We Need a New Metaphysics of Nature

by Dr. Sean McGrath

The Anthropocene is the buzzword of contemporary ecocriticism. Notwithstanding the status of the term’s scientificity (or lack thereof), I find in its account of the historical present the surgical precision of poetry. The Anthropocene can be interpreted either as the exaltation of the human, become now so awesome as to constitute a planetary force, or as its humiliation. As the exaltation of the human, the Anthropocene signifies the ascension of human civilization to a position of power beyond that of any previous form of life on earth. Homo sapiens has become a geological power in the solar system; it is now capable of deliberately altering the course of natural history. No longer merely one form of life among others, the human species has finally overtaken the planet. It rules the world now, and its decisions will continue to influence the fate of other earthlings. As technology advances, we will re-make the earth unto full carrying capacity and then bid it farewell in order to colonize other planets.

Considered from the other side, however—as the humiliation of the human—the Anthropocene confronts us with our vulnerability to what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects” such as the climate, global warming, or indeed, Earth itself. We are destined to suffer the unforeseen effects of evolution. The contradiction that emerges in comparing these opposite perspectives is at the centre of contemporary ecological debate. Following Bruno Latour and Slavoj Žižek, I believe that we ought to read the Anthropocene as an example not of the triumph of human reason but of its deflation. If we once thought ourselves god-like in our capacity to transcend the material conditions of our lives, we can do so no longer. Even the fantasy of a post-human uploading of the contents of the human mind is dispelled by the simple observation that someone is going to need to materially monitor the physical data-bank, which is anything but impervious to climate (try leaving your laptop out in the rain).

Humiliation is not necessarily a bad thing. To be brought down to earth (humble, Middle English, from the Latin humus, ground) may be the best chance we have of surviving our own success. Neither is the smashing of idols necessarily the death of nature; it might be its unveiling. With the demolition of the romanticized nature of environmental writing and its exaltation of nature imagined as a ‘balanced whole’ which humans have upset by their rapacious technological will to mastery, nothing is lost but an ideological fiction. Environmentalism might indeed be the new opiate of the people, but that is not to say there is nothing to it: in its popular form, environmentalism is classic ideology, a set of disavowed lies we tell ourselves to secure an identity or shore up an imperiled privilege. We feel good when we recycle because it allows us to persist in our assumption, which on some level we know to be false, that we can have our cake and eat it too: We can be consumers and not consume; we can enjoy the pleasures of Western affluence without feeling guilty about the costs (the daily perishing of not only millions of people but of countless species and ecosystems). Oil companies dedicate millions to  eco-friendly PR precisely because of their keen sense of the ideological power of environmentalism. They hire attractive young people to stand in front of pristinely wild landscapes with an earnest message that we and they know is untrue: Exxon, Shell, and BP really care about the environment.

Just as the god who expires in the nineteenth century could not possibly have been the creator of heaven and earth, but was a mere prop designed by early-modern thinkers to bolster the teetering tower of human knowledge, so the nature declared dead by contemporary eco-critics was never alive. On the contrary, ecological iconoclasm reopens the question concerning the meaning of nature in a much more vital way than we have seen in years. “Accept the risk of metaphysics,” Latour writes. I am inclined to take him at his word: it’s time for a new metaphysics of nature, one that assimilates the results of the sciences, the critique of eco-ideology, and the psychology of living in an age of mass extinction, climate change, and an uncertain future for the earth.

 

[1] The term “hyperobject” is Timothy Morton’s and refers to beings that are so temporally and spatially massive that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is. See Morton (2013).

 

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