Ecologies beyond capitalism and IBG 2013

A retrospective open access special edition of Antipode on Ecologies In, Against and Beyond Capitalism has been posted to accompany Bruce Braun’s lecture on “Vital Materialism and Neoliberal Natures” at the RGS/IBG next week. These are great articles, many of them are required reading on my Political Ecology course, but there are a few new ones I haven’t come across before in there too.

While I don’t agree with the assumption in Braun’s abstract that political ecology and the literature on neoliberal natures have largely ignored the more theoretically-inflected vital materialist turn and vice versa (there are plenty of attempts to reconcile them out there), I’m eager to hear what he has to say.

At the RGS/IBG I’m also looking forward to the ever-provocative Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark’s sessions on Capitalism and the Earth. Aside from Immunitary Geographies there isn’t much nature/animals in evidence. I’m in the third of three sessions on Domestic Temporalities, convened by folk from Queen Mary. As ever most time will be spent mooching on the lawn and drinking wine.

Animals and apocalypse, part one

This post reflects on a few recentish post-apocalyptic films, but in particular on the role of animals therein…

As a great, great many people have noted, apocalyptic imagery, narrative and revelry are circulating with a certain dull, frenetic energy: it’s hard to get away from zombies (figuratively anyway), zoonoses, or environmental collapse. Apocalypse is a rejoinder to the pervasive risk management of late modernity, in which the future becomes something mouldable through action in the present: all this management won’t do any good, apocalypse implies; accounting and governance are not sufficient to avert disaster, nor are they the proper response. As the old man in The Road, Ely, puts it:

“Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do”.

Of late, it’s the post-apocalyptic that is in the ascendency. In such fictions the world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but continues interminably on, in slow entropic decay. Post-apocalypse abandons traditional narrative form – no story, no prospect of a conclusion, instead we have a fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes.  This is a vision which offers no ‘cosy’ after-fall gathering but instead a slow, uncomfortable, and above all gloomy future.

If the light of modernity was about highlighting our own animality that we might better manage it, in order to become political beings, that light was acquired from the sun. Since the sun bequeathed us oil, and in turn fossil fuels made possible the Anthropocene and carbon humanity, then the sun must also, to follow Timothy Mitchell, set its limits. That is to say, the anthropos of the Anthropocene is not a self-sufficient subject – it has been made out of a willing together of flows of geology, biology, materials and energy

Thus the absence of the sun in The Road (which while a bit old now [2009] was such an instant classic that it is still impossible to ignore), brings the dark animality of North American humans into the light. Thrust from deadening routine and habit, from their pre-fall introspective bubbles of egotism and meek supplicancy to capital, post-apocalyptic life on the road forces its characters (and us) to affirm what they want to live for – to affirm their (and our) desire for something positive. Not to be cannibals. The Road’s moral lines are starkly drawn: do they eat babies? This question becomes the basis for a new ethics for the Child in a world with no justice, no accounting or law, just interminable survival. Throughout The Road, the Man looks back to his past, a past the Boy cannot share – the Boy’s burden, meanwhile, is the future, carrying forward the ‘fire’. Thus what lurks on the far side of apocalypse is our own animality, let loose from a political subject constituted by geological networks of fossil fuels. There is a new project of on-going enlightenment (small E) in which the challenge is not just to survive, but to surpass that which we were before.

The Road - bug

But while the film version of The Road is largely faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, there is one striking addition: a bug. The bug of course embodies that weird combination of fear, instrumentalism, disgust and fascination, but above all radical alterity, so wonderfully traced by Hugh Raffles. The Boy discovers a beetle in a metal container, which flies heavenwards into dark cloud. On one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to recoup some possibility for redemption – that not all animals did die, and that other beings, too, struggle towards a precarious future. Life continuing is a supposed consolation against pain and loss of certain beings. But the bug does not show that nature has survived the Fall after all, for it too will surely die. Instead, it heightens the feeling of loss, showing how we recognise, belatedly, that the absence of non-human others limits our own possibilities of becoming with. But at least its final flight takes the film beyond an anthropocentric tragedy – we are robbed of allies for world-making loops, denied the ways of being human-in-connection, through companion species of all kinds, be they commoditised forms of life, domestic critters, or ingested food. This reading of the Road still leaves us, however, in a landscape where the line is drawn too simply, with non-humans as victims.

In other films animals are behaving more oddly, and more interestingly.

In The Life of Pi (which is not properly apocalyptic because we assured of a happy outcome by the Hollywood flashback) Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a (CGI) tiger, with seemingly no possibility of co-existing peaceably. Life of PiHowever, a moment of connection is made, but not until the boat’s life-sustaining processes have been exhausted and the pair face imminent death – it is only then the tiger rests its head on Pi’s lap. After the pair are miraculously saved, however, the tiger just wanders off into the jungle without looking back, without saying goodbye, rejecting any chance of friendship or shared kinship. Similarly, in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s horse seems to refuse to carry on when they come to a bridge – it seems to be the first creature in the film to realise that the planet is going to hit the earth after all (as suggested by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures).

A horse is also a key character in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 146-minute epic The Turin Horse – a gruelling film shorn of the sentimentalism of The Road and which replaces McCarthy’s natural theology (typical of American apocalypse and largely absent in this and other genres of apocalypse – these will be the subject of post no.2!) with a bleaker cosmic un-making.

The Turin horse - horse

The Turin Horse describes six days on a wind-swept, dusty farmstead. After the first opening scene, a mesmeric close-up of the journey home from the village, which seems to stress how family and horse are bound together in suffering to a blasted scrap of land, the horse is packed away in his damp stable. The old farmer and his daughter begin their daily routines: they stare out the same windows, eat the same meal (one boiled potato) each day. On day two however, despite being whipped, the horse refuses to move. On day three a neighbour warns them of the encroaching final darkness, and on the fourth day the horse refuses to eat or drink, or to respond to the woman’s entreaties, and then the well runs dry. The farmer and daughter try to escape. They load up their possessions on their cart and disappear over the horizon, the daughter pulling the cart, the horse following meekly. But they are forced to return, even more desperate and exhausted than before. The horse is shut away again, and does not reappear. On the sixth day, the wind and storm has ended, but a great darkness has descended; their lamp can be lit, but only for a short while before it gutters and dies. The film’s closing shots are of the man desperately clawing at a raw potato; although we don’t see the final breath, the end is inevitable.

The Turin Horse - the horse

On one level Tarr’s film is an all-too human Nietzshcean vision in which the farmer and daughter fail to break out of their lives and drown in repetition, even as the cosmos slowly slides back to its dark origins: “What is all this?”, the woman asks, “I don’t know, let’s go to bed,” the man replies. By the time they realise what they have to do they cannot leave – change comes too late. But attending to the horse takes us further. The farm’s residents are a companion species knot bound together on a journey into darkness. The horse, their more-than-human ally in farming and with whom they inherit a shared history stretching back to the Eurasian steppe, although it shares unequally with humans in the suffering of a hard life, seems to want to go it alone. But it is far from the dumb beast of burden who can only accede to demands, as described by Nietzsche. Instead, the horse becomes more than that, it betrays the man and daughter and embraces the inevitability of decline and death. Crucially, it is when the horse refuses to eat that any possibility of escape is extinguished. The final terror here is not any historical calamity; the final terror is that that ‘we’ are deserted by our non-human allies.

‘Gaia: neither flat, nor round, not spherical. Loopy.’ Bruno Latour, Gifford Lecture 4

In Lecture 4 of the Gifford Lectures, The myth and the destruction of the image of the globe, Latour began by affirming that pronouncements of the Anthropocene belie the “puzzling continuity” of Gaia’s metabolism, and that neither Nature nor nature, nor the human can enter the Anthropocene intact. As ever, lecture prosthetics available here.

Under what, then, can we unify during the Anthropocene? This lecture was, in essence, a restatement of Latour’s on-going multinatural democratic dream, a “thought experiment” that Noel Castree memorably called ‘as exciting and mad cap as cold fusion’. This involves at heart three steps: asking what sort of people are being called (demos); asking what entity they are being assembled under (theos); and ascertaining through what principles their agencies are distributed (nomos). It is a politics denuded of the cover of “what simply is”, a proper cosmopolitics in which the constitution of common forms of life is precisely what is at stake.

Foul break in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Awesomely bonkers: the earth reaches its revelatory disintegration, or for Latour and Sloterdijk, the death of a sphere (a “dangerous prison” of an aesthetic) becomes the birth of many new earths comprised of loops.

Latour had a lot of cajoling, complimentary, things to say about geo-scientists. They, and other convenors of networks that disclose the metabolic state of Gaia, have been thrust into a new epistemological era in which, for example, their pronouncements of geological epochs shake the foundations of politics. Perhaps, Latour dares hope, the “very visibility of their networks may now make scientists wholly credible”, and that they will own up to being a special interest group.

I’ve never been convinced by this hopeful vision of science. I want to hear more about the darkness of scientific practice; for Latour to be more, well, anthropological, when it comes to that thing he calls ‘science’. Maybe he should come and meet some of the ‘exploration geo-physicists’, petro-geology bods or carbon profiteers at my institution. These scientists are deeply implicated in shadowy networks of petroleum capital, committed to the intellectual challenge of getting carbon, be it oily, gassy or non-conventionally liquid, out of the ground. Perhaps under a Gaian parliament scientists like these would be diminished – but they are part of the reason we don’t live in a Gaian parliament. Science isn’t just about knowledge, it is also about labour and the production of surplus value. I’m getting tired of hearing how a secular anthropology of science can save us all.

The original move this evening, at least to me, was using a riff on Sloterdijks’s Spheres trilogy (Bubbles is in my reading heap) to demolish the idea of the ‘globe’, or as Latour called it, the “Atlas malediction”. Instead of a pre-given globe, which could act as a secular (ultimate, closed) authority (the great sphere is “what we passively contemplate when we are fed up of history”), we have merely a great and growing number of ‘loops’ which have collectively elevated worlds to a sphere. These layered loops run all the way from Magellan to recent statements about ocean plastics, the N cycle, carbon, to the irreversibility of anthropogenic soils.

The Burren, Co. Clare. Where an Englishman talked to an Irishman about a hare loop.
The Burren, Co. Clare. Where an Englishman talked to an Irishman about a hare loop.

This reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s description of an Irishman’s tale of the “hare’s run”. When startled a hare will run, faster than a shotgunner can track, and trace a long, long, ground-thumping arc out across the land, before looping back to come to rest exactly where it began. Like the hare, Gaian loops must come back to their point of origin, their network must hold, for a world to be rounded. Just like we need donnish nature writers to sense the hare, we need infrastructure to sense these loops: be they made through art, science or theology.

Thus, if there is a globe it is one fabricated in these extended networks of sense-making. This shifts the Anthropocene from a gesture of thrusting a tiny human into a reluctant role of planetary master, to a bigger ‘anthropos’ deeply implicated in making measurements of and reading Gaia. This “slow wrapping” of the earth has nothing to do with being ‘human’, a pre-given being in a nested hierarchy all the way to God. Rather, each loop makes us ‘sensitive’ to our mutual, if uneven, constitution with(in) Gaia. Our job, then, is to become more sensitive, more attuned to these loops, more deeply implicated in their making.

Neatly, of course, Gaia – after Stengers – is a ticklish goddess. Thus Gaia too is sensitized, perhaps distressinly so, to certain, new loops. She might be angry. We should therefore be modest, cautious and sensitive. Those who deny their sensitivity to and the sensitivity of loops are criminal, even evil.

The battle-lines are set. Next will come cosmopolitics, to be concluded with peace, or at least an armistice, on Thursday.

I left this lecture troubled though. If Gaia is a ticklish goddess, is she not also a trickster goddess too, capable of camouflage and deception? Might some important loops begin but not come back to their point of origin? Might a hare – in trying to run around the world – make some mistake, break a bone and crumple, panting and exhausted, to be pecked over by crows? Of course this is Latour’s point, we have no guarantees; each loop is “a chance to comprise universality”. But where is the room in geostory for error, for glorious failure, and for the stuttering, malformed network?

In taking the position of messianic critic, the risk is in making the diagnosis of our predicament too seamless, too all-encompassing. Where is the humility that is preached – is there not something rather aggrandising as well as elegant in a loop that discloses a world? What, too, about absent loops: dead species, or house sparrows gone from cities? Of loops gone or soon to go, like the becalmed energies of ‘carboniferous modernity’? Can we be tickled by these; can we be touched by the absences that lurk beyond sensitized/ing networks? My point is that if we rely on sense and sensitisation to inform our sense of Gaian dwelling and politics, that leaves the insensible un-summoned – as indeed it must be. So what is to become of all those beings and things, or their shadow – absent things – that cannot enter Latour’s multi-species, Gaian, parliament? And surely, if everything potentially can enter this parliament, if there is no constitutive outside, does it not then become just another secular authority?

‘Can we face Gaia yet? No.’ Bruno Latour, Gifford Lecture 3

A Greek villain. Not Gaia. Equally bitchy.

The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaiathe third of Bruno Latour’s six Gifford Lectures was yesterday. They’ll all be up here in due course. We’re getting round in this first week to ‘facing Gaia’.

