Tag Archives: anthropocentrism

Worldly Security: Security Dialogue Podcast

Anthropocene Globes 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Anthropocene Globes 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

In this podcast for Security Dialogue, I talk with Claudia Aradau  about worldliness, critical security studies, new materialism and global ethics. We also discuss the future contributions that more-than-human thinking can make to security studies, and vice versa. The discussion relates to my February 2014 article “Only Human: Beyond Worldly Security”. More information about the article and can be found here.

You can listen to the podcast here.


The meaning of extinction: ABC National Radio interview

What does it mean to go extinct? And what does the prospect of the sixth mass extinction mean for global ethics? In this interview with Joe Gelonesi on ABC National Radio’s The Philosopher’s Zone, Thom Van Dooren and I discuss the ontological, ethical and relational aspects of mass extinction. The discussion ranges across a number of topics: the difference between extinction and death; the challenges mass extinction raises to global ethics; and  the modes of violence involved in conservation practices. It draws on my new project on mass extinction and global ethics, and on Thom’s recent work on relations of ‘violent care’  established between humans and endangered bird populations around the world.

The full podcast can be downloaded here, or on the Philosopher’s Zone website .

You can also read Joe’s blog post about the broadcast here.

Bird Silhouette by Pontla. Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivs 2.0http://bit.ly/1HA2WJj

Bird Silhouette by Pontla. Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivs 2.0http://bit.ly/1HA2WJj

Making a ‘cene’


Image by Samovaari (http://bit.ly/1drmtcr) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution Non-commercial (http://bit.ly/1fIYVEV )

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 (http://bit.ly/1fIZMWh) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

Image by Steve Lynx (http://bit.ly/1fIZMWh) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

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 http://bit.ly/1drmtcr Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

Image by Derringdos http://bit.ly/1drmtcr Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

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!

Pop apocalypticism: Bob Geldof and the End of the World


Photo by Celesteh licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Bob Geldof has recently claimed that the world will end – and soon, perhaps in the next 17 years. In an address to a summit of young people in Johannesburg, he warned that anthropogenic climate change could lead to ‘the end’. His speech was rife with neo-apocalyptic themes, including an arbitrary yet specific date for the end of the world and references to unspecified ‘signs’ of impending doom. Geldof presented himself as a kind of millenarian prophet, pronouncing judgment on humanity (let’s not forget the messiah-complex lyrics of his song ‘The End of the World’, in which he compares his prophecy to those of Buddha and Nostradamus).

Apocalyptic posturing like this is counter-productive if the goal is to inspire innovative action around climate change. On the contrary, it’s more likely to provoke a sense of despair and helplessness, resentment at previous generations and the damaged ‘world’ that threatens to snuff out humanity.

But what I find most jarring about Geldof’s claims is that he equates the end of the world with a ‘mass extinction’ event that will wipe out the human species. From this perspective, ‘the world’ will cease to exist if humans in their current form are not here to inhabit it.  Indeed, he claims that “The world can decide in a fit of madness to kill itself”. Given that the only subjects referred to in his speech are humans, we can only assume that the ‘it’ in this sentence is ‘humanity’, and that the self-destruction of humanity is the destruction of the world. The idea that ‘humanity’ and ‘the world’ are co-extensive is a common and misleading one, and it is an example of anthropocentrism at its most extreme.

A great deal of the discourse on climate change is oriented towards protecting ‘humans as we know them’ and maintaining their ways of life. But the truth is that ‘the world’ is not only human. The scope of evolution shows us that species come and go  – and, of course, evolve. Truly challenging thinking about how to cope with world-threatening events does not frame the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ as the end of the world, but rather as a shift into a different configuration of the world.

This is not necessarily a good thing for humans. And I am most certainly not suggesting that we should sit back and accept the destruction of humanity. But we need to use the possibility of humanity’s destruction as a prompt for thinking about multiple possible futures, not for mongering fear about certain and inevitable destruction. We are mired in international security discourses obsessed with uncertainty. Yet it is actually perceived certainties like the one Geldof professes that most suppress human action and ethical sensibilities. They do so by making all outcomes appear pre-determined and all attempts to change them pointless or unfeasible.

There is a need to talk about what the world will look like in the future as a result of destructive human action, and if/when humans (at least as we know them) may no longer exist.  This conversation is already going on in a number of places, not least the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.    In the public sphere, this discussion needs to focus on what the world might be like without humans, instead of assuming that it will be no more.

Thinking about the possibility of a (literally) post-human universe can help us better to understand what we mean by ‘human’ and what we want humanity’s role in the world to be. It can also help to set humans into context, placing us back into the broader sweep of geological time from which humanism has artificially removed our species.  

It may engender a more realistic sense of human capabilities, putting human agency into perspective by juxtaposing it with much larger forces and events and encouraging us to think about how our agency might be combined with these forces in more positive ways. And, by forcing us to think about a world where we don’t exist but other beings do, it can help us to cultivate humility in relation to other beings and ways of life.

At its very best, thinking about the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ it can cause humans to imagine creative ways of responding in the face of the loss, destruction and radical finitude. The pangs of melancholy or anticipated loss can help us to engage with the world with a greater sense of attachment and respect. Awareness of finitude and the massive scale of time can help us better to value and attend to the conditions that we cherish.

All of these things are likely to lead to a sense of commitment to the world that can inspire creative action.  They offer much stronger for inspiring action  because they are based on positive affective attachments rather than nihilism and fear.  

In other words, a little bit of apocalyptic thinking can be a good thing – and it may be necessary if humans are to make even a minimally adequate response to the large-scale harms to which they have contributed so much.

The problem with Geldof’s brand of pop apocalypticism is that it backs humans into a corner. Claiming that the world will end within 17 years makes human action seem impossible or at least ineffective.

It also entrenches the fantasy of human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, Geldof calls on his audience to respond to their impending demise by being ‘more human’ – that is, by reasserting human agency. It is precisely this kind of anthro-instrumental logic that closes humans to meaningful connections with other beings and underwrites their destructive consumption of the world.

On the other hand, an outlook that entirely denies the possibility of human extinction can focus human thinking too narrowly on short-term , small-scale efforts. This outlook fails to push human thought and ethics to its borders, and therefore is likely to produce conservative and uncreative responses.

So it’s important to hold the idea of human extinction suspended in our minds as a contingency, in two senses: as one possibility among many, and as a point from which many possibilities may emerge.

Ironically, this may be the only way to generate the ethically-infused action needed to protect humans and the many other kinds of beings with whom we form a world. To do this, we need to contemplate the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ without treating it as the end of the world.

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