John Gray, Straw Dogs
Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and We’re Doomed, Now What?
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature
Edward O. Wilson, Half Earth
Adam Frank, Light of the Stars
Reviewed by Michael F. Duggan
Modern urban-industrial man is given to the raping of anything and everything natural on which he can fasten his talons. He rapes the sea; he rapes the soil; the natural resources of the earth. He rapes the atmosphere. He rapes the future of his own civilization. Instead of living off of nature’s surplus, which he ought to do, he lives off its substance. He would not need to do this were he less numerous, and were he content to live a more simple life. But he is prepared neither to reduce his numbers nor to lead a simpler and more healthful life. So he goes on destroying his own environment, like a vast horde of locusts. And he must be expected, persisting blindly as he does in this depraved process, to put an end to his own existence within the next century. The years 2000 to 2050 should witness, in fact, the end of the great Western civilization. The Chinese, more prudent and less spoiled, no less given to over-population but prepared to be more ruthless in the control of its effects, may inherent the ruins.
-George Kennan, diary entry, March 21, 1977
No witchcraft, no enemy had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world… The people had done it themselves.
We all see what’s happening, we read it in the headlines every day, but seeing isn’t believing and believing isn’t accepting.
Among the multitude of voices on the unfolding environment crises, there are five that I have found to be particularly compelling. These are John Gray, Jedediah Purdy, Roy Scranton, the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, and most recently the physicists, Adam Frank. This post was originally intended to be a review of Scranton’s newest book, a collection of essays called We’re Doomed. Now What? but I have decided instead to place that review in a broader context of writing on the environment.
I apologize ahead of time for the length and roughness—the almost complete absence of editing—of this review/essay (the endnotes remain unedited, unformatted, an incomplete). This is a WORKING DRAFT. The introduction is more or less identical to an article of mine that ran in the Counterpunch in December 2018.
Introduction: Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Is it too late to avoid a global environmental catastrophe? Does the increasingly worrisome feedback from the planet indicate that something like a chaotic tipping point is already upon us? Facts and reason are slender reeds relative to entrenched opinions and the human capacity for self-delusion. I suspect that neither this essay nor others on the topic are likely to change many minds.
With atmospheric carbon dioxide at its highest levels in three to five million years with no end in its increase in sight, the warming, rising, and acidification of the world’s oceans, the destruction of habitat and the cascading collapse of species and entire ecosystems, some thoughtful people now believe we are near, at, or past a point of no return. The question may not be whether or not we can turn things around, but rather how much time is left before a negative feedback loop from the environment as it was becomes a positive feedback loop for catastrophe. It seems that the answer is probably a few years to a decade or two on the outside, if we are not already there. The mild eleven-thousand year summer—the Holocene—that permitted and nurtured human civilization and allowed our numbers to grow will likely be done-in by our species in the not-too-distant future.
Humankind is a runaway project. With a world population of more than 7.686 billion, we are a Malthusian plague species. This is not a condemnation or indictment, nor some kind of ironic boast. It is an observable fact. The evidence is now overwhelming that we stand at a crossroads of history and of natural history, of nature and our own nature. The fact that unfolding catastrophic change is literally in the air is undeniable. But before we can devise solutions of mitigation, we have to admit that there is a problem.
In light of the overwhelming corroboration—objective, tested and retested readings of atmospheric CO2 levels, the acidification of the oceans, the global dying-off of the world’s reefs, and the faster-than-anticipated melting of the polar and Greenland icecaps and subsequent rises in mean ocean levels—those who still argue that human-caused global climate change is not real must be regarded frankly as either stupid, cynical, irrational, ideologically deluded, willfully ignorant or distracted, pathologically stubborn, terminally greedy, or otherwise unreasonably wedded to a bad position in the face of demonstrable facts. There are no other possibilities by which to characterize these people and, in practical terms, the difference between these overlapping categories is either nonexistent or trivial. If this claim seems rude and in violation of The Elements of Style, then so be it.1 The time for civility and distracting “controversies” and “debates” is over, and I apologize in no way for the tone of this statement. It benefits nobody to indulge cynical and delusional deniers as the taffrail of the Titanic lifts above the horizon.
Some commentators have equated climate deniers with those who deny the Holocaust and chattel slavery. Although moral equations are always a tricky business, it is likely that the permanent damage humans are doing to the planet will far exceed that of the Nazis and slavers. The question is the degree to which those of us who do not deny climate change but who contribute to it are as culpable as these odious historical categories. Perhaps we are just the enablers—collaborators—and equivalent of those who knew of the crimes and who stood by and averted their eyes or else knowingly immersed themselves in the immediate demands and priorities of the private life. No one except for the children, thrown unwittingly into this unfolding catastrophe, is innocent.
The debate about whether human activity has changed the global environment is over in any rational sense. Human-caused climate change is real. To deny this is to reveal oneself as being intellectually on the same plain as those who believe that the Earth is the flat center of the universe, or who deny that modern evolutionary theory contains greater and more accurate explanatory content than the archetypal myths of revealed religion and the teleological red herring of “Intelligent Design Theory.” The remaining questions will be over the myriad of unknowable or partially or imperfectly knowable details of the unfolding chaos of the coming Eremocene (alternatively Anthropcene)2and the extent of what the changes and consequences will be, their severity, and whether or not they might still be reversed or mitigated, and how. The initial question is simply whether or not it is already too late to turn things around.
We have already changed the planet’s atmospheric chemistry to a degree that is possibly irreparable. In 2012 atmospheric CO2 levels at the North Pole exceeded 400 parts per million (up from the pre-industrial of around 290ppm). At this writing carbon dioxide levels are around 415ppm. This is not an opinion, but a measurable fact. Carbon dioxide levels can be easily tested, even by people who do not believe that human activity is altering the world’s environment. Even if the production of all human-generated carbon was stopped today, the existing surfeit will last for a hundred thousand years or more if it is not actively mitigated.3 Much of the damage therefore is already done—the conditions for catastrophic change are locked in place—and we are now just waiting for the effects to manifest as carbon levels continue to rise unabated and with minor plateaus and fluctuations.
Increases in atmospheric carbon levels have result in an acidification of the oceans. This too is an observable and quantifiable fact. The fact that CO2 absorption by seawater results in its acidification and the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat more effectively and to a greater extent than oxygen are now tenets of elementary school-level science and are in no way controversial assertions. If you do not acknowledge both of these facts, then you do not really have an opinion on global climate change or its causes.
As it is, the “climate debate”—polemics over the reality of global climate change—is not a scientific debate at all, but one of politics and political entertainment pitting testable/measureable observations against the dumb and uninformed denials of the true believers who evoke them or else the cynics who profit from carbon generation (the latter are reminiscent of the parable of the man who is paid a small fee to hang himself).4 Some general officers of the United States military are now on the record stating that climate change constitutes the greatest existing threat to our national security.5
Some deniers reply to the facts of climate change with anecdotal observations about the weather—locally colder or snowier than usual winters in a given region are a favorite distraction—with no heed given to the bigger picture (never mind the fact that the cold or snowy winters that North America has experienced since 2010 were caused by a dip in the jet stream caused by much warmer than usual air masses in Eurasia that threw the polar vortex off of its axis and down into the lower 48 states while at times Greenland basked in 50 degree sunshine).
An effective retort to this kind of bold obtuseness is a simple and well-known analogy: the climate is like your personality and the weather is like your mood. Just because you are sad for a day or two does not mean that you are a clinical depressive any more than a locally cold winter set in the midst of the two hottest decades ever recorded worldwide does not represent a global cooling trend. Some places are likely to cool off as the planet’s overall mean temperature rises (the British Isles may get colder as the Gulf Stream is pushed further south by arctic melt water). Of course human-generated carbon is only one prong of the global environmental crisis, and a symptom of existing imbalance.
Human beings are also killing off of our fellow species at a rate that will soon surpass the Cretaceous die-off and is the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s natural history.6 This is a fact that is horrifying insofar as it can be quantified at all—the numbers here are softer and more conjectural than the precise measurements of chemistry and temperature and estimates may well be on the low side. The true number of lost species will never be known as unidentified species are driven into extinction before they can be described and catalogued by science.7 But as a general statement, the shocking loss of biodiversity and habitat is uncontroversial in the communities that study such things seriously. Human history has shown itself to be a brief and destructive branch of natural history in which we have become the locusts or something much, much worse than such seasonal visitations and imbalances.
As a friend of mind observed, those who persist in their fool’s paradise or obstinate cynicism for short term gain and who still deny the reality global climate change must ultimately answer two questions: 1). What evidence would you accept that human are altering the global environment? 2). What if you are wrong in your denials?
From my own experience, I have found that neither fact-based reason nor the resulting cognitive dissonance it instills change many minds once they are firmly fixed; rationalization and denial are the twin pillars of human psychology and it is a common and unfortunate characteristic of our species to double-down on mistaken beliefs rather than admit error and address problems forthrightly. This may be our epitaph.
And now the book reviews.
John Gray: The “Rapacious Primate” and the Era of Solitude
Straw Dogs, Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, London: Granta, 2002 (paperback 2003), 246 pages.
In the early 2000s, a friend of mine recommended to me some books by the provocative British philosopher and commentator, John Gray. On issues of human meaning/non-meaning vis-à-vis the amorality of nature, Gray is a two-fisted polemicist from the disillusioned side of post-humanism who loves to mix things up and disabuse people of their moral fictions and illusions. The present book is not specifically on the world environmental crises, but rather on human nature.
Straw Dogs is a rough-and-tumble polemic—Nietzsche-like in tone and format but Schopenhauer-like in its pessimism—a well-placed barrage against humanism in which the author, painting in broad strokes, characterizes his target as just another delusional faith, a secularized version of Christianity (it is therefore, not specifically about the environment, although ecological degradation figures into it prominently). Where Western religion promises eternal salvation, humanism, as characterized by Gray, asserts an equally unfounded faith in terrestrial transcendence: the myths of social progress, freedom of choice, and human exceptionality construct an artificial distinction that “unnaturally” separates humans from the rest of the living world. Even such austere commentators as Nietzsche (and presumably the existentialists that followed)—far from being nihilists—are in Gray’s appraisal latter-day representatives of the Enlightenment, perhaps even Christianity in another guise, trying to keep the game of meaning and human exceptionality alive.
Gray begins this book with a flurry of unsettling assertions and observations. In the preface to the paperback edition, he writes:
“Most people today think that they belong to a species that can be the master of its own destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales and gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?”
In other words, he believes that it is conceit to assume that humans can take charge of their future any more than any other animal and that this assumption is based on an erroneous perception of human exceptionality by type from the rest of the natural world. At the end of this section, he writes:
“Political action has become a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition.”
Here then is a perspective, so conservative, so deterministic, and fatalistic about workable solutions to the bigger problems of human nature as to dismiss them outright or to even entertain them as a possibilities. This is not to say that he is necessarily wrong.
But it is really in the first few chapters that Gray brings out the big guns in explaining that not only can we not control our fate, but that we have, through our very success as an animal, become a Juggernaut, a plague species that is inexorably laying waste to much of the living world around us. Interestingly he does not lie this at the feet “of global capitalism, industrialization, ‘Western civilization’ or any flaw in human institutions.” Rather “[i]t is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and pre history, human civilization has coincided with ecological destruction.” We are damned by the undirected natural process that created and shaped our species and are now returning the favor upon nature by destroying the biosphere.
We destroy our environment then because of what we are (presumably industrial modernity is merely an accelerant or the apex manifestation of our identity as destroyer). We have by our very nature become the locusts, and destruction is part and parcel of who we are rather than a byproduct of a wrong turn somewhere back in our history. Destruction and eventually self-destruction is in our blood, or more correctly, in the double helix spirals and the four-letter code of our DNA manifested in our extended phenotype. The selfish gene and self-directed individual coupled with the altruism of group selection form a combination that will likely lead to self-destruction along with the destruction of the world as it was.
With the force of a gifted prosecutor presenting a strong case and with all of the all of the grace and subtlety of the proverbial bull in a china shop, Gray observes that we are killing off other species on a scale that will soon rival the Cretaceous die-off that wiped out the dinosaurs along with so much else of the planet’s flora and fauna 65 million years ago. He points to early phases of human overkill and notes that most of the mega fauna of the last great ice age, animals like the wooly mammoth and rhinoceros, the cave bear, and saber tooth cats, North American camels, horses, lions, mastodons (about 75% of all the large animals of North America), and almost every large South American animal—not-so-long gone creatures that are sometimes anachronistically lumped together with the dinosaurs as pre-human—were likely early casualties of modern human beings and their kin (there was a vestigial population of wooly mammoths living on Wrangel Island until less than 4,000 years ago, or about 1,000 years after the Pyramids of Giza were built).8 Quoting James Lovelock, Gray likens humans to a pathogen, a disease, a tumor, and indeed there is a literal resemblance between the light patterns of human settlement as seen from space and naturalistic patterns of metastasizing cancer.
Gray concedes “that a few traditional peoples love or lived in balance with the Earth for long periods,” that “the Inuit and Bushman stumbled into way of life in which their footprints were slight. We cannot tread the Earth so lightly. Homo rapines has become to numerous.” He continues,
“[a] human population of approaching 8 billion can only be maintained by desolating the Earth. If wild habitat is given over to cultivation and habitation, if rain forests can be turned into a green desert, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils—then human will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains on the Earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them alive.”
According to Gray then, wherever humans live on a modern scale (or any scale above the most benign of hunter-gatherers) there will be ecological degradation—that there is no way to have recognizable civilization without inflicting harm to the environment. Similarly “green” politics and “sustainable” energy initiatives are also pleasant but misleading fictions—self-administered opiates and busy work to assuage progressives and Pollyannas beset with guilty consciences. To Gray environmentalism is the sum of delusions masquerading as real solutions and high-mindedness. It is difficult to tell whether or not he really believes all of what he us saying or if he is just trying to provide a much-needed shaking up of things by making the truth more clear than it really is. Regardless, his position seems to be a development of the grousing adage that given time and opportunity, people will screw up everything.
Gray’s dystopian future of a global human monoculture, his “green desert” or Eremozoic (“era of solitude”9) finds parallel expression in what others have called the Anthropocene, or the geological period characterized by the domination of human beings. Adherents to this concept span a wide range from the very dark to the modestly optimistic to the insufferably arrogant to the insufferably idealistic.
Regardless of which term we use, Gray doesn’t think that things will ever get that far. Sounding as if he is himself were beginning to embrace a historical narrative or metaphysic of his own, he writes that past a certain point, nature (understood as the Earth’s biosphere) will start to push back. The idea is that the world human population will collapse to sustainable levels, just like an out-of-control worldwide plague of mice, lemmings, or locusts. Like all plagues, human civilization embodies an imbalance in an otherwise more or less stable equilibrium and is therefore by its nature fundamentally unsustainable and eventually doomed (almost 20 years ago, with a population of about six billion, the human biomass was estimated to be more than 100 times greater than that of any land animal that ever lived10).
There is of course an amoral “bigger picture” implication to all of this—a view of the natural world that, like nature itself, is beyond good and evil—which recognizes that sometimes large changes in natural history resulting from both gradual change and catastrophe have in turn resulted in an entirely new phase of life rather than a return to something approximating the previous state of balance. This would include the rise of photosynthesizing/carbon-trapping/oxygen-producing plants took over the world, fundamentally changing the atmospheric chemistry from what had existed before and therefore the course of life that followed.11 More on this in the discussion below on Adam Frank’s Light of the Stars..
Gray’s thesis appears to have elements of a Malthusian perspective and the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. It is unclear how Gray can be so certain of the inevitability of such dire outcomes—that humans lack any kind of moderation and control and that nature will necessarily push back (could humankind embracing a greater degree of self-control be the Gaia balancing mechanism?). Such certainty seems to go beyond a simple extrapolation of numbers and the subsequent acknowledgment of likely outcomes, into an actual deterministic historical narrative—an untestable metaphysical assertion and therefore a myth along the lines of what he takes to task in this book and the sort of eschatology, which he criticizes in his excellent 2007 book Black Mass. My sense is that Gray will likely be right; my objection is that he indulges in non-scientific beliefs, something of which he accuse others.
As a theory then, I believe that the flaw in Gray’s thesis lays in its Gaia counter-mythology and deterministic inevitability, its necessity, its fatalism, when in fact we do not know whether the universe (or the biosphere as a subset) is deterministic or indeterministic. We may very well kill off much of the natural world and ourselves with it, but this may have less to do with evolutionary programming or biological determinism than with inaction or bad or ineffective decisions in regard to the unprecedented problems that face us. I also realize that if we fail, this will be the ultimate moot point in all of human history.
The Gaia hypothesis may turn out to be a true theory—perhaps nature will protect itself like a creature’s immune system by eradicating a majority of what William C. Bullitt called “a skin disease of the earth.”12 The problem is that this theory—really an organon or meta-theory—purports describe a phenomena that can not be tested (although the extinction or near-extinction of humankind would certainly corroborate it). It is therefore not a scientific theory. This in no way means that it is necessarily a worthless idea or untrue. It is simply not science, and as with the humanist belief in human exceptionality, it is taken on faith.13
Let me clarify the previous paragraph: if the Gaia hypothesis maintains that the Earth’s biosphere is self-regulating (e.g. maintaining atmospheric oxygen levels at a steady state in resisting the tendency in a non-living system toward a chemical equibrium), then this is a theory that can be accounted for by physics (e.g. James Lovejoy’s “Daisyworld” thought experiment) and is not teleology or metaphysics (See: Adam Frank, Light of the Stars, 129). If we hypothesize that there are elements of the biosphere that will act like a creature’s immune system in eradicating the surplus human population, then we have likely ventured into the realm of metaphysics.
It stands to reason that as a practical matter, any successful, intelligent, willful animal that can eradicate its enemies and competitors and alter its environment (both intentionally and unintentionally) will run afoul of nature as biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests. But is this a tenet of common sense? Logical necessity? Biological or physical determinism? And as a small subset of nature, is it even possible for us to know what necessity is for nature? Are we condemned to extinction due to a lack of ability to adapt to changes increasingly of our own making, arising from our own nature, and is our extinction is made inevitable by a surfeit of adaptability and successful reproduction (i.e. the very qualities that allowed us to succeed)? Is balance possible in such a species? What of balance and creatures whose numbers held in sustainable check in a steady state for tens, and in some cases hundreds of millions of years in relatively stable morphological form—the shark, crocodile, and dragonfly—who live long enough to diversify slightly or change gradually along with conditions in the environment? What of animals who have improved their odds (cats and dogs come to mind) through intelligence and a mutually beneficial partnership and co-evolution with humankind?
Gray says that we cannot control our fate, and yet our very success and perhaps our downfall is the result of being able to control so much of our environment (the eliminating or natural enemies from animal competitors to endemic diseases, to the regulation of human activity and production to guarantee water, food, energy, etc.). Any animal that can eliminate or neutralize the counterbalances to its own numbers will result in imbalance, and unchecked imbalance leads to tipping points14. It is ironic that Gray lays all of this at the feet of the human species as the inevitable product of our animal nature, as the result of biological and even moral inevitability, and yet there is a tone of judgment about it all as if we are somehow to blame for who we are, for characteristics that Gray believes are endemic and unalterable.
Gray, then, is a bleak post-humanist—an apostate conservative gone rogue—who apparently adheres to humanist values in his own life (indeed, as Camus knew, a view espousing a void of deontological values must lead either to humanism or nihilism, and nobody lives on a basis of nihilism). In an interview given with Deborah Orr that appeared in the Independent he states that “[w]e’re not facing our problems. We’ve got Prozac politics”—an odd claim given the inevitability of those problems and the impossibility of fixing them, an odd statement for a behavioral determinist. Moreover, although he powerfully criticizes the proposed solutions of others, his own solutions are vague and unlikely to remedy the situation (not that that is their purpose).15 When he writes on topics outside of his areas of expertise (artificial consciousness, for instance), his ideas are not especially convincing.16
Of course in a literal biological sense Gray is right about a lot: humans are just another animal and to assert otherwise is to create an “artificial” distinction. But even here, the demarcation between organic and artifice/synthetic (meaning the product of the human extended phenotype—a “natural category”) has to be further defined and is a useful distinction (“altered,” “manmade,” or “human-modified nature” may be a more constructive, if inelegant refinements of the “artificial” or “unnatural”). After all are domesticated animals “natural,” are feral animals “wild” in conventional usage, and does calling everything “natural” add clarity to finer delineations?
Gray frames his discussion as an either/or dichotomy of the utopian illusion of progress versus inevitable apocalyptic collapse. But what if the truth of the matter is not as cut-and-dried as he would have us believe? Perhaps we cannot be masters of our fate in an ultimate sense, but can we manage existing problems and new ones as they arise even from past solutions? Although we have in past more modest instances, here the devil lays in both the scale and details, and the details may include a series of insurmountable hobbles and obstacles.
We may not be far off from Roy Scranton’s prescription of acknowledging defeat, and personal decisions about learning to die in a global hospice, but we are not there yet. The chances of redeeming the situation may be one in 100 or one in 1,000, but there is still a chance. As a glorified simian—a “super monkey” in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.17(the flipside of Gray’s homo rapiens)—we are audacious creatures who must take that one chance, even if it turns out to be founded on delusions. “If not gorillas and whales,” Gray asks “why then humans?” Because we are natural-born problem solvers; because gorillas and whales have never put one of their own on the Moon. Why humans? Because the New Deal, the industrial mobilization during the Second World War, the Manhattan Project, Marshall Plan, and the Apollo Moon Project are parts of the historical record and not matters of faith.
Far from seeing human civilization in terms of enlightened progress, we must come to regard it as managing ongoing damage control and the putting out of fires as they spring up and then managing spinoff problems as they emerge from previous solutions—mitigating rather than just adapting or surrendering. It will involve an unending series of brutal choices and a complete reorientation of the human relationship with nature and whose only appeal will be that they are preferable to our own extinction and inflicting irreparable damage on the world of which we are a part.
If Gray is simply making a non-deterministic Malthusian case that, unaltered, human population growth will likely result in a catastrophic collapse, we could accept this as a plausible and perhaps even a very likely hypothesis. If on the other hand he is saying that the Earth is itself a living/conscious or “spiritual” being and will necessarily push back against human metastasis through a sort of conscious awareness or physical law-like behavior, then he is showing susceptibility to a kind of historical narrative of his own.
What then is the practical distinction between deterministic inevitability of Gray’s (Lovelock/Margulis’s) Gaia model and the practical inevitability of a Malthusian model (Although Malthus himself hits at something very much like the Gaia thesis: he refers to famine as “the most dreadful resource of nature… The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemic, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrible array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success still be incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world” [Malthus, p. 61)? The answer is that the later is inevitable only if conditions leading toward a collapse remain unaltered, and therefore allows for the possibility of a workable solution where the inevitable model does not. As that greatest of Malthusian antagonists-turned-protagonist from English literature, Ebenezer Scrooge, in all of his Dickensian wordiness duns the Ghost of Christmas Present:
“Spirit, answer me one question: are these the shadows of things that will be or the shadows of things that may be only? Men’s actions determine certain ends if they persist in them. But if their actions change, the ends change too. Say it is so with what you show me… Why show me this if I am past all hope?”18
In the words of another English writer also given to overwriting, “aye, there’s the rub.” Perhaps it is not too late for humankind to change its ways, to regard writers on the environment to be latter day analogs of the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future. It should be noted that under Malthus, there are survivors once the excess is eliminated.19
If Gray is right, some have argued that we might as well keep on polluting and degrading the environment, given that destruction flows from unalterable human nature and therefore self-extermination is inevitable. Tiny Tim will go to an early grave no matter what changes and accommodations Scrooge makes in a closed universe.20 As Gray himself writes, “[p]olitical action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition.” Bah Humbug.
Of course whether the impending collapse of world civilization is deterministically certain or only merely certain in a practical or probabilistic sense is ultimately irrelevant, given that either way it will likely come to pass. The question here is whether we will catastrophically implode as just another plague species, of if we are able to manage a controlled decline in population to sustainable steady state (and do the same with carbon even earlier). It is the difference between an uncontrolled world of our own making and one in which we shape events piecemeal toward suitable incremental goals toward reaching a steady state. It is the difference between a slight chance and no chance at all.
Although I am not sold on the idea that biology is destiny—even though we can never untether ourselves from nature our or own nature, we can perhaps rise above our brute character with moderation and reason—I do agree that past a certain point, if we kill of the natural world, we will have killed ourselves in the process. There will never be a human “post-natural” world.
One could argue that the audacity, hubris, and capacity for innovation that allowed us to take over the world are value-neutral qualities that could be reoriented toward curbing our own success. One wonders what value Gray credits to human consciousness and of human ideas other than an admission that science and technology (notably medical and dental) progresses. One senses that he sees our species as not worthy rather than as tragic.
Darwinian success may lead to Malthusian catastrophe just as a human apocalypse could mean salvation for the rest of the living world. The over-success of the human species is the result of natural drives to survive, to improve our situation, and eliminate the competition (as well as an excellent blueprint—our genes—and out nature which is divided between the individual and the group. See E.O. Wilson The Meaning of Human Existence). More specifically, it is these powerful tools served us so well in making us the biological success we have become—and that survival is the conscious or unconscious goal of animals—then it is an artificial distinction to claim that we could not curtail this success with the same tools.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I don’t share Gray’s categorical contempt for humanism or the Enlightenment. His own ideas stand on the shoulders or in proximity to these ideas and trends or would otherwise not exist without them. As a friend of mine observed, if we think of the natural world as a living organism (as Gray might), then, by way of analogy, human beings might be regarded as the most advanced, most conscious neurons of the brain of the creature. The fact that we have become a runaway project does not make us bad (even if we accept Gray’s premise that humans destroy nature because of who we are, we can hardly be blamed for being who we are). The fact that brain cells sometimes mutate into brain cancer hardly makes brain cells bad.21
One problem with writing about nature is that the living world is like a great Rorschach test into which we read or project our beliefs and philosophy al la mode into our observations and lessons drawn from it. Emerson and Thoreau are mystics of a new-agey pantheism “as it exists in 1842.” Malthus is a conservative economist and moralist wedged between the Enlightenment he helped to kill and the naturalism and modernity he helped usher in. Darwin is a reluctant naturalist keenly aware of the importance of his great idea but shy of controversy and invective. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard is a perceptive and precociously odd woman-child who likes bugs and is endowed with a poet’s genius for the written word in reporting what she sees with such brut honesty that she overwhelms herself.22 Gray fluctuates from neo-Hobbesian realist to a Gaia fatalist, to a Schopenhauer-like pessimist.
To be fair, Straw Dogs is probably not Gray’s best book (see Black Mass, for instance). In the end, there is something a little facile, a little shallow about the swagger, the pose he strikes here—the professional doom-and-gloomer on a soap box to frighten the fancy folk out of their smug orthodoxy. Although there are few things more dangerous than a true believer, one comes away from Gray wondering if he believes all of his own ideas. This is not to say that there are not powerful ideas here or that they are wrong.
Roy Scranton and Nietzsche’s Hospice (or: How to Live and Die Well in a Dying World)
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, City Lights Books, 2015, 142 pages.
“Well, when the fall is all that is left, it matters a great deal.”
-From: The Lion in Winter
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”
One of the more eloquent voices to emerge on the darkly realistic side of the Anthropocene perspective in recent years is Roy Scranton. A literal poet warrior who has glimpsed the ruined future of humankind in the rubble and misery of Iraq, Scranton believes that it is simply too late to save the environment. The time for redemption has passed. Full stop. His Nietzsche-like response is one of acceptance, that as members of a mythmaking species, people should acknowledge that we are finished and learn to die with courage and dignity in the Anthropocene.
Although he might be the first to deny it, having seen a reasonable analog or foreshadow of the coming apocalypse as an enlisted combat infantryman in Iraq, Scranton has “street creds” that gives his dismissal of the pipe dreams of benevolent globalization (and perhaps any hope of a workable solution at all) a kind gravitas often missing in the writing of his colleagues in the ivory tower. We should always take ideas on a basis of their validity realizing that experience is only relevant insofar as it informs the soundness of our judgment, views and interpretations. In this sense, Scranton writes with a sense of firsthand authority and disillusioned realism missing in the analysis of other writers with more limited worldly experience.23 The book’s greatest strengths are the quality of writing and the author’s honesty.
In some respects, Scranton goes farther than other dark realists like Gray, asserting that things are already too far gone as a matter of fact, and that all that remains is to learn to die well with the Apollonian sense of calm and circumspect prescribed by Nietzsche. Scranton is a noble, disillusioned bon vivant of the mind forced by circumstances and his own clear and unflinching perception into fatalistic stoicism. Unlike Gray he embraces the myths or rather the mythmaking that mark us as human. He also doe not put himself above the human condition with all of its warts.
In his elegant, if grimly poetic little book—essentially a long essay—Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton acknowledges the existence of the neoliberal Anthropocene, recognizing its necessarily terminal nature (in this sense, he is similar to writers like Robert D. Kaplan, who accepts neoliberal economic globalization as a fact, but has few illusions about its implications).24
Scranton is not as elemental or pugnacious a polemicist as Gray and his claim is not necessarily deterministic in character (i.e. that the looming end is the result of cosmic or genetic destiny or the natural balancing of the biosphere). He simply observes that things are too far gone to be reversed. For all of his insight, he does not advance grandiose theories about human nature, he just looks at the world around him—peers Nietzsche-like into the abyss—and does not blink. Honest, sensitive, and intelligent—quite possibly a genius—he simply tells the truth as he sees it. He accepts the inevitable and without illusion or delusion. The time for redemption has passed, and we must learn to die with whatever gives us meaning.
As with Gray, Scranton may prove to be right as a practical matter and believes the end to be a matter of empirical fact rather than the unfolding of biological, historical, or metaphysical necessity. It is nonetheless palliative in tone. Scranton’s effective batting down of any and all optimistic possibilities reminded my of the story of General Grant whittling on a stick until nothing remained but a pile of shavings.
Scranton’s book has an affinity with Camus’s novel The Plague and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road in facing questions of how to live well in a time with little or no hope. It might also find inspiration or answers in Nietzsche’s early essay “Schopenhauer as Educator” in his underrated collection, Untimely Meditations. Here Nietzsche makes the case for embracing those characteristics that set humans apart: the qualities and activities of the artist, saint, and philosopher. Unlike Gray, Scranton embraces the Nietzschean idea of meaning arising from those characteristics that make us human.
But if Scranton’s thesis finds parallel elsewhere in ethics, it is among the personal end of life issues and the idea (or ideal) of dying with dignity that we all must face if we are not taken sooner. It is a macro version of these inevitable discussions—an intimate issue made universal and then reflected back upon the individual as a thinking being and complicit element of a dying world.
As a tenet of thoughtful maturity, it is wise to consider and even follow his prescription as individuals regardless of whether or not one believes that Scranton’s dark realism goes too far and that there is still time to mitigate or reverse the effects of global climate change, overpopulation, and loss of biodiversity. Sensible people draw up wills and trusts. Many of us already seek comfort in science, philosophy, history (ideas generally), art, and nature in times of personal crisis or as distractions in a time increasingly characterized by troubling news and in hours where there is little reason for hope.
But even so, we must take care in the present moment to make sure that this premise cannot become a rationalization for permanent escape or a distraction from solutions as well as the problems that face us, lest we and the solutions fall victim to premature surrender. The danger is that Scranton’s palliative prescription could provide a basis for terminal escapism (something that Americans seem to be perfectly capable of without his help), allowing the less thoughtful to take over without opposition.
Regardless of how we seek to address the crises of the environment, Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene thesis is a thing to be kept in the back of the mind in a similar sense that end of life issues should be tended to in one’s own life. If he has only written a open letter to those able to countenance his prescription and stark acknowledgment of the end—as other prophets have done during the darker moments of world history—then it is well-conceived and useful as a personal outlook or philosophy. Its utility is as a fallback position in the likelihood that things do not work out—as it increasingly appears they will not.
In this sense he is more like a fifth-century Irish monk carefully preserving civilization at the edge of the world on the precipice of the possible end of civilization, than an Old Testament prophet speaking of eventual dawn after the dark of night, the calm after the tempest. As with the early Irish monks and similar clerical scribes writing at the height of the Black Death of the fourteenth-century, we do not know whether or not we face the end of the world.25 The difference is that that Scranton believes in facing the facts with frankness and honesty, and then falling back on myths about ourselves and of the meaning of life.
One problem with this idea is that it is difficult to imagine a prescription of a global hospice as a basis for an actual policy position, unless the end was immanent and undeniable. Even then it would not be constructive. So long as there was any chance of hope, such an outlook would likely do more harm than good as anything but a personal prescription for those capable of aspiring it (like those found in the works of Nietzsche). This is aggravated by the fact that our faltering republic has become an arena for vicious, high-stakes blood sports and interest politics, and one can imagine that in a time and place when it is officially announced that the end is close at hand, the most aggressive at all levels of society would simply take what remains with no regard for others or the future (similar criticisms have been made by others about Gray’s outlook).
The world today suffers from a state of affairs in which more is taken out of the planet than it is able to replenish. It is estimated that the human population passed the point of global sustainability around 1978, and that as of 2002, human needs exceeded the world’s carrying capacity by 1.4 times. A world population of 8 billion would require the resources of four planet Earths to sustain it.26 Similarly, more waste is returned into the environment than it can absorb. If governments around the world announced that the end was near, what would stop people from even more selfish use of the remaining resources, and what could realistically deter them from trying?
At a certain point, when the denial of the climate disaster becomes untenable, the deniers will pivot to a perspective of “it’s too late” while staking-out claims on the world’s depleting resources. In this sense, the “dying with dignity” thesis would play into the hands of these people and would become as counterproductive as Gray’s thesis of biological determinism. One does not have to be a prophet to see that result would be the opposite of a productive approach. While it is reasonable to take both men at their word, it is also possible that they are attempting to jolt people out of complacency. I am sure that both would welcome being proved wrong on their darkest predictions, and if this is their true motive, then I think they are on to something—the fear they inspire may well be their most important contribution.
End of life issues are by their nature among the most difficult, the most personal. Many of us start adulthood as Dionysian in temperament—as romantics—standing against fate and defying augury with the confidence of youth. But coming down from the peak in midlife, we become Apollonian—stoical, perhaps even Buddhist-like—as we begin to relinquish things back to the universe. But this is a personal, partly rational, partially intuitive or pre-rational choice—one has to be ready to let go according to one’s temperament—and it seems doubtful if it could be taught whole cloth to an increasingly diverse nation much less the world. People face their own mortality in very different ways. Letting go requires quiet, not chaos. Scranton’s book, like those of Nietzsche (and Hemingway, Camus, and Gray), is for individuals and is not a basis for policy.
Scranton’s diagnosis and prescription is probably not intended to dissuade people from positive action, but the danger is a practical sense is that it will dissuade those from embracing a possibility of hope. It is likely a kind of resignation after frustration where the frustration lingers along with the subsequent calm. To paraphrase Edna Ferber’s comparison of marriage to drowning: life in a dying world may not be an altogether unpleasant experience once one has given up struggling.
The idea Scranton embraces in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and in his hard-hitting 2015 essay in the New York Times, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” is that we turn into ourselves as natural-born mythologizers and find meaning there. But ultimately myths are fictional or embellished narratives of a hunter-gatherer that help bind individuals to the group—lies we tell to ourselves in order to reveal greater symbolic truths. We are myth-makers, but we are equally natural-born problem solvers, and the danger inherent in Scranton’s view is the possibility of accentuating “man the myth-maker” over “man the result-oriented philosopher.”
His observation that “our human drive to make meaning is powerful enough to turn nihilism against itself” can be plausibly paraphrased as “self-delusion can overpower our perceptions of reality and the fact that there is no objective or deontological ‘meaning of life’” or “human self-delusion is a part of who we are and is more powerful than our glimpses of dark reality.” Assuming he is right, why couldn’t we turn the same human focus and drive—Will, to continue with the Nietzschean theme—against that which now threatens us: our own animal nature and excess? Perhaps the answer is to be found in a question we might ask about the protagonist in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure: is Jude Fawley a genuine tragic hero who might have otherwise succeeded, or just a guy who doesn’t know when he is beaten?
Humans may be the only animals that lie to themselves—we are born myth-makers and it has served us well in a practical sense as hunter-gatherers and in later groups, whether they were communities of the faithful or the fans of sports teams. Certainly it is a valuable characteristic as a primary font for the arts: we lie in a literal sense order to reveal deeper, if less-literal truths. But to immerse ourselves into finding meaning in a world devoid of objective moral meaning would seem to be self-indulgent, solipsism on a grand scale. If anything, the preoccupation with entertainment, art, trendy pseudo self-awareness, and other distractions are a part of the problem. Why embrace Quixotic quests for meaning if it is too late? Is such meaning anything more than an opiate to a dying patient?
How can we myth-make—how can we lie to ourselves through art and archetype—as the world dies at our hands, and we along with it? What is “meaning” in a dying world and how is it to be used constructively and for what end? To date, avoidance and immersion in diversions have been parts of the problem. Is Scranton’s prescription what people will do anyway, the last full measure of delusion? I do not want to put words in his mouth, and others—like E.O. Wilson and Afam Frank believe that we need powerful new myths in order to save us.
Of course even without hope there are also good reasons to act with dignity in the face of inevitable demise. This of course is a key tenet of the Hemingway world view: that in a world without intrinsic meaning, we can still come away with something if we face our fate with courage and dignity. Nietzsche’s prescription is even better: if we are to live our lives in an eternal sequence of cycles, then we should attempt to conduct our lives in such way so as to make them monuments to ourselves, for eternity. We do this by living in such away as would best reflect our noble nature. Although modern physics has obviously cast doubt on the idea of eternal recurrence, the idea also holds up equally well in the block universe of Einstein (and Parmenides and Augustine) in which the past and future exist forever as a continuum on spite of the “stubbornly persistent illusion” of the present moment. Our lives are our eternal monuments between brackets, even in a dying world, and although Nietzsche and Einstein were both determinists, we must act as if we have choice.
Camus believes that in a world without deontological values, we assert our own and then try to live up to them knowing that we will fail. A.J. Ayer inverts this with the idea that life provides its own meaning in a similar sense that our tastes choose us more than we choose them. If Ayer is right, then perhaps we arrive back at determinism: we have no choice but to immerse ourselves in personal myths as they select us. We have a will, but it is a part of who we are, and who we are is given.
Of course one could ask how are we to affirm what makes us distinctively human in a positive sense when that which characterizes us distinctly human as a plague species continues to strangle the biosphere? What is meaning in a dying world, intellectual or otherwise? Do we withdraw into our myths, our archetypes as natural-born mythmakers or has this been a part of the problem all along?
To this I would only add what might be called “The Parable of the Dying Beetle.” When I was a child, I came across a beetle on the sidewalk that had been partially crushed when someone stepped on it. It was still alive but dying. I found a berry on a nearby bush and put it in front of the beetle’s mandibles and it began to eat the fruit. There may have been no decision—eating something sweet and at hand was presumably something the beetle did as a matter of course. It made no difference that there was no point in a dying beetle nourishing itself any more than did my offering it the berry to begin with. It was simply something that the beetle did. Perhaps it is the same with humans and myth-making: it is what we do, living or dying.
The Inner Worlds and Outer Abyss of Roy Scranton
We’re Doomed: Now What?, New York: Soho Press, Inc., 2018.
Scranton’s long awaited new book is a collection of essays, articles, reviews, and editorials. It begins with a beefed-up version of his New York Times editorial “We’ re Doomed. Now What? [https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/21/were-doomed-now-what/] —which distills some of the themes of his earlier book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. The new book is organized into four sections. The first is on the unfolding climate catastrophe. The second is on his experiences of the war, followed by “Violence and Communion” and “Last Thoughts.” Given the fact that Scranton’s most conspicuous importance is as a writer—as a clear-sighted prophet of the environment—this arrangement makes sense, even though his vision of the future comes from his experience as a combat infantryman.
When Scranton limits himself to his own observations and experiences, he is powerful, poetic—the Jeremiah of his generation and possibly the last Cassandra of the Holocene, the world as it was. He is a writer of true genius and a master storyteller of startling eloquence who writes multilayered prose with finesse and grace. If there is any flaw, it may be a slight tendency toward overwriting, but this is an insignificant aesthetic consideration. He also tends to assert more than reveal, but then he is not a novelist.
When he listens to his own muse or discusses other first-person commentators on war, he is magnificent. When he references great philosophers, he is earnest but perhaps slightly didactic, his interpretations more conventional. When he references recent philosophers, especially postmodernists like Derrida, Foucault, and Heidegger is only slightly more tolerable than anybody else dropping these names and their shocking ideas (one can only hope that he has read some of Chomsky’s works on scientific language theory as well as his ideas on the environment, but I digress). I also take issue with some of his interpretations of Nietzsche, but these are the quibbles of a philosophy minor and the book is mostly outstanding and should be read.
His writing on war is insightful both taken on its own and chronologically as a preface to his writing on the environment. He is not only a keen observer who knows of what he speaks, he is completely fluent in the corpus of war literature drawn from experience. If Scranton turns out to be wrong about the terminal nature of the environmental crises, his writing on war will likely endure as an important contribution to the canon in its own right. In my library, his book will alternate between shelf space dedicated to the environment and somewhere in the neighborhood that includes Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Junger, Vera Britton, Eugene Sledge, and Paul Fussell. The essays on war are reason enough to buy the book. Certainly every Neocon, every Vulcan or humanitarian interventionist whose first solutions to geopolitical problems in important regions of the developing world is to drop bombs or send other people’s children into harm’s way should read all of Scranton’s war essays.
There is perhaps one substantial point of contention I have with this book, and I am still not sure how to resolve it, whether to reject my own criticism or to embrace it. Scranton begins this collection with his powerful “We’re Doomed. Now What?” but ends it with an essay, “Raising a Daughter in a Ruined World,” that appeared in the New York Times around the same time that the new book was released during the summer of 2018. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with its thesis, there is an uncompromising purity of vision in the earlier book and most of the essays of the new one.
In the last essay of the present book, Scranton writes with his characteristic power, insight, and impossibly good prose. But then he seems to pull a punch at the end. Sure we’re screwed and there is little reason for hope, but the nature of the doomsday scenario is a little less clear in the last essay: does the near future hold the extinction of our species along with so many others, or is just some kind of transformation? Is the world merely ruined or about to be destroyed? To be fair, nobody knows how bad things will be beyond the tipping point. If he begins the book with a knockout hook, he seems to end it with a feint that, while not exactly optimism, is something less than certain death—a vague investment in hope with real consequences.
I get it: kids force compromises and force hope along with worry and his intellectual compromise (tap dance?) may be that there is a glimmer of hope. Even though the abyss looks into you when you look into it, most of us would blink at least once, even in a world that may (or may not) be dying.
He rightfully asks “[w]hy would anyone choose to bring new life into this world?” and then spends part of the essay rationalizing an answer that is very much in keeping with the theme of the myths of personal meaning he prescribes in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Kids force hope, but who forced, or at least permitted the child’s existence to begin with? It is none of my business, except that Scranton is a public commentator who brought up the point publicly. The problem is that the new creature did not ask to be a part of someone’s palliative prescription. For while there are many shades of realism, one cannot be half a fatalist any more than one can be half a utopian. Or as a friend of mine observed, “[T]he problem with taking responsibility for bringing a child into the world is that it precludes rational pessimism.”
The more general problem is that this acknowledgment of possible hope forces him from an uncompromising position of doom of his earlier book and most of his articles in the new one to conclude with a somewhat more conventional and less interesting Anthropocene position—one that admits that the world is ruined (i.e. too far gone to be saved through robust mitigation), and so rather than try to reverse the damage we must adapt. In reviewing his previous book, I noted that a fatalistic point of view risks premature surrender, but here my criticism is more with his newfound rationale for solutions than with his all-too-human flinch per se.
Learning to Dies in the Anthropocene gives us a basis for a personal approach to the world’s end; in “Raising a Child in a Doomed World,” [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/opinion/climate-change-parenting.html Scranton states that individual solutions—other than suicide on a mass scale (although one can only wonder what kind of greenhouse gases billions of decomposing corpses would produce)—cannot be a part of the solution in terms of fixing the problem. Even with the possibility of premature surrender, the earlier, more personalized perspective is more interesting than the new one with non-forthcoming large scale prescriptions. He throws out a few of the solutions common to the young (global bottom up egalitarian, global socialism), but has no illusions about the feasibility of these.
Even here there is honesty: he does not pretend to know how to fix things. And so (during an August 8, 2018 reading and book signing at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.), he lapses into generalities when questioned: “organize locally and aggressively,” perhaps there will be a world socialist revolution (which he openly concedes is utopian, the realm of “fantasy,” yet at another point states that it “now seems possible”), do less and slow down (although in the last essay, he states that personal approaches can’t work), and learn to die (getting back to his previous theme).
A couple of other minor points: the book’s title seems a bit too stark and spot-on for such a serious collection and is more in keeping with the placard of the archetypal street corner prophet of New Yorker cartoons. Similarly, the cover illustration—the Midtown Manhattan skyline awash behind an angry sea—struck me as being a little tabloidesque, but what it is they say about judging a book by its cover?
Jedediah Purdy and the Democratic Anthropocene
After Nature, A Politics for the Anthropocene, Harvard University Press, 2015, 326 pages.
Another of the most articulate voices under the umbrella of Anthropocene perspectives is Jedediah Purdy, now a professor of law at Columbia University Law School after 15 years at Duke. Purdy is a prolific writer and this book—now a few years old—is by no means his most recent statement on the environment (for an example of his more recent writing, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/opinion/green-new-deal-ocasio-cortez-.html).
After Nature is a wonder and a curiosity. In the first six chapters he provides an intellectual history of nature and the American mind that is nothing short of brilliant. His writing and effortless erudition are exceptional. He is a truly impressive scholar. This part of his book is intellectual history at its best.
Purdy’s approach is to use the law as a reflection of attitudes toward the natural world. Through a legal-political lens, he devises the successive historical-intellectual categories of the providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological, interpreting nature as the wilderness/the garden, pantheistic god, natural resources, and a living life support system to be tamed, admired, worshiped, managed, and preserved.
These interpretive frames in turn characterize or “define an era of political action and lawmaking that left its mark on the vast landscapes.” On page 27, he states that these visions are both successive and cumulative, that “[t]hey all coexist in those landscapes, in political constituencies, and laws, and in the factious identities of environmental politics and everyday life.” He acknowledges that all of these perspectives exist in his own sensibilities. In my experience, one is unlikely to come across better fluency, depth of understanding, and quality of writing on this topic anywhere, and one is tempted to call it a masterwork of its kind.
It is therefore all the more surprising that after such penetrating analysis, historical insight, and eloquence in describing trends of the past, his prescription for addressing the environmental problems of the present and future would go so hard off the rails into a tangle of unclear writing and a morass of generalities and unrealistic remedies. It also strikes one as odd that such a powerful and liberal-minded commentator would embrace his particular spin on the Anthropocene perspective, given some of its implications.
In Chapter 7 “Environmental Law in the Anthropocene,” Purdy introduces some interesting, if not completely original ideas like “uncanniness”—the interface with other sentient animals without ever knowing the mystery of what lies behind it, of what they feel and think. Before this, he discusses something calls the “environmental imagination”—an amalgam of power (“material”) interests and values. After this he ventures into more problematic territory in his sub-chapter “Climate Change: From Failure to New Standards of Success.”
Purdy rejects the claims of unnamed others that climate change can be “solved” or “prevented” (these are his cautionary quotation marks, although it is unclear who he is quoting). He writes about the “implicit ideas” of unidentified “scholars and commentators” (my quotation marks around his ideas) and their “predictable response” of geo-engineering to rapidly mounting atmospheric carbon levels (“a catch-all term for technologies that do not reduce emissions but instead directly adjust global warming”). Again, I am not sure to whom he is referring here. Most people I know who follow environmental issues favor a variety of approaches to include the production and reduction of carbon production.
According to Purdy, this perspective begins with “pessimism” and the observation that “we are rationally incapable of collective self-restraint.” This is reasonable enough, and Purdy recognizes that spontaneous self-restraint on a global scale has not been forthcoming. Indeed it is hard to imagine how such collective action would manifest itself on such a massive scale short of a conspicuous crisis of a magnitude that would likely signal the catastrophic end of things as we know them (e.g. if we woke up one day and most of the coastal cities of the world were under a foot of water). If this kind of awareness of a crisis was possible at a point where it was not too late to mitigate the crises, it could only be harnessed through the top-down efforts of states acting in concert.
With self-restraint not materializing, the “pessimism” of the environmental straw man switches to “hubris.” And both of these descriptive nouns then “take comfort” (just like actual people or groups of people in a debate) in an either/or conclusion “that if we fail to ‘prevent’ climate change or ‘save’ the planet from it then all bets are off; we have failed, the game is up. This threat of failure and apocalypse then results in the “next step” of ‘try anything now!’ attitude of geo-engineering.”
From here he concludes that “[b]oth attitudes manage to avoid the thought [idea] that collective self-restraint should be a part of our response, perhaps including refraining from geo-engineering: the pessimism avoids that thought by demonstrating, or assuming, that self-restraint would be irrational and therefore must be impossible; and the hubris avoids it by announcing that self-restraint has failed (as it had to fail ‘rationally’ speaking), it was unnecessary all along anyway.”
Purdy then “propose[s] a different way of looking at it” and calmly announces that “climate change, so far, has outrun the human capacity for self-restraint” [so, the attitude of “hubris” is right then?], it is too late to save the nature as it was (“climate change has begun to overwhelm the very idea that there is a ‘nature’ to be preserved”), that we should learn to adapt.” In the next paragraph, he states “[w]e need new standards for shaping, managing, and living well. Familiar standards of environmental failure will not reliably serve anymore [does he mean metrics of temperature, atmospheric and ocean chemistry, and loss of habitat/biodiversity?] . We should ask, of efforts to address climate change, not just whether they are likely to ‘succeed’ at solving the problem, but whether they are promising experiments—workable approaches to valuing a world that that we have everywhere changed.”
For a moment then, there is a glimmer that Purdy might be on to something by embracing a Popper-like outlook of experimentation and piecemeal problem solving/engineering. The question is how to implement an approach of bold experimentation.
My own view is that on balance, the environmentalist of recent decades have been clear-sighted in their observations and that their “pessimism” is warranted. As with Malthus and the inexorable tables of population growth, I would contend that they are right except perhaps for their timetable. Is the dying-off of the world’s reefs and the collapse of amphibian and now insect populations all just the pessimism and hubris of fatalistic imaginings?
How then should we proceed? Even with the implosion of the The End of History narrative, Purdy, like so many of his generation and the younger Millennials, seems to have a child’s faith in the curative powers of democracy. His concurrence with Nobel laureate, Amartya Sens’s, famous observation that famine has never visited a democracy appears to be as much of an uncritical Fukyama-esque cliché as the assertion that democracies do not fight each other (malnutrition on an impressive scale has in fact occurred in Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Orissa and Rajasthan—i.e. regions within a democratic system).
Purdy then asserts a kind of democratic or good globalization in contrast to the predatory, neoliberal variety that he rightful identifies as a leading accelerant of the global environmental catastrophe. He writes that “[p]olitics will determine the shape of the Anthropocene.” Perhaps, but what does “democracy” mean to the millions living on trash heaps in the poorer nations of the world? What does it mean in places like Burma, the Congo, and Libya?
A savant of intellectual history, Purdy seems to know everything about the law and political history as a reflection of American sensibilities. But politics and the law (like economics and the military) are avenues and manifestations of power—even when generous and high-minded, the law is about power—and one is left wondering if Purdy knows how power really works.
In the tradition of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, I would contend that the primary benefits democracy (meaning the representative democracy of the better liberal republics), are practical, almost consequentialist in nature, rather than moral. First, it is an effective means of removing bad or ineffective leaders and a means of promoting “reform without violence;”27 Second, it should ideally provide a choice in which a voter can discern a clearly preferable option given their interests, outlook, and understanding.
The idea of a benevolent democratic genera of globalization and a “democratic Anthropocene” is reminiscent of academic Marxians of a few decades ago who waited for the “real” or “true” Marxism to kick-in somewhere in the world while either shrugging off its real-world manifestations in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, China, Cuba, and North Korea as false examples, corrupt excrescences, or else acknowledging them as hijacked monstrosities.
Whether in support of Marxism or democracy, this kind of ideological stance allows those who wield such arguments to immunize or insulate their position from criticism rather than constructively welcoming it, inviting it. It could be argued that concepts of egalitarian democratic or socialistic globalization is to the current generation what Marxist socialism was to American idealists of a century ago. In the early twentieth-century, majority of Americans had the realism and good sense not to accept the eschatological vision and prescriptions of the earlier trend. As numerous writers have noted, populism is just as likely to take on a reactive character as it is a high-minded progressive ideology. As economist Robert Kuttner and others have observed, some of the European nations whose elections were won by populist candidates can be described as “illiberal democracies.” [See Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, 267].
The fact that some of the most brilliant young commentators on the environment, like Purdy and perhaps Scranton (even with his admission that global socialism is possibly utopian)—to say nothing of veteran commentators on the political scene, like Chris Hedges (America the Farewell Tour)—embrace such shocking unrealism, leaves one with a sense of despair over the proposed solutions as great as that with the crises themselves. It is like pulling a ripcord after jumping out of an aircraft only to find that one’s parachute has been replaced with laundry.
To be fair, nobody has a solution. Edward O. Wilson has lamented that humans have not evolved to the point where we can see the people of the world as a single community. Even such a world-historical intellect as Albert Einstein advocated a single world government. [See Albert Einstein “Atomic War or Peace” in Out of My Later Years, 185-199]. If the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possibility of the violent destruction of the world could not force global unity as a reality, what chance do the environmental crises have? As George Kennan observes, the world will never be ruled by a single regime (even the possibility that it will be ruled entirely under one kind of system seems highly unlikely). Unfortunately, he will probably be right.
Purdy rightfully despising the neoliberal Anthropocene wrought by economic globalization. But perhaps this is the true nature of globalization: aggressive, expansionistic, greed-driven, blind to or uncaring of its own excesses, and de facto imperialistic in character. William T. Sherman famously observes that “[w]ar is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”28 So it is with globalization, whether it be mercantilist, imperialist, neoliberal, or some untested new variety.
Globalization is economic imperialism and it likely cannot be reformed. The whole point of off-shoring industry and labor arbitrage is to make as big of a profit as possible by spending as little money as possible in countries with no tax burdens and few, if any, labor and environmental laws, and people willing to work for almost nothing. Globalization is the exploitation of new markets to minimize costs and maximize profits. While the purpose of an economy under a social democratic model is to provide as much employment as possible, neoliberal globalization seeks a system of efficiency that streamlines the upward flow of wealth from the wage slaves to the one percent.
It is conceivable that someday in the distant future the world will fall into an interlinked global order based on naturalistic economic production regions and shifting import-shifting cities, as described by Jane Jacobs. But that day, if it ever comes, is both far off and increasingly unlikely and there exists no roadmap of how to get there.29 Certainly a sustainable, steady-state world would have to be more-or-less egalitarian as a part of fundamentally re-conceptualizing the human relationship with nature. But this too is a long way down the road and would have to be imposed by changing circumstances forced by the environment. We need solutions now, and the clock is ticking.
For the short term—for the initial steps in a long journey—the best we can hope for is modest and tenuous cooperation among sovereign states to address the big issues facing us: a shotgun marriage forced by circumstances, by intolerable alternatives (an historical analogy might be the U.S.-Soviet alliance in the Second World War, and the effort will have to be like a World War II mobilization only on a vastly larger scale). We will need states to enforce change locally and international agreements will have to establish what the laws will be. The problem here is the internal social and political divisions within states that are unlikely to be resolved. Moreover, immediate local interests will always take priority over what will likely be seen as abstract worldwide issues. In order to prevent such internal dissent and tribalism, and building on Jacobs’ idea—an ideal world order would have to consist of small regional states that are demographically homogenous (another idea of David Isenbergh).
Purdy rightfully disdains the disparities of neoliberal globalization but only offers an ill-defined program in which “the fates of rich and poor, rulers and rules” would be tied (presumably the ruling classes would allow the ruled to vote away their power). The idea here is that famine is not the result of scarcity but rather of distribution. If such control and reconfiguration is already possible, then why has it failed to date? If it is possible in the near future, then why stop there? Why not banish war and bring forth a workers’ paradise? Why not bring to fruition solutions to take the measures to save the planet prescribed by the environmental “pessimists”? Why not Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Planet goal (see below)?
As regards practicalities of democratic globalization, Purdy’s prescriptions also seem to ignore some inconvenient historical facts. For instance as many commentators have noted, the larger and more diverse a population becomes, the less governable it becomes and certainly the less democratic as individual identities and rights are subordinated to the group. The idea of a progressive social democracy with a very large and diverse population seems unlikely to the point of being a nonstarter.30
Democracy works best on a local level where people are intimately acquainted with the issues and how they affect their interests—the New England town hall meeting being the archetype for local democracy in this country. Similarly, the most successful democratic nations have tended to be small countries with small and homogenous populations. Trying to generalize this model to a burgeoning and increasingly desperate world any time soon is a pipedream.
Ultimately, the problem with the prescription of universal democracy in a technical sense is that democracy, like economies, are naturalistic historical features and are not a-contextual constructs to be cut out and laid down like carpet where and when they are needed. Democracy must grow from within a cultural/historical framework. It cannot effectively be imposed any more than can a healthy economy. As Justice Holmes observes in a letter to Harold Laski, “[o]ne can change institution by a fiat but populations only by slow degrees and I don’t believe in millennia.”
Purdy also seems to conflate democracy with an ethos of liberalism. Democracy is a form of government by majority rule where liberalism is an outlook based on certain sensibilities. If a fundamentalist Islamic nation gives its people the franchise—or if a majority of people in an established republic adopt an ideology of far right populism—they will likely not vote for candidates who espouse their own values and interests. Transplanted world democracy and the redistribution of wealth are not likely to work even if the means to implement them existed.
As for the democratic Anthropocene—or any kind of Anthropocene world order—I think that John Gray gets it mostly right, that things will never get that far. In order to understand the impracticality of this idea, we might consider a simple thought experiment in which we substitute another animal for ourselves. It is difficult to imagine a living world reduced to a monoculture of a single species of ant or termite, for instance.31 And while humans, like ants (e.g. leafcutters), may utilize various resources of a robust environment of which are but but a small subset, it is difficult to imagine nature surviving as a self-supporting system in a reduced state as the symbiotic garden (Gray’s “green desert”) along the periphery of an ant monoculture. And so we ask: if not ants, then why humans?
In terms of Boolean logic, the reduction of nature to a kept garden—and I am not saying that Purdy goes this far—appears to be an attempt to put a larger category (nature) inside of a smaller one (human civilization), the equivalent of attempting to draw a Venn diagram with a larger circle inside of a smaller one.
Beyond the lack of realism there is also an unrealized immorality to the more extreme Anthropocene points of view. Letting nature and the possibility of its salvation be lost is a kind of abdication that is not only monumentally arrogant but also ethically monstrous and on a scale far greater than historical categories like slavery or even the worse instances of genocide. One can only wonder if adherents to the Anthropocene perspectives realize the implications of their prescriptions.
We now know that the living world is far more conscious, thinking, feeling, more interconnected than we ever before suspected.32 Even the individual cells of our bodies appear to possess a Lamarckian-like interactive intelligence of their own, and we can only begin to guess at the complexities of the overlapping systems of the world biosphere.33 There is no possibly way we can know the implications of lost interrelation of whole strata and echo systems. To think that we can manage a vastly reduced portion of the living world to suit our needs is as unethical as it is impractical.
To give up and say that the world is already wrecked is not the same things as saying that some abstract or hypothetical set or singular category will be lost, but rather that a large part of the sentient world will be destroyed by of us. To put it more bluntly, how can allowing nature be destroyed—meaning the extinction of perhaps a million or more species and trillions of individual organisms—without attempting the largest possible effort to prevent it, be any less of an atrocity than the Holocaust or slavery? In an objective biological calculus of biodiversity, it will be many fold worse, even if the ecological declines occurs over a period of lulling gradualism, of terraces of change and plateaus, and human adaption. A child who has never seen a snowy winter day, snowy egret, or a snow leopard will not miss them any more than a child today misses a Carolina parakeet or Labrador duck. At worst they will experience a vague sadness for something they never knew, assuming they are even taught about such lost things.
I mention this (and again, I am not saying that Purdy advocates such a position) because I would like to think that those who subscribe to the Anthropocene perspectives would have willingly fought in WWII, especially if they had been aware of the atrocities of the Nazis and Imperial Japanese. And yet in a mere two sentences, the author seems to decree an unspecified portion of the living and sentient world to be permanently lost:
“As greenhouse-gas levels rise and the earth’s systems shift, climate change has begun to overwhelm the idea that there is a “nature” to be saved or preserved. If success means keeping things as they are, we have already failed, probably irrevocably.”
No “nature’ to be preserved”? What could this possibly mean? Could the author mean it literally, that that the living world (to include humans) is lost? Could he mean “nature” as metaphor (whatever that means)? As a defunct concept or “construct” of the kind that posmodernists love to contend as half of a false dichotomy? Are environments like rainforests and reefs metaphors and human constructs? Since this is a work of nonfiction, I will take him at his literal word, but readily concede that I might be misunderstanding this and other points of his.
And the solution:
“We need new standards for shaping, managing, and living well in a transformed world.”
“Living well,” huh? What could this mean in a world soon to have 8 billion mouths to feed (Scranton, by contrast, tells us that we must learn to die well)? How is this not Anthropocentrism? Observe the logic here: when the alternatives are likely failure and unlikely success don’t even try to correct the problem or fix your style of play, simply change the standards and hope for the best. Move the goalposts to the suit the game you intend to play. When reality becomes unacceptable, just diminish your expectations and change the parameters of the discussion. When the Wehrmact overruns Poland, France, and the Low Countries, just write off these areas as newly acquired German provinces and then do business with the new overlords. After all, solutions have not been forthcoming to date. He is right that things look beak for the world, but then things looked pretty bleak in 1939 and 1940.
My sense is that beyond the brilliance and kindly nature, there is a kind of desperation rather than resignation in this outlook. In his book Purdy asserts the stern banality that “nature will never love us as we love it” as if that was somehow related to the issue, as if to chastise naïve tree huggers with the fact that their embrace is unrequited. But one gets the sense that he might just as easily be chiding a younger, Thoreau-like Jed Purdy over a lost love that never loved him back. If an intelligent realization of the amorality of nature has forced him to relinquish the mistaken idea of a beloved and loving nature, perhaps he cannot let go of the universalist ideals of liberal democracy, even above the survival of much of the natural world itself. A person must believe in something, and it is easier to accept the death of something that never loved us in return. If we do not hold on to something, what then remains of belief, youthful optimism and of hope for the future beyond youth?
What Purdy offers is a liberal humanist “riposte” to the undeniable biological logic of the posthumanists like Gray and liberals who would extend rights to the non-human world. Purdy brilliantly attempts to preserve liberal humanism, a wholesome human tie to the land, and the dignity (if not actual rights) of animals.
As intellectual history, After Nature is impressive and besides minor infractions against the language no more serious than a modest penchant for words like “paradigmatic,” much of it is remarkably well-written. But ultimately the importance of a book is found in the power of its ideas—its insights—rather than in the power of its presentation. For all of its brilliance, After Nature ends up embracing hopeful speculative generalities that one may infer to be intended as superior and ahead of the pack while seeming to write-off much of the living world. In his prescriptions he is provincial in his generational ideas—ideas full of historical analysis but shorn of real historically-based policy judgment, ideas which by his own admission will not preserve nature, which he deems a defunct concept and reality.
A great analyst may fail as a practical policy planner and the stark contrast of this book as legal and political history relative to its prescriptions suggests that this is the case. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you are sensible in every case, and just because you write well doesn’t mean you are right. Great eloquence runs the risk of self-seduction along with the seduction of others; many legal cases are won by the persuasion of presentation rather than on the proximity of the claims of the winning argument to the truth of the matter. Purdy clearly knows history, but in my opinion, he does not apply his remarkable interpretation of the past toward a realistic end. As with some lawyers-turned-historians I have known, he seems to overestimate the power and influence of the law and political form (it was not the Confiscation Acts nor, strictly speaking, nor the Emancipation Proclamation that destroyed slavery, but rather the Union Army; where the law is not enforced, the law ceases exist as a practical matter), to include those of “democracy” on the course of human events.
Purdy does not face the human fate that Scranton characterizes in Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. This is understandable. What is standalone brilliance and ambition in a dying world? If Scranton is sensitive and intelligent, Purdy is too, perhaps even more so, and he has not seen Iraq.
The Grand Old Man of Biology and His Half-Earth
Half-Earth, Our Planet’s fight for Life, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 259 pages
The human species is, in a word, an environmental hazard. It is possible that intelligence in the wrong kind of species was foreordained to be a fatal combination for the biosphere. Perhaps a law of evolution is that intelligence extinguishes itself.
-Edward O. Wilson
This admittedly dour scenario is based on what can be termed the juggernaut theory of human nature, which holds that people are programmed by their genetic heritage to be so selfish that a sense of global responsibility will come too late.
-Edward O. Wilson
Darwin’s dice have rolled poorly for Earth.
-Edward O. Wilson
In contrast to the three authors I have discussed so far, Edward O. Wilson is an actual scientist. As one might expect, he is non-judgmental but equally damning his measured observations of the devastation wrought by our kind.34 He is genial and understanding of human flaws, fears, and the will to believe, but retains few illusions an in some ways his analysis is as dire as Gray’s (Wilson coined the term Eremozoic/Eremozcene, the “Era of Solitude”—which he prefers to Anthropocene).35Unlike the others, Wilson tells us what must we must do to save the planet. He does not tell us how.
What sets him apart from the others is that he is a world-class biologist, the world authority on ants, and one of the founders of modern sociobiology. He is intimately acquainted with the problem and has an understanding of how natural systems work that is both broad and deep. As regards his writing, he is gentle—a good sport by temperament—and has sympathy with people and the human condition with all of its quirks and many faults. It is striking that this gentleness does not diminish or water down his observations.
Wilson has written a great deal—9 books while over the age of 80—and has apparently changed his mind on some important issues over the years. He believes that humans cannot act beyond the natural imperatives that shaped us as creatures, but he does believe that we can learn and change our minds. It is therefore noteworthy and not a little ironic that John Gray believes that our behavior is inevitable, yet one senses a tone of judgment, while Wilson believes that we may have a choice in what we are doing, and yet is forgiving, even sympathetically coaxing.
In his 2016 book, Half-Earth, Wilson, offers as a solution—a goal rather than a means of achieving it—with the same hemispheric name, a thesis stating that, insofar as possible, in order to save the biosphere, it is necessary to preserve as much of the world’s biodiversity as possible. To do this, he believes that we must preserve half of the world’s land surface as undisturbed, self-directed habitat.
In a book note in the March 6, 2016 edition of The New Republic titled “A Wild Way to Save the Planet” [https://newrepublic.com/article/130791/wild-way-save-planet], Professor Purdy reviewed Wilson’s book with some prescience and little charity. Purdy raises some interesting points and is correct that Wilson does not offer a practical step-by-step program or a roadmap toward this goal. He is also right that Wilson is not at his best when speculating on the natural adaptive purpose of the free market or on population projections and that he demonstrates a certain political naïveté, but then his importance is not as a social engineer or a practitioner of practical politics. He is a leader of the biodiversity movement and a foundation dedicated to this bears his name. He is also a Cassandra with the most impressive of credentials relative to his topic. In terms of contributions and historical reputation, Wilson, who will be 90 next month (June 2019), is the most distinguished of the five commentators discussed here.
In his analysis, and after a grudging if mostly accurate overview of Wilson’s positions and accomplishments,36 Purdy seems to miss the significant of Wilson’s book as a poetic (as opposed to purely analytical) thesis: if we want to save the planet and ourselves, we must preserve the world’s biodiversity and the unfathomable complexity of symbiosis and interconnection of the living world. If we want to save Nature thus construed, we must dedicate about half of the planet to just leaving it alone (indeed, a plausible argument can be made that, other than setting aside wild areas, the degree to which humankind meddles with nature—even with good intentions—the more harm we do).
Although niches of individual species lost may be quickly filled in an otherwise rich environment, we cannot begin to imagine the implications of the structural damage we do to the overall ecosphere through wholesale destruction of habitat and species. There may be impossibly complex, butterfly theory-like ripples leading to unforeseen ends. Damage to the environment is often disproportionate to what we think it might be.37 Nor should we concede that the natural world is hopelessly lost already (in stating that “[i]f success means keeping things as they are, we have already failed, probably irrevocably” Purdy reveals himself to be darker than the “pessimists” who still seek mitigation), and that the goal of some writers on the Anthropocene may be little more than managing what remains of nature. In contrast, Wilson is not making a “wild” suggestion. He is telling us what we must do to save the biosphere and ourselves with it. In this assessment I believe he is correct.
Wilson sees the Anthropocene outlooks and their monocultural goal as pernicious anthropocentrism—a Trojan horse of human arrogance cloaked in the language of stern environmental realism. He believes that they prescribe a greatly reduced human-nature symbiosis with humans as the senior partner. Purdy dismisses this assertion in a few clipped assertions with a confidence that underlies so much of his analyses here and elsewhere. But Wilson’s experience with both the Nature Conservancy and in the academy and statements by the people he cites bears out his beliefs (to be fair, there are degrees of the Anthropocene perspective ranging from the comparatively mild to the extreme).
Regardless, Purdy does not speak for all Anthropocene points of view—more extreme adherents do in fact couch their positions in terms of a stark and dismissive pseudo-realism that are arrogant. Purdy seems to concede the danger of “a naturalized version of post-natural human mastery” in his book (pp. 45-46). As for the prescriptions of the Anthropocene perspective Wilson criticizes in Half-Earth, it would seem that they are no more realistic than those of a cancer patient who acknowledges his disease but not its lethality, or else realizes its seriousness and then adopts a cure that will allow the disease to kill him. Purdy asserts that Wilson’s goal is itself a reflection of just another Anthropocene outlook.
Does Wilson’s book posit an Anthropocene thesis? Adherents to the Anthropocene define it variously as the state of affairs where nature has been irreparably damaged or altered by the activities of mankind, and as the dominant species we are thrust into the position of dealing with it one way or another.
Purdy characterizes the Anthropocene as a current that “is marked by increased human interference and diminished human control, all at once, setting free or amplifying destructive forces that put us in the position of destructive apprentices without a master sorcerer. In this respect, the Anthropocene is not exactly an achievement; it is more nearly a condition that has fallen clattering around our heads.”38
This is fair enough. But it is not so much an acknowledgement of the Anthropocene as a fact or a state of affairs that concerns our analysis of Wilson’s outlook (or the term we use to describe it) so much as whether or not his view is an Anthropocene perspective like the ones he criticizes in Half-Earth, and with which Purdy at least in part concurs with in After Nature (i.e. one that has accepted the ruin of the biosphere and which prescribes adaptation over mitigation).
Lawyers quibble over definitions far more than do scientists. The sides of a good faith critical discussion should agree on terms and proceed from there. Although I find questions over definitions to be inherently uninteresting and unimportant distractions, since Purdy makes the claim that Wilson’s Half-Earth thesis is an Anthropocene argument by another name, we might briefly examine if it is.39
Is the Half-Earth hypothesis an Anthropocene argument? I think the answer is “no.” First of all, Wilson admits that the problem is real, that the biomass of the human species is more than 100 times that of any large animal that ever lived. But he also believes that the vast majority of species that comprise the current biodiversity of the world can still be preserved (i.e. the Eremocene/Anthropocene is where we are heading, but we are not yet there in any final sense). This can be done by preserving half of the planet as habitat. This is not a prescription for a human monoculture with a diminished natural periphery or greenbelt, but the opposite: an accommodation of the natural world as a thing apart from us, a steady-state, hands-off stewardship while curbing our own excesses. It is mitigation.
My sense is that Wilson’s perspective of the natural world as a “self-willed and self-directed” prior category that is deserving of our protection as remote stewards capable of protection or destruction, is sound. The biggest part of this protection would be simply leaving it alone rather than a subset to be managed—an adjunct category—or a thing permanently wrecked to be tolerated, and adapted to (as we adapt it to us) insofar as it meets or does not interfere with our needs. 40
But even if Wilson’s admission of the human impact on the biosphere and a set of policies to preserve half of it technically render his argument an Anthropocene perspective, there is still a substantive difference: the difference between attempting to manage nature, and leaving a large portion of it alone. It is the difference between adaptation to and cultivating unfolding wreckage and mitigation through noninterference.
In this sense, Wilson’s Half-Earth is not so much an Anthropocene thesis as it is an attempt to preclude a human monoculture by setting aside half of the planet through a policy of noninterference and not involved management. In taking him at his word, I am inclined to say that Wilson seeks to avoid the Eremocene by preserving diversity, rather than an Anthropocene perspective that declares nature to be dead and aspires to somehow live well among the wreckage.
Purdy correctly writes off Wilson’s view of economic growth as “A naturalized logic of history” and calls it “technocratic” (“technocrat”/“technocratic”/”technocracy” are variations of a favorite smear among the post-Boomer generations, although the word appears to have multiple related but different definitions, one being “a specialized public servant.” I wonder if they would lump the men and women who implemented the New Deal, the U.S. industrial mobilization during WWII, and the Marshall Plan into this category). When reading the review I got the feeling that Wilson’s powerful sociobiological arguments rankles Purdy’s strong attraction to democratic theory and related philosophy based on human exceptionality.
Ironically Purdy admonishes the author for providing no blueprint for implementing the half-planet model, yet offers nothing stronger than generalities about global democracy. He also writes “[a]lthough Wilson aims for the vantage of the universe—who else today calls a book The Meaning of Human Existence?—the strengths and limitations of his standpoint of those of a mind formed in the twentieth-century.” One could just as reasonably ask: who else today calls a book After Nature, regardless of whether “nature” is intended as metaphor, an outdated concept or construct, the living world and physical universe as things-in-themselves, or all of the above?
Likewise the bit about “the mind formed in the twentieth-century” suggests a tone of generational chauvinism, a latter day echo of “[t]he torch has been passed to a new generation…” perhaps. He dismisses Wilson’s love of nature as and his general outlook as parochial to the twentieth-century United States—and odd claim to make against the world authority on ants, the man who coined the term biodiversity, the standard-bearer of sociobiology, and a person who was bitten by a rattlesnake as a youth.
The larger implication of Purdy’s dismissal of Wilson as a well-meaning but ultimately avuncular old provincial is itself a kind of local snobbery and presentism—the apparent assumption that anyone from an older generation is insufficiently evolved or sophisticated in his thinking to embrace the eschatological utopian clichés and bubbles of a later generation (Purdy was born in 1974, and so was therefore no less a product of the twentieth-century than is Wilson). As such Wilson is a representative of just another misled perspective to be weighted against cutting-edge sensibilities, found wanting, and waved away in spite of a modestly good effort at the end of an impressive career.
I would venture that Wilson knows both nature and history better than Purdy in terms of experience—he lived through the Great Depression which was also the period of the regional ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl and was a teenager during the Second World War. These are hardly events likely to instill an excessively benevolent or uncritical view of nature or human nature. Purdy may be right about the devastation wrought by neoliberal globalization, but I believe he is wrong about Wilson and his goal. Both men concede the necessity of reconfiguring the human relationship with the planet. Wilson calls for a “New Enlightenment” and a sensibility “biophilia” [regarding the latter, see The Future of Life, 134-141, 200] Purdy dismisses Wilson’s feelings toward nature as just more unrequited love. And yet Wilson’s biophilia does not seem incongruent with Purdy’s own “new sensibilities”.
When reading Purdy’s review of Wilson’s book, I was reminded of a story of an earlier legal prodigy, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, when as a senior at Harvard, presented his Uncle Waldo with an essay criticizing Plato. Emerson’s taciturn reply: “I have read your piece. When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”41 In spite of some good observations about weak points in Wilson’s outlook (and especially in areas outside of his expertise), Purdy’s review didn’t lay a glove on the great scientist or his general prescription.
Where Purdy is right is in the failure of human self-restraint to materialize on a scale to save the planet. Decades of dire warnings from environmentalists have failed to arouse the world to action. It seems unlikely that Wilson’s prescription will be anymore successful. What is required is drastic, top-down action by the nations of the world. I will discuss this in a later post.
My reading of Wilson is that the Half-Earth goal is what needs to be done in order to save the world’s biodiversity to include humankind as a small categorical subset. He leaves the messy and inconvenient details to others. Wilson and his idea are very much alive and if we wish to remain so, we must take it to heart. As a person schooled in realism, I have long believed that if necessary measures are rendered impracticable under the existing power or social structure, then it is the structure and not the remedy that is unrealistic. But the prescription has to be possible to begin with. Let this be the cautionary admonition of this essay.
My sense is that Wilson is right, but that his prescription is unlikely to be realized. In my next post, I will offer what I believe could be a general outline to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.
Adam Frank and the Biosphere Interpretation: the Anthropocene in Wide-Angle
Adam Frank, Light of the Stars, Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1018, 229 pages.
Disclaimer: I am currently still reading this book (Frank gave an admirable summary of his ideas in an interview with Chris Hedges on the program On Contact).
Any book with endorsements by Sean Carroll, Martin Rees, and Lee Smolin on the dust jacket is likely to catch the attention of those of us who dabble in cosmology. Adam Frank’s book is not about cosmological speculation or extrapolations of theoretical physics. It is about the environment in the broadest of contexts. It characterizes two distinct but overlapping worlds that ultimately merge. The first is a view of life in a cosmic sense and the other is about life and civilization in a human context and scale.
On the first point, Frank sees the Anthropocene as just another transition: humans may be causing mass extinctions, but as mammals we are equally the product of a mass extinction (the extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammals to rise to come to the fore). Hey, these things happen and some good may come out of them—we did. Life will go on even if we don’t and if we ruin the world as we knew it, relax—nature with deal with it after we are gone and will create something altogether new out of the wreckage. The Anthropocene may be bad for us—and many of our contemporary species—but we are simply “pushing” nature “into a new era” in which Earth will formulate new experiments (as all life, individual creatures, species, and periods of natural history are experiments). We are just another experiment ourselves, quite possibly a failed one (and, if we really screw things up, the Earth might end up as a lifeless hulk like Mars or Venus).
This larger amoral picture—although undoubtedly true—seems ironic coming from someone as affable, as glib as Frank. But the wide-angle gets even wider. When talking in astrological terms, it is inevitable that any thinking reed will be dazzled by the numbers and characterizations of the dimensions of the night sky, of our own galaxy and the uncounted billions of others scattered across observable universe beyond it. In this respect, Frank (like any astronomer or astrophysicists throwing numbers out about the cosmos) does not disappoint. If he had left things here, I would conclude that he is likely right, but that no thinking, feeling being could surrender to such fatalism without a fight. After all nature makes no moral suppositions, but moral creatures do. But he does not stop there.
Over the expanse of our galaxy (to say nothing of the observable universe), it is likely that life is common or at least exists in numerous places among the planets orbiting countless trillions of stars in the hundreds of billions of galaxies. It seems likely that humans are rendering the Holocene as a failed phase of the experiment, because it produced us. But life will likely persist in some form regardless of how things turn out here.
Where Frank transitions from the very large to the merely human, he synthesizes the amorality of Gray with the mythmaking of Scranton toward an end perhaps along the lines of Wilson. Unlike Gray there is no tone of judgment or chastisement. On the contrary, he believes that the whole good versus bad placing of blame of the various “we suck” perspectives should be avoided: our nature absolves us from judgment; we are just doing what any intelligent (if immature) animal would do in our situation.
Frank analogizes humankind to a teenager—an intelligent, if inexperienced, self-centered willful being who assumes that his/her problems are uniquely their own and therefore have never been experienced by anyone else before. He assumes that the sheer numbers of planets in our neighborhood of the Milky Way suggest that there are plenty of other “teenagers” in the neighborhood, some of whom have died of their folly and the inability to change their ways. Others may have learned and adapted. As for us, we need to grow up, change our attitude, and learn to sing a new and more mature song. Frank sees the human capacity for narrative as the way out, except, unlike Scranton, he believes new myths to be our potential salvation rather than just a way to die with meaning.
In an interesting parallel to Frank’s view of humans as cosmic teenagers, Wilson characterizes us and our civilization in the following terms: “We have created Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and the danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” [See Ch. 1 “The Human Condition” in Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, p. 7]. So how are we supposed to grow up?
According to Frank, in order to reach a steady-state level of human life on the planet, we need new myths about what is happening in order to drive “new evolutionary behavior.” We need narratives that will not only allow nature to proceed (a la Wilson), but which actually enhances nature—make a vibrant biosphere that is even more productive. The new narratives would provide “a sense of meaning against the universe.” They will be a way out. On this point he is like Wilson in his attempt to merge the arts and science to address the problems and embrace an all-loving biophilia.
As with Purdy, Scranton, and Wilson, Frank believes that a global egalitarianism would be necessary to achieve a steady state. Once again the problem is how to do it. How do we generate these narratives in a world where some powerful leaders do not concede that there is even a problem? If the threat of nuclear annihilation and the urging of a world-historical intellect like Albert Einstein after the bloodiest war in all human history did not push humankind even an inch toward merging into a single egalitarian tribe, one must wonder if anything can (and the history of the past century shows, that when you redistribute wealth you only standardize misery). In 1946 everybody believed that the atom bomb existed, while today, there are powerful interests and world leaders who still deny the reality of human-caused climate change. Human beings would have to completely reconfigure our relationship with nature and with each other and do it in the immediate future. Could this be done even at the gunpoint of environmental catastrophe? How would a candidate in a democratic system in a wealthy nation pitch such transformation to the electorate? Again: how do we get there? As they say Down East, you can’t get there from here.
Similarly, Frank’s analogy of humankind to a self-absorbed teenager is suggestive, but is the comparison supposed to fit into a context of a lifecycle that is historical or natural historical (i.e. is he talking about an adolescent in the context of human civilization as a phenomenon of 9,000 years, or of a species that is 200,000 years old?)? If his idea is that our species has an outlook that is adolescent in terms of evolutionary development, then it seems unlikely that we can grow up quickly enough to become a bona fide adult, that the necessary maturity to turn things around will not occur in the timeframe in which the environmental crises will unfold. Wilson talks in similar terms in at least one of his books, that we must start thinking maturely as a species un-tethered from old theistic myths and tribalism. And yet the current state of affairs suggests that we are as far away from that point as ever, that such tribalistic tendencies as ethnic nationalism and fundamentalist religion are as strong as ever. The human nature analogized by Frank and Wilson are not just sticking points to be overcome or hurdles to be jumped, but rather central facts of our animal nature that currently appear to be insurmountable.
One small issue I have with the book is the fact that the existence of life and civilizations on other planets is at this point purely conjectural. The dazzling numbers Frank presents plausibly suggest that life may be fairly common—indeed, the numbers make it seem almost ridiculous to think otherwise. But, if I recall my critical rationalist philosophy correctly, it is impossible to falsify probability, and at this point, such a claim is pure speculative probability rather than actual observation or corroboration. He talks about a conjectural “great filter”—the idea that intelligent life kills itself off (if its maturity is far behind its intelligence). Another pregnant conjecture.
What I liked especially was his description of James Lovelock and Lynn Marguis’s Gaia hypothesis, that life is an active “player” in the environmental crisis and that it is able to keep the atmosphere oxygen rich by preventing its combination with compounds thus resulting in an oxygen-free “dead chemical equilibrium” like the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. The biosphere therefore acts as a regulator keeping oxygen at a near-optimal 21% level of the atmospheric mix (it was not clear to me how severe periods such as ice ages fit into the “regulation” of the environment). This regulated balance is called a “steady state” (Lovelock analogizes this to the way the body of a warm-blooded organism regulates its temperature). Lovelock intended to call this idea the “Self-regulating Earth System Theory,” but at the urging of William “Lord of the Flies” Golding, settled instead on the more poetic “Gaia.”
With an interested “in the question of atmospheric oxygen and its microbial origin,” Lynn Margulis, wife of Carl Sagan, teamed up with Lovelock in 1970. As Frank notes, “[w]here lovelock brought the top-down perspective of physics and chemistry, Margulis brought the essential bottom-up view of microbial life in all its plenitude and power” [p. 125]. Frank observes that “[t]he essence of Gaia theory, as elaborated in papers by Lovelock and Margulis, lies the concept of feedback that we first encountered in considering the greenhouse effect” [p. 125] and “Lovelock and Marguils were offering a scientific narrative whose ties to the scale of world-building myth were explicit” [p. 127]. As an observation statement, it would seem that the Gaia hypothesis characterizing a “self-regulating planetary system,” an observable phenomenon is something close to a scientific organon supported by Lovelock’s ingenious “Daisyworld” thought experiment; whether or not the biosphere is a singular living entity that will eliminate humans as a pathogen would still seem to be a metaphysical assertion.