So who is this Gaia? She is not Hesiod’s Gaia, the greek goddess, who was a vengeful, scheming monster who bade her family kill and eat their kin. No, that Gaia is a ‘dangerous figure; not to say a bitch’.

To get to face this Gaia Latour is flirting with, we need to up the stakes, to go celestial. Latour bookended his lecture with talk of two telescopes. One was used by Galileo in his heliocentric revolution, and gouged a famous wound into humanity’s primary narcissism. After Galileo the Earth was just one of many heavenly bodies arcing along merrily, like galactic billiard balls.

Fast-forward to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, in the 1960s. Planning for the Viking mission to ascertain whether there was life on the Red Planet, we find a young jobbing scientist, James Lovelock. By focusing a simple electron capture detector and using telescopic observations of Mars, he argued, you could detect the chemical reactions that would indicate life – no need to go there. And by the way, in fact, Mars was dead.

The white-maned maverick then inverted a question: not why is Mars dead, but why is the  earth not dead. What gives life?

Latour’s account of Lovelock’s answer was supplemented with the celebrated biologist Lynn Margulis, and had implicit debts to geo-philosophers like Deleuze. The answer we now know lies in geo-physiology and the mutual calibration of all sorts of forms of life and their environments. Gaia emerges, messily, haphazardly and in no pre-determined way, from a long chain of events seizing on other events. The humblest props, such as microbes, are now no longer the background, but are brought to the foreground as agents in the emergence of life: they are also what keeps Gaia in productive disequilibrium.

This, Latour made clear, is the generous reading of Gaia. (Not the eco-fascist one where life is sacrificed for the survival of a super-deity.) It’s one Latour likes because it points out what should always have been so obvious – only through a radical distribution of agency can we understand why the earth is not dead. He quipped here that what is surprising is not that many things have agency, but that this seems surprising. The biggest surprise of all is then why some people continue to dis-believe agency is radically distributed (though there can’t be many of these people left).

Several of Gaia’s curious features required questioning.

  • Vitalism. Is Gaia ‘other-animated’ or ‘de-animated’? In other words, is Gaia simply reducible to the interactions of its parts which add up to make a seamless whole (like dead clockwork or cybernetic machine)? Or is Gaia animated by some ‘other’ force of vitality (Gaia as superorganism). While ‘yes’ is a possible response to both questions in Lovelock’s Gaia, for Latour’s Gaia the answer is no, twice. There is more to life than simple adaptation and natural selection, but that ‘more’ doesn’t need some external supernatural animator to explain it. Latour’s Gaia is ‘secular’ – again drawing on his definition of ‘secular’ as that which has no recourse to an ultimate authority – because there is no ‘outside’ theological skyhook, nor is it merely a brute chain of cause and effect.
  • Multiplicity. He didn’t use this word but it lay behind the lecture. Indeed, he could have also used assemblage, but one has the feeling Latour doesn’t like borrowing other people’s terminology. His point here is that the relationship of beings to Gaia is not one of parts to a whole – there is not ‘the system’ and ‘individuals’, rather there is an open whole. That is, things in Gaia are not characterised by relations of interiority but through relations of exteriority – form evolves out of interactions of matter and energy, but form exceeds its relations to others and to the whole. Gaia is an on-going system evolving out of intensive differences and interactions between matter/energy, not a stable ‘made object’. And this is what allows him to steer between vitalism and reductionism.
  • Biology remains haunted by the semiotic. Science is always an enterprise in metaphor, trope, and being trapped in an ‘as if’ way of presenting the world. Thus the planet is to be written and read, as well as simply taken to exist. This combines with the fact that Gaia’s geo-physiology has evolved along particular pathways – it has a history, one which cannot be re-engineered, and one which could not have been designed to end up this way by some blind watchmaker. Thus, “Gaia is in its very fabric a narrative.” And we need “geostory” (an ugly elision of geo into history) to understand how we can face Gaia.

I thought this was an elegant statement of what is fairly uncontentious biophilosophy.  I certainly buy the way he renders the world here. My dry summary here scarcely does justice to the humour and style that were at play.  The epochal flourish of comparing Galileo and Lovelock was matched by an equally inspired microbial riff juxtaposing Pasteur’s ‘no fermentation without yeast’ and Lovelock’s ‘no Gaia without micro-critters’. Brilliant.

