From the Stanford University Press blog:
The Flow of Matter: Understanding Earth as Material Process
BY THOMAS NAIL
THE EARTH FLOWS because the matter of the cosmos flows through it. In this chapter, I take the flow of matter as the starting point for a new theory of the earth. This is because I think the earth is much more like a process than it is like a stable object (Spaceship Earth) or autonomous subject (Gaia).
The earth is a material process continuous with the expansion of the universe that produced, and continues to produce, the earth. The earth is not a vacuum-sealed object cut off from the outside. Nor is it an unchanging or uniformly changing substance following autonomous processes. Geology flows from cosmology.
Flows of matter continually compose, cycle through, and flow out of the earth. The earth is only the regional circulation of a much larger kinetic and entropic process. Historically speaking, philosophy, politics, and much of geology have not taken this ongoing flow of cosmic matter seriously.
This has led to an inverted understanding of the earth and our relationship to it. We have posited ourselves and the earth as profound reversals of the general movement of the universe, which flows, cycles, and dissipates entropically.1 The crowning achievement of reversal is anthropocentrism.2 We look at the universe and think how wasteful it is. Against its waste, we think life, and human life in particular, is so special because it fights against the waste of cosmic entropy. We have cast ourselves as the heroes in a universal drama of life against death.3
In this book, however, I offer a different perspective. The earth, I argue, is not so much a “planet” as it is a process of terrestrialization. It is the cosmos continually made earth. Every product presupposes a kinetic process, and this is where I propose to start with the earth. Part I of this book aims to rectify the missing theory of motion behind our thinking about the earth. It begins with the cosmos as the immanent material condition of the earth.
This accomplishes two significant moves. First, it abandons any notion of the earth as an absolute ground, of itself, of history, of humans, or thought. Geophilosophy and geoscience have both granted unjustified primacy and autonomy to the earth. This is why the instability of the Anthropocene has caught them so off guard. The earth is not behaving like the good ground it is supposed to be. The Anthropocene is less an age of humans than of the inhuman. And second, it provides a new conceptual vocabulary with which to talk about how indeterminate fluctuations of matter can produce and sustain emergent kinetic patterns continuous with the larger cosmos and with one another. If the matter that makes the earth is unstable, then so is the earth.
In Part I of this book I start with the idea that the earth is made of material flows. From there, I lay out a kinetic theory of the earth that I call “geokinetics.” Geokinetics has three aspects: the flow of matter, the fold of elements, and the circulation of planetary fields. These are the three terms in my conceptual framework. I hope that they will position us well to put forward a process theory of the earth. This framework, although it may sound abstract in some places, will help us, in Part II, to reinterpret the deep history of the earth, including the emergence of minerals, the atmosphere, plants, and animals. Ultimately, in Part III, these concepts will also form the theoretical basis for an ethics of living well in the Kinocene.
The earth flows. This is the first and central thesis from which the entire conceptual framework of geokinetics follows. What must the nature of the earth be to make it capable of being in the unstable motion we see so prominently today?
Etymologically, the earth is literally dirt. But where did this dirt come from to make it capable of continual terrestrialization? What are the historical, material, and kinetic conditions such that the earth came to be dirt? This dirt is no native, but a cosmic migrant. It is already part of a much larger flow of matter that we need to take seriously.
The earth is matter thrown into motion. Without the constant thermodynamic flow of energy from the universe, there is no accumulation, dissipation, or recombination of matter into a stable earth. The thermodynamic transfer of energy into and out of non-equilibrium states is what has allowed the earth to emerge, persist, and distinguish itself from other aspects of the cosmos. But the flows of matter that composed the dirt of the earth also have their own conditions that take us further back, to an even more mobile flow of matter.
Before the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe was younger than 10–43 seconds old, there were only indeterminate quantum fluctuations. These fluctuations occurred at a size smaller than the smallest measurable length (1 Planck length) and at indeterminately high temperatures. There was no void; no metaphysical singularity; no stasis. There was not even movement in the traditional sense of something moving from point A to point B in space, either. There was no space or time.
Yet there was matter as energy, and there was motion as a continual transformation of the whole. There was no stable background of spacetime, no ground, and no foundation upon which the Planck Epoch could have emerged. Matter was neither this nor that, neither here nor there, neither continuous nor discontinuous, but pure indeterminate flux.
Before the Planck Epoch, the universe was neither random, determinate, nor probabilistic. The cosmos was neither one nor many because its energy was as indeterminate as its position and momentum. The laws of physics had not yet emerged, and even the conservation of energy could not be guaranteed.
