Sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, people started using “the environment” as a new political category broad enough to contain an entire smorgasbord of problems, from wilderness preservation to urban air quality, species extinction to atomic fallout.
In the last decade or so, “the Anthropocene” has rapidly emerged across both scholarly disciplines and the popular press as a new, similarly capacious shorthand for thinking and talking about ecological crisis. Describing the planetary-scale impact of human life, the Anthropocene marks a revolutionary shift in thinking about the environment, one in which the old boundaries between people and nature no longer seem as firm as they once were.
Duke University Professor of Law Jedediah Purdy observes that this naming of the Anthropocene is also an invitation to take responsibility for it. And yet existing institutions, laws, and politics hardly appear up to the task of accepting that invitation. In his latest book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Purdy sketches the way toward a democratic politics for the Anthropocene by looking back at 400 years of American ideas about nature. Revealing how those ideas were often inextricably entwined with the nation’s laws and politics, Purdy suggests a set of attitudes and questions to keep in mind as we struggle to address the threats to both our democracy and our planet.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Purdy about the Anthropocene, Henry David Thoreau, and the present state of U.S. environmental politics.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Adam Mandelman: Could you talk about how you came to write After Nature?
Jedediah Purdy: I was teaching a lot of courses on climate change at Duke, and a lot of intellectual energy was going into explaining, in increasingly sophisticated ways, why people weren’t going to do anything about climate change given the character of collective action and the nature of rationality (and sometimes, the quirks of human psychology). So it was what I think of, loosely, as neoliberal academic culture: homo economicus, together with behavioral economics, shows us why we are in the best of all possible worlds, even if it’s not a very satisfactory world. In the setting of climate change, this seems to be pointing towards catastrophes. I started thinking that there was something unsatisfactory in this whole way of going about the question.
The whole current ecological crisis might be one of those problems that changes people as they engage it, so that as they wrestle it, people become different from how they came in, with different motivations and acting in different ways. I started looking at other historical analogs, such as the rise of abolitionism, when the mobilization of political ideas changed the landscape of what was possible, and shifted the weight of possibility in a situation that had looked like it wouldn’t change. I wondered whether it would be possible to identify similar cases in the environmental settings—cases where people had changed themselves through political engagement with the question of why the natural world is valuable, what it means. I started to think about the major episodes of American political mobilization, what was at stake practically and ideologically in those moments. First, I found that it’s never been true that this country has looked at the non-human world in a purely instrumental mode. Even in the instances that it has been looked at that way, it has evolved through cultural interpretation. And second, I’d always felt deeply drawn to work that engaged the phenomenology of the American landscape, and I started to find in increasing ways that I was starting to bring that work into this project.
AM: Your re-reading of Thoreau, not as a wilderness guy but as an “Anthropocene guy,” seems to have been a turning point in the project. Would you agree?
JP: Yes, and it points me to the goal of the book: to put figures and incidents that we’ve known about in an Anthropocene light. The basic Anthropocene problem, brutally, is what sort of world we are going to make together. Think of Thoreau as a figure who knows the things that Anthropocene theorists congratulate ourselves on discovering. He knows that, far from living in a wilderness, he lives in a land that has been marked by its inhabitants in successive ways. He finds some of the most vital parts of it in aspects that have been disrupted or profaned.
There is a passage from a journal in which he says, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I have conversation with?”—which is a fantastically pregnant acknowledgement for Thoreau, because of something else that he says again and again—which is that he goes into natural settings to see himself reflected in new ways. So, in a deep way, he’s saying that he’s not going to the woods for a cheap patching-up of the self into a perfect, fantastical ideal. He’s saying that he’s discovering the broken and imperfect things in the circuit between people and the natural world.
Another is a passage in Walden; he says that he’s been watching soil that’s been frozen all winter, moving as the water in it melts, flowing down a bank. He thinks about how the flow of the water is like the flow of a river, and the delta of a river branches like veins, which are like the branches of leaves and the branches of trees. And then he thinks, all of this is the same matter and the same spirit of life, organizing and reorganizing itself into different forms. And the place where this happens is the embankment of the Concord-Fitchburg Railroad path, which in other parts, he famously calls a profanity on the land—he calls the railroad a devil. Thoreau is always ironic and tricky and contradicts himself. But the fact that he takes the railroad as the place he discovers the feeling that everything is part of a single, intuitive, mystical order, is very telling.
The whole current ecological crisis might be one of those problems that changes people as they engage it, so that as they wrestle it, people become different from how they came in, with different motivations and acting in different ways.
JP: I’m not awfully invested in the term. It’s interesting that it’s become so fashionable. I suspect that it has something to do with a widespread sense of crisis and radical novelty, combined with a kind of intellectual conservatism and deference that’s so excited that the geologists think it’s a new era!
It may not be useful to hash out whether the term in general is doing more bad or good or silliness, but it’s worth talking about the appropriate objection that it draws us into a false species-level thinking that effaces the distinctions among people and doesn’t look into the political economy of the globe, and the way that we’re talking about the age of imperialism and the age of capitalism. It’s not the time of the joint activity of one humanity, but of an intense and violent differentiation of some people by other people. I have sympathy for the impulse that we get more precise by talking, for example, about the “Capitalocene,” though I think that idea neglects how controversial and wrought and multifarious capitalism is. I think those two terms can coexist.
“Anthropocene” also has the potential to be used in purely ethical environmentalism, ignoring politics and institutions. The very fact that the idea is pre-political or extra-political points to a kind of opening to what we don’t have: a politics that could operate on the scale of the problem. Just as in Marxism, when the worker develops a political self-consciousness, I hope that this conversation moves us towards greater political self-awareness.