But the question is of course not to recast Gaia as a super-assemblage, but to work out how to deal with the radical asymmetrical capacities things have to shape their environments. What will be interesting, then, is not more ontological re-description, but how he gets into “the politics of making a whole a whole” in the second half of the lecture series. Is he going to be offering more than his existing pseudo-parliament of things?

And, where’s the geography? Why do we need a monstrous neologism ‘geostory’ when we already have geo (earth) graphia (writing). And given that many geographers have been grappling with the politics of ‘making a whole a whole’ for some years now, I hope they appear at some point, at least implicitly. Ok, I admit it, that’s a plea to cite some geographers.

More, more! Not till Monday…

Preparing to face Gaia: Bruno Latour, Gifford Lectures 1 and 2

Tonight was Bruno Latour’s second of six talks as part of the Gifford Lectures on natural theology here at Edinburgh. I missed yesterday’s opener, but picked up enough today to get the gist of it. It should be up here with the rest in due course.

http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures/series-2012-2013I’m hoping this Lecture Series will end with Latour throwing off his brown suit and revealing his shining, transformative, messianic body beneath, as he shows us how to ‘live on this world’, a task which he told us tonight ‘seems so impossible’.

Thus far, it seems, has been all about laying the groundwork for understanding the ‘conditions under which we can face Gaia’. By this I think he means to formulate a new kind of natural religion that has no recourse to secular authority, where he defines secular as the absence of an ‘always already accepted referee’, such as god or a pre-given world. Its fair to say, this Gaia won’t be a green goddess, or even a greenish cyborg.

Lecture 1 recapped the story about how ‘nature was decanted into god, and then spilled over into science’ so that both God and Nature were the same kind of theos or foundation for human existence. Tonight was mostly about alloying the Politics of Nature, the lessons of STS, to what he admitted was a ‘much simplified natural theology’ through a didactic diagram that I couldn’t read. There were also some funny jokes.

In a phrase – don’t worry about mixing religion and science, because they’re already mixed.

His main complaint was that both dominant science and natural religion (which is what we can work out about God from the world / history / reasoning – apart from the Bible or revelation [thanks PS]) assume some pre-existing whole that their task is then merely to narrate through chains of reference: both devolve into a meek kind of ‘information transfer’. Like science, natural religion is merely a question of little leaps from scraps of history to sacrament to body to congregation to soul to worship and so on.

Other kinds of science and religion are possible, of course. They are more concerned about ‘transferring transformation’ – that is, with an on-going struggle not to narrate an existing cosmos, but to bring into being one kind of cosmos. A climate science that fears not to declare, “Yes we speak for the climate and we are political.” And a climate science that operates without the magic “as if”: as if the climate could appear without scientific instruments. Similarly, spiritual religion, for example, with a never-ending mission concerned with resuscitating and re-birthing, contrasts to natural religion.

I’m on very shaky ground here, but I wasn’t that sure about his classification of modes of Christian religious talk – surely they are all united by some kind of eschatological tension, not continual performance without end. I also couldn’t help wonder much how, as Politics of Nature was underwritten by a messianic belief in French democracy, his views on natural theology are Catholic rather than catholic… I presumably need to read more.

To sum it up, his point thus far was that – ever the fan of symmetry – any attempt to ‘face Gaia’ with a new natural religion needs to meet the anthropology of science in the same world. This is, he noted, very difficult: mostly because of the way that science has wanted to void the world of spirit and ‘speaking religiously’ because they answer to ‘other gods’.

So the prologue is hopefully done, and we now have four lectures to go, and as Latour quipped,

“they will be difficult… but there will be no more diagrams, I promise you”

He also joked that if the Lecture series was 12 sessions long, as it used to be, then we’d all really be in trouble. Other points that will be explored are what the anthropos of the anthropocene might be, and whether or not ‘climate’ is a suitable cosmopolitical concern around which any new natural religion should cohere.

And I can’t believe I’ve never seen him speak before. He is funny, gracious and a great orator.

This is not the Anthropocene

No social scientist could have coined a term as vainglorious and as catchy as the ‘Anthropocene’. No, that honour, as most people probably know, goes to the late Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist, and his publicist, the chemistry Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen. It means, simply, that we have entered an epoch in which humanity has become a force that is altering all earth systems. The term’s supposed moral message is that we are both perpetrators and witnesses of a vast planetary eco-crime, as well as our own judge, jury and perhaps executioner (not even Columbo could disentangle that mess). Since our consciousness has elevated us to writers and readers of planetary history we know longer have the luxury of denial: the Anthropocene is our red pill.

