Dipesh Chakrabarty: Planetary Crises and the Difficulty of being Modern

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s keynote lecture at the December 2017 Millennium conference on ‘The Politics of Time in International Relations’.

Chakrabarty questions whether the presently dominant ideas about globalisation and global warming work with very different conceptions of the ‘globe’ that are both connected and yet opposed to each other. The discussion on globalisation may be seen as an extension of homocentric narratives of modernity that see humans as separate from the natural world. The global warming literature, on the other hand, has led to a serious renewal of critical calls to abandon the nature/culture distinction. In his lecture Professor Chakrabarty tracks some of the ethical difficulties of being modern at a time when collective human aspirations carry planetary implications. In the process, he brings into conversation some post-human and post-colonial perspectives on our time.

Chakrabarty
Follow this link to watch his lecture:

http://players.brightcove.net/4988507115001/default_default/index.html?videoId=ref:jrn-chakrabarty-lect-pcatd-JA00024

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, USA.

Click here for his extended bio

Advertisements

Transformation of consciousness

Daniel Christian Wahl • medium.com


Excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability

“The materialistic consciousness of our culture … is the root cause of the global crisis; it is not our business ethics, our politics or even our personal lifestyles. These are symptoms of a deeper underlying problem. Our whole civilization is unsustainable. And the reason that it is unsustainable is that our value system, the consciousness with which we approach the world, is an unsustainable mode of consciousness.”         — Peter Russell (Lazlo, Grof, & Russell, 1999, p.5)

Many people who have lived relatively conventional and successful lives within the Westernized industrial growth society, that has spread across the planet in the wake of economic globalization and the neoliberal “free”-market agenda, have recently woken up to a feeling of having raced at full tilt aiming for success and getting ahead, only to find out that the goals they were perusing, once reached, seemed shallow, meaningless, and forced them into a life-style or into keeping up a persona that they really felt unhappy with.

 

The last of the economic shock waves that have rippled through the global system in 2008 as a result of the so-called sub-prime mortgage lending put in question whether this experience is in fact an isolated experience of some people, or much rather, the realization that our entire society and its guiding aims has been steaming all engines ahead into an altogether undesirable direction. Both individuals and the western ‘financial success driven’ society as a whole seem to find themselves in a situation described by Joseph Campbell as “getting to the top of the ladder and finding that it stands against the wrong wall.”

“The dominant worldview of the Western industrial civilization does not serve either the collective or the individual. Its major credo is a fallacy. It promotes a way of being and a strategy of life that is ultimately ineffective, destructive, and unfulfilling. It wants us to believe that winning the competition for money, possessions, social position, power, and fame is enough to make us happy. … that is not the true.”   — Stanislav Grof (Lazlo, Grof, & Russell, 1999, p.65)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, suggests in his book The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993): “To know ourselves is the greatest achievement of our species.” He argues that in order to understand ourselves “ what we are made of, what motivates and drives us, and what goals we dream of — involves, first of all an understanding of our evolutionary past;” we need to reflect “on the network of relationships that bind us to each other and to the natural environment” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993, p.xvii). He acknowledges the importance of the emergence of self-reflective consciousness and its role in freeing us from genetic and cultural determinism.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggest that commitment to conscious evolution gives people deep meaning an personal satisfaction. He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity and for his notion of flow with years of research and writing on the topic. (image left; image right)

Csikszentmihalyi believes that the next big evolutionary change in human consciousness may simultaneously acknowledge the self as separate from and fundamentally interconnected with the complexity from which it emerges. The individual, its culture, and the natural environment are simultaneously differentiated from each other and united into a larger complexity.

“If it is true that at this point in history the emergence of complexity is the best ‘story’ we can tell about the past and the future, and if it is true that without it our half-formed self runs the risk of destroying the planet and our budding consciousness along with it, then how can we help to realize the potential inherent in the cosmos? When the self consciously accepts its role in the process of evolution, life acquires a transcendent meaning. Whatever happens to our individual existences, we will become one with the power that is the universe.”    — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1993


Jeremey Rifkin suggest in The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis that human nature is fundamentally empathic rather than selfish and competitive. He reviews recent evidence from brain science and child development studies that show how selfishness, competition and aggression are not innate parts of human behaviour but learned and culturally conditioned responses.