AM: You caution against the ongoing neoliberal Anthropocene, which assumes that the markets will take care of it all, thereby leaving inequality to continue to run amok. You say that actually we need to work through political questions, because markets don’t produce values or policies: “political judgment must precede economic pricing.”
JP: Yes, and not just ethically but conceptually. If you’re going to make a “market in carbon,” for example, it’s a political judgment at what effective level you’re going to make people pay for and how you’re going to distribute the burden of paying and the proceeds. You don’t have a market until those decisions have been made, just like you don’t have a market in land in North America until you’ve spent a hundred years converting “the frontier” into private property.
AM: You sketch some ways that a politics for the Anthropocene might emerge—could you speculate as to how ongoing developments in American politics might suggest new developments in the environmental imagination?
JP: So, I’m sometimes tempted to think that even though climate denial wasn’t very central to the appeal of the Trump campaign, that there’s maybe some way that Trumpism and the larger movement of the right that it has harnessed are denialist at some very deep level. The basic dynamic of climate change does strike at the heart of the idea of how things work here: We have fuel to burn and we make the world productive and the people who contribute to that, whether they’re miners or oil roughnecks, or the WASP aristocrats who go to Texas to become oil men, are all part of that great nature of productivity. I’m thinking of Tim Mitchell’s book Carbon Democracy. So much of American experience of standing astride the world has been a carbon- and oil-driven version of this long story, which is also the story of the American specialness. Climate change just guts it, saying, “No, this is actually the road to hell.” There’s something in the identitarian reassertion of a simpler and less paradoxical version of what it was to live in the world that’s somehow infusing it.
There are a couple of promising things. If you compare where environmental energy is now to where it was when Bill Cronon wrote his essay critiquing the wilderness idea in the mid-1990s, there’s so much more energy around work that is not premised on a contrast between a nature “out there” and an urban “in here.” Both in food politics and in energy politics, whether grassroots pressing for solar or how Standing Rock became central to energy, people are talking about issues that are central to the metabolism of energy in the world. Those seem to be actual Anthropocene questions that people are mobilizing around that shows a much subtler sense of what it means to care about “the environment.”
AM: In Strangers in their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild talks to Louisiana conservatives about why they vote against environmental regulation despite living in one of the most polluted and environmentally vulnerable areas of the country. How do these deep divides in environmental imagination relate to what you saw in After Nature? How do you bridge the gap between these environmental imaginations?
JP: I really loved that book. The people she was talking to weren’t in the same kind of providential environmental imagination as those guys who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Those guys were like, “Fuck yeah, we’re here to tear it up, finally! And the birdwatchers need to get out of here!” What’s so striking about the people she talks to is that many of them first got involved in politics through grassroots environmental work. There seemed to be something of a one-part despairing and one-part ironic superiority that the person who knows you have to despair feels over the person who doesn’t get it. Like: We don’t love the fact that industrial capitalism does this to our landscape. But you guys, you liberal environmentalists who are on the side of the affirmative action beneficiaries, and the people who cross the border, you’re not on the side of people like us who work hard and just want to get ahead a little bit or just not fall back. What you don’t get is that you can’t have one without the other. So, it’s that kind of a fated sense that it can’t be better, and at least they think that it can’t be better, that strikes me in her description. And what it makes me think is that if you genuinely don’t have any sense that government can change the basic terms of the capitalism that you’re living under, and if someone says it could then they’re lying for some reason, then you’re genuinely stuck. It’s the kind of realism that makes the political limits of the world that it naturalizes. So much of this book shows me that people’s trust and mistrust of institutions—whether it’s the federal government or the free market—works on a kind of tribal level. And once you’ve decided that it’s with you, you’ll take any amount of hell from it. And once you’ve decided that it’s on the other side, you won’t let it do anything for you, because you know it’s out to get you. This isn’t quite the same as the themes of After Nature, but it is a way of saying that conceptions of institutions and values of nature are unavoidably intersecting and making each other. Here we’re seeing a kind of broken circuit where you’re not going to get constructive environmental justice feedback in a situation that is so palpably an environmental justice situation.
AM: A lot of recent ink has been spilled regarding the function of tribalism and bubbles in impeding political progress. What do you think about this?
JP: I think that rational fear does a lot to stand in the way. An element of collective self-restraint has simply got to be part of any way forward in building an institutional and a material world and a shared cultural world, where we can tear less out of the world to get by. And one thing that stands in the way of that is an economic order of combined inequality and precariousness. There is a long way to fall, and people are afraid of falling, and there’s a lot at stake if you fail to rise, so there’s a real way that at an individual level, you’re right if you think you can never have enough and you’re never secure. And if that’s the individual decision, when the stability and legitimacy of governments is based on continuing to grow, it isn’t going to change. So I think that an order that puts more weight on making people safe, rather than on harassing them to get the last margin of productivity out of them, might actually be a political and cultural precondition for having a richer kind of politics around what it would mean to have enough.
AM: What would be your advice to activists on the front lines of food, climate, or energy activism?
JP: The people who are doing that work are not just foot soldiers or drones who are getting us to where we need to go. They’re figuring out inch by inch where we need to go. I would say not to forget that there is a level of heroic world-imagining in that kind of work, and everyone is trying to figure out what this kind of politics looks like, and we don’t entirely know until we see it take shape. It’s happening in a dialogue between people about what they’re trying to do, and people scrambling to see the patterns, which are patterns that we are all making along the way.
Featured image: Jedediah Purdy, photo by Brian Hamilton, March 2017.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Adam Mandelman is an environmental historian completing a book about three centuries of landscape transformation in the Mississippi River Delta. He was the founding managing editor of Edge Effects. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Jedediah Purdy is Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at the Duke University School of Law. He is the author of five books, most recently After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, and n+1, and is a contributing editor at Dissent. Twitter. Contact.