McKenzie Wark: Rethinking the Anthropocene

Tar Sands Mining photo by Garth Lenz

(Social) Theory for the Anthropocene

McKenzie Wark / First published in The Future We Want / Nov 2, 2015

So what becomes of social theory in the Anthropocene? Well, maybe it could no longer be about the social. Maybe it would no longer be possible to take the social as given, as an artifact for thought. It is rather more messy and complicated connections to the non-social might have to be more evident. This might itself be one of the tasks that a non- or extra-social theory might set itself.

I want to make a distinction here between theory and philosophy. I take philosophy to mean a tradition, a sequence of texts and their teachings. Philosophy is what gets taught as philosophy. I want to use the term theory for something else, for something that arises out of situations rather than institutions. Theory is the practice of forming and using concepts in situations that can arise in everyday life.

So what then is theory for the Anthropocene? It might be theory to be used in some fashion in a certain situation. Now, call this situation whatever you damn well like. Call in the the Anthropocene, or the Manthropocene, or the Misanthropocene, or the Chthulucene, or the Capitalocene. Call it metabolic rift. Just call it something. And by calling it something, recognize that one is naming a situation.

That situation is one in which the sum total of social labor undermines its own conditions of planetary existence. There is no longer an outside, a margin, an elsewhere, to dump the waste products of that labor and pretend this disorder that we make has gone away. That disorder now feeds back through the whole metabolism of the planet. It has done so for a while, it will keep doing so, in a sense, forever. There is no ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ that is separate. There is no ‘ecology’ that could be in balance if we just withdrew from it.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views.

Certain basic ways of knowing about such things necessarily come to us only from the natural sciences. The best known example is carbon. Pulling carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air changes the climate. This might be one of the key phenomena of the Anthropocene. But it is only known through a vast apparatus, global in scope, of communication, computation, scientific cooperation.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views. So one aspect of theory for the Anthropocene is to reopen the question of the relation the natural sciences to power, to culture, and to humanistic thought.

There’s a sort of reflex action via which theory tries to claim a higher ground to the sciences. But I don’t find that a satisfactory starting point for theory in the Anthropocene. We only know about the conditions of that ground in the first place from the natural sciences, in this case earth sciences rather than cosmology or biology.

Theory has to rethink its relation to ways of knowing that are not its own. I think we need to refuse to compete for dominance with other forms of knowledge and figure out how to cooperate with them. Neither resenting the power of the sciences nor pretending to a higher, more spiritual power is a way forward for theory in our current situation.

There’s plenty to be done. There’s worldviews to supersede and somehow replace. Our world is not just a heliocentric, evolving one. It is also one in which the world can no longer be treated as a thing apart, or an equilibrium, or a point of difference that can specify what is human, or historical or social. Our own actions are changing it, have changed it, irrevocably. And in ways that undermine and cancel the conditions of possibility for this life. So: we need other theories for other lives.

My own thinking about this has been about the question of labor in its relation to nature, and what counts as value. What if we defined ‘nature’ simply as that which labor encounters? How does cooperative labor, meshed as it is with an inhuman technical apparatus, present to what is human some knowledge and value about a nonhuman world? Can that ensemble of labor and apparatus value the world differently? Those are questions I have been thinking about.

Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years.

I don’t want to think about the Anthropocene from the point of view of capital. I think that leads to habits of thought in which capital is an eternal and an all-powerful totality. I find that disabling in the current situation. It also leads to the fantasy that if only it were possible to negate capital, then all our problems would be solved.

This is manifestly untrue. Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years. And we will still be faced with the problem of feeding and clothing and housing seven billion people. Not to mention doing triage on a multiplicity of webs of life that are in stress and decline.

In any case, it is clear that capitalism as a civilization is already over, and it knows it. The ruling class of our time knows it can make no claim to rule for anyone but themselves. Hence their instinct to hide from us, to spy on us, to arm and fortify themselves, and to plunder and loot like there is no tomorrow. Because there is no tomorrow. So we have to understand, and process the feeling, of living among the ruins. But the work of making another civilization has already begun. The next one will be a diminished one, in some respects.

If we understand that we are living in ruins, then we can understand that we do not have a tradition of knowledge that we can simply continue as if it where whole and intact and passing through an homogenous time. Rather, what we have are fragments, fragments not of a past but of possible futures. Theory for the Anthropocene will be made from a patch work of fragments, repurposed for the current situation, one which will last as far into the future as the western tradition imagines it stretches into the past. The philosophers have only interpreted the Anthropocene. The point however – to set a modest goal to start with – is to grasp how the Anthropocene has negated the possibility of merely continuing disciplinary thought.

