Category Archives: IR theory

Ignoring Extinction/Refusing Global Politics


This is a full recording of a talk I gave at the New School for Social Research in New York on 27 October, 2016, including perceptive and generous comments by Rafi Youatt. It was part of a workshop entitled “Global Politics Without Ignorance” organised by Anne McNevin, Erdinc Erdem and others at the New School. The workshop focused on different understandings of knowledge and ignorance within global politics, drawing on critical race theory and embracing a wide variety of approaches, including decolonial and posthumanist thought.

A couple of notes. First, whenever I use the terms ‘human’ or ‘humanity’ (or emphasise something weirdly), assume I’m doing air quotes. Second, I refer to a few others in the room by first name only – they are: Anne (McNevin), Rafi (Youatt), Patrick (Jackson) and Zuleika (Arashiro). Because I can’t include embedded quotes in audio form, I’d like to cite the sources of a couple of things I mention. My discussion of refusals by plants is drawn largely from the work of Wendy Makoons Geniusz and Robin Wall Kimmerer; while the discussion of the Sedna and the withdrawal of animals is drawn from the work of Tim Leduc . I also want to thank the Creatures’ Collective for inspiring and co-incubating many of the ideas discussed here.

The imagery in the background is called ‘Transversals’ and was produced during the workshop as I began thinking through this alternative to ‘(the) global’ or ‘universals’ (more on this to follow…)

Posthuman security: reflections

This month’s post comes courtesy of E-IR. It offers some reflections on the discussions related to ‘posthuman security’ that have been brewing over the past couple of years. It is part of a series that also includes contributions from Elke Schwartz, Matt McDonald and (coming soon) Carolin Kaltofen. Thanks to Clara Eroukmanoff and the E-IR editorial team for putting this series together.

This article has also been published on Global Policy Journal’s blog.  


Posthuman Security: Reflections from an Open-ended Conversation


No promises

Mass extinction, security and intervention in the Anthropocene 

This video is a full recording of my paper, given on 2 December 2014 at the international symposium (Im)mortality and (In)finitude in the Anthropocene, organised by Thom Van Dooren and Michelle Bastian. Please see the symposium’s website for recordings of the other talks and keynotes. 

About the talk: 

How can and should humans respond to mass extinction? To ask this question is to inquire into the nature and capabilities of human agency – in particular, its ability to intervene in the conditions of earthly life. In Western secular cosmology, humans are expected to intervene in being – that is, to determine the conditions of their own existence and that of the other beings with which they cohabit the Earth. This expectation has produced a powerful image of agency, one in which humans are capable of interposing themselves into spatio-temporal trajectories and channeling them in desired directions. For instance, they may absorb these trajectories within existing structures and conditions, or harness them to bring about new states of affairs. In all cases, human agency is understood to be capable of intervening ontologically to create conditions favourable to human life, and other forms of life valued by humans. The concept of intervention is most often discussed in the field of international relations, where it refers to the acts of states and international organizations to interpose themselves in trajectories of violence. However, intervention is not always an exceptional or disruptive event; increasingly, it has become an aspect of everyday life. In discourses and practices of contemporary security, interventions to predict, contain or defuse threats to human life are embedded within the mundane aspects of collective life. Crucially, these interventions are intended to keep a promise (see Aradau 2014) that the continuity of life as we know it can be maintained indefinitely.

Mass extinction raises a significant threat in terms of this notion of security and the interventions designed to achieve it. By negating entire modes of being, it precludes any possibility of their continuity into the future. Yet most contemporary responses to mass extinction follow the model of security interventions. They are reflected in techniques such as conservation, the collation of ‘big data’ on biota, the identification of ‘endangered’ species, forced breeding and other mechanisms to regulate the tempos of life and death. All of these interventions assume that it is possible for humans to intervene effectively in processes of mass extinction in order to ‘fix the problem’ – that is, to halt or at least slow it down, in order to keep the promise of security.

However, I argue that this imaginary of agency is complicated and ultimately confounded by the conditions of the Anthropocene. Within this understanding, what we tend to think of as human agency is in fact an unstable amalgam of agentic forces: biotic, geological, chemical, physical and cosmic. I argue that the conditions of the Anthropocene undermine the temporal basis of intervention: the notion that humans can stand outside of the processes into which they intervene, entering and exiting at will; the belief that humans can instrumentally redirect these processes; and the human ability to consolidate their interventions around new or previous trajectories. Instead, in the conditions of the Anthropocene, action is reflexive – there is no temporal distance between the ‘subject’ of the act and its ‘object’. Moreover, Anthropocene processes such as extinction unfold over periods and scales (both massive and miniscule) that evade human-calibrated notions of time. As such, humans cannot inter-vene in these processes. Instead, they are always-already intra-vening (Barad 2007). This means that the instrumental, linear promise of security offered by the image of intervention is replaced by the nonlinear, unpredictable, self-magnifying processes of intra-vention.

The upshot of this analysis is that humans cannot expect attempts at intervention to keep the promise of security. Does this mean that human agency is hamstrung – that is, that we can do nothing in the face of mass extinction? On the contrary, I conclude by arguing that recognition of the conditions of the Anthropocene, and of the effects of intravention, open up a range of different possibilities for facing mass extinction. Facing up to extinction without making or demanding promises can multiply the possibilities of ethical response to mass extinction, and the forms of life that they enable.

Not in the running

Why IR theory needs to join the ‘extinction marathon’

Extinction symbol - see

Extinction symbol – see

“International theory is the theory of survival” – Martin Wight, 1960

Recently, the Serpentine gallery in London hosted a timely and boundary-pushing event that they called the ‘Extinction Marathon‘ (the title seems to nod to the subversive ‘extinctathon’ network of Margaret Atwood’s ‘extinction trilogy’ ). This event was the latest in a series of annual ‘marathons’ exploring important public issues – in this case, the impending/unfolding sixth mass extinction event. It included films and installations, performance art and philosophical texts. Its impressive programme, curated by artist and activist Gustav Metzger,  was a roster of some of the most celebrated and ground-breaking artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, conservationists and campaigners working on the issue of extinction. Yet there was something missing from the list: not a single participant was a specialist in international relations (IR) theory.

This is clearly not because the Extinction Marathon’s organizers have it in for IR theorists or are deliberately excluding them. And I’m not insisting that every discipline must be ‘represented’ at every public event of this kind. On the contrary,  the absence of IR specialists illustrates an important point: almost none of us are confronting the problem of mass extinction (a notable recent exception is the new book by Brad Evans and Julian Reid). For a field rooted in the concept of survival, this is a very odd blindspot indeed.

Mass extinction epitomizes ‘existential threat’ : it may involve the destruction of many (eventually all) forms of currently-existing earthly life. It undercuts the possibility of survival as a normative horizon and a practical goal. If this is not a problem for a discipline concerned with survival, I don’t know what is.

Throughout its trans-formations and fragmentations, IR theory has been deeply, if not primarily, concerned with survival – although the term carries many different connotations. Within realism (both classic and neo-) ‘survival’ most often refers to the integrity and stability of the state within a brutal, hostile and anarchic ‘state of nature’. Within the state of nature, the subject of survival – whether the individual human or the state – is preoccupied with finding ways to sustain its existence. For instance in Waltz’s neo-realist account, survival is the bottom line for states, and the ‘ground of all action’, without which no other goals would be possible. Similarly for Morgenthau, it is the desire for survival that drives the formation of all structures and constraints on human action, including morality. Indeed, Odysseos  has argued that political realism is an “ethos of survival” – that is, a mode of relation to others based primarily on overcoming the threats they raise.

Despite the fact that it is usually associated with realism, ‘survival’ is actually one of the few concepts that links divergent theories across the gamut of IR. Perhaps most similar to the realist account of survival is its construal in constructivism. Much of Wendt’s ground-breaking argument about anarchy hinges on the survival of states and their ‘intersubjective conditions of existence’. Indeed, in this account, relations are not only sources of threat, but also of a state’s identity.  Recent work on ‘ontological security’ in IR (see Mitzen 2006, Steele 2005 and Rumelili, 2014) invoke the idea of ‘state survival’ in the form of the stable identities of states formed through reasonably predictable relations with, and recognition by, other states.

Similarly, in the Copenhagen School’s key concept of ‘securitization’, “security means survival in the face of existential threat” (Buzan et al 1999,). Indeed, the referent object in situations of securitization is defined as a thing that is ‘existentially threatened and that [has] a legitimate claim to survival” . This marks an important transition in the meaning of ‘survival’ within IR discourses. For the Copenhagen School, a referent object need not be a state; it may be a social structure, an economy – or even an endangered species.

This shift in the subject of survival is strongly reflected in discourses on human security (rooted in liberalism) and emancipatory approaches to IR and security. For instance, Booth has famously described emancipatory approaches to security as a way to bring together Wight’s “theories of the good life” and “theories of survival”. In this vein, the 1994 UNDP human development report which introduced the term ‘human security’ into public discourses, hones in on the everyday survival needs of human individuals. Likewise, in a seminal report the Commission on Human Security describes human security as ‘empowerment to survive’. In both of these cases, ‘survival’ (glossed as physical existence) is ‘not enough’. It is the minimum requirement for a much wider range of goals: for instance, the self-realization of humans as autonomous, economically, socially and politically integrated, healthy, responsible individuals. But, despite the emphasis on these other goals, survival is no less important to these discourses.