Our very nature is far more caring, loving, and empathic than we have been educated to believe. While being empathic may have initially extended primarily to our family and tribe, our ability to empathize has continued to expand to include the whole of humanity, other species and life as a whole. Rifkin suggest that we are witnessing the evolutionary emergence of Homo empathicus:

“We are at the cusp, I believe, of an epic shift into a climax global economy and a fundamental repositioning of human life on the planet. The ‘Age of Reason’ is being eclipsed by the ‘Age of Empathy’. The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?”    — Jeremy Rifkin (2010, p.3)

The change that Rifkin speaks about resonates with Albert Einsteins’ conviction that our task must be to “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.” While this change is needed at a global scale of the human family, the first step lies in the awakening and transformation of consciousness of each and every one of us. This section will explore both the personal and the collective dimension of this transformation. …

Jeremy Rifkin
‘The Empathic Civilisation’, by Jeremy Rifkin. In this ambitious book, bestselling social critic Jeremy Rifkin shows that the disconnect between our vision for the world and our ability to realize that vision lies in the current state of human consciousness. The very way our brains are structured disposes us to a way of feeling, thinking, and acting in the world that is no longer entirely relevant to the new environments we have created for ourselves. Do not forget to watch the beautiful video when visiting his web page and this RSA RSA animation (image left; image middle; image right)

 

Note: The above is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. In 2012 I was asked to rewrite this dimension as part of a collaboration between Gaia Education and the Open University of Catalunya (UOC) and in 2016 I revised it again into this current version. The next opportunity to join the course is with the start of the Worldview Dimension on May 21st, 2018. You might also enjoy my book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’. Daniel Christian Wahl

Managing the Planet: The Anthropocene, Good Stewardship, and the Empty Promise of a Solution to Ecological Crisis

Charles Stubblefield
University of Alberta


 

Abstract: The Anthropocene has emerged as the dominant conceptualization of the current geological epoch and, more significantly, of Humanity’s relation to nature. By its proponents the Anthropocene is espoused as a “solution formulation,” an analytical tool which clarifies Humanity’s multifarious impacts on nature and nature’s subsequent crises; and further as a conceptual apparatus from which to launch mitigation and adaption strategies, promising deliverance from or at least engagement with ecological crises. However, the Anthropocene is not a neutral concept, merely illuminating transition within ecological conditions and connections between human activities and nature; rather, it is a particular prism from which to understand humanity’s relation to nature. And, as the Anthropocene becomes ascendant both analytically and politically, it becomes vital to question its imaginary, how it constructs nature and Humanity, how it influences and constrains responses to ecological crises, and what the long- term implications of operating within this imaginary are. I argue that the Anthropocene as a political/analytical prism rests upon flawed conceptions of nature, history, and humanity, rending it an impotent construct from which to respond to ecological crises; offering only partial and presumptive “solutions” in the form of intensified governmental regulation and the application of manifold technological “fixes” through the geoengineering of Earth’s systems, in an attempt to address isolated aspects of ecological destruction.


Charles Stubblefield is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta. His primary research focuses on the production of knowledge within the contemporary world, looking at the ways that thought and knowledge production are related to particular structures, social relations, and power. He examines the barriers and capacities for human thought to respond to ecological crises and the ways in which our thought and ability to respond to ecological crises are constrained by social institutions, power, discourses, and social relations more generally. The goal of this research is to challenge those constraints and to expand our ability to think of more egalitarian and less destructive social and human-nature relations.

Stubblefield, C. Managing the Planet: The Anthropocene, Good Stewardship, and the Empty Promise of a Solution to Ecological Crisis . Preprints 2018, 2018050104 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201805.0104.v1).

Download the full paper from:

https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/201805.0104/v1

Finding that ‘sweet spot’ for planetary health

By Dr Jennifer Cole, Public Health Policy Adviser, The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health


 

As planetary health establishes itself as both a concept and an academic field, a key challenge will be how to integrate the disparate and sometimes conflicting disciplines it comprises. A convergence around the limits to growth, planetary boundaries and the great acceleration highlights the need for a “synthesis of syntheses” that must not be afraid of its diversity.

The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health identified three key areas of challenge associated with health in the Anthropocene epoch, the period when human activities began to impact global climate and ecosystems. They are: imagination failures, knowledge failures and implementation failures.

During the recent workshop on “Improving health in an era of social-ecological instability and economic contraction” at the University of Waterloo in Canada, the organisers asked participants to address the imagination failure by thinking of ourselves as only a small part of the Earth’s biosphere, a fragile link in the chain between the deep past and far future – custodians of a shared planet rather than its masters. This in turn should enable us to reconceptualise health, to think about it as something we nurture, not just something we fix when it goes wrong.

Addressing conceptual challenges

In contemplating questions around how health systems of the future might be arranged and financed, workshop participants were encouraged to explore what agency the environment affords us to be healthy and to ask how, if Earth’s natural systems have been damaged irreversibly, might we bounce forward from here? Will health in the future depend on technological enhancements or reengagement with nature? Are solutions most likely to be achieved through open markets or a renewed sense of collective obligation, in which we begin to afford the environment, for its own sake as well as ours, the same level of rights and protections we confer on humans and animals?

We have acknowledged since the 1970s that the environment is deteriorating, but the human race collectively still seems unwilling or unable to act. If shouting apocalyptic warnings doesn’t work, should we instead look for, and act on, smaller early warnings that may seem more manageable? The loss of antibiotics was offered as one example, our apparent inability to achieve most of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without overstepping planetary boundaries another.

The entire population of the world will not change their behaviour overnight, but encouraging some people to take small steps where they can may be more realistic. This could be through low(er) impact transition towns or by re-embedding a sense of self and purpose, so that we want to preserve the planet for future populations long after we as individuals are gone. A reconnection with nature through urban gardening, or by reflecting on the decay and rebirth observed on outdoor walks may help to provide the motivation we need to ensure the planet’s survival, as well as improving mental health.

Early adopters

Eco-villages and transition towns may not be scalable to 9 billion people across the globe (at least, not without radical overhauls of current forms of government), but they can provide evidence on what might work, rather than simply talking about it. They may also help us to understand how to change the process that creates a damaging behaviour, which is likely to be easier than trying to change behaviour alone: if the system makes it harder to waste natural resources people will be more likely to stop. Such communities may also help us to understand the trade-offs that might be required and what we might be willing to give up – in terms of preconceptions and normative frameworks as well as “stuff”.

There was consensus at the workshop that capitalism, consumerism and our obsession with GDP needs to change, but also grudging acknowledgements that this system, however damaging, has proven to be remarkably enduring. Significant socio-political change tends to happens after systemic collapse, not in anticipation and prevention of it. As evolutionary biology suggests that diversity provides the essential blueprints for post-collapse regrowth, there are advantages to understanding what the social equivalents of this might be. Few countries have managed to find the “sweet spot” between development and sustainability, but we need to recognise it when they do and cascade their practices to others.

Connection with nature

Workshop participants also called for reimagining the links between spirituality and science, in particular our sense of self in time and space. As average lifespans in developed countries cascade into the 80s, have we lost the ability to think linearly outside the span of our own adult lives, to reflect on the past, or to care about a future we will not live in?

Assisted dying may be the only way societies can afford their populations to live to 100 (state expenditure on healthcare displays as steep a curve as any of the great acceleration’s other trends), but politicians, civil and religious leaders seem incapable of open discussion about how we will die. Death in the developed world is remote and invisible. Does this make it harder for us to conceptualise the death of other species, or of entire ecosystems? Increasingly, research into the human biome tells us that we are part of ecosystems, not separate from them: if we can reconceptualise where we fit in the greater whole, and slow down enough to reflect on and enjoy it, there may be more incentive to preserve it.

We also need to think more holistically in terms of the health of entire populations and of the environment they live in, not just the health of one individual (me) at any given point in time (now). Doctors and healthcare providers need to move towards a “functional” form of medicine that considers health throughout life – the importance of what we eat, how we move around and how (long) we sleep – alongside the drugs and surgery that can be prescribed when things go wrong.

Planetary health needs to bring on board the medical, psychiatric, public health and social care sectors to help reframe the environment as something we cannot lose without also losing the function of “being healthy”.

If there was a single takeaway from the workshop it was this: we are Anthropocentric and always have been – it is part of our nature. Rather than trying to convince the human race to save the environment, convince it that humans and the environment are one, from the cells that comprise our microbiome to the ecosystems of megacities. Perhaps then we will have an incentive to end the self-harm.

Published by:

The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health

Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief

By Neville Ellis, University of Western Australia and Ashlee Cunsolo, Memorial University of Newfoundland


photo by antoinese

 

We are living in a time of extraordinary ecological loss. Not only are human actions destabilising the very conditions that sustain life, but it is also increasingly clear that we are pushing the Earth into an entirely new geological era, often described as the Anthropocene.

Research shows that people increasingly feel the effects of these planetary changes and associated ecological losses in their daily lives, and that these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being. Climate change, and the associated impacts to land and environment, for example, have recently been linked to a range of negative mental health impacts, including depression, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, as well as feelings of anger, hopelessness, distress, and despair.

Not well represented in the literature, however, is an emotional response we term ‘ecological grief,’ which we have defined in a recent Nature Climate Change article: “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

We believe ecological grief is a natural, though overlooked, response to ecological loss, and one that is likely to affect more of us into the future.

Understanding ecological grief

Grief takes many forms and differs greatly between individuals and cultures. Although grief is well understood in relation to human losses, ‘to grieve’ is rarely considered something that we do in relation to losses in the natural world.

The eminent American naturalist Aldo Leopold was among the first to describe the emotional toll of ecological loss in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac: “One of the penalties of an ecological education,” he wrote, “is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

More recently, many respected ecologists and climate scientists have expressed their feelings of grief and distress in response to climate change and the environmental destruction it entails in places like: “Climate scientists feel weight of the world on their shoulders” and “Is this how you feel?”

Ecological grief is also a significant theme in our own work. In different research projects working with Inuit in Inuit Nunangat in Arctic Canada and farmers in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, both of us have spent a combined total of almost 20 years working with people living in areas experiencing significant climatic changes and environmental shifts.

Despite very different geographical and cultural contexts, our research revealed a surprising degree of commonality between Inuit and family farming communities as they struggled to cope, both emotionally and psychologically, with mounting ecological losses and the prospect of an uncertain future.

Voices of ecological grief

Our research shows that climate-related ecological losses can trigger grief experiences in several ways. Foremost, people grieve for lost landscapes, ecosystems, species, or places that carry personal or collective meaning.

For Inuit communities in the Inuit Land Claim Settlement Area of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada, the land is foundational to mental health. In recent years, melting sea ice prevented travel to significant cultural sites and engagement in traditional cultural activities, such as hunting and fishing. These disruptions to an Inuit sense of place was accompanied by strong emotional reactions, including grief, anger, sadness, frustration and despair.

One male who grew up hunting and trapping on the land in the community of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut explained:

“People are not who they are. They’re not comfortable and can’t do the same things. If something is taken away from you, you don’t have it. If a way of life is taken away because of circumstances you have no control over, you lose control over your life.”

Chronic drought conditions in the Western Australian Wheatbelt elicited similar emotional reactions for some family farmers. As one long-time farmer described:

“There’s probably nothing worse than seeing your farm go in a dust storm. I reckon it’s probably one of the worst feelings […] I find that one of the most depressing things of the lot, seeing the farm blow away in a dust storm. That really gets up my nose, and a long way up too. If its blowing dust I come inside – I just come inside here. I can’t stand to watch it.”

In both cases, such experiences resonate strongly with the concept of “solastagia,” described both as a form of homesickness while still in place, and as a type of grief over the loss of a healthy place or a thriving ecosystem.

People also grieve for lost environmental knowledge and associated identities. In these cases, people mourn the part of self-identity that is lost when the land upon which it is based changes or disappears.

For Australian family farmers, the inability to maintain a healthy landscape in the context of worsening seasonal variability and chronic dryness often elicited feelings of self-blame and shame:

“Farmers just hate seeing their farm lift; it somehow says to them ‘I’m a bad farmer’. And I think all farmers are good farmers. They all try their hardest to be. They all love their land.”

For older Inuit in Nunatsiavut, changes to weather and landscape are invalidating long-standing and multi-generational ecological knowledge, and with it, a coherent sense of culture and self. As one well-respected hunter shared:

“It’s hurting in a way. It’s hurting in a lot of ways. Because I kinda thinks I’m not going to show my grandkids the way we used to do it. It’s hurting me. It’s hurting me big time. And I just keep that to myself.”

Many Inuit and family farmers also worry about their futures, and express grief in anticipation of worsening ecological losses. As one woman explained from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut:

“I think that [the changes] will have an impact maybe on mental health, because it’s a depressing feeling when you’re stuck. I mean for us to go off [on the land] is just a part of life. If you don’t have it, then that part of your life is gone, and I think that’s very depressing.”

Similarly, a farmer in Australia worried about the future shared their thoughts on the possibility of losing their family farm:

“[It] would be like a death. Yeah, there would be a grieving process because the farm embodies everything that the family farm is … And I think if we were to lose it, it would be like losing a person … but it would be sadder than losing a person … I don’t know, it would be hard definitely.”

Ecological grief in a climate-changed future

Ecological grief reminds us that climate change is not just some abstract scientific concept or a distant environmental problem. Rather, it draws our attention to the personally experienced emotional and psychological losses suffered when there are changes or deaths in the natural world. In doing so, ecological grief also illuminates the ways in which more-than-humans are integral to our mental wellness, our communities, our cultures, and for our ability to thrive in a human-dominated world.

From what we have seen in our own research, although this type of grief is already being experienced, it often lacks an appropriate avenue for expression or for healing. Indeed, not only do we lack the rituals and practices to help address feelings of ecological grief, until recently we did not even have the language to give such feelings voice. And it is for these reasons that grief over losses in the natural world can feel, as American ecologist Phyllis Windle put it, ‘irrational, inappropriate, anthropomorphic.’

We argue that recognising ecological grief as a legitimate response to ecological loss is an important first step for humanising climate change and its related impacts, and for expanding our understanding of what it means to be human in the Anthropocene (.pdf). How to grieve ecological losses well — particularly when they are ambiguous, cumulative and ongoing — is a question currently without answer. However, it is a question that we expect will become more pressing as further impacts from climate change, including loss, are experienced.

The ConversationWe do not see ecological grief as submitting to despair, and neither does it justify ‘switching off’ from the many environmental problems that confront humanity. Instead, we find great hope in the responses ecological grief is likely to invoke. Just as grief over the loss of a loved person puts into perspective what matters in our lives, collective experiences of ecological grief may coalesce into a strengthened sense of love and commitment to the places, ecosystems and species that inspire, nurture and sustain us. There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place.

Neville Ellis, Research fellow, University of Western Australia and Ashlee Cunsolo, Director, Labrador Institute, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Preparing for the Anthropocene Transition • A Web Digest, 26.05.2018

Reordering The Anthropocene

We need a new politics of ecology, write Matt Hern and Am Johal – one which transforms our relationships to each other, to other species, to the land, and to the future.


 

Capitalism is nothing if not a sophisticated ordering operation of a given population: a secular religion with a theological belief in markets and their myriad disciplinary methods. Capital’s ability to constantly create and re-create itself wipes away the trauma and memory of disaster. Tradition under capitalism is constantly being reinvented to suit new languages of accumulation and dispossession, and accumulation by dispossession. In our view, conversations around oil, global warming, and crisis are potentially very dangerous when they are defined by capital and the state because, ultimately, they reveal a particular faith: a faith in a capitalist paradigm of beautiful destruction. From the perspective of capital, global warming is seen as an opportunity that should be faithfully exploited.

Walter Benjamin often described capitalism as religion. In a 1921 essay, he wrote that “Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.” It’s difficult not to think of such an apocalyptic vision of capitalism as simultaneously one of religion and destruction, and how this idea reveals the antagonistic relationship between capital and the other-than-human world. We’re intrigued by the idea of change as a kind of tradition. Wrapped in the history of modernity, beyond the desire for newness, is the reflex of progress that holds so much of history in contempt. Any history that doesn’t fit with capitalist narratives is cast as an obstruction, a blockage to the flow of the new, to be discarded and forgotten.

Presenting capitalism and development as the only possible form of progressive social ordering is a move toward closure in thinking about change. Today, what is being presented, at least in the narrow frame of the Global North, is that there is no modernity other than a capitalist one. Theorizing an ecological future requires a rupture between capitalism and modernity. The challenge is to construct new ideas of change while reimagining what we talk about when we talk about tradition, especially when we (and we mean that in the general “we,” but more pressingly in the particular—i.e., the two of us) carry so many contradictory, confusing, and often revanchist traditions with us.

Among the most central narratives of capital is exploitation, a close cousin of domination. We get a clearer glimpse of an ecological future when the classical Marxist rendition of exploitation is extended beyond human relations. As Glen Coulthard articulated: “We have to extend our concern with exploitation of labor to other-than-human communities. Exploitation is an instrumental relation to the other. It’s a condition that views all other things as existing for our consumption and gain. The main problem with exploitation is a lack of consideration of others as agents themselves, and a corresponding lack of informed consent to the power relations that affect them.”

Understanding the exploitation of labor—the extraction of surplus value from human bodies—is foundational to understanding capitalism. It is necessary but insufficient for understanding the task of ecology. Coulthard continues: “Marxists tend to focus too much on accumulation, too much on the body and labor: it’s too anthropocentric an understanding, in my view. In presenting class struggle as universal struggle, it is very parochial because we have to face the larger ecological life sphere that we all live within.” Extending our understanding of exploitation opens up a wider set of political possibilities and can help us think through global warming to larger ecological questions:

What if we start to think about exploitation that doesn’t just happen to labor? What is exploitation? Decisions made over another without their substantive input or consent. It’s the extraction from another without a consideration of them, or our ethical relationship to them as such. They’re just instrumental—just a means to an end. We have a language of exploitation that needs to be stripped of its narrower definition in the anthropocentric Marxist sense. The alternative would be nonexploitative, nondominating relationships governed by ethical relationships to the other. Others being comrades, conationals, neighbors and crucially, in a wider sense, other-than-human relations. Exploitation gives us a language that crosses political and anthropocentric ideas.

Reaching past narrow definitions of exploitation to consider the other-than-human world allows us to speak of domination more broadly. It opens us up to what nonexploitative, nondominating relationships might require politically, but it also demands alternatives. How can we deploy existing languages and understandings of exploitation to build new definitions of ecology? One route to answering that question that we are especially fond of is Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s speculative invocation of Alexandre Kojeve’s use of the term la dolce vita or douceur de vivre—the sweetness of living, the good life, or the sweet life.

These ideas describe what he argues is a common attitude in Spain, Italy, and southern Europe that is qualitatively different from the Protestant work ethic of northern European countries. Agamben claims this attitude describes a wholly different relationship to the future, a recovery of time, a resistance to capitalism, and the preservation of a significant way of living: the capacity to define life as something outside of work. He notes that the ongoing, recurring, and deepening economic crises in Europe are being used as instruments of rule, but might be better thought of as one rendition of the sweetness of life resisting discipline.

“How do our relationships with land inform and order the way humans conduct relationships with each other and other-than-human beings?”

Our point here is not to argue for or against Agamben’s thesis per se, but that his articulation of a different way of being in the world is a particularly relevant rupture. Just its invocation is a powerful claim. It is these ruptures in capitalist certainties that are so critical: articulating alternative possible relationships to each other, to other species, to the land, and to the future.

Every alternative to the logics of domination, every practiced alternative worldview constructs the outlines of potential new modern traditions that are called for today and the possibilities for constructing new kinds of freedom. In a time when even the unconscious is being colonized by capital, radical articulations of change become indispensable acts of resistance. For the past century, capitalism has ingested Marxism and let out a satisfying burp. For some, there is no crisis today; for them, the world can happily go on as it is.

Capital, in its own narrative construction, has historically solved its ecological problems by counting the other-than-human world as externalities, mere objects for our use. For many, freedom is nothing more than the freeing of capital from constraints—but any progressive renovation of the idea of freedom has to be affirmative: a freedom to, not a freedom from. Ecology has to speak to all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, as a change that can be materially exercised in the concrete world by masses of people.

The challenge of global warming often feels overwhelming and disorienting, and confuses traditional political cartographies. We’re faced with a dismaying constellation of political responses ranging from straight denial to geo-engineering to authoritarian state solutions to consumerist pressure to state-led transitionalism to supranationalism to relocalization—and so much else. The existing categories of responses are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, and most people occupy multiple positions at once: we all often believe many discordant things simultaneously. There are often real gaps between where our beliefs lie and our actions land. Positions and solutions are liquid; they tend to overlap and bleed into one another, and move across boundaries.

The vast majority of global warming scholarship, however, marginalizes or ignores the politics of land, its historical trajectory and its practical consequences. We are convinced that linking the domination of people to the domination of land and the other-than-human world is a key to grasping an ecological future. We would go even further to suggest that any robust ecological discourses have to start with decolonization and thoroughly renovated land politics. The right question here might be: “How do our relationships with land inform and order the way humans conduct relationships with each other and other-than-human beings?”

New modern traditions today need to define freedom through equality, through differentiation and complexity, through a relationship with land and other-than-human beings. In so doing, we can recover a reconstituted understanding of what the sweetness of living might mean today. This is our starting point for grappling with ecology, but as we embarked on this project we weren’t entirely sure what that might mean to our everyday lives. We want to search further: beyond our keyboards, beyond our familiar milieus and tidy consensual nods. We want to think about global warming and the possibility of an ecological future in conversation with people who have very different politics from our own. We want to find definitions of ecology that place land at its center.

This is an edited extract from ‘Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale‘, published by MIT Press.

Thoughts to share in response to this question: What are the principles of ECO-MUTUALITY ?


The term “eco-mutuality” has merit and I really appreciate the set up you offer here.

My sense is the term itself matters — of course words matter! — but without the right mindset, or operating system to reference your point, even the right words can still be misconstrued.

For example, while even the term coiner himself, John Elkington, has revisited “Triple Bottom Line” with a critical eye, I would argue it still works if we don’t interpret it as a set of trade-offs to be balanced, but rather a conceptual awareness that multiple types of accounting are in play for any business whether they choose to measure and manage them or not.

You point out that the term “Sustainability” has been insufficient and I completely agree, although in part I believe this is because people have chosen to interpret it in multiple ways, not necessarily because the word itself is broken. We could take this interpretation challenge in many directions well outside of this field. For example, what does it mean to be a “deeply religious person” or even to be “happy”? We could have a field day (or some very uncomfortable conversations!) if we tried to create consistent and exact interpretations of these terms.

What to do? I see two parallel and complementary approaches to this challenge. The first is we keep doing what you and others are doing (including John Elkington and many collaborators and colleagues) which is to nonetheless try to reinterpret, relabel, and redefine. In doing so we increase and upgrade our own understanding, and in sharing this new understanding we hopefully share new perspectives on existing concepts and raise the bar of understanding more broadly — not to set vocabulary trends but to bring about deeper awareness of complex ideas.

The second, and I believe the more fundamental challenge, is to continue seeking out new ways to change the operating system. Whether this is labeled “business model innovation”, “creative destruction”, “rewiring the global industrial complex”, or just “evolving” — I’m not too fussed. And I’m keenly aware that I’m writing this in English while the majority of my fellow and sister humans around the world may be arriving at related thoughts in different languages and so my labeling efforts are not the primary force that will make the change. In fact, I’m willing to bet that those in the “sustainability field” (for lack of a better label…) — regardless of mother tongue — will not be the primary force that makes the change. But we will hopefully be among those who create the enabling conditions.

Having said all that, my term of choice that I largely keep to myself because people’s eyes cross and they wonder what on earth it has to do with them, their business or their future, is ‘biomimicry”, as it strikes at the core of creating the conditions that enable life to thrive.

Thank you for the great piece and provocation!