For the Love of Capitalism

I advocate for a political concept of love—planetary love—drawing on a Deleuzian political philosophy of love (via Hardt and Negri) as well as the concept of love developed by the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak and elaborated on by the theologian Catherine Keller. It’s an ecological and feminist sense of love, not a sentimental or romantic  or Platonic love. It’s allied with poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and posthumanism, but it does not go postal and dwell in critique and negativity. It is a love that dwells in non-coercive, mutually transformative contact, which differentiates while it entangles.

Affirming the inseparable differences entangling the multifarious inhabitants and habitats of the planet, planetary love is non-exclusive. It’s for everybody, even for the enemies of planetary coexistence. The most agreed upon enemy of environmentalists is corporate capitalism. Planetary love includes love for capitalism, love for corporations. That idea is not agreeable to many people.

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African American Environmental Thought

[C]ontrary to conventional wisdom, black Americans have not been indifferent to environmental values; there is, in fact, a rich tradition of black environmental thought.  Du Bois and many other black writers–including Henry Bibb, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Caver, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes–had a great deal to say about how slavery and racial oppression affected black Americans’ relationship to the land, and their arguments offer valuable insights into humans’ relationship to nature in general.  Their works belong in the canon of American environmentalism.

Kimberly Smith, African American Environmental Thought: Foundations (University Press of Kansas, 2007), p. 3.

Environmental Humanities in Social Media

The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society  started a blog recently: Seeing the Forest.  With an international and interdisciplinary focus, the Center is launching the blog to extend the reach of the environmental humanities through social media (they also tweet).  The blog accepts submissions from students, scholars, and professionals.

The environmental humanities are also extending their online presence through the new open-access journal Environmental Humanities.  They are also accepting submissions.

I focus a lot of my work on research in environmental humanities as well as posthumanities and, for that matter, anything that queers the humanities.  Having never been human, there’s never been a better time for the humanities.

Post-Wild, Rambunctious Ecology

Invasive species aren’t always bad.  Biodiversity isn’t always good.  There is no such thing as “pristine” nature.  Organic gardening isn’t always the best use of land.  Those are some of the points raised in the recent book by Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

Marris is a science writer.  In Rambunctious Garden, she engages some of the most controversial and current topics of conservation biology and ecology, and she does so with a very accessible style, including various accounts of experiences in the field, conversations with scientists and advocates, and histories of human impacts on species and ecosystems.  

One of the things I like most about this book is the optimism.  Marris is excited about the future, even if it’s an “eco-industrial vision” of the future (134).   She doesn’t deny the severity of environmental challenges like climate change, species extinction, and development, yet her approach is “proactive and optimistic” (3).  There are truly amazing possibilities for the future of human-Earth relations.  They aren’t neat and tidy, but messy and rambunctious. 

With joy and wit, Marris reports that there is no stable “nature” or untouched wilderness.  “Ecosystems are fundamentally stable entities afflicted by changes from without and within about as much as a ballet is a fundamentally static object afflicted with motion” (34).  “If one rusty beer can spoils a whole day’s search for the beauty in nature, then there isn’t much beauty left.  But I think there is, if we just adjust our perception” (169). 

If there is no pristine or stable nature, there is no sense in conservationists trying to restore ecosystems to pre-colonial baselines (i.e., what the ecosystems looked like before white people arrived).  Such baselines are arbitrary, since the nature to which they return is itself already altered by humans.  Returning an ecosystem to a pre-human baseline (e.g., tens of thousands of years ago) is an equally arbitrary goal, both because one can’t ascertain the exact conditions of pre-human ecosystems and because some conditions simply can’t be restored (the climate is already changed).  There is no simple origin to which ecosystems can be returned.  Conservation/restoration has to be done without baselines. 

Marris is excited about the possibilities found in restoration efforts that are embracing novel ecosystems instead of viewing a novel ecosystem as a mere degeneration of an intact ecosystem.  She also supports the creation of “designer ecosystems,” which are novel ecosystems that would be engineered for specific goals, ranging from carbon sequestration, nitrogen reduction, and the maintenance of a species to the maintenance of aesthetic and cultural values and even existence values (the value of existing without any purpose, sometimes categorized among “passive use values”) (166).  Along these lines, Marris hopes many ecologists and environmentalists will cease being “trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature and returning it to a stable ‘natural’ state” (126).

In a nutshell, give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development, and try just about everything.  (170)

We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate.  It is our duty to manage it.  Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit.  Let the rambunctious gardening begin. (171)

Overall, the book is provocative and well-researched.  My main criticism of this book is that Marris doesn’t consistently apply her insight that there is no pristine nature.  She generally does an excellent job of countering or defusing the usual dualism between human-dominated ecosystems and intact ecosystems, but occasionally she just reverses the dualism. 

For instance, she proposes that humans should see nature as “the living background” to our lives (151).  Background?  She is trying to invoke a “gestalt switch”: in contrast to most wilderness maps and protected-areas maps, which show “shrinking islands of nature” in the foreground against the background of human-dominated lands, Marris proposes that we focus on human-dominated lands “as the foreground and everything else as the background nature” (135). 

I like the shift from pristine nature to human-nature hybrids, but doesn’t that shift ultimately mean that the shrinking islands of nature are already altered by humans (at least abiotically, e.g., climate change), such that there is no clear demarcation between foreground and background?  To put it in gestalt terms, nature as multistable seems like a more appropriate metaphor than nature as background.  In any case, Rambunctious Garden is definitely worth reading, and furthermore, it’s worth reading slowly, giving oneself time to imagine, to wonder, and to contemplate the numerous case studies, histories, and debates that she presents.

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.

Chemophobia

Chemophobia is a real problem among environmentalists.  I’m not against organic agriculture, but I’m not against chemicals either.  Chemicals are not bad.  On this, I side with Paracelsus, who was one of the first to introduce chemicals into occidental medicine.  Just like chemicals can have a healthy role in medicine, they can have a healthy or at least ethically justifiable role in agriculture.  

I disagree with chemophobic environmentalists, and I also disagree with free market environmentalists who argue that the unjustifiability of chemophobia entails that government regulations on chemical use should be loosened, as if current government regulations are too strict in their application of the precautionary principle.  Such an attack on chemophobia appears in the anthology, Crop Chemophobia (2011), published by the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.    

Of course, the chemophobic and free market environmentalist both frame their arguments in terms of an apocalyptic either/or morality.  That’s disappointing, to say the least.  Equally disappointing is that so little attention is given to the chemicals themselves.  Some people dissociate from chemicals in favor of unadulterated organic “nature.”  Others assimilate chemicals into relations of economic “development.”  Paracelsus might have come closest to a concern for chemicals themselves, but even in his philosophy, individual chemical substances are undermined and reduced to a few underlying elemental principles.  If we can’t pay attention to the chemicals themselves, how can we possibly learn how to use and develop ethical relationships with those chemicals?  We should wonder more about what it’s like to be DDT or atrazine, or alachlor.