Saving the World from Sovereignty

The Posthumanities book series at the University of Minnesota Press keeps releasing terrific books.  I finally got around to reading Mick Smith’s book, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (2011).  Making important contributions to political ecology, environmental ethics, and continental philosophy, Smith presents an approach to radical ecology grounded in a thorough critique of the concept of sovereignty. 

Smith focuses extensively on Agamben’s analysis of biopolitics and the reduction of humans to “bare life,” which Smith relates to Heidegger’s analysis of the reduction of nature to Bestand (“standing reserve” or “resource”).  Arendt, Bataille, Benjamin, Latour, Levinas, and Nancy also make frequent appearances, as Smith draws on their works to support his critique of sovereignty and his ethicopolitical vision of an open, diverse, and posthumanist “intimate ecology of responsibility” (167).  Furthermore, in a refreshing tone, he does not propose a solution to the environmental crisis.

In any case, unlike the majority of people writing on the environment, I do not have a recipe for saving the natural world, a set of rules to follow, a list of guiding principles, or a favorite ideology or institutional form to promote as a solution.  For before all this, we need to ask what “saving the natural world” might mean.  And this requires, as I have argued, sustaining ethics, and politics, and ecology over and against sovereign power—the exercise of which reduces people to bare life and the more-than-human world to standing reserve. […]  What we need are plural ways to imagine a world without sovereign power, without human dominion. (220)

Saving nature, saving the planet, saving Earth.  These are usually just more exercises of sovereignty.  To the extent that we should “save” some beings in the natural world (e.g., save the whales!), saving must take on a meaning that is not encumbered by sovereign power. 

To save the whales is to free them from all claims of human sovereignty, to release them into their singularity, their being such as it is—whatever it is—quodlibet ens, and into flows of evolutionary time, of natural history, just as they release themselves into the flows of the world’s oceans.  This “saving” is an ethicopolitical action. (103) 

Although Smith is focusing primarily on criticizing human sovereignty over nature, he is clear that this does not mean replacing human sovereignty with the sovereignty of nature. 

It is not a call to recognize the sovereignty of nature over all human activities, including ethics and politics. […]  It is a political and ecological critique of sovereignty per se, both natural and political.  The breadth and depth of this critique is why radical ecology is potentially the most radical form of politics, why it offers the most fundamental challenge to the established order of things. (107)

One highlight of the book is that Smith brings together multiple philosophers without ignoring their differences, incompatibilities, and contradictions.  His use of Agamben is a good example: Smith continually draws on Agamben’s concepts and analyses while simultaneously criticizing Agamben’s anthropocentric or “hyperhumanist” tendencies (116).  Another example: Smith offers a critique of Latour that ends up bringing Latour and Levinas together in a productive way.

In short, there are a lot of gems in Smith’s book.  It’s inspired me to look deeper into Arendt’s work, which I haven’t spent much time with in quite a while.  Overall, Against Ecological Sovereignty makes me like radical ecology more than I did before I read it.  Continental philosophy and radical ecology are good for one another.

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6 responses to “Saving the World from Sovereignty

  • Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (A Book Review) | Knowledge Ecology

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  • Megan Hollingsworth

    Humans are nature. As we heal from severance of old, we reconnect with that truth. Ours is not dominion over others but communion with. We are in community here. As human beings, we are conscious of that in a different way…in a way that commands responsibility and that is wonderful because of our very capacity to destroy ourselves and others when we do not take responsibility with care…

    Thank you, I do not know half of the language on deconstruction, but you have me curious and I’m enjoying the read.

    Megan

  • Matt ONeill

    How is creating ecological sovereignty, giving Nature the same legal rights of self determination that people and corporations receive, a bad thing?

    • Sam Mickey

      Yes, good question! This deserves some clarification. Legal protection for the rights of nonhuman life, land, air, and water is not a bad thing. For instance, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India were recently granted the same rights as persons. This book Against Ecological Sovereignty is talking about sovereignty in the sense of authoritative power or supreme power, like one kind of being having total authority over another. The point is that totalitarian power is bad, even if it’s the power of Nature. Fascism is still bad even if it’s ecofascism.

      What is needed is a more democratic approach, which is about sharing power instead of dominating. It’s about having power with and power within instead of power over. It’s about including evermore human and nonhuman actors in the democratic process of composing a shared world, the sort of democratic process that resulted in rights being granted to the Ganges and Yamuna. It is important to note that those two rivers are highly polluted and desperately need the attention. In some contexts, granting rights to rivers might not be a priority. Working with low-income housing development might take precedent.

      Ecological sovereignty would mean that Nature takes priority for everyone in all times and places, but ecological democracy says that political priorities depend on the specific conditions of the actors involved.

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