I’m writing here because I’m fed up with the term. That humanity is now altering the planet on a geological scale seems so obvious and seductive that it has become a lazy commonplace; instead of a grand ethical game-changer, it is already sounding like homespun homily. The term reminds me of a Jean Luc Picard “moral message” at the end of a bad episode of Star Trek TNG. Patrick Stewart never even had the grace to look pained at his terrible script, he just went all Shakespearean and grandiose, trotting out Federation dogma for the Captain’s Log, with an eye to posterity – his anthropocene sermon would go something like, “Look, history, upon the juncture where our ancestors finally woke up from their sad delusion!”

The Anthropocene is an attractive hook, certainly. Elsevier thinks it might make them some money (red alert, shields to maximum). I’ve deployed it myself in a job presentation (I did feel a bit dirty, but I think the geoscience bods liked it). But here are three reasons why this is not the Anthropocene:

1. Reports of nature’s death tend to be greatly exaggerated, and are certainly nothing new.

1989: Bill McKibben lamenting how climate change left no part of the planet untouched. 1962: Carson’s silent spring held up the ‘grotesque silencing’ of nature in small-town America as synecdoche for all the world. 1948: Fairfield Osborn wrote in Our Plundered Planet how ‘human-kind is now for the first time becoming a large-scale geological force’ (p29). Sound familiar? Or Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘closing of the frontier’ thesis, where, as manifestly destined civilisation made sea-fall at the Pacific ocean, the wild was finally enclosed, tamed and began to recede into the past: 1893.

My point is simply that such pronouncements have a long history. Their function is complex, no doubt, but their form seems stubbornly persistent: caught on a Freudian double-edge between an invitation to mourn for a lost Nature on one hand, and a more manically energetic injunction to act on the other hand. Talk of the final enclosure of Nature is one way in which a quite specifically North American anxiety comes to encompass the whole world.

2. If great changes have been wrought on the planet, it has not been done by solely by ‘us’ humans.

The great hubris of the Anthropocene is thinking that we have elevated ourselves to planetary stewards with the power to make or break the world. Wrong, wrong, wrong. For a start, fossil fuel modernity and carbon democracy is a multi-species project, relying on the dead labour of trees and sea critters. Hence what has been dubbed the ‘geologic turn’ in critical humanities, wherein the geological has made us, as well as ‘we’ becoming agents of geology (this seminar was fun; here’s free in-tray fodder for rock lovers).

Going back to the green, ecosystems are not just ‘destroyed’ – they are hollowed out, changed, made anew, but not just by ‘us’. A couple of years ago I travelled up through peninsular Malaysia. After a skiff ride across from Singapore (our eager anticipation was not shared by the boat load of tired workers commuting home – Singapore’s ugly graduated sovereignty in action), we cycled through palm plantations for five days. Nothing but palms (and trucks, and nasi goreng, and more trucks). These monocultural bio-factories produce the oily stabiliser found in all sort of processed foods; they were immense, quiet and depressing. My point, though, is that it is palm trees as well as the margarine-on-toast-peddling food industries which have done for the Malay rainforest. Thus, the supposed anthropocene is the result of much non-human, as well as human, labour; which is to say, done ‘with’ as well as ‘to’ the non-human world.

I think maybe we could call it the: “More-than-human activities that appear dangerously and regrettably to have eroded to some important but fuzzy threshold the systems which give vitality, joy and enable flourishing of life-ocene.” Oslo here we come. Anyway, Nigel Clark has said this all pretty well. There will also no doubt be much more on this line in this session, which is on my list to attend at the AAG in April.

3. There is no ‘us’ anyway.

The idea of a unified Anthropos is politically vacuous, or – better – it evacuates nature of its politics. Hasn’t someone else been banging on that ‘we are all in this together’ recently? The parallel is instructive. Extending the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene radically in time and space, as Morton would have it, sounds awfully like the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ in climate change discourse – and look how successful that has been. If the Anthropocene is about eco-crit on a grand scale, then why not look to how processes of capitalism produce and distribute nature unevenly? Or to how crisis capital latches on to radical environmental instability, or how shadow solutions like geo-engineering creep to the front stage under the anthropocene umbrella. Hold on, don’t we do that already – isn’t that, like, Geography?

So why the detour around a post-political concept like species being? I’m deeply suspicious (I’m not alone). Maybe I’m wrong and the critical re-reading and re-writing the Anthropocene can be as productive as, say, companion species. Maybe ‘thinking bigger than big’ is more than just another academic gravity well. Maybe.