The emphasis on survival is even more pronounced in biopolitical and resilience-oriented conceptions of security, both of which critique neo-liberalism. Within the former, the imperative to survive converges with the Marxian concept of ‘species-being’. That is, security interventions seek to manage the human species as a whole, largely through regulating the lives and deaths of specific human populations. In the  context of resilience, the survival of these populations is juxtaposed with, and exposed prophylactically to, ‘catastrophes’ that threaten the existence of bio-governed life. Indeed, Aradau and Munster cite a FEMA document that classifies threats on a scale of emergency-disaster-catastrophe-extinction. This suggests that proponents of resilience are aware of the possibility of human extinction, and that, at least to some extent, they use it as a horizon for imagining the worst. And as Aradau contends, resilience discourses make no promise that humans will survive this threat. Instead, they produce a mode of existence in which security is impossible and a form of survival-without-security is the only future on offer.

This brief and highly-glossed romp through IR and security theory suggests that the concept of survival is not only integral to the foundations of the discipline, but is also alive and well (pun intended) in the most recent debates. Yet at no stage in the history of IR, and in none of these schools of thought, has there been an attempt specifically to theorize the condition that negates survival: extinction. Even at the height of Cold War strategy, aimed at preventing the devastation of life through nuclear warfare, the concept of extinction did not receive any special attention. If it is used at all in IR discourses, it is used either as a metaphor for the dissolution of states, or as a synonym for  ‘mass killing’, ‘catastrophe’ or simply ‘the unimaginable’. Indeed, the idea that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ has helped to create a profound inarticulacy about it within IR debates.

One of the reasons why IR has been slow to enter the discussion of extinction is that this discipline is highly anthropocentric – that is, it tends to assume that only humans can be subjects of attention in their own right. That is, IR considers itself to be concerned with the survival of homo sapiens and its institutions. Of course, discourses on the sixth mass extinction are deeply concerned with the probabilities and possibilities of human extinction, which should attract the attention of even the most anthropocentric of IR scholars. But, for the most part, the term ‘extinction’ tends to invoke images of other species, whose survival (or not) is  assumed to be the remit of scientists and artists.   If nonhumans are addressed in IR discourses, it is most often as ‘resources’ to be sustained in order to ensure the continuation of particular modes of human life, and ‘extinction’ is filed away as a subdivision of ‘environmental security’, rather than a central issue for IR. Other disciplines – notably the humanities, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology and scientific fields such as ecology – have been questioning anthropocentrism for decades. More recently, an exciting wave of posthumanist IR  (see, for instance here , here  and here ) have begun to challenge the human/nonhuman dichotomy that underpins IR theory and practice. But there’s much more work to be done terms of shifting the parameters of IR theory if it is to become responsive to this phenomenon, which cuts right to its core.

IR theory needs to jump into the ‘extinction marathon’ –  not the specific event discussed above, but rather the broader set of debates, discourses and interventions surrounding this issue. IR is a promising terrain in which to talk about extinction, not least because it is already oriented to debates about the meaning of ‘survival’ and could help us to think through what this concept means in an age of extinction. In addition, the increasingly global (rather than statist or inter-national) nature of IR means that it is focused on a scale that is calibrated to large-scale, complex events. Moreover, IR is already partially oriented towards planetary challenges such as climate change and global economic crises, so it offers a cognitive environment that would be (relatively) conducive to the scale and complexity of mass extinction. It is also deeply future-oriented (for better or for worse) and set up to foster discussions of future contingencies. As such, it can provide a distinctive set of intellectual and practical tools for imagining futures and responding ethically to a threatening present.

But perhaps most importantly, IR theory is one of the few disciplines that has made survival its centrepiece. If it can’t engage creatively with mass extinction – a profound challenge to Earthly survival – then its own survival as a means of navigating the present and future should be challenged.

Down to earth

(c) Routledge 2014

(c) Routledge 2014

Cosmology, secularity, worldliness

My new book , International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity, Routledge, 2014 (see here for a synopsis) is coming out in the next couple of weeks. As is the case with most academic publications, it will make its appearance long after I’ve moved into a new area of research, and one that seems, on the surface to be very different. So I wanted to reflect on a question I’ve been asking myself, and trying to explain to colleagues, more frequently as the publication date nears. Simply put, what is the link between this analysis of Western secular cosmology  and the ‘worldly’ security ethics I’m now working on? Or, in other words, how did I get here from there?

IISA is not (directly) about non-humans. It is an analysis of how Western secular notions of life and death shape practices of international intervention, and how this contributes to the production of the category of ‘humanity’. But it does focus on the links between cosmology, ontology and ethics , the perceived border between human and inhuman, and the dangers of treating the universe as a dull, ‘disenchanted’ object. This has a number of implications for thinking about a more-than-human universe and conception of security.

First, one of the main features of Western secularity is that it hones human thinking and ethics on the mundane  (or worldly) – that is, the immanent realm, or the concrete, ontic sphere experienced by humans. As IISA argues, Western secular beliefs are not entirely devoid of transcendence, but they entail a limited concept of transcendence which takes place on earth. For example, instead of positing life after death on a higher plane, Western secular beliefs tend to focus on providing a lasting legacy of lives, or forms of life, in ‘this world’ (that is, in human time, space and social structures). This focus on the immanent, and on the various forms of semi-transcendence within it led me to move away from transcendental and metaphysical notions of harm, and towards the worldly  approach.

Second, IISA is a study of cosmology – not in the scientific sense, which deals with the physical aspects of the universe, but rather in the anthropological sense, which focuses on human beliefs about how the universe is ordered. Indeed, one of the central arguments of the book is that Western secular cosmology frames humans as the highest beings in a hierarchy, and simultaneously places the full responsibility for maintaining their status into human hands. It explores how humans carve out the ‘category of the human’ within what appears to be a totally immanent, human-dominated universe. Thinking about cosmology in this way helps to explain the sources of extremely anthropocentric ethical models – for instance, those of liberal cosmopolitanism and human security – which treat human well-being as the only possible bottom line, and exclude everything else in the universe from ethical consideration. Recognizing this is, I think, crucial to developing notions of harm that are not limited by the boundaries of the human (as they are perceived at a given historical juncture).

Third, and in a related sense, writing IISA made me think a great deal more critically about the idea of agency, in particular agency exercised on a large scale. I argue that ‘intervention’  – whether in the form of military action or the gradual processes of peace-building – is a distinct conception of agency. It’s also one that humans have usurped from somewhere else. Specifically, I argue that the traditional Judeo-Christian image of ‘divine agency’ has been transferred, at least within Western secular belief, into human hands. This means that humans are now held responsible for defining the parameters of humanity, responding to the ‘evils’ that beset it, shoring up its boundaries and deciding on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of human  life and death. Placing these beliefs within the context of a specific and contingent cosmology (Western secularity) helps to denaturalize them, and to recognize them as one account among many possible ones. This led me to think much more carefully about alternative forms of causality, including new materialist, object-oriented and other more-than- human analyses of causation and force in the universe.

Fourth, IISA explores how the category of ‘humanity’ has been carved out and defended largely by drawing a sharp, qualitative distinction between humans and the rest of the universe. Many eminent philosophers (including Arendt and Agamben) have given convincing accounts of how humans distinguish themselves from other kinds of beings – for instance, by positing criteria for humanity or disavowing ‘animal-like’ traits. What I wanted to know was why they do this, and the conditions that make it seem possible to do this. So, I decided to look more closely at the different ways in which dehumanization can happen. Ultimately, I argue that it is based on the belief in (or one analogous to),  ‘disenchantment’ : the stripping of intrinsic meaning from the nonhuman universe.  Moreover, without an external (that is, a divine) guarantor, to the Western secular mind it looks as if humans are entirely responsible for creating and maintaining the category of humanity. This makes it seem necessary for humans to distinguish themselves against other beings, and a belief in disenchantment makes it appear possible to do so. This, I argue, is how dehumanization happens: because we believe that it can, and because we stake our humanity on our ability to enact it.  IISA focuses mostly on how this process affects humans, but of course it also has important implications for everything excluded from the category of the human. Indeed, if dehumanization involves the disenchantment of humanity, then disenchantment as a process involves the dehumanization of the entire universe except for those beings deemed to be ‘fully human’.

Fifth, one of the major tenets of Western secularity is the idea that humans are ‘alone in the universe’. This is quite a scary thought when we think about the kinds of challenges  or ‘global catastrophic risks’ with which we, and our world(s) are faced.  At the risk of massive over-generalization, many transcendent systems of belief offer some sort of recourse in the face of such harms.  Perhaps one or more deities might intervene to protect humans, or total meaninglessness might be avoided if there is a divine plan. Or, alternatively, the promise of a ‘higher’ plane of being, or perhaps an afterlife, might take the edge off the horror of total annihilation. But in most Western secular belief systems, it is entirely up to humans to confront and respond to these threats, using only their powers of cognition, rationality, imagination, affect, agency, and so on. This raises a difficult question: what kinds of options does a person living in a Western secular framework have for confronting the enormity of these threats and harms? She could go it alone, even if this means accepting that the universe is meaningless, and that all of our attempts to project meaning onto it are doomed. Or she could adopt a transcendent framework that might help us to cope with our horror and might even guarantee our place in the universe. Alternatively, she could reject the notion of disenchantment and try to find meaning, beauty, attachment and other forms of value in planet that is frightening, volatile, indifferent to our well-being and potentially facing catastrophic transformations. This third option is the one I’m currently pondering.

