groups scope out our problems. The time for waiting for a master theorist or political leader to deliver us is over.

Wark heads in a similar direction to the new currents in ecology. To keep the planet habitable for ourselves and other species, we may have to engage in ecological and political experiments that look a bit like the ‘terraforming’ that Robinson situates on Mars. If that has the ring of hubris, it may be because we are underestimating the scale of the task before us.

In an era where discussions on the Left are haunted by demoralisation and defeat, the Anthropocene – and its central imperative of responsibility – might allow for new conversations that transcend narrow versions of environmental politics. The need to manage the emergency that humans have created allows us to rethink not only nature but also labour politics, as well as to talk openly once more about the kind of world we want to have at the end of our struggles. It may allow us to better connect environmental and labour struggles, education and climate policies, and to nuance our understanding of what real equality might mean.

It might also give us a new, inspiring political language that can help us dislodge neoliberal doctrine from its current place in collective common sense. After all, there is no bigger or more exciting political project than saving the world at the same time as you and your comrades build a new one.


This story is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson is a Guardian Australia columnist. His writing has also appeared in other places, like Soundings, the Atlantic, the Monthly, New Inquiry and various academic journals. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He's on Twitter at @jason_a_w.

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