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THE ANTHROPOCENE AS A GEOPOLITICAL FACT
In the concluding volume of his Spheres trilogy, Peter Sloterdijk says that what marks our current epoch as distinctive is three things: terrorism, product design, and what he calls the "environmental idea." According to Sloterdijk, things are not as I was told in my freshman philosophy class in the 1990s; in fact, "the era of grand narratives" is not over. He reminds us that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, while philosophy might be finished with the grand narrative of modernity, science, geopolitics, and war certainly are not. In fact, for Sloterdijk these sectors are, by the end of World War II, nearly synonymous, and continue to define the ways in which a notion of the planetary has come to define the character of political action. The twentieth century was a Eurocentric project to finish the conversion of places and nature into a kind of dedifferentiated user space. Like the science of ergonomics, modernity was an effort to make things, from continents to seat belts, fit together for the ease of mobility and instrumentality. Global-scale product design, whether canals, nation-building, the nascent weather modification projects now called geoengineering, as well as practices like sustainable development and ur-sciences like cybernetics, require the flattening out and regularization of unruly natures and spaces such that things can be frictionless and useful: everything in its right place, and everything with a name and function. This project of the twentieth century is what he calls explication — a kind of vivisection of ideas and things such that the world could be flayed alive and reconsolidated as a planetary system. The "environmental idea" that emerges from the drive to explication is not the Thoreauvian walk up Katahdin Mountain but is the development of regimes of knowledge necessary to understand how to deprive things of life, from bed bugs to humans. Gas attacks and the rise of aerial bombs in World War I, and the leveling of cities, gas chambers, and atom bombs of World War II, are, for Sloterdijk, the industrialization of the environmental idea. It is a form of war he calls terrorism: "Terrorism suspends the distinction between violence against persons and violence against things from the environmental — it is violence against those human-surrounding 'things' without which persons cannot remain persons."
In the aftermath of two world wars, the environmental project continues, and it continues to be martial. Even when combat is not the modus operandi, explication and annihilation are. Despite the excitement by some that wars are coming to an end, and that the global ecological crisis may unite us, the advances of science and the understanding of the ecological crisis that comes to define the transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century continues to be atmospheric in its means and terrorizing ends. According to Sloterdijk, "air theory and climate technology are not mere sediments of war and post-war knowledge, and eo ipso first object of a science of piece that could only arise in the war stress shadow; more than that, they are primarily post-terrorist forms of knowledge."
Rather than see the attempts to build a global alliance against climate change as a break from twentieth-century geopolitics, I share Sloterdijk's view that the condition of possibility for climate change as a problem, as well as the attendant suite of political and technological solutions, is consonant with the terrorism of modernity. The hope that global warming could provide a universal ground for the cosmopolitan solidarity as-yet unachieved by other means is dangerously naïve and already often coopted for cynical ends. It would, of course, be equally naïve and dangerous to deny that there is an ecological catastrophe now affecting every region of the planet. However, the danger is the geopolitics of explication and operationalization, or what I am calling homogenization, of which carbon dioxide is just one particularly devastating effect. Therefore, the crisis of what is being called the Anthropocene is intimate with the concept itself. There is a feedback between global thinking, global expansion, and global destruction.
Three Cheers for the Anthropocene
It is worth considering how Paul Crutzen, the progenitor of the Anthropocene as a popular concept, follows Sloterdijk's vector of martial thinking. Crutzen's career as an atmospheric chemist has been, since its beginnings, connected to a cosmopolitical vision of global crisis. Before popularizing the term Anthropocene, he won the Nobel Prize for work on the significance of the ozone layer as a necessary precondition for human life, as well as emphasizing the significance of global regulations on Freon as a threat to the fragile screen between us, and the sterilizing effect of the sun's ultraviolet light. Crutzen's whole career has followed a line of research substantiating the impact of human activity on the Earth system, in particular the breathable layer of that system known as the atmosphere. Alongside work on the ozone layer and the warming effects of high concentrations of carbon dioxide, Crutzen is considered one of the foremost authorities on models that project the environmental effects of nuclear warfare. Further, in both the ozone study and subsequent work on the effects of carbon concentration on the atmosphere, nuclear war figures prominently. Of the four possible threats to the ozone layer identified by Crutzen in his first published article on ozone depletion, which mentions high-altitude planes, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) foam, and the global production of nitrous oxide, the atmospheric detonations of nuclear weapons resulting in the destruction of one great power is cited as the most significant threat. According to Crutzen, such an attack could destroy as much as 50 percent of the ozone layer as compared to the other threats, which only range from 4 to 12 percent.