So, thinking about Western secularity is a great starting point for exploring the more-than-human aspects of politics, security, ethics and ontology. In fact, I would argue that it’s no coincidence that many of the authors working in this area are rooted in Western secular lines of thought and institutional settings.  Indeed, my goal is not to denigrate Western secularity, which deserves as much respect as any other belief system. Nor do I want to valorize it, or to reproduce its deeply problematic dichotomies and hierarchies. Instead, I want to think about the various possibilities within Western secular forms of thinking, in conjunction with insights from other cosmologies and Western secularity’s less dominant variants. In short, I think that paying attention to cosmology is crucial for thinking about how we can live well in the face of an unknowable universe and ‘unthinkable’ threats.

Making a ‘cene’


Image by Samovaari ( Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution Non-commercial ( )

Looking to become less self-centred and more reflective about the harm you do to the world? Interested in adopting a broader perspective, considering the well-being of others and maybe even gaining some humility about your place in the universe? What better way than to name an entire geological era after yourself?

The concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a warning to humans that they must acknowledge and mitigate their destructive effects on the Earth. Its coiner, Paul Crutzen, has used it to draw attention to how human action  has shaped the planet and its complex systems in ways that are unpredictable, long-lasting (in geological timescales), and potentially threatening to humans as well as many other kinds of beings.

‘Anthropocene’ is not just a descriptive term. It is meant to function as a mirror held up to humanity, enabling it to reflect on the long-term damage our species has wrought. So, it should be a valuable concept for anyone interested in critiquing  human dominance and its effects.

But in fact, the existing concept of the ‘anthropocene’ magnifies and sometimes even valorizes radical anthropocentrism, reverence of human agency and the desire to gain mastery over nature.  In fact, instead of calling for an end to the logics that have created potentially irreversible change, it expresses an anxiety that humans have not yet made the world in their own image. In other words, it does not so much reflect an appeal to move beyond a world shaped by human agency, but rather to achieve one.

Although the concept is hotly debated, a scan of the literature suggests that much of the controversy surrounds when it can be said to have started (see some recent contributions to this debate, for instance here , here and here ), how it can be measured, or whether it exists at all (the position of climate change deniers). I think that the concept itself should be controversial, not for the empirical claims that it makes, but rather for the ontological assumptions it entrenches – and for the fears and desires it projects.

First, as scholars like Bruno Latour and Phillippe Descola have pointed out,  the dominant concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is rooted in a radical dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘the human’. This is evident in Crutzen’s claim that the major marker of the anthropocene is the deviation of the climate from ‘natural behaviour’ as a result of human actions.  Indeed, Crutzen and Steffen argue that, although the Earth’s climate is subject to variations, human activity has shifted it “well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over the last half million years”. In a similar vein, scholars concerned with restoring ecosystems to correct for these changes aim to return to a ‘natural state’ (for these researchers this is problematically defined as the states existing before European colonization). In each of these cases, human activity is treated as an independent force that acts on (rather than in, or as part of) the Earth and its complex systems, glossed as ‘nature’.

Aside from its ontological and ethical implications, this divide it is also a powerful source of securitization. ‘Nature’, in these discourses, is often treated as a threatening force that is at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, towards human flourishing. For instance, Zalasiewicz et al claim that if human terraforming stopped entirely, that “nature would soon take over these constructions, reducing them to ruins in a matter of centuries. After a few millennia, perhaps only a patchy layer of concrete and building rubble would remain”. A similar argument is made by Alan Weisman in his fascinating counterfactual book, The World Without Us. Weisman argues that, if a human-specific virus wiped humanity from the planet tomorrow, everything from houses to subway systems may be destroyed in a matter of decades by the ‘return’ of nature. Likewise,  James Lovelock claims that, when the energy crisis he predicts for the next couple of decades occurs, cities will not only be destroyed, but also consumed. As he puts it, “within a week, all that was alive is dead. The corpses are slowly repossessed by the natural world” (89)

In these cases, ‘nature’ is presented as a quasi-hostile force that would destroy humans if they were to relax their grip on the controls. In fact, these narratives draw on a notion of malevolence that echoes the animism that is so often maligned by Western secular science.

