Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015)
Jedediah Purdy’s history of the idea of nature in American thought provides an instructive context for contemporary environmental debate. But its idea of democracy founders on the absence of a vision of humanity’s purpose in a post-growth world.
“Environmental apocalypse had not come.” This is Jedediah Purdy, professor of law at Duke University, writing in After Nature on the warnings made by environmentalists in the 1970s. Indeed: “A sense of urgency, a hint of the end times, could not last in the face of unrelenting normality. The mood of crisis receded.”
“The mood of crisis receded” is, to be sure, an unexpected tone to encounter in a book subtitled A Politics for the Anthropocene – taking “Anthropocene” to refer to the present, as an era in which environmental imagination is dominated by consciousness of human activities having shifted the global climate onto a new and dangerous path, with earth systems suffering unprecedented stress. To read Purdy’s book one can be forgiven for thinking we have all the time in the world in which to save it. Let’s hope we have. Writing on our collective failure to date to tackle climate change, Purdy counsels an abundance of patience: we should “learn from, live with, and improve upon our panoply of failures” over time.
Such remarks prompted some disbelief in the first meeting of the Anthropocene Reading Group, a project of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainability Prosperity and Goldