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.
“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.
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. …
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).
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.
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.
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.
By Neville Ellis, University of Western Australia and Ashlee Cunsolo, Memorial University of Newfoundland
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.”
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
I’m willing to bet that those in the “sustainability field” (for lack of a better label…) will not be the primary force that makes the change. But we will hopefully be among those who create the enabling conditions.
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.
Macfarlane describes the Anthropocene as the ‘proposed new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment that it is going to leave a long-term signature on the strata record’.
– And it is going to be an extraordinary signature, he says, and lists a number of reasons why:
– We have bored fifty million kilometers of holes in our search for oil; we remove mountain tops to get to the coal; our oceans are full of plastic, and weaponry tests have dispersed radionuclides globally providing a distinctive stratigraphic mark that will endure billions of years in some cases.
– We have become geomorphic agents of titanic and unprecedented force, and our earth legacy is legible for thousands of years to come, he says.
However, this new epoch is characterized by what Macfarlane describes as Thick Speech:
– The Anthropocene poses substantial problems to our ability to articulate it. Words become sticky, and it is as if having an ‘ox on the tongue’.
An archive of climate data washed away
In his talk, Macfarlane shares his experiences from Greenland in the summer 2016. People he interviewed talked about the speed of the glaciers melting. At one place the glaciers moved thirty-five meters a day.
– It was astonishing and frightening to be there, he says.
He struggled to articulate what he observed.
– This ancient ice carrying an archive of climate data that was washed away. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My speech felt both thin (pointless) and thick (inarticulate) at the same time.
The Kantian sublime doesn’t work for the Anthropocene, and there is a need for a new word, he argues. The ‘stuplime’ was coined by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings.
– She doesn’t make reference to the Anthropocene, but I think these ugly feelings are part of this ugly epoch.
We experience the Anthropocene often as a stun, which immobilizes us, he continues.
– The stuplime rather than the sublime has the sub-partitioning of encounter into smaller and smaller divisions of meeting. That is what makes for both boredom and helplessness. In the sublime, we are overpowered, but then we respond by trying to compensate for it. The sublime is a much more active effort.
The stuplime leaves us flat, which is not what the world needs right now, he says:
– The need to change seems to greatly exceed our capacity to exert it, I think.
Ngai goes on to suggest that stuplimity linguistically produces what she calls a thickening of speech, Macfarlane explains.
– She says that when we are stunned into stuplimity, we can only speak of the experience using a kind of thick language. She has fascinating things to say about the formal properties of this: it’s about stuttering, and an odd combination of hyperactivity with a lack of causal grip.
– We compensate for the agitation that comes from not being able to action things with a sort of hectic manner.
When Macfarlane read Ngai’s book, he recognized what had happened to him in Greenland:
– This thickening, this muddying and hesitant speech.
How can we become better at speaking the Anthropocene?
What do we need to do in order to be better at speaking the Anthropocene, to get ‘the ox off our tongue’, Macfarlane asks.
– We need new media and new data forms. Visualizations by especially climate scientists brought the Anthropocene into our view in the first place, he says.
These visualizations have become even more important with the arrival of an American president who tries to muzzle scientific utterances and control data, he says.
– This is a four year term with a possibly 4000 year legacy.
Human societies have become a ‘great force of nature’. Among the many massive environmental changes we are causing are the widespread conversion of habitats to agricultural fields and settlements, species extinctions, global climate change, and the pollution of air, land and sea. So profound are these global transformations that geologists may soon recognise them as the start of a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene.
As an ecologist, I have spent most of my time studying the consequences of human activities. But more recently, I have begun to focus on a bigger question. How and why did humans gain such exceptional capacities to reshape planet Earth? The most compelling answers I have found exist largely beyond the boundaries of biological science, in the evolutionary sciences explaining social and cultural change. In the Anthropocene, it is no longer possible to understand, predict or manage the ecological changes produced by humans without going deeper into their social and cultural causes.
The key to understanding the Anthropocene is to recognize that humans have an extraordinary capacity to construct their ecological niche, at social and spatial scales that are steadily increasing: from the use of fire in small hunter-gatherer communities, to the global supply chains of the industrial world today. The human niche should not be viewed as merely a set of biophysical limits or biological capacities, but as a diverse and evolving sociocultural construct.
Organisms interact with their environments in a bidirectional manner: they adapt to their environment though natural selection but they can also modify their environment in a process known as niche construction. Examples of niche construction range from birds’ nests, termite mounds and beavers’ dams to the release of minerals in the soil by fungi or the creation of shade by plants. In order to explain the extraordinary ability of humans to transform their ecological niche, I extended niche construction theory1 to develop a sociocultural niche construction framework2. The traditional use of the term niche by ecologists refers to an organism’s environmental requirements, tolerances and abilities to use resources, such as the capacity to bore through tree bark to obtain the nutritious grubs underneath. Given such requirements and capacities, the success of organisms would then be largely determined by the constraints and opportunities of their environments. Niche construction theory challenges this unidirectional understanding of the ecological niche by emphasizing that organisms can also actively transform their environments in ways that can determine their success.
The human ecological niche is constructed largely based on socially learned behaviors. To farm, live in a city, or find the right mushrooms to eat, it is necessary to learn how to do this from others. Moreover, in many societies, some or even most individuals need never interact directly with environments to gather foodstuffs or through farming. Instead, food might be delivered in return for a ritual act or even purchased online with a credit card. Combining niche construction with a theoretical understanding of humans’ exceptional social and cultural capacities and their evolution, gives the basis for sociocultural niche construction. This process explains how and why the diverse and evolving societies of our ancestors have sustained themselves for thousands of years by transforming and managing Earth’s ecology. It also shifts the simplistic view of humans as environment destroyers, to that of humans as shapers and stewards of ecology on an increasingly used planet.
Humans are unique in their level of sociality, with an unrivalled ability to learn from each other and transmit this learning within and between generations. This social learning produces cultural inheritance that evolves over time at the levels of individuals, groups and societies, explaining the diversity in social organization, language, religion and resource use and exchange between human populations. This is where humans’ unparalleled environmental impacts stem from. Cultural traits can evolve extremely fast, especially in comparison to biologically-derived traits, driven by ‘runaway’ sociocultural niche construction and other processes. A primary example of this is the rise of agriculture. Cultivation of crops leads to a suite of environmental and cultural inheritances which in turn lead to environmental and social changes that themselves require ever more transformative cultural and ecological inheritances to adapt to them. For example, cultivation of crops depletes nutrients in the soil, which requires the cultural adaptation of harvesting and use of manure to replenish these nutrients for further cultivation.
As human societies have developed, from small hunter-gather bands to agricultural communities, to the technological societies of today, social roles have become more diverse and specialized. More powerful and complex tools and technologies have enabled greater productivity and greater changes to environments. For example, the potential productivity of a single square kilometre of land to sustain human populations has increased from sustaining less than 10 individuals to sustaining thousands. Furthermore, the use of non-biomass energy, typically fossil fuels, has enabled energy used per person to increase by a factor of more than 20-fold. Through sociocultural niche construction, humans have produced unprecedented global changes. Ultimately, the cause of these impacts is natural selection, which acts on human cultural and ecological inheritances to shape how humans interact socially and ecologically.
Humans are actively and continuously changing Earth with profound and permanent consequences. We must inhabit this changed Earth, shaped by generations of our ancestors, and so must all its other species. For both humans and nonhumans to thrive on this planet, there is no past ‘balance of nature’ that might be restored. Instead, it is necessary to understand, appreciate, and continue reshaping the social, cultural, and ecological constructs of today towards better outcomes in the future. Along with the negative changes, contemporary societies are also changing environments for the better: endangered species and their habitats are being protected and restored, pollutants are being reduced or even eliminated, and the massive shifts in energy systems required to prevent catastrophic global climate change may still be implemented. As a consequence of sociocultural niche construction, humans have become a global force of nature – for better and for worse. It is only by embracing these sociocultural realities that we might shape better futures for both humans and non-human species alike.
Through different stories about ways of living in the Arctic, Professor Marianne Lien and her research group at CAS (Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters) challenge what they see as the dominant understanding of relations among humans, animals, and landscapes. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature?
Marianne Lien welcomes me to her CAS office in Oslo, far away from icy landscapes and migratory animals, and far away from her usual work at the University of Oslo. For twelve years, Professor Lien has studied salmon farming, which after a booming start in the 1980s is now Norway’s second largest export commodity. Currently, she is enjoying a year of research at CAS, and has gathered together scholars from different countries and research fields in the research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene.
Enthusiastically, Lien opens with the declaration,
– Every day I get to work with my favourite colleagues.
Lien twists, turns, and challenges not only the concept of domestication, but also what social anthropology is about, and the boundaries between disciplines:
– This project has had many beginnings—one of them being the domestication of salmon—one of the trademarks of Norway.
Salmon aquaculture has been Lien’s key interest since she studied it as part of globalisation in Tasmania in 2002. She found the links back to Norway an interesting trajectory, but soon began to ask different questions:
– I realised that this is actually a historical moment. A moment where we take an animal, a fish, and make it into a domesticated animal like any livestock. It has happened before, as we know, in the Neolithic revolution, thousands of years ago in the Middle East, but now it’s happening again. I thought: how do humans actually domesticate animals?
Since then, Lien has worked on the Newcomers to the farm project, together with Gro Ween, John Law, and Kristin Asdal, who explored what the intensive production of formerly wild salmon means for nature politics and domestication. Between 2009 and 2012 Lien and Law spent long periods at salmon farms in western Norway conducting fieldwork on how farmed salmon are made into husbandry animals. In autumn 2015, Lien published Becoming salmon, the first ethnographic account of salmon aquaculture. The project sparked an interest in domestication more generally, Lien explains, as she stresses the importance of interdisciplinary research:
– Our current project is anthropological in the sense that it is thought about and indeed invented in the realm of anthropology, but it does not police disciplinary boundaries very much. We really do not care much about those.
Domestication: An ongoing process of becoming
Lien’s group challenges the hegemonic perception of domestication, which they describe as deriving from a Western view of human civilization—a narrative in which human societies must develop in a certain way. She adds:
– Domestication has been thought of as an irreversible historical line towards civilization. A linear development towards something higher and better, which is rather arrogant and outdated.
The dominant story of domestication tells us that 6,000–10,000 years ago in the Middle East, the Neolithic revolution led to an irreversible transformation of societies, landscapes, animals, and plants. In many societies, ways of living changed from nomadism, hunting, and gathering to farming in a geographically bounded space. Humans gained control over animals and landscapes.
– The story told about the Neolithic revolution works really well in some parts of the world, but not in others.
A perception of nature and culture as distinct from each other has grown out of this story of the Neolithic revolution.
The distinctions between nature and culture are artificial and not as sharp as they might seem, the research group argues. In many places in the world, such as in the Arctic, some people live in a form of symbiosis with the animals, the landscapes, and the changing weather. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature? Lien explains,– In our popular language, we implicitly evoke the idea of domestication a lot. Because if I say ‘nature’, you would think of something untouched by humans, right? The vague idea of domestication underpins the idea of nature as opposed to culture.
The story of domestication echoes other conceptions that reduce the world’s complexities to stereotypes and dichotomies, such as the ‘civilized and the savage’, the ‘tame and the wild’, and ‘nature and culture’. It echoes colonisation.
Recent studies in archaeology and anthropology show that domestication can be a reversible process that human societies, animals, and plants go in and out of, she says. To clarify, Lien explains the group’s criticism of the dominant way of understanding domestication—and splits it into three dimensions: time, space, and agency. The first is the story about the Neolithic revolution. She argues:
– The shift from hunting to husbandry and from gathering to harvesting did not happen at one moment, but it happened over a long period, maybe thousands of years. Domestication is an open-ended process. Unfortunately, the focus on domestication as a particular event ‘back then’ has made us scholars less interested in what happened afterwards.
Instead, Lien and her colleagues see domestication as an ongoing process of becoming that takes place among humans, animals, and plants. In terms of space, the group asks whether domestication is confined within particular boundaries, or whether we can think about domesticating entire landscapes?
– We challenge the idea of confinement—the idea that you can actually draw a line around what is domesticated and not. Often you cannot.
For a thousand years people have practiced ærfuglerøkt at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Vega Islands, on the coast of Helgeland, a district in northern Norway. Ærfuglerøkt involves people gathering down feathers and eggs from common eider ducks, locally called éa.
In order to gather what they need, they make small hiding places—a sort of shelter for common eiders, furnished with dried seaweed and covered with a ‘roof’ protecting them from storms and from carnivores. Anthropologist Bente Sundsvold has studied ærfuglerøkt and claims the common eiders are not tame. But they are not wild either, Lien argues, because they return year after year, seeking human protection:
– Whether they are domesticated or not depends on how you define the term. Regardless, this exemplifies that the terms we have to describe nature are inadequate.
The third dimension of domestication outlined by the group and explored in this project is that of agency. Usually, humans are at the centre, Lien says—an assumption it is difficult to argue against.
Lien goes on to explore this further:
– There are unintended effects of our actions, such as the climate change we currently face, which is a reminder that human activities and plans can have unintended outcomes. Secondly, animals or plants are not passive recipients of our actions. They are active co-producers of our shared habitat, and can play an active role in processes of domestication.
She says that most archaeologists now believe that wolves initiated dog domestication when they began to specialize in feeding on the remains of leftover human meals. These wolves eventually evolved to have less fear of humans, allowing people to interact more closely with them:
– Such insights remind us that domestication is also co-evolution and that humans are not the only change-makers in our history. Co-species’ histories are made together.
Nature and culture: blurred boundaries
These unintended effects of our actions suggest that humans might not possess as much control over animals, plants, and landscapes as we might think; Lien adds:
– When we look at the present relations of domestication we anthropologists find that control doesn’t really describe anything. People try to control their animals, but my goodness they struggle!
Isn’t salmon farming a practice where humans exercise control over fish?
– In some ways, but control is an ideal that is never fully achieved. If humans were in control, we would not have the problem of sea lice. That is just one example.
A proliferation of sea lice is one of the unintended consequences of salmon farming, and illustrates what she perceives as a mistaken distinction between nature and culture:
– Take sea lice. Is it natural? Yes, I guess it is. Are they in the salmon farm? Absolutely. Is it something that is going to be affected by human practices? Of course. Where does nature start and where does culture begin? That is a very difficult line to draw.
– Nature and culture are not the best concepts, because what is going on in front of our eyes cannot be cut along these lines. It is so intertwined.
Lien describes the Arctic as one such part of the world that does not fit into the dominant domestication scheme.
We share the same attitude towards difference
This project was organized to bring together scholars who already had material they were going to analyse and who would benefit from working together. Lien herself has worked together with John Law and Gro Ween on the salmon project, Ween has recently conducted fieldwork in Alaska, and Britt Kramvig has been working on whaling, oil, and tourism in northern Norway. Heather Swanson came into the group after working on salmon on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, while Rob Losey has archaeological material on human–animal relations in Siberia. Additionally, there are other researchers, from professors to postdoctoral fellows, connected to the project in various ways. It is important to Lien that the research project is interdisciplinary:
– We see difference as interesting in itself. A difference in approach is not necessarily an obstacle to overcome, but rather a source of further insight and fruitful cooperation.
The diverse range of researchers working on this project share this ‘attitude towards productive differences’, as Lien puts it. They are particularly interested in ways of life that differ from the sedentary story of rootedness, private property, and fixed addresses:
– Mobile people who do not take up this particular way of living—in a house with a garden, a field, or land where you can plant and harvest—have been marginalized all over the world for centuries. This is why the comparative approach is important.
Pushing farming on the north
Lien shares her observations from working on the north coast of the Varanger peninsula in Finnmark. All one can do with a farm there is grow some grass, and perhaps feed some sheep, she explains. However, this is hardly enough to sustain a living:
– So, in this region, people have always engaged in other food procuring practices, such as gathering, fishing, and hunting, and they still do. The agriculture/animal nexus is very fruitful in some parts of the world. In the Middle East, you can sow and harvest wheat, vegetables, and fruits. It was a workable concept for most places, a model that could be transported and exported and taken on by others, but it met some northern limits where it really did not work so well. Such sites are interesting to look at.
Lien argues that the possibilities offered by the seascape/landscape of Norway and in many Arctic regions have been ignored in the discourse of domestication. Winters are dark, and the short, intense summers are blessed with the midnight sun:
– We ignore the fact that we live at a crossroads with a model that comes from a more temperate climate and a seascape/landscape that offers other possibilities. Of course, people living in the Arctic have always known this, so they have never relied on farming as a single strategy. But farming was really pushed in Finnmark.
The Norwegian government did this?
– Yes, through various measures, including something called bureising, through which they tried to promote farming, even on the Varanger Peninsula. Obviously, it didn’t work that well.
When Lien conducted her first fieldwork project in Finnmark in the 1980s, the focus was food habits, not domestication. As part of a broader study, she began looking into people’s freezers to understand more about food, and was surprised to see that nearly everything was local: frozen fish filets, such as cod and haddock, capelin, shrimp, fish cakes, homemade bread, smoked salmon, reindeer meat, moose meat, and many large containers of cloudberries, cowberries, and blueberries. Food was given a gift from someone people knew, or was something they traded or bartered:
– People have always used these rich affordances of the landscapes, the seascapes, and other waterscapes, in spite of all the attempts to make them do otherwise. This resistance is still going on, and has partly gone under the radar.
People in Varanger rely on migratory animals and fish, such as salmon, Lien explains:
– When species are not fenced in, they have to be found or followed, so movement is key to how you sustain yourself. Knowing the seasons and climate variations is also an important part of this.
The light touch of meacchi
Lien tells me that people in the Arctic have left an almost invisible footprint on the landscape:
– Most people who are not familiar with the Arctic landscape see it as completely untouched. From our Saami collaborators, however, we have learned about meacchi.
Meacchi fills a gap in the Norwegian vocabulary for ‘life in the Arctic’. Language is power, many say, and according to Lien, the domestication scheme is not an exception.
In Norwegian, innmark and utmark are statutory and distinguish between cultivated and not cultivated land (direct translation: infield and outfield). In Finnmark these words are used as well, but are not sufficient to describe the life in the Arctic. Lien explains:
– Meahcci is often translated as utmark, but it does not fit into the distinctions between innmark and utmark.
With their collaborators at Sámi University College in Kautokeino the group seeks to explore Meahcci as a word for particular sites of affordances in the landscape. People who know this landscape predict when it is best to encounter key species. This requires them to know the landscape, animals, and plants very well, and it requires respect:
– Meahcci is a landscape defined for the purpose of humans using it for something in particular, but absolutely not ‘innmark’, or a farm. It is an active landscape involved in people’s use. Meahcci completely cuts across our distinction between nature and culture because human activity and human need is implemented in the word. That is kind of cool.
Lien says that because the model of domestication does not work that well, scholars need to look for alternative ways of understanding relations among nature, animals, human societies, and plants:
– What would happen, for instance, if we started to think of Meahcci instead of nature? What if Meahcci was made into an analytical and legal term, or a common way of conceptualizing land? How would that change everything? These are some of the questions we hope to pursue.
The Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter
Is the dominant understanding of domestication, which is under scrutiny in your project, changing with today’s increased awareness of climate change?
– I think so, and this is a third topic in our project.
Some refer to our current geological age as the Anthropocene. The term is a description of our age as being one in which human actions have severe impacts on the planet. Some regard the Industrial Revolution as the onset of the Anthropocene. Others trace its inception to the Neolithic revolution and farming. Lien observes:
– We have always messed with the earth, but we have probably never messed with it with such significant consequences as today.
The Arctic domestication research group uses the idea of the Anthropocene and the current climate debate as a context for what they do:
– This calls for other kinds of research questions to be asked. It calls for humility, it calls for relevance, and it calls for trying to assemble thinking in ways that make the world a better place. Such questions are more compelling now than ever.
To Lien, the discourse about the Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter in terms of the way we see ourselves in the world. She believes that we humans have allowed ourselves to think about nature as passive and culture as active. We have thought of ourselves as the agent that could change things, and that could utilize and create the landscape we wanted for our own good. Animals, plants, and landscapes have not been thought of as having agency of their own. That mind set has developed out of ignorance, she believes:
– Our actions have effects way beyond our planned control or intentions, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. It is just that we have ignored these things before. There are smaller, unintended effects of our actions too, and not all of them are bad. The point is that we need to change our perception of who’s in charge. We are not in control.
Good, productive noise
Walking past Lien’s office one can often see her discussing such matters with her American colleague Heather Swanson or with Icelander Gísli Pálsson. Every afternoon the research group go out for coffee at a local coffee shop.
Sounds like a good life …
– It is a good life, yes. The seclusion from the hustle and bustle of teaching and administration is a gift for all of us, and the environment is extremely quiet and allows the engagement and excitement to happen around research.
In discussions at weekly seminars, not to mention the informal discussions—the ‘magic that happens in the corridors’—the researchers consider new themes. For instance, shortly after the start of the 2015/2016 CAS year, two researchers in the group decided to write an article together, which was not part of the initial plan, Lien says:
– CAS is not filled with noise: you know, the noise that distracts you. The noise that is going on here is good, productive noise. That is amazing. As a project leader at CAS, I get to do something I have never done before and probably will never do again.
The research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene will be working at CAS until the end of June 2016.
What happens after this year?
– It is a bit difficult to answer that question at this point, but speaking for myself, this project did not begin with CAS and it will not end with CAS. I am quite confident that some of these constellations established in the group are going to continue in various ways.