Ethics and Politics in the Anthropocene?

Much has been made lately of the claim that we have entered a new geologic epoch provocatively termed the ‘Anthropocene’. The gist of the claim is that humans have intervened and complicated core geo-ecological systems to the extent that we have become the dominant force on this planet. Of course, there is logical space in such claims to argue about particulars, but in terms of quantifiable measurements we would be remiss not to conclude that humans are at least the dominant force driving change in the composition of the biosphere. No species exists in isolation and all beings are imbricated and entangled in all sorts of affording and asynchronistic contexts and relations, but the human species has successfully (in relative terms) bootstrapped our frontal lobes to patch together a series of epoch-making machinic hydras underpinned by massively delusional cultural abstractions and technologically short-sighted tools of material-energetic reorganization. These civilizational machines have either disrupted or displaced (or both) every mode and manner of geohistorical cycle and system hitherto evolved as the habitable zone known as the biosphere. These are baseline realities evidenced in so many ways – and realities which increasingly require our keenest attention and practical engagement.

I’ve been out of the game for a while now, but a recent post by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects has moved me to say a thing or two on the possibility of ecological ethics and politics in the Anthropocene. Where Levi’s post/comments factor in for me is at the level of discourse and think-ability. How are we to think and communicate about all those anthropocenities witnessed around and within us without reverting to various default vocabularies and semantic resources which are themselves supportive of the pathological systems and networks driving contemporary life? If humans have become an undeniable material and systemic force on this planet how are we to explain and/or guide the relations and the conditions of possibility which lead to the recoupling of earth systems on human terms?


The terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, to use the most demonstrative example, reinforce the very decisional binaries supporting those conceptual operating systems which allow many of us to compartmentalize and rationalize our evaluative actions and routine behaviors. It was once self-evident that humans were special: outside of nature and destined to control it in the service of divine or humanistic goals. And some still cling to this delusion despite now centuries of gathered scientific knowledge and adjusted artifactual material dependencies. Our most sophisticated and emergent modes of analysis and consideration – however precariously devised – suggest that we are ‘of’ and ‘from’ this material and corporeal world in much the same way as all those objects and processes once conceptually relegated to the external and unhuman Nature. ‘Culture’, then, isn’t ontologically opposed to ‘nature’ in any consistent or rationally justifiable way, but rather can now be understood to be an emergent development within in nature. Humans, languages, cities, nuclear reactors and all our other monstrous and affording machines are as much nature as beaver dams, amoebas, fruit-flies and dandelions. In a universal plane of consistency where everything is elemental, energetic and enmeshed there is no getting outside of nature. We are in and of this world in every way that matters. Everything is ecological.

One of the more glaring paradoxes still to be confronted in this regard (and in any satisfactory way) by the more intelligent witnesses of the anthropocene is how to reconcile the realization that there is no getting outside the dark ecologicality of things with the accompanying logic that this inescapable embeddedness is at the same time a universal naked exposure to the forces, beings and ontological tendencies that constitute our being, becomings and relations. That is, even as there is no getting outside the mesh everything is also always already ‘outdoors’. Exposure, fragility, change, enrichment, growth, change, decay are ubiquitous features of reality. If everything is ecological everything is also relational and co-constituted and interdependent. This is an inescapable conclusion from understanding and coping-with vulnerability as the very condition of possibility for possibility.

But, again, how are we to think this? And what are the implications that follow for us with regards to how decide and act in the world, and for how we evaluate our actions and the actions of others? In short, what are the ethics and politics of a radically ecological human perspective?

As Levi outlines, Tim Morton has done great work to deconstruct the concept of nature in its traditional and romantic guise. If we abandon the notion of Nature, as Morton suggests, we terminate the operating binary preventing us from further ecological revelation and thus open the conceptual field to begin to think about exactly how we are embedded and forever inside of the mesh of ecological beings and collaborating in the shell game of appearance and relation. However, like Levi, I am reticent to abandon the term altogether, interested instead in possible rearrangements in connotation and allowing the term to evolve more poetically into an umbrella ethos bridging, for example, the notion of Being-as-such to more concrete attunements to the actualities of biospheric complexity.