In cosmological time, we can call this the “Indeterminate Epoch.” Through completely relational and nonrandom processes of its own, energy began to iterate itself into a single Planck-sized pattern called the Planck Epoch. This was not a singularity, “cosmic egg,” or “primeval atom,” as the 20th-century astronomer Georges Lemaître thought.4 Instead, it was the first emergent form of the universe: a fluctuating but metastable region of spacetime with the smallest size and highest temperature theoretically measurable.
This flux and flow, however, were still too small and hot for the four fundamental forces, including gravity and electromagnetism, to be divided from one another. So they remained continuous aspects of the same flow. This is what cosmologist call the “Grand Unification Epoch.”
Around 10–32 seconds after the Big Bang, a rapid inflation of spacetime occurred in which an enormous amount of spacetime unfolded from this cosmic flux. The universe expanded to 1078 times its previous volume, or the equivalent of going from 1 nanometer to 10.6 lightyears long, in a fraction of a second. Again, this movement was not a spatiotemporal movement of something across or against a fixed background of spacetime—it was an expansion of spacetime itself. In other words, the flow of the universe was not a movement from here to there but, rather, the creation of the here and there. There was no extensive movement of something, but the immanent kinetic unfolding of the universe into and out of itself.
Then came the Inflationary Epoch, the production of spacetime itself—the material condition of all discrete beings. Since light moves through spacetime and not the other way around, inflation flowed faster than the speed of light.
One of the most important, although not yet experimentally demonstrated, ideas in theoretical physics today is that spacetime is an emergent feature of a moving universe. In other words, spacetime is not a substance or force but a metastable process. It is like the “bubbles” or “foam” stirred up by a more primary turbulent process of quantum matter in motion.5 What physicists call “quantum gravity theory” is the attempt to provide a quantum theory of spacetime and thus unify the main frameworks of theoretical physics: quantum physics and general relativity.6
This is a dramatic and perhaps abstract-sounding way to begin to rethink something that is, to us, the most concrete: the earth. However, the indeterminacy of the universe is a crucial first step in rethinking the earth as a process. The indeterminate flow of the universe is the immanent material condition of the earth. It shapes the way we think about what earth processes are, that is, material processes with a genuine capacity for novelty and motion. Starting from quantum cosmology, then, we should expect, rather than be surprised by, the mobility and instability of the earth.
Einstein’s cosmology of a static spherical cosmos assumed spacetime but did not explain its emergence. In this way, it was much like older geological models that assumed a stable primordial earth but did not explain it. Similarly, early cosmologies of the Big Bang assumed a uniformly expanding universe, just as geologists believed in a uniformly moving earth.
These old geologies and cosmologies also have parallels in the philosophical ontology of time that treats time as universal and given.7 Growing up in the Holocene, humans have had a long terrestrial bias for stability.8 Is it possible that our philosophical, religious, and scientific pretensions to universality and stability have arisen from the extremely particular geokinetic situation that is the Holocene?
The cosmological theory of sudden chaotic inflation,9 the indeterminate fluctuations of quantum gravity,10 and discoveries of the earth’s sudden and unpredictable climate history11 have overthrown these old cosmologies, geologies, and philosophies. I argue here that a much more fitting philosophical perspective for our time is that of motion.12
Why should we continue to model our philosophies on foundations, our cosmologies on background spacetimes, and our geologies on Holocene uniformities, when the evidence is pointing us in the opposite direction? Our earth is not a ground, but a tiny metastable region of an unstable and dying universe.
We have got the problem entirely upside down. We shouldn’t shake off our anthropocentrism in favor of bio- or geocentrism.13 There is no privileged Archimedean point and foundation for knowledge. Because we have taken the earth to be a stable and uniform place, we have imagined that our universe must be similarly stable and that it must all come from some static unmoved mover, God, void, or homogeneous theological singularity. The outrageous lengths to which humans go in order to explain movement by something else never ceases to amaze.14
Rarely do geologists or philosophers extend their thinking to the origins of the universe more broadly. When they do, their reflections are often out of date or limited to our solar system. But the increasing shift in physics from substances (spacetime) to kinetic processes (quantum gravity) should also prompt us to reconsider substance-based approaches to the earth sciences and philosophy.