At least, however, this understanding of malevolent ‘nature’ nods at the agency of nonhumans, but it does so in a very limited way. Weisman’s book teems with beings that crowd, thrust, crack, wind, pound and burn their way through human-made artefacts. In this one sense, it is very attuned to the ‘actancy’ of beings other than humans. But, oddly, Weisman focuses almost exclusively on their destructive potential vis a vis human civilization. He doesn’t mention that, or how, their actancy was just as crucial in processes of worldmaking – including those in which humans are not a significant presence. As a result, the causal force of most other beings is treated as largely hostile.

It’s no coincidence that many of these discourses predict a future in which humans are  gone, decimated or severely reduced in capabilities. The upshot of all this is that future counterfactuals about the anthropocene often reflect a deathly fear of the end of the anthropocene. This is often linked, however subtly, to the demise of the human, which suggests that humans must control the planet in order to survive in it.

This highlights a paradox at the centre of the concept of the ‘anthropocene’: although the concept is supposed to help us to critique human dominance, it does not encourage humans to relinquish their grip on the control panel. On the contrary, it offers images that make it seem all the more necessary and urgent for humans to redouble their control over ‘nature’ in order to avoid being destroyed. This places the desire to gain control – that is, to self-consciously bring an ‘anthropocene’ age into being – at the heart of this concept.

This desire  has produced conflicting images of nature as a piece of inert matter for humans to control (an image which is not at all new). Indeed, the powerful idea behind anthropocene thinking is that humans have made their own geological epoch, turning our ‘redesigned atmosphere’ into a ‘human artifact’ (Weisman, 2008).

Image by Steve Lynx ( Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial (

Image by Steve Lynx ( Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial (

Proponents of the concept offer different images of human planetary craftsmanship. For some authors, ‘nature’ is shaped like raw materials by human tools (Zaliewicz et al, 2011 – see above), while for others, human activity is akin to a natural force – but not actually counted as one (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003 – see above). Steffen et al cite Vladimir Vernadsky’s treatise Geochemistry, in which it was claimed that the Earth had entered a ‘psychozoic era’,  in which human consciousness and reason had reshaped ‘living matter and inert matter’. Similarly, Lovelock has called humans the ‘nervous system’ of the planet, as if mind were a unique property of humans, which they project onto other beings.

From this perspective, nonhuman beings are either dead matter to be hewn, or living matter to be manipulated. Indeed, Steffen et al go on to claim that one of the key features of the anthropocene in the 21st century is the human mastery of ‘living matter’, or ‘life itself’, through the engineering (or commandeering) of its molecular and genetic bases. The idea that ‘nature’ is inert suggests that humans are the only source of agency or force acting on a  motionless, dead Earth, ignoring the multiple sources of agency to which Latour (amongst others) draws our attention.

This raises another red flag with the current concept of the anthropocene: it vastly overestimates, and valorizes, human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, the crux of Crutzen’s argument is that human activity has usurped ‘natural’ forces as the primary determinant of the Earth’s future. Simon Dalby argues that “the much-quoted line from Genesis about humanity as having dominion over nature…can now simply be read as a statement of fact – that is the point of the Anthropocene” (p. 164).

The idea of dominion is key. As in other narratives focused on human exceptionalism, the point is not simply that humans can change the planet on a massive scale, but also that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Smith and Zeder acknowledge that other animals can engage in niche construction, but humans are the only beings to make the entire planet their ‘niche’. The upshot is that human agency is treated as unique, as a form of meta-agency that supercedes – or at least can match  – all other forms of causality and force.

This, in turn, effaces the role that other beings play in the emergence of the phenomena in question. Millions of processes – chemical reactions, the adaptation of species in relation other living and non-living beings, geological processes and so on – have interacted with human agency to produce them.  Of course, scientific discourses of the anthropocene mention these processes, but they treat them as features of nature, rather than co-actants in the formation of worlds.

Dalby’s reference to the Biblical notion of human dominance also reflects a powerful idea: that humans have literally usurped roles once assigned to deities or higher powers. Donna Haraway suggests that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a secular version of the old Christian story in which all of the Earth labours to give birth to humanity, its ultimate destroyer. I would argue that the Western secular transformation of this story has also added something new to the mix. Elsewhere, I have argued that a hallmark of Western secular belief is the transferral to humans of tasks and capabilities once assigned to the divine. This includes the duty to intervene in the lives of humans and other beings, and even to define their forms of being.

This belief is reflected clearly in notions of geo-engineering – one of the proposed solutions to the threats faced by humans in the ‘anthropocene’ – which elevate human agency to a deity-like status.  As Stephen Schneider puts it, “in literature and myth, only gods and magicians had access to controls over the elements” (p.3844), but geo-engineering places this task squarely in human hands. This is a textbook example of the Western secular belief that divine agency has been transferred to human hands.