Regardless of what we do at the most general levels of representation, the important point is that we re-cognize the falsity of the binary (and of all associated binaries) and begin fashioning new conceptual arragements and associations for coping-with the actualities of an enmeshed existence. If we are going to develop logics adequate to the task of mapping and communicating within the thick tapestry of complex relations and modes of existence we are going to have to reconcile ourselves to non-exclusionary semantics capable of holding multiple levels and contexts in awareness simultaneously. The dangers of exclusionary, analytic and strictly differential frameworks are many, and incidentally have always been at the core of my suspicions regarding object-oriented philosophies. Entities or beings or systems or objects are always dependent on some relation and always already enmeshed and causally contingent. Instead of positing ‘objects’ or ‘relations’ as the prima facie ontological engine of reality what we are required to think and cope-with is how things and relationships and ecologies are simultaneously auto-affective(situated) in the widest possible metaphysical sense and co-constituted (interdependent).  All objects are systems: dependent, open and enmeshed in processes of exchange and uniquely withdrawn and operationally potent. What we need to think this then, as Levi states, are logics of “and” rather than the “or”.

Levi writes:

In a non-ecological ontology, we either 1) see the qualities of a being as arising from within that being independent of all other beings (e.g. genes defining the features of the phenotype), or 2) trace effects or qualities back to a single cause.  In a mesh or ecology this no longer holds as it’s a variety of causes that produce effects.  For example, the sex of a fetus is a product of the genes and diet and hormones and birth order and probably other things besides.  It is the result of an interplay between all of these things, not one of these things.  The color of my coffee mug is ecological in this sense.  It’s not in the mug, but is the result of an interplay between wavelengths of light, nervous systems, and the chemical properties of the mug.  When we turn out the lights, it’s not that the mug remains blue and we just can’t see it, it’s that the mug has genuinely lost it’s color because it’s not interacting with other bodies such as photons of light.

And this follows nicely into the question of ethics and politics. Populations, communities, and states are simultaneously self-organizing ‘machines’ and open systems/matrices/collectives. So what we need to understand about these ‘social’ realities is exactly how each system or network is composed, and what materials, relations, links, nodes, passages or structures go into each particular situation. We need to glean a practical sense of the onto-specificity of things as they are disclosed in consequential human terms. This type of will to ontographic enagement can only ever be a reflexive praxis predicated on the necessity of coping and creatively acting in the world – and from this follows a self-conscious, open and praxis-oriented move towards an ethics and politics capable of a sophisticated incorporation of the insights generated by the ecological sciences and confirmed by all those everyday and non-representational confrontations with our visceral, material and ecological circumstances.

But how are we to code all this in the social imaginary? I have my references and influences just as any reader will, but what matters, what will have some purchase of how we conduct our speech-acts, bodily movements and choices, is to evolve vocabularies and articulations and art and images that resonate and activate us. Language is an expressive medium with practical implications, and the communication and images we construct and use have material-energetic consequences for how we operate, motivate, congregate and militate as we are confronted with pre-representational realities. Thus, ecological ethics and politics not only have to be construct-aware but also practically oriented towards affective activation and physical mobilization. In this regard, then, what seems to be required is an ethics and a politics of nature that is simultaneously about the ecological as well as capable of self-consciously and self-confidently being ecological. That is to say, to think the ecological is to think below it at the level of details, alongside it at the level of praxis, and beyond at the level of perpetual reflexive accommodation.

And yet, if the ecological is everything it is also nothing. The nothingness of the concept shines through in this regard and demands of us to think more precisely, to think more materially, and to think and thus act and relate in the world in ways acutely sensitive to its onto-specificity: the particular weave, warp and swerve of real affective, corporeal beings and situations. What we require are embodiments and songs and dances and improvisational arguments that connect the nodes, details and entities and their relative causal complexes to life-worlds of appreciation and determined behavior. These modes and emanations, of course, will only ever be generated in the matrix of anarchic expression-response cycles, non-linear feedback loops, and material conditions, but we need to strive to become more context-aware niche constructors and develop normative rationalities and political practices sensitive to the exquisite complexity and potency of elemental life. Only a praxis nurtured by such creaturely sensitivity to the non-thetic messiness and naked specificity of things deserves to be called ethical.

11 responses to “Ethics and Politics in the Anthropocene?

  1. Pingback: Ethics and politics in the Anthropocene – the anthropo.scene·

  2. aha! I found the comment box. What a struggle.
    Anyway, I’m going to make a minor quibble about your definition of the Anthropocene. You write “humans have intervened and complicated core geo-ecological systems to the extent that we have become the dominant force on this planet.” While this semantic sense has bled into the Anthropocene, I think the stratigraphic definition is much clearer and more interesting – that the Anthropocene is the point where humanity could be read in the geologic record. There’s no claim about being the dominant geologic force or agent, or even a valuation of this situation. Furthermore, it shows that the Anthropocene isn’t simply about climate change (which should be visible in geochemical analysis), but also durable synthetic objects like ballpoint pen tips, plastics, and changes in radiation which would mark the Anthropocene’s beginning. Jan Zalasiewicz and co. have made this point in a number of the stratigraphic articles, as well as in Jan’s book the Earth After Us.

    I think this could be one of my misgivings about ecological ethics here. I guess my position is that generalizing ecology as ethico-ontology is fully helpful to me…rather that ecological relations designate a region of being, but not being as such. Geology, geochemistry, and the like can’t or shouldn’t be explained in ecological terms – in some ways they are far simpler, in others far more complex (a problematic most visible in the Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy)

  3. (& basically, I think this is what you’re getting at in the last paragraph, and why I like what you guys are doing here so much…just some thoughts about what work these concepts can or might do)

  4. Pingback: Ecological Ethics | Struggle Forever!·

  5. Pingback: The Anthropocene and the Apocalypse: from the ecological to the ecologistical | synthetic_zero·

  6. I like your clarification Kai but I remain unconvinced that it really changes the idea of the Anthropocene as the age in which humans become the dominant force. Our turning up in or inscription into the geological record and the presence of durable objects are merely symptoms of our potency as short-sighted ecological actors. Our agency is short-sighted because of the difficult of working against our evolutionary perceptual systems and their temporal capture (we mostly see mid-sized objects that move at speeds of relative comparability to our own…slightly faster/slightly slower/more-or-less the same). It seems to me that when we view human agency from the perspective of a kind of “depository” agency whose cumulative effect is the inaugeration of the Anthropocene then we have to consider ourselves as having been engaged in a relatively spatio-temporally blind work of reorganising matter. This type of agency isn’t to be considered as being engaged or evidenced by this human collectivity or that or being instantiated in this human endeavour or that (ie. industrialisation) but taken as the effect of species-activity as a whole.

    In this regard we are the dominant force in the Anthropocene insofar as it is we who have birthed it, even if it was never our intention to do so- even if talk of intentional action wasn’t itself under suspicion. I think Michael’s choice of words here is telling about what this means. We aren’t the dominant force on Earth but in the Anthropocene. The claim to our dominance is one that is historically situated and contingent. Still further, we are the dominant “force”. This isn’t to say that we as a species have succeeded in placing a now fully domesticated nature under our power (the classical domination of nature we sometimes see in Marx) but rather that among the multiplicity of forces that constitute “nature” we have become the force that is currently expressing itself more than any other. Another way to say this is that we are the “over-active” force in the play of forces at the moment.The sun might be a far stronger force than we are in what determines what goes on down here on our planet, as may be a whole host of other factors, but it is us that are temporarily the over-active rather than merely active potency. When the sun explodes and the planet and thereby ensuring both ecocide and terricide then it will be the over-active force. I think this idea is also detectable at times in the Red Mars (I haven’t finished the trilogy yet).

    Even if this weren’t the case (I’m improvising here so I accept I might be well off from Michael’s meaning), there is the ethico-political problem of responsibility. Claiming ourselves as the dominant force isn’t merely a repetition of our past hubris in relation to being the sovereigns of nature but an ethical and political act of self-positing as such a force precisely to inhabit the space of an impossible responsibility. To be responsible for the Earth without any transcendental guarantee of that responsibility, without having been charged with it from above, means to announce our own responsibility. If we refuse to think in terms of our power in all this then it becomes easy to become deaf to the suffering of those we cohabitate with on this planet. Now more than ever, the maxim that an injury to one is an injury to all becomes starkly apparent. In becoming ‘context-aware niche constructors’ we’re essentially doing with more attention to onto-specificity (and to the complexity you point to) what we had been doing prior to that. After all, every thing is a niche constructing thing.

    At the most speculative end of this self-positing of responsibility (which if my first two paragraphs hold isn’t ex nihilo but actually just a kind of honesty) there is the idea that in the Anthropocene the products of our species-activity determines us as a species for the first time. One of the lessons of Darwinism is that there aren’t really any real species, and one of the lessons of Marxian materialism (that Marx himself had to learn) is that there is no core species-being that might exist as an essence. It is thus that the Anthropocene also introduces us to the task of having to construct ourselves as a species- and assuming our responsibility for the mess we’re in would be part of that.

    I don’t want to stress the obvious but I just want to make clear that I am in no way trying to answer on Michael’s behalf. This is just how I see things when I read your valuable comments.

    • Hi Arran – thanks for this generous and thought provoking reply to what was mostly just a knee jerk, quick response. I’ll address it as your own and not Michael’s, although I think we are grappling with a similar problematic. I’ll number my paragraphs to ease any reply because this is quickly growing out of hand.

      1. I think your first paragraph specifically pinpoints the ways that the Anthropocene is significant. The reason we have ‘entered’ the Anthropocene is because of all of these insane social relations). I don’t want to lose this because Michael’s excellent point was about the state of political and ethical imperatives in the Anthropocene…but I think I will stick with a more ontological, or at the very least conceptual, point for now – what is the Anthropocene? How do we know when it ‘began’? What will be apparent in the geologic record? because, again, the distinction is not just something that scientists like Crutzen, Zalasiewicz, and other stratigraphers really take seriously! That’s what makes it a novel concept for me and points towards something other than the kinds of social relations you point towards. And I’d like to retain a bit of fidelity towards their definition, even if our goal is also to tweak it a bit. The Anthropocene is not just the Time of Man (hasn’t the Enlightenment given us way too many Times of Man already?)…but very specifically, the geologic era of mankind.

      2. Your second paragraph is fascinating to me, although I guess I just don’t understand why you point towards temporal situatedness but negate spatial situatedness (“We aren’t the dominant force on Earth [spatially] but in the Anthropocene [historically]”). I think I must be misreading a bit.

      3.1 Since this conversation has been predicated on a somewhat Nietzschean ontology of the play of forces, we could say that one of the distinctions in the Anthropocene is that “the Human” has become the most active or excessive force, while other ecological beings/relations are put in an increasingly reactive position (and we can think about how different creatures are forced to adapt and, at a different time scale, forced to evolve). I quite like your phrase that ‘the human’ is “expressing itself more than any other” – although it’s always important to note that some species and ecosystems will likely become active / creative in relation to this situation (if it doesn’t happen too fast!). In any case, this is an important characteristic of living in the Anthropocene. Similarly, we can say that the holocene, or mesozoic, or whatever has characteristics (flora, fauna, temperature, all kinds of relations) in just this way. Or we can note

      3.2 But I think my point is that noting a characteristic of the anthropocene is not the same as noting what it “is.” The Anthropocene is a geologic era. From the POV of the Earth (the planet, its crust, mantle, etc), ‘the human’ is not dominant at all and just newly active – as you beautifully put it, engaged in the “relatively spatio-temporally blind work of reorganising matter.” So we might take the Anthropocene as the point when the human FIRST becomes active in relation to the earth’s geologic record – into the planet as a whole and not simply a region of it. I think perhaps I struggle with calling this specific relation “domination” in relation to tectonic plates, or the mantle, or whatever other earth forces we think. We’re just touching them for the first time. To take Stengers out of context a bit, the human/geologic relation right now is a tickling of the Earth. And the Earth’s responses, amplified by our tickling, put ‘humanity’ back in a reactive position. I guess I would say that this is not a characteristic of the Anthropocene, but how we have come to know what it is – as a geologic record.

      4. A corollary point I think is that I think the concepts of both Nature and Ecology are entirely unhelpful for describing the geologic aspect of the Anthropocene that I’m trying to get at. I’m of the mind that the concept of Nature is generally unhelpful (which is an argument you’re familiar with, of course), but I quite like the concept of Ecology and think it can be useful in many situations. So why do I think even Ecology is an insufficient concept here? A strange thing seems to have happened in theory and American culture (at the very least) in the last 10 (or 50?) years when everything could be described as an ecology. (A similar thing happened with the concept of “system” – and is it all that surprising that the California Ideology loves both?)…This has left us in a position where it’s very hard to describe something like the geologic record without reverting to an ecological way of thinking (with it’s attendant spatializations and temporalities/rhythms). So again, when you start talking about “nature” in the second and third paragraph I’m really quite confused! Because as a cultural construct, the geologic, the inorganic and dead, the slow-moving, rocks, underground spaces, mines, rare sublime discontinuities like volcanoes, and so on and so forth, do not have the pastoral, vital, or whatever other connotations that “nature” encapsulates. Are these really niche-constructing things in their own right? (This is perhaps a disagreement with what I see as an OOO extension of ecology to everything that seems a tinge too vitalist for me. In any case, it’s a larger question that I just can’t deal with at the moment – beyond this discussion and my own investigations…) It’s just so strange and insane that the inorganic commodities that surround us (in what we might call ecological relations) are being freed from this ecology and settling into geologic extensions of the human that will be apparent long after we’re gone…that I find some of these concepts insufficient.

      5. In any case, this also puts us in a strange political and ethical place/time. I really like the way you put it: “To be responsible for the Earth without any transcendental guarantee of that responsibility, without having been charged with it from above, means to announce our own responsibility.” But given my focus on the geologic (and this is why I think I noted that KSR’s books are the only ones that adequately pose the geologic as a political problem), I think there could be some slightly different ethical/political questions…Given that the ‘entry’ to the Anthropocene is irreversible, do we try to clean up our geologic record? Obviously a change in geochemistry (ocean acidification and what not) has reverberating effects for other living beings, but is it also an event that puts us in a different relationship of responsibility viz a viz the geology of the earth? And then, slightly more ecological questions: What about all the times when we are put in reactive situations in relation to earth forces, after “disasters”? (this is Nigel Clark’s big question, for example).

      Ok, there are some inconsistencies in there and I spent way too long typing this but I’d love to hear what you have to say.

  7. Pingback: Nature Poetics and Ecological Praxis | synthetic_zero·

  8. Very interesting and stimulating post and exchange.

    My view is that the term Anthropocene does not adequately describe the situation. The combination of anthro and cene reproduces the relationship that has emerged between humans and the geological processes. But I think what it misses is the intermediary between the 2 – the machines, particularly those enabled by microelectronic information processing. So to capture the Human – Machine- Planet relationship, Cyborgocene might be more descriptive.

    Perhaps this term can capture the Heideggarian risk of technology, that humans too become part of the standing reserve. The seeming unhindered instrumentality of micro electronic technology can convert us to power and resources just as we have converted the planet from Nature to power and resources. The machines have become a defining influence on us just as we have become a defining influence on the planet.

  9. Pingback: Dominance in the Anthropocene | synthetic_zero·

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