The oft-cited theory that before the Big Bang, there was nothing, and then afterward, there was something, is typical of substance-based and dualistic metaphysics.15 In the beginning, there was stasis, and then there was movement. This story hardly moves beyond Aristotle’s unmoved mover. The only real alternative, in my view, is an indeterminate process cosmology without beginning or end, stasis or movement, being or nonbeing.16
Our metastable earth is the product of indeterminate cosmic flows. It is their regular flux and flow that continually supports and reproduces every inch of our spacetime. The geological transformation of the earth is part of the same continual alteration of the universe. We live on an earth in which the matter of the cosmos is deeply entangled. For example, indeterminate quantum ripples in early spacetime eventually developed into later galaxy clusters and planets like ours. Many of the earth’s most important physical and chemical changes are related to processes outside the earth and even outside our solar system.17
The enormously crucial takeaway from these indeterminate quantum fluctuations is that they change our whole conception of what the universe is. We live in one big fluctuating metastable process, without beginning or end.18 The earth is not an exception to the rest of our unstable and fluctuating universe. From this starting point of indeterminate flows, a whole new theoretical framework for thinking about the earth can emerge.
Start exploring Theory of the Earth »
1. See chapter 15 of this book for the contemporary political consequences of the earth’s instability.
2. Craig Welch, “Half of All Species Are on the Move—And We’re Feeling It,” National Geographic, 27 April 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/climate-change-species-migration-disease/
3. For a review of the various “-cene” designations and their shortcomings and strengths, see Jairus Grove, Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
4. Paul Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter (2000) 41: 17–18. The rhetoric of the Anthropocene often makes it sound like all humans are equally responsible and equally vulnerable when they are not. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 1–18.
5. See Kathryn Yusoff, “Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 2 (2016): 3–28; Timothy LeCain, “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialism Perspective,” International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 3, no. 1 (2015): 1–28; Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: Pm Press, 2016); Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Åsberg, and Johan Hedrén, “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities: Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene,” Ethics & the Environment 20, no. 1 (2015): 67–97; Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh, The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert (Göttingen: Steidl, 2015); McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (New York: Verso, 2016); Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen. “The New World of the Anthropocene,” Environmental Science and Technology 44, no. 7 (Feb 2010): 2228–31; Arianne Conty, “The Politics of Nature: New Materialist Responses to the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 35, no. 7–8 (Oct 2018): 73–96; Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015); Richard Grusin, Anthropocene Feminism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Adam Bobbette and Amy Donovan, eds., Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life (London: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019).
6. See chapter 15 of this book for more on the ethics of the Kinocene.
7. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018); Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 197–222; Andrew Baldwin, Life Adrift: Climate Change, Migration, Critique (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017).
8. “For most of the last two centuries, with some exceptions, social thought has not given serious attention to the earth sciences. While the social sciences and humanities have conversed productively with biology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, complexity studies and even mathematics, the geosciences seem to have offered less fertile ground for engagement.” Nigel Clark and Yasmin Gunaratnam, “Earthing the Anthropos? From ‘socializing the Anthropocene’ to geologizing the social,” European Journal of Social Theory 20, no. 1 (Aug 2016): 146–63; 147. See also Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (London: Sage, 2011).
9. For a literature review of the limited work done on the philosophy of geology, see Claude C. Albritton, “Philosophy of Geology,” in General Geology. Encyclopedia of Earth Science (Springer, Boston, MA: 1988). https://link.springer.com/reference-workentry/10.1007%2F0–387-30844-X_45
10. Ecofeminists have been writing about this for a long time. See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper One, 2008).
11. “With some half a century of developments in the geosciences converging on the idea of earth systems with multiple possible operating states, the very nature of ‘the ground’ needs major overhauling.” Clark and Gunaratnam, “Earthing the Anthropos?,” 159. “Here Arendt rediscovers Heidegger’s analyses that we cited in the first part of this present work: The Earth viewed from outer space is no longer the ‘earth on which man lives,’ it is no longer the homeland (Heimat). In the same way that for Husserl, the Earth is not a heavenly body in motion among many others but first and foremost a ‘ground,’ it ‘does not move and does not rest,’ since ‘only in relation to it are movement and rest given as having their sense of movement and rest.’ It is in this sense that the Earth is the ‘arche-dwelling,’ the ‘ark of the world’ that nothing can replace and that we reference and intellectually give as an answer each time we imagine that the Moon or an airplane could constitute another foundational basis or ‘ground.’ ‘Arche-dwelling,’ ‘homeland,’ ‘habitat,’ for Arendt, Heidegger, and Husserl, the thesis is clear: humanity is under condition of the Earth, understood as that which can’t be reduced to an object, or a subject—in other words, a transcendental nonobjective form.” Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation, trans. Drew S. Burk (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 170. “In a certain way, Arendt’s concrete transcendental is neither concrete nor historical enough, just as Husserl’s arche-dwelling does not take into account the fact that the Earth has not always been for humanity. And Heidegger failed to make a cosmic event out of the ‘homeland.’ In order to concretize the transcendental of the Earth, we must not consider it as an object (that we can capture from outer space thanks to a camera) or as a quasi-subject (such as Gaia, a rather local expression of naturing nature) but rather as a trans-ject or perhaps more specifically and simply a traject, as an interval spanning space-time. In fact, the Earth is not merely a ‘ground’ upon which we stand, not simply a planet surrounded by a moon and artificial satellites; it’s also a long-term event that began 4.54 billion years ago, the historical trajectory of an entity that will disappear in several billion years.” Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth, 171.
12. See Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), chapter 14.
13. See Nail, Being and Motion, chapters 17–20.
14. See Stephen J. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge: International Society for Science and Religion, 2007).
15. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, The Biosphere, eds. David B. Langmuir and Mark A. McMenamin (New York: Springer Science,  2013). “As historian John Brooke recounts, the years 1966–73 alone saw the emergence of four major new perspectives on the dynamics of the earth: (1) the confirmation of the theory of plate tectonics; (2) a new appreciation of the role of extra-terrestrial impacts in shaping earth history; (3) the thesis that evolution is punctuated by catastrophic bursts linked to major geophysical events; and (4) the beginnings of the idea that the different components of the earth function as an integrated system—as expressed in the Gaia hypothesis and earth systems theory. Look beyond the immediacy of Anthropocene debates into the encompassing field of contemporary geosciences and we are soon reminded that such processes as cyclical changes in the planet’s orbit and axis, the openness of the earth to solar radiation and astronomical events, the magma-driven movements of tectonic plates, the stratal composition of the earth’s crust, the deep structures of biological life and functioning of the biosphere continue to set the broad parameters for the functioning of the earth system.” Clark and Gunaratnam, “Earthing the Anthropos?,” 156. “If we take seriously evidence from the earth sciences that the main driver of the Mid-Holocene Climatic Transition was variability in the earth’s axis and orbit, then there may indeed be a trace of ‘universality’ woven into the fabric of human cultural-historical difference.” Clark and Gunaratnam, “Earthing the Anthropos?,” 157. “Neocatastrophism has enlivened modern geo-science by dispatching the belief that the planet took on its current shape only through the gradual and continuous operation of familiar processes like erosion and sediment buildup. The new geology lets into the picture abrupt die-offs and bursts of species formation, climatic and geomorphological upheavals, and high-speed collisions with extraterrestrial bodies.” Jeremy Davies, Birth of the Anthropocene (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018), 9. “Neocatastrophism has introduced us to a whole list of geophysical forces—asteroids, ocean currents, volcanoes, and the like—that, under the right circumstances, can suddenly come to exert a much greater and more destabilizing influence than usual on the workings of the earth system.” Davies, Birth of the Anthropocene, 10.
16. Aristotle, Physics, trans. Joe Sachs (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001), Book VIII, page 188.
17. Several contemporary thinkers have conceived of a world “without us” (Alan Weisman, The World Without Us [New York: HarperCollins, 2014]; Eugene Thacker, Cosmic Pessimism [Minneapolis: Univocal, 2015]), or an “earth after us” (Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014]), or an “ancestral” earth revealing a “world where humanity is absent” (Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency [London: Bloomsbury, 2017]). “This fiercely unilateral conception maintains the divide between ‘us’ and the ‘world,’ between the human ‘subject’ and the ‘ancient’ realities that can only be accessed by pure science.” Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth, 172.
Meillassoux is right that the past-being, before humans, is not related to humans (who did not exist yet). Nevertheless, this does not mean that our thoughts about this being are unrelated to that past-being. The past makes human thought and existence possible. This is not a non-relation but rather an asymmetrical relation. Furthermore, by making thought and being non-relational, Meillassoux is anthropocentric and rationalist, because he says that nature cannot think. Nature, however, is already mathematical and thoughtful to some degree. Humans are not a break with nature; they are a regional expression of processes already present in nature.
Meillassoux says that humans are mere matter, but that we are unique matter that is radically different than what nature has. However, how does such a break occur in matter? It cannot.
18. Uniformitarianism still holds sway over many geologists and remains a matter of lively debate. See Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), 61.