Geo-engineering  takes the basic idea of the anthropocene – the alteration of the planetary system by humans – and packages it as a virtue, perhaps even a necessity for human survival. Whether schemes to artificially whiten clouds, create massive algae blooms to sink carbon or even implement a massive sunshade in space to deflect solar radiation, these mega-projects all rely on concentrated, magnified human domination of other beings to sustain anthropocene conditions. Many scientists have raised doubts about geo-engineering, but they focus primarily on the uncertainty surrounding its effectiveness or its effects. Very few, if any, have raised questions about the wisdom of accentuating anthropocentric logics in order to solve the problems they have helped to create.

Indeed, the idea of geo-engineering prescribes one of its most potent sources of the ‘anthropocene’ crisis as a cure. That is, they almost invariably call for more, and more massive,  anthro-instrumental action, the bottom line of which is keeping the Earth comfortably habitable for humans. Granted, Lovelock argues in his typically controversial way that one way of responding to climate crisis is to, like a 19th century doctor who knows little about the disease with which his patient is grappling, ‘let nature take its course’. But in the same breath, he argues that large-scale geo-engineering projects may be necessary to ensure the survival of the human and many other species. In either case, these discourses return to the deep anxiety that the conditions for human life will end, and the powerful desire to create an era in which they can be preserved.

A major alternative response to the problems of the ‘anthropocene’, the ‘planetary boundaries approach’ reflects a wariness about placing too much faith in god-like projects whose outcomes we can’t confidently predict. Instead, it seeks to return human beings to the conditions of the Holocene. Proponents of this approach argue that this is possible if we can find thresholds ‘intrinsic to nature’  (for instance, freshwater use or oceanic acidification), and either return below them or refuse to cross them. This, they claim, will “offe[r] a safe operating space in which humanity can pursue its further development and evolution” (Steffen et al, 2011, 860 – see above). The planetary boundaries approach seems to avoid the worst anthropocentric excesses of geo-engineering. But ultimately, its goals are the same: to ‘return’ to – or perhaps to  create for the first time conditions – that are ideal for humans. Again, the single-bottom line of anthro-instrumental thinking lies at that heart of this approach.

Image by Derringdos Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial (

Image by Derringdos Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial (

In sum, existing discourses of the anthropocene promote a quite strident form of anthropocen( e) trism. This means that adopting and using the concept is problematic for anyone who wants to challenge the major pillars of human dominance and exceptionalism: the human/nature divide, the notion of an inert and/or hostile ‘nature’, and the deification of human agency. In its current form, the term ‘anthropocene’ is also problematic for those who want to see a movement away from the deification of human agency.

So should weak or non-anthropocentrists  boycott the concept of the anthropocene? On the contrary, we should struggle to shape it. Most importantly, we should try to expose the fear and desire that drive the current calls to amplify human control and to complete the human domination of the cosmos.

Crucially, its emphasis could shift toward a kind of ‘multiple-bottom line’ in which human survival (or comfort) was one amongst many considerations.  Yes, this might involve contemplating – and I don’t mean welcoming, let alone celebrating –  the idea that the human population might take a big hit or even disappear. This, in turn, would mean accepting that the planet would not, in fact, end as a result of our demise. Thinking about these scenarios is a good way of exploring the outer boundaries imposed by human fear and desire. But there are also many less extreme scenarios, which might involve emphasizing the needs of other species when thinking about ideal planetary ‘conditions’ and understanding that change does not affect all forms of being uniformly.

To explore the possibility that humans could live and even thrive in a geological era they don’t dominate is not necessarily to call for a return to a pre-industrial or ‘primitive’ form of human life. On the contrary, it involves distinguishing between the concept of flourishing and that of domination, and finding ways of life that reflect the former.

Finally, a re-jigged concept of the anthropocene might challenge the dictum that the efforts of humans to (re)shape the world are uniformly ‘bad’ for ‘nature’ (a notion which is even reflected in critics of geo-engineering). As Rosi Braidotti points out, terraforming (or directed world-building) is one way in which humans intersect with other beings and, in Deleuzian language, ‘become-Earth’. It might be that the best way forward is to look for forms of terra-forming that are more aware and respectful of the other beings with which humans co-constitute worlds, that acknowledge and draw on various forms of agency, actancy and complex causality.

Most people  who use the term ‘anthropocene’ want to see an end to the enormous damage that may result from human interventions in the Earth system. But do they call for an end to an era of human domination? Not very often. While the conditions associated witht he anthropocene are treated as deeply undesirable, the image of an anthropocene – an age controlled by humans – is the subject of desire lying beneath this discourses . To make this argument is not to deny the catastrophic events and phenomena described by those who subscribe to the concept of the ‘anthropocene’. Rather, it is to contest the ontological and affective underpinnings of the concept, and the subtle ways in which it pushes us into highly damaging logics and beliefs. We should not assume that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ automatically performs a critical function. It needs to be appropriated – perhaps even subverted – in order to do this.