Moving from the implicit to the explicit, in 1982 Crutzen and John W. Birks published their haunting article "The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon," where the terror facing the planet was not global warming but what is often called nuclear winter. According to Crutzen and Birks, the burning of forests and cities would block out the sun, destroying enough agriculture and vegetation to threaten the human species, as well as causing cascades of death throughout the larger global web of life. Following the winter, after the dissipation of the reflective postnuclear smog, the flood of unfiltered ultraviolet (UV) radiation would further threaten the possibility of life on the planet, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, which would be hit hardest by both the nuclear winter and ozone depletion. The article ends with a kind of cautionary assessment of the veracity of the models underpinning Crutzen and Birks's argument. According to the article, the complexity and interdependencies at work in modeling Earth's whole atmosphere make accurate predictions difficult at best. However, the descriptions of weeks of darkness, mass starvation, and later death by solar radiation leave little doubt that we should err on the side of caution.
What is striking in looking back on Crutzen's career is the degree to which his first "Anthropocene" was one in which power politics would alter the geological record of the planet. Furthermore, the risk of human extinction came from the unpredictable consequences of cooling the earth and the chaos of decreasing as well as increasing solar radiation. The greatest threats to the planet for the first thirty years of Crutzen's career were the ways that Cold War bipolar competition — geopolitics — might disrupt or even destroy the cycles of planetary life. However, these same insights and models, as well as a particular way of thinking about humans and the geological record, came to form the basis of Crutzen's now outspoken advocacy for intentionally cooling the planet through geoengineering. Crutzen spent the first two-thirds of his career trying to prevent nuclear winter and the last third trying to figure out how to replicate nuclear winter's effects in a way that could be survived by most people.
Rather than see these two career trajectories as opposed, I think Crutzen's thinking displays a continuous concern for the Northern Hemisphere and a particular cartography, rather than a geography, of human survival. Crutzen, as well as the concept of the Anthropocene itself, cannot escape preceding geopolitical conceptions of the Earth. Crutzen and others who rush so quickly to the necessity to transition efforts from climate abatement to climate modification are unsurprisingly not moved by claims that artificial cooling will likely cause droughts and famines in the tropics and subtropical zones of the global south; nor are they moved by how such plans may accelerate ocean acidification. The utilitarian risk calculus that favors the greatest good for the greatest number has no geographical or historical sensibility of how unequally aggregate conceptions of the good are distributed around the planet.
Global thinking, even in its scientific and seemingly universalist claims to an atmosphere that "we" all share, belies the geopolitics that enlivens scientific concern, as well as the global public policy agenda of geoengineering that seeks to act on behalf of it. Saving humanity as an aggregate, whether from nuclear war, Styrofoam, or climate turbulence, has never meant an egalitarian distribution of survivors and sacrifices. Instead, our new cosmopolitanism — the global environment — follows almost exactly the drawn lines, that is, the cartography or racialized and selective solidarities and zones of indifference that characterize economic development, the selective application of combat, and, before that, the zones of settlement and colonization. More than a result of contemporary white supremacy or lingering white privilege, the territorialization of who lives and who dies, who matters and who must be left behind for the sake of humanity, represents a five-hundred-year geopolitical tradition of conquest, colonization, extraction, and the martial forms of life that made them all possible through war and through more subtle and languid forms of organized killing.
I am not suggesting that Crutzen and others are part of a vast conspiracy; rather, I want to outline how climate change, species loss, slavery, the elimination of native peoples, and the globalization of extractive capitalism are all part of the same global ordering. That is, all of these crises are geopolitical. The particular geopolitical arrangement of what others have called the longue durée, and what I am calling the Eurocene, is geologically significant but is not universally part of "human activity" despite the false syllogism at the heart of popular ecological thinking that a global threat to humanity must be shared in cause and crisis by all of humanity.
Departing from Sloterdijk, I am hesitant to so easily locate modernity or explication as the root or cause of the global catastrophe. No single strategy, war, act of colonization, technological breakthrough, or worldview fully explains the apocalypse before us. However, there is something like what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a refrain that holds the vast assemblage together, a geopolitical melody hummed along with the global expansion of a form of life characterized by homogenization rather than diversification. Accordingly, if we are to make some sense of such a vast world that is, even for Crutzen and Birks, "quite complex and difficult to model," I think we must consider the particular refrain of geopolitics that is capable of, by scientific as well as more humbly embodied standards, destroying worlds along with the world. To eschew geopolitics simply because, as a refrain, it is too big, too grand, or too universal would ignore the conditions of possibility for nuclear weapons, power politics, and carbon-based globalization, and would greatly impoverish the explanatory capability of even the best climate models. So maybe it is not so strange that Crutzen and others' attention to the nuclear threat of great powers has all but disappeared despite the fact that Russia and the United States still possess thousands of nuclear weapons, and as of late have been all too vocal about using them. Instead, the Anthropocene, as envisioned by Crutzen as a universal concern, requires with it a depoliticization of the causes of that concern.
Therefore, Crutzen's fascination with nuclear winter is geopolitical not because it is about nuclear weapons — although that does not hurt. Rather, Crutzen's attention to nuclear winter is geopolitical because it is an image of the Earth system as a system with particular beneficiaries animating that interest. Sloterdijk's diagnosis of what I am terming the Eurocene, or the space of what he calls European "earth-users," is present in the very cybernetic understanding of the planet as a spatial and substantive whole. In the cases of both nuclear winter and climate change, the atmosphere is a model, or more accurately, the last model. The whole Earth becomes a single integer in a larger set of planet systems rather than a set of habitats, zones, or locales. The Earth is merely another system isomorphic as a unit of analysis with Mars or the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. The shift in scale from place to the planetary is much more than a pulling back from the ground upward. The integrated Earth as the representation of a system and as an actual material system is aided by a process of integration, proceeded by a few hundred years of Sloterdijk's conception of explication where each part of each environment is disaggregated, described, and then reassembled to explain the whole. The process of integration is not merely a metaphoric or metaphysical geopolitics. It is the condition of possibility to understand the planetary as being political, as well as the condition of possibility for its charting as an economic and military cartography. Unlike the weltanschauung of Heidegger's world image, the planetary "user space" requires five hundred years of conquest, fossil fuel extraction and exploitation, settlement, hundreds of expert fields from geography to chemistry to ecology, and the normative consolidation of cosmopolitanism as a right to the freedom of movement at least for those capable of the feat. The worldview or world image alone is a necessary but insufficient cause. The practices that habituated, expanded, and intensified that worldview are what is critical to its emergence. In this sense, the Anthropocene, like Crutzen's award-winning models of climate change and nuclear winter, is much more than an explanatory model. These models are the outcome of five centuries of integration and homogenization such that the infrastructure capable of making the Earth as a system knowable could be built, and the circulation of knowledge and data could be amassed to even make the diagnosis of a geological epoch in the first place.
Properly accounting for the origins of our ecological crisis is vital. No political project oriented toward the many possible futures stretching out before us can consider the questions of ecology and justice on a global, much less geological, scale unless we first take on the unfortunate historical generality of the Anthropocene. The continuing project of Europeanization, now led by U.S. imperial power (although perhaps not for much longer), is central to how the planet got to this point. Understanding this is essential for how any "we" worthy of the plurality of the planet can invent something less nasty and brutish than what currently counts as global order. A consideration of the Eurocene, a geological history and name that foregrounds the geopolitical confrontation that stands in the way of any such future, is required in order to take the scale of our predicament seriously, while also confronting the power politics that made that scale possible.
What Is in a Name?
The argument for renaming the last five hundred years of the Holocene is based on two claims. The first is that there is significant material evidence of human-induced change to the climate system on a global scale. The second is that renaming the Holocene is essential to raising awareness that climate change and environmental change are more generally anthropogenic. Accuracy and consciousness raising are the twin urges for renaming. On both counts, we should reconsider what we mean by human if we want to call this the Anthropocene.
First, the "human" footprint is much more complex than just CO2. We should do more than acknowledge the vast debates over the various contributions to the geological record, and at the very least consider that on a geological timescale, CO2 concentration is relatively dwarfed by radioactivity in its uniqueness. It is comparable to the modern waste product par excellence — plastic — not to mention the layers upon layers of human-made objects of all sorts of other materials. Furthermore, if the claim is that the Anthropocene is meant to name the scale of human effects on the planet, it should include the ability to warm and cool the Earth, as the project of Europeanization has done both at remarkable levels of intensity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Savage Ecology"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Aphorisms for a New Realism 29
Part I. The Great Homogenization
1. The Anthropocene as a Geopolitical Fact 35
2. War as a Form of Life 59
3. From Exhaustion to Annihilation: A Martial Ecology of the Eurocene 79
Part II. Operational Spaces
4. Bombs: An Insurgency of Things 113
5. Blood: Vital Logistics 139
6. Brains: We Are Not Who We Are 159
7. Three Images of Transformation as Homogenization 191
Part III. Must We Persist to Continue?
8. Apocalypse as a Theory of Change 229
9. Freaks or the Incipience of Other Forms of Life 249
Conclusion. Ratio feritas: From Critical Responsiveness to Making New Forms of Life 273
The End: Visions of Los Angeles, California, 2061 281
What People are Saying About This
“In Savage Ecology Jairus Victor Grove gives us a weirdly hopeful eco-pessimism. ‘We broke the planet,’ he writes, and ‘now it is our planet.’ Agree or not, the breadth of his archive (neuro-torture, algorithmic warfare, drone strikes, and cybernetic nation-building) and audacity of his thinking (biopolitics is now ‘almost quaint,’ he says, given the geopolitics of the Anthropocene) are simply exhilarating. Your thinking cannot survive this book unchanged. Fortunately, Grove says, ‘the end of the world is never the end of everything’ (though it may well be the end of us).”
“What Beck did for risk society, Hardt and Negri for empire, and Barad for technoscience, Jairus Victor Grove does brilliantly for global violence, delivering an ecology of warfare that is not only a corrosive critique of the three horsemen of our now daily apocalypse—geopolitics, biopolitics, and cybernetics—but a creative strategy for sustaining life now and thereafter. Grove is a philosopher with a hammer, writer with a stiletto, and artist with a spray can.”