But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

An impediment to getting on with the job is a species of denialism. Sure, there are climate denialists, some with extravagant funding from the fossil fuel industries, and so forth. But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

Firstly, there the relentless tendency to critique, but one which no longer has a sense of what the main concepts are that are in need of it. This is critique that loses sight of an agenda for thought. All concepts are fragile things. They are only ever slightly true. Their (weak) power is in their generality.

Secondly, treating the Anthropocene as fashion. Oh, first we were post structural, then we were postmodern, then there was the ontological turn, and so forth. The Anthropocene as an object of thought could become one of those moments, but its causes lies elsewhere. This time it’s a matter of dealing with results from outside social scientific and humanistic thought. It’s a matter of processing results from the sciences, but ones which have far more pressing and immediate consequences than dealing with the fact of a heliocentric universe.

Thirdly, there’s the opposite tendency: oh, we always knew this, nothing new under the sun, and so forth. This is mostly a problem of assimilating some new things to some old things that sound similar, but which are not. Its not the same thing as certain ecological and environmental ideas, although these turn out to be powerful and useful. Nor is it the same as familiar tropes about disaster, trauma or crisis.

Fourthly, a variant which wants to say this was already refuted. For example, Marx showed Malthus was wrong. Limits aren’t natural they are social and historical. Well, that there were ways to overcome limits to agricultural output in the past does not mean there are ways to overcome the rather more systematic constraints that are apparent in our time. This is to fall for an equally asocial and ahistorical argument, in which all constraints are only ever temporary. That past constraints were overcome does not in itself guarantee that current ones also can or will be.

Lastly, one confronts arguments along the lines that since one’s political adversaries are talking about the Anthropocene, it must therefore be only a political idea that belongs to their agenda and should be rejected out of hand. Ironically, both left and right make this same argument. The right rejects it as belonging to those who want to end capitalism and the left reject it as belonging to those who want to perpetuate it.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must. The question then becomes one of how the various social science and social theory traditions might go through their own resources and find the fragments that might be put to work in the present situation. There are probably resources in any tradition, whether you are a Weberian or an ANT or whatever. It is not very interesting to try to gain advantage for one’s little discursive world at the expense of another out of such a big question about the larger world.

And so while I have worked through the Marxist tradition, I don’t think it has any exclusive claim to useful concepts or results. But still: John Bellamy Foster opened up a way of thinking about the Anthropocene through Marx’s understanding of metabolic rift.

In Molecular Red I interpreted this in a slightly different way to Foster, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway and others. This involves a selection from the Marxist archive that is different to the accepted one. Among the western Marxists, Sartre’s concept of the practico-inert seems to me very powerful. It is a way of thinking about the inertia of social-technical forms, or what he called ‘serial’ forms. Just as one example, that seems to me a useful concept from within a well known literature.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for combing the archive for neglected resources. Foster thinks Marxists have rather overlooked Engels’ attempt to engage with the natural sciences. That attempt had its problems, but was perhaps preferable to withdrawing into the social and cultural.

Here I think the neglected work of Alexander Bogdanov on forms of collaboration between scientific, technical and other kinds of labor might have its uses. One has to lift the ban on this line of thought that unites otherwise disparate figures such as Lukacs and Althusser. The neglected resources include the scientific and technical side of Marxist praxis. Why are Joseph Needham and JD Bernal so neglected as major social thinkers? Or rather social-technical-natural thinkers?

Building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces.

There may well be resources in a more utopian vein as well. Charles Fourier had an entirely hallucinatory idea about how climates could change, but at least he had one. Compared to the realist fiction of his contemporaries, his writings are in some ways even more ‘realist’, in that unlike them he thinks about whose job it is to take out the trash. Here I think one can side-step that tradition coming out of Ernst Bloch that sees the utopian as a flash of the redemptive or messianic irrupting in the everyday. One can instead see the utopian as a speculative discourse on extremely practical matters.

These are just some of the resources that come to mind in the Marxist tradition within which I am familiar. One could find such resources elsewhere. But the project of a non- or extra- social theory for the Anthropocene seems to me to involve a double labor.

Firstly, a labor of selecting from available intellectual resources entirely on the basis of the demands of the situation at hand. Secondly, of building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces. The question of the futures anyone might want has to be thought in the context of the futures that might still be possible.

Ken-Wark - portraitMcKenzie Wark is the author of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso 2015) and various other things. Wark is professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research, in New York City.

2015: a tipping point for a more sustainable future?

tipping point

Tipping points and leverage points exist in complex systems – 2015 may be a tipping point and the leverage point may be your decision to shift to a mindset of nurturing people, planet and profits.