A world of harm

ImageA few words on my new article, Only human? a worldly approach to security‘, Security Dialogue, Vol. 45, 1, pp. 5-21.

It’s hard to get a handle on harm. Almost any act of harm we can think of  – from full-scale wars to the gradual erosion of ecosystems – impacts on multiple beings and forms of being. This means that harm is always worse than we think it is, and perhaps more complex than we can ever grasp. But my new article argues that this is no excuse for ignoring the depth and multiplicity of harm – or for not trying to grasp it.  International relations, and the field of security, are largely pragmatic, operating in a context of limited resources, competing demands and entrenched interests. So they tend to respond to harms by simplifying them and making them actionable within this context. Usually, this means focusing on just one (or at most a few) subjects: humans, or states, or occasionally objects such as the artefacts designated as ‘heritage’ and protected under international law. Even highly critical and generous conceptions of harm such as those of Andrew Linklater, usually draw the boundary line around humans or the animals with which they identify.

But if we really want to get a handle on what harm is and what it does, we need to keep two things in mind. First, harm happens to multiple beings. Second, these beings cannot be treated separately or simply added up. Rather, the beings harmed are inter-twined and co-constitute each other, so what is harmed is not a single being or a group thereof, but a whole, unique world. So, if we want to respond ethically and practically to harm, we need to see worlds and the conditions of worldliness as what Rob Walker calls the ‘subject of security’. “Only Human” is my first stab at addressing this problem. I argue that we should understand harms not in terms of human subjects (however broadly construed), but rather in terms of complex, co-constituted worlds. Then I explore a series of approaches (largely from philosophy and applied ethics) to dealing with harm beyond the human.

First, I ask whether we need to ditch anthropocentrism entirely in order to understand harm. Drawing on weak anthropocentric ethics, I argue that there it’s not possible fully to escape an anthropocentric perspective. But there is nothing wrong with a perspective that starts from the human, as long is it is not one that instrumentalizes all other beings to human needs. But I also argue that we need to rethink humans as part of worlds – that is, as beings that co-constitute and are co-constituted by, a range of other beings.

Second, I explore the ‘expanding circle’ approach to ethics that has been popularized by Peter Singer, Paola Cavalieri and many other key thinkers in the area of animal studies. But I also discuss arguments to protect artifacts and made objects on the basis that they help to make us human, put forward by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Elaine Scarry and, more recently, Martin Coward. This approach allows for some other beings to be protected within existing laws and norms of security. But it also means that myriad other beings are excluded, and that harm is treated as an aggregate, rather than the property of a whole. So this approach can’t help us to understand harms to worlds, either on an ontological or an ethical level.

Third, I discuss the more recent contributions of ‘new materialism’ (especially the work of William Connolly and Jane Bennett). This includes the notions that all material beings participate in be(com)ing, and that humans should cultivate responsiveness to the quasi-agential powers of other beings. New materialism, I argue, offers a powerful ontological challenge to existing practices and norms of security by forcing us to look more carefully at causality and to reconsider the inertness of the ‘stuff’ of security (and of being). But it doesn’t expand enough on what kind of ethics this shift might entail, which makes it hard to think about security ethics – that is, about what we harm and what we should protect.

Taking all of this into account, the article reconciles aspects of all three approaches. It goes on to show that there is no need to throw out categorical thinking entirely in order to comprehend harms to worlds, and that there is no inherent inconsistency between weak anthropocentrism and new materialism or ‘expanding circle’ approaches. Rather, I argue that a ‘worldly’ approach to security involves transforming existing concepts of harm to reflect the ontological conditions of worldliness. This approach offers a new concept – ‘mundicide’- to capture harm through this lens. Mundicide is not intended to be a legal category, but rather a phenomenological concept to help us think harm to worlds and worldliness.  Instead of going into detail here, I’ll let interested readers see how I approached this – and whether or not they think I’ve succeeded.

An important caveat: I’m still convinced that it’s impossible to grasp harm in its full enormity, whatever its scale. And it’s definitely beyond the capacity of humans to prevent or respond adequately to all forms of harm.  But I think that we can still make more of our (limited) human perspective and capacities to gain a better sense of what harm entails and how we might respond to it. In fact, I think that our current understandings of harm can be expanded massively, and in multiple directions – for instance, through awareness of other forms of being, of multiple timescales, of multiple physical scales and properties, and so on.  And I think that discussions of security (international or otherwise) are an important place to do this. Let me know what you think!

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