Unfortunately, this is as far as I have read in his book
In building on Frank’s example of humanity as an experiment flirting with failure, a friend of mine suggested the comparison of the individual human being in a time of collapse to an individual cancer cell. Imagine that such a cell was somehow conscious and could reflect on its complicity in killing a person. It might express regret yet philosophically conclude “but what can I do? I am a cancer cell.” So it is with people and their kind. Is this a denial of agency or a facing of facts? Is it an admission that human beings—neither good nor bad in the broad focus of nature (although objectively out of balance with its environment)—are like cancer cells killing a person regardless of personal moral inclinations? We are just the latest imbalance—like the asteroid (or whatever it was) that killed off the dinosaurs, and the other things that caused the other great extinctions of the Earth’s natural history. And so we arrive back at John Gray and biological destiny.
But even if we are cancer cells or merely a rapacious primate, I don’t accept such a fate—again, Nietzsche’s Will. We are also a “thinking reed.” Even if there is no free will, there is still a will with an ability to learn from mistakes and experience—we must act as if there is free will. Gray’s outlook might be a true position and yet no person as an ethical agency can morally abide by it. We are audacious monkeys and have to answer two questions: can we rise above our biology through reason and moderation and solve the seemingly insurmountable problems resulting from our own nature, and will we? I believe that he answer to the first is a cautions “yes,” The answer to the second question however may well render it an academic point.
Consider the following historical thought experiment, also suggested to me by David Isenbergh: Imagine if you could return to the late Western Roman Empire a few decades before it collapsed. You see all of the imbalances, injustice, and misery from that period. You identify yourself as a traveler from the future and tell the people you meet (you can obviously speak fifth-century Latin) that if they and their civilization did not reform their ways, there would be an apocalyptic collapse that would result in 500 years of even greater darkness and misery. Suppose too that you even were even able to get this message to the powers that be. Do you think you would be listened to, or would you be treated as mad as events continued unaltered on their way to disaster? As I have noted elsewhere, in a world of the blind, a clear-sighted man would not be treated as a king, but rather a lunatic or heretic and would likely be burned at the stake if caught.
In Malthusian terms, we are a global plague species. In geological/astronomical terms, we are just the latest phenomenon to fundamentally alter and test the resilience of life on Earth. But even if these observations are true, we are also moral beings, and to embrace them as inevitable and to recommend a posture of adaptation and wishful thinking that the planet will not deteriorate as far as the chemical equlibria of Mars and Venus, is the equivalent of justifying WWII by pointing to postwar successes of Germany, Japan, and Israel (as regards the former two, one could make the observation that sanity followed psychosis).
At the end of the review of Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, I asked: what is meaning in a dying world? I will add only this: if the human story is coming to a close, then there is one great if austere luxury of being a part of this time that is as interesting as it is unsettling. As individuals, we never know the full story of our lives until the very end (if even then). If the end of progressive civilization is upon us in a matter of decades, then we have a greater and fuller understanding of the overall human project than any people at any time in history. Rather than narratives of progress or decline, agrarian or democratic myths, historicist cycles or eschatology heading toward a terrestrial or providential endgame of history with salvation at the end, we may come to learn that history was just the progress of a plague species toward its own destruction by the means of its extended phenotype that we call civilization.
Finally, one of the things I have taken away from these six books and from my own discussions on the topic is that there are two powerful generational disconnects at play. I have noticed a powerful generational disconnect common among older people (say, over 80) who have little or no idea of the scale of the problems facing us—that modernity, civilization, their species generally are already failed projects—but who have a certain understanding of history.
The other disconnect is among young people who are far more in touch with ecological issues, see the problems for what they are, and whose various diagnose and potential remedies are at least on the scale of the problems, but whose prescriptions are unrealistic to the point of utopian absurdity. On this point, Purdy and Scranton are anomalies who know history as well as anybody, but who seem to take after others of their generation (and the subsequent generation) in being unable to apply its lessons. Frank and Wilson know natural history and yet also speak of a global egalitarian regime. To be fair, nobody has an answer, and even the one I find to be most realistic, when walked through step-by-step ends up as being something akin to utopian itself.
Several times I have analogized the crises of the environment to the early phases of WWII. The current situation is unlikely to unfold as quickly as that conflict, and it is difficult to know the point in the conflict at which we find our selves by analogy. It is unclear whether we are at the point in history analogous to the doomed conference at Versailles, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Occupation of the Rhineland, the Spanish Civil War, the Czechoslovakian crisis, the invasion of Poland or France, Operation Barbarossa, or the attack on Pearl Harbor. As I noted in the introduction, it is also unclear when we will cross a point of no return. Are we to be Churchills and Roosevelts, or are we to surrender to our fate?
Sometime later this year or early next year, I hope to post another insufferably long discourse on how we might chance to turn things around.
- William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 3rd ed., 1979, pp. 71-72, 80.
- For Eremocene or “Age of Loneliness,” see Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, p. 20. For Anthropcene, or “Epoch of Man,” see p. 9.
- David Archer, The Long Thaw, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 1.
- On political disputes disguised as scientific debates see Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2008, 445-446.
- Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015, p. 14.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014,and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006 (2015).
- See generally Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
- Alasdair Wilkins, “The Last Mammoths Died Out Just 3,600 Years Ago, But They Should Have Survived,” March 25, 2012).
- Gray cites this term to Wilson’s O. Wilson in Consilience, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Apparently Wilson also denies “that humans are exempt from the processes that govern the lives of all other animals.” Wilson uses the similar term Eremocene in Half-Earth, p. 20.
- Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, p. 29.
- See Karl Popper’s essay “A Relist View of Logic, History, and Physics” in Objective Knowledge, Oxford: Clarendon, 1979 (revised ed.), 285.
- George Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, p. 142.
- See Karl Popper: “Science: Conjectures and Refutations,” Conjectures and Refutations, New York: Basic Books, Inc., pp. 33-65. Evolution is an example of an idea that may be true but is not, strictly speaking science (although it contains scientific elements that can be tested via experimentation). Gray himself makes the point that many non-scientific ideas are often of great importance. Straw Dogs, pp. 20-23.
- On stable equlibria and tipping points, see generally, Per Bak, How Nature Works, Springer-Verlad New York, Inc., 2006.
- For Gray’s perplexing views of conscious and artificial intelligence, see Straw Dogs, pp. 187-189. We do not even know what consciousness it. It is therefore remarkable that Gray can assert that machines “will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings spiritual beings, whose inner life whose conscious thought is no more limited by conscious thought than ours.” Leaving aside weasel words like “spiritual,” it seems likely that if machines ever do become conscious, it will be the result of an uncontrolled emergent process (the way that consciousness arose as a natural phenomena), and not the product of technological progress along the current lines of algorithms and hardware. Consciousness appears to be the result of the physical (biological/electrochemical) processes of the brain. As anyone who has know someone with a brain injury, mental illness, or Alzheimer’s disease knows, to the degree that the brain is damaged, diseased, damaged, or otherwise diminished, the mind diminishes correspondingly, if unpredictably. And yet like all phenomena emerging from more primal categories, the mind is not fully reducible to physical processes. The objections to the reduction of consciousness to “mechanical principles” made by Leibniz in his Monadology, are as alive and well today as they were in 1714. See G.W. Leibniz’s Monadology, An Edition for Students, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991, Section 17, pp. 19, 83-87.
- For Gray’s prescription for the human predicament, see Straw Dogs, pp. 197-199. His idea of “the true objects of contemplation” and his “aim of life as simply to see” are sensible if austere goals toward greater intellectual and psychological honesty, and are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s idea of “forgetfulness” expounded in Section 1 his “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. But where Nietzsche advocates animal forgetfulness to allow people the freedom to act forthrightly and without inhibitions, Gray believes that action only makes contemplation possible and that the real goal is understanding without myths, false self-awareness, and the illusion of meaning. See Untimely Meditations, Cambridge University Press, R. J. Hollingdale, trans., 1983  pp. 60-67. As regards the environmental crises, Nietzsche’s prescription would allow for action (although action without historical memory would seem to be a recipe for catastrophe as a basis for policy), where Gray would allow for a dispelling of illusions for which others might allow for meaningful action even if Gray does not believe it is possible. His idea also has a curious, if inverse relationship to that of Roy Scranton in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
- Malthus speaks of the leveling of population to match resources, p. 61.
- By “closed” I mean deterministic. See generally, Karl Popper, The Open Universe, London: Routledge, 1982. In a closed universe, all events are determined and may perhaps exist in the future if time as characterized by Einstein’s block universe model is correct. As Popper observes, in a closed universe, every event must be determined where “if at least one (future) event is not predetermined, determinism is to be rejected, and indeterminism is true” (p. 6). In a closed universe there is chaos (deterministic disorder), and in an open universe there is randomness (objective disorder), and therefore the possibility of novelty and freedom.
- This analogy was suggested to me by David Isenbergh.
- See Chapter 10,“Fecundity,” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York, HaperCollins, 1974, pp. 161-183.
- For instance, see his reply to Jedediah Purdy in the January 11, 2016 number of Boston Review.
- See generally, Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, New York: Random House, 2000.
- For instance see Thomas Cahill’s popular history How the Irish Saved Civilization, and Barbra Tuchman’s chapter “Is this the End of the World: The Black Death,” in A Distant Mirror.
- Wilson, The Future of Life, 27.
- The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton University Press, 2013 , p. xliv;
- William Tecumseh Sherman, letter to James M. Calhoun, et al. September 12, 1864. Sherman’s Civil War, Selected Correspondences of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, Brooks D. Simpson and Jean D. Berlin, eds., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 707-709.
- According to Jane Jacobs, the way that healthy economies arise is through the naturalistic grown based on the natural and human resources of a region and import-shifting cities. This cannot be forced or created as a part of a top-down plan (unless it is to simply rebuild existing systems as with the Marshall Plan after WWII). See generally Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, New York: Random House, 1984 The idea of correcting economic imbalances through structural remedies would probably make bad situations even worse. My reading of historical events like the Russian Revolution and the period following the Chinese Civil War is that attempts to redistribute wealth only standardizes misery outside of the rising clique, the new elites. As David Isenbergh observes, power concentrates, and when it does, the new elites tend to act as badly as the old ones. This is one reason why Marxism—although insightful in its historical observations—fails utterly in its prescriptions.
- As the late Tony Judt observes, “[t]here may be something inherently selfish about the social service state of the mid-20th century. Blessed with the good fortune of ethnic homogeneity and a small, educated population where almost everyone could recognize themselves in everyone else.” SeeTony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.
- The analogy of a world dominated by ants or termites was suggested to my by David Isenebrgh.
- See Carl Saffina, Beyond Words, What Animals Think, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015, and Bernard Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, New York: HarperCollins, 1999. See also Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are?, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, and Mama’s Last Hug, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.
- On cellular intelligence, see James Shapiro, Evolution, a View from the 21st Century, Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2011. On symbiosis, see Lyn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, New York: Basic Books, 1999. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014,and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006 (2015).
- For instance, see generally Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, pp. 22-41.
- See note 2.
- For instance, Purdy states that “Wilson is in the minority of evolutionary theorists in arguing that human evolution is split between two levels of selection: individual selection, which favors selfish genes and groups.” I have not polled evolutionary scientists about whether or not they accept multi-level evolution, but it is safe to say that it is the not a radical idea of an apostate minority. Although not embraced by “selfish gene” ultra-Darwinists, multi-level selection a widely-accepted idea among evolutionary biologists sometimes called “naturalist” Darwinists (see generally Niles Eldridge, Reinventing Darwin, 1997. See also Stephen Jay Gould, The Structrue of Evolutionary Theory, 2002). Multi-level selection was first speculated on by Darwin himself and finds its origins in The Dissent of Man, 1871, p. 166. “It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and the advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.”
- There are formulas to predict the loss of biodiversity relative to loss of habitat, so of which decreases by smaller fractions. Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth.
- Boston Review, January 11, 2016).
- On the unimportance of definitions in critical discussions, see Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge, 58, 309-311, 328.
- See Wilson, Half-Earth, pp. 77-78. In response to a question on this point during a discussion and book signing on November 16, 2016, David Biello gave a similar interpretation of Wilson’s perspective. Biello book is The Unnatural World, New York: Scribner, 2016.
- Mark DeWolfe Howe, Justice Holmes: The Shaping Years, 1841-1870, Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1957, 154.