Saturday, January 21, 2017

#21 / Tick Tock

"The geologic clock has ticked." 

That is how Jedediah Purdy, a law professor at Duke University, starts his essay titled, "The New Nature," published in Boston Review. Under his picture on the first page, Purdy makes a statement and asks a question: 

It is impossible to divorce nature from human influence. Can that influence be democratic?

I am all for democracy, and certainly hope that anyone reading this blog would agree that our future "can" be democratic. That, however, is definitely going to depend on what we do now, at least in my view. We can't really take democracy for granted. 

Genuine democracy has been on the decline in the United States for some time, and whether or not our political system is going to be democratic in the future remains to be seen. Democratic forms of government are being challenged all around the world, and that's happening right here, too. Our most recent presidential election, it seems to me, will either usher in a period of an explicitly authoritarian government, or will act like a vaccination, and stimulate some democratic "antibodies" that will move our body politic away from totalitarian and authoritarian tendencies, and towards a more healthy relationship to democracy. 

For the purpose of my commentary today, though, I don't want to focus on questions about democracy. Let's focus on Purdy's assertion that "it is impossible to divorce nature from human influence."

On its face, Purdy's statement here is obviously true. Humans live in a human-created world that they construct within the World of Nature. "Ultimately," we live in the World of Nature, but most "immediately" we live in a world that we create. That's my "Two Worlds Hypothesis." One of the inevitable corollaries to this hypothesis is that our human actions will "influence" the World of Nature, which is what Purdy asserts.

Purdy's essay, though, seems to go beyond the idea that human actions simply "influence" the Natural World. As his title, "The New Nature," hints, Purdy is actually suggesting that the World of Nature is now "created" by human action, and that we are embarked upon the task of remaking the World of Nature anew. I think that's what he means by saying, "the geologic clock has ticked." Purdy is referring to the idea that we are now in a new geologic era, the "Anthropocene," and is taking that idea to its logical endpoint. What's "new" about Nature is that it is now essentially determined by human choice and human action. That seems to be Purdy's thesis. Here are some statements from the essay:

The Anthropocene adds nature to the list of things we can no longer regard as natural.
The Anthropocene future is, unavoidably, a collective human project. The sense in which it is collective is, for the moment, merely empirical: the material life of the species, orchestrated in an increasingly integrated economic and technological order, is shaping the world.
The future of the earth will be the product of the ways in which human beings ... get our food, shelter ourselves, and move from place to place ...
As a practical matter, “Nature” no longer exists independent of human activity.

Unlike the statement that human actions "influence" Nature, the statements above outline another,  and completely different, proposition.

Purdy's essay is worth reading in its entirety, and there is no doubt in my mind that Purdy is right that the relationship between our human actions and the World of Nature is increasingly one in which humans are asserting their complete dominion over Nature, to the point that they are coming to believe that Nature itself is (and either must or should be) the product of human choice and activity. 

I am urging that we resist this conception, which reflects a movement away from a sense of human "deference" to Nature, and asserts that the right relationship of human beings and the Natural World is, or should be, one of human "dominion" and "domination." 

Human beings are "creatures," living within the World of Nature, a world that they did not create themselves. A claim that Nature must or should be what human beings decide it will be (whether the decisions are made democratically or not), is a demonstration that we have lost our bearings. 

Democracy (or not) is a consequential question. It is a question about how we arrange our human world. 

The assertion that we are now the creators of Nature itself is an assertion of a completely different order, and will lead to our human demise.

Tick tock, indeed! Those studying global warming, and the "tipping points" that we learn more about each day, know that it may already be too late.

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