2015 has seen some monumental events that may be pointing to an expansion of global consciousness around the need for we humans to change the way we live and work on this planet.

These include:

And the big question of what agreement may be signed at COP 21 in Paris this December may finally answer the question:

Is 2015 a turning point for matters related to human sustainability on Earth?

How will you respond privately and organisationally?

Collectively these responses recognise that sustainability issues are near a tipping point and are:

1) Very important – and becoming very urgent.

2) Broader and deeper than planting more trees.

3) An interconnected set of challenges that join up human and environmental wellbeing (including species diversity); the way we relate with others – social justice; and the degree to which we each enjoy inner meaning and peace as we live authentic lives.

To resolve the issues that are being highlighted requires a profound change in the way in which we live and work.

One way of viewing the fundamental nature of that profound change is seeing it as a shift from exploiting resources – to nurturing resources – human and environmental.

As you nurture your people more, nurture your communities more and nurture the natural environmental systems more, you will also nurture bottom line financial returns. Investment analysis confirms this now. But that’s not the reason to do it – it just makes it easier.

Exercising your leadership is right and surprisingly rewarding

The reason to do contribute towards a better world now is because its the right thing to do and as Peter Drucker said, “Leadership is doing the right thing.”

For an appreciation of what may be possible when we start nurturing natural systems, instead of working against them; and an appreciation of the surprising outcomes that may spring because the world is interconnected, have look at the the film clip, How wolves change rivers – the link is shown below.

This post was first published at http://www.the-partnership.com.au by Josie McLean.
Josie is the founder and principal consultant for The Partnership, an Australian organisational and leadership development firm dedicated to a more sustainable world that works for all. The Partnership’s purpose is to guide organisations to transform their cultures to one’s that nuture their people, their communities and economies, and the natural environment.

Why Radical is the New Normal

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

Syrian refugeesWe are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.

“Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity.

Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves—claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate—are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions—such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability—require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).

mountains_of_vulcanBut toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

Don’t Let the Apocalypse
Get You Down
Take What You Need

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.


Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.

Robert originally wrote this article for the Love and the Apocalypse edition of YES! Magazine. Republished here with permission.

He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu.

Navigating whole system transformation

There can be little doubt that the 21st century will unfold as an age of transition when humanity will be called to reconsider our global civilisation’s core values. The odds are better than even that this essential resetting of our cultural compass from human exceptionalism to eco-mutuality will be driven by an accelerating succession of economic and environmental crises and widespread societal breakdown.

We have often experienced such times on our evolutionary journey, but never on a planetary scale and thus never with the stakes so high. We must discover new modes of engagement and new levels of human solidarity for this transition.

Faced with the prospect of inter-linked environmental, economic, demographic, and socio-political crises, most of our institutions are in deep denial or, in much of the corporate sector, a feeding-frenzy of short term profit-taking. Business-as-usual is their ever more stridently proclaimed mantra, and blind faith in the chimera of unending growth their creed. Yet it is clear that the whole-system complexity of the 21st century’s challenges render conventional politico-managerial models, tools and methods redundant.

So what is to be done? Have we no alternative than to fasten our metaphoric seat belts and prepare for an exceedingly turbulent ride into oblivion?

Historically most social change movements have tended to be preoccupied with advocating desirable end states – how a more equitable society might be structured, what a post carbon economy might look like, what forms participatory democracy might take. Such blue-sky visioning is valuable and necessary. But, in practice, the Achilles heal of these movements has too often been the process question: by what means do we get from A to B; from an existing ethically or environmentally untenable state of affairs, albeit one with huge institutional and political inertia, to a more just and sustainable future, without tearing ourselves apart?

The 19th and 20th centuries saw experimentation in social transformation on an unprecedented scale — spearheaded by political movements of both the left and the right. Beginning with high hopes, most of these experiments either resulted in the piecemeal amelioration of the worst effects of industrialisation and social inequity, or ended in fratricidal violence, wide-spread suffering, or self-defeating compromises and trade-offs.

Now humanity faces a very steep learning curve to develop the collective competencies needed to envision and enact the transition to a viable future. Developing these capabilities will go hand-in-hand with a practical rethinking of the social forms by which we live, work, and learn. This will be a project for generations, but the urgency of our predicament requires that we make a start now.

Do you agree that the challenge of the Anthropocene involves much more than replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy or protecting precious ‘legacy’ ecosystems as lifeboats for future recovery — as essential and urgent as these and similar reforms are?

By what processes can we transform the core cultural values of the dominant and rising industrial growth societies?

What are the collective capabilities we will need to navigate this historic transition?