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After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

by Jedediah Purdy

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Nature no longer exists apart from humanity. Henceforth, the world we will inhabit is the one we have made. Geologists have called this new planetary epoch the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. The geological strata we are now creating record industrial emissions, industrial-scale crop pollens, and the disappearance of species driven to extinction. Climate change is


Nature no longer exists apart from humanity. Henceforth, the world we will inhabit is the one we have made. Geologists have called this new planetary epoch the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. The geological strata we are now creating record industrial emissions, industrial-scale crop pollens, and the disappearance of species driven to extinction. Climate change is planetary engineering without design. These facts of the Anthropocene are scientific, but its shape and meaning are questions for politics—a politics that does not yet exist. After Nature develops a politics for this post-natural world.

Jedediah Purdy begins with a history of how Americans have shaped their landscapes. He explores the competing traditions that still infuse environmental law and culture—a frontier vision of settlement and development, a wilderness-seeking Romanticism, a utilitarian attitude that tries to manage nature for human benefit, and a twentieth-century ecological view. These traditions are ways of seeing the world and humans’ place in it. They are also modes of lawmaking that inscribe ideal visions on the earth itself. Each has shaped landscapes that make its vision of nature real, from wilderness to farmland to suburbs—opening some new ways of living on the earth while foreclosing others.

The Anthropocene demands that we draw on all these legacies and go beyond them. With human and environmental fates now inseparable, environmental politics will become either more deeply democratic or more unequal and inhumane. Where nothing is pure, we must create ways to rally devotion to a damaged and ever-changing world.

Editorial Reviews

Bill McKibben
It’s good to have as powerful a mind as Professor Purdy’s taking on these questions so central to our modern life. Every page has insights that will help people struggling to understand how we got here and where we’re headed.
New York Review of Books - Nathaniel Rich
[Purdy] argues that our democracy is too beholden to the influence of money, that the processes we use to produce energy and food should be made more transparent to the public, and that technological solutions are unreliable and will not bring about the greater change of consciousness that is necessary to solve our most pressing problems. He urges an ethic of self-restraint and a new worldview in which human beings are no longer ‘the figure at its center.’
The Atlantic - Ross Andersen
Dazzling… [Purdy’s] book is, among other things, a panoramic tour of what he calls the ‘American environmental imagination.’ …Purdy hopes that climate change might spur yet another change in how we think about the natural world, but he insists that such a shift will be inescapably political… For a relatively slim volume, this book distills an incredible amount of scholarship—about Americans’ changing attitudes toward the natural world, and about how those attitudes might change in the future.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Daniel C. Esty
Jedediah Purdy has written a big book, taking up a set of profound environmental questions and offering sweeping answers… The strengths of After Nature are significant and make this a must-read book for all who are struggling with how to reinvigorate environmental protection in the face of political breakdown in America and troubling global trends, including the emerging risk of climate change… The journey he maps is illuminating. In fact, perhaps the greatest strength of After Nature is its intellectual history of American environmentalism… With this book, Purdy shows himself to be a deep thinker on the nature of Nature… Purdy offers a provocative ecological vision and ethical argument that deserves to be reckoned with. He has established himself among the top tier of environmental philosophers of our day.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
Offers a powerful reckoning with our bewildering present… Its great value lies in its sophisticated, lucid study of the evolving American environmental imagination. Purdy…brings impressive intellectual and literary chops to bear on a history of American attitudes toward nature, and how those attitudes have manifested in tangible modifications of the air, land, and water… The book aims to show how our shared philosophical premises inform our laws, our behavior, and ultimately our world.
The Nation - Katrina Forrester
For Purdy, one of the key challenges of the Anthropocene is to use the law in ways that adopt the best rather than the worst of each vision of nature: to integrate concern for human work and meaning into an ecological framework; to set standards for action on climate change; to make transparent the sources of our food and our treatment of animals…Purdy thinks we need to learn the core political lesson of his story—which at its heart is not about the politics of nature, but about democracy. This is a history in which democracy is constantly evaded, decision-making is removed from collective politics by appeals to ‘natural systems,’ and anti-politics creeps back in.
Bookforum - Liz Larner
Deeply considered and finely laid out… To begin reading it is to open and decipher a compressed and encrypted file on a history of ideas about what nature means at the heart of the Anthropocene. Purdy draws on law, letters, philosophy, science, social science, politics, and aesthetics; from Locke, Rousseau, and Burke, through Jefferson, all the way to the recent past of the ecological age’s beginnings, the urgent catastrophe of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and our contemporary moment, after ‘crisis had become the normal state of affairs,’ closing with ideas about nature and the posthuman from Rosi Braidotti, among others. Somewhere in between, Purdy manages to give a history of private property—how ‘each version of nature has its economy.’ If the ominous political near past and the planet’s environmental emergency feel present on every page, so, too, does a sense of the role we each have in shaping the future.
Harper’s - Christine Smallwood
After Nature argues that we will deserve the future only because it will be the one we made. We will live, or die, by our mistakes.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
After Nature takes the reader on a smart and eloquent tour of the history of conservation movements, the rise of the study of ecology (and its flourishing in the wake of the Vietnam War) and the gradual expansion of environmental law, but Purdy is at his most insightful and persuasive when writing about the first of his ‘major realms,’ economy—and the subtle ways money has been shaping nature for centuries to suit its own needs… In the previous year, there’ve been many studies of the deeper meaning of the Anthropocene and the future of humanity, studies ranging from the impenetrable to the inconsolable. After Nature is by a wide margin the best of these books; in its passion, intelligence, and persistent thread of hope, it may very well be the Silent Spring of the 21st century.
Kirkus Reviews
Purdy (Law/Duke Univ.; A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom, 2009, etc.) examines the growing awareness of the relationship between humans and other species, which could create "a Copernican revolution in ethical imagination." Adopting a historical perspective, the author suggests that such evils of the past as "imperialism, racism, and gender hierarchy all came from the same arrogance as human subjection of the living world." But Purdy also recognizes that environmentalists have been guilty of misanthropy "braided together with bigotry, narrowness, obtuse privilege and nostalgia." The author offers a balanced exploration of how "post-humanism" can inspire an enlarged perspective on how we can take responsibility for the nonhuman world. Unlike geologically and ecologically based terminology that is based on the fossil record—e.g., the dating of the start of the Holocene epoch back 11,700 years ago—the term Anthropocene signifies a cultural phenomenon that Purdy calls a way "of owning up to the responsibility for shaping the world." The author traces the evolution of current ideas on environmentalism back to the first European settlers in America, who thought it was God's purpose for mankind to tame nature. This was succeeded by a romantic view of wilderness, exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson. A third phase, led by Theodore Roosevelt, responded to the ravages of industrial development, including the destruction of forests by timber interests and the extraction of raw materials by mining companies. Purdy identifies the last 50 years as a fourth phase, "the neoliberal Anthropocene," which is "distinguished by a legal device that launders inequality almost as neatly as the global atmosphere: free contract within a global market." The author employs numerous historical examples to strengthen his contention that climate change and the protection of other species cannot be dealt with via political polemics. We require a more pragmatic approach to living peacefully with nature and each other. A profound vision of post-humanistic ethics.

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Meet the Author

Jedediah Purdy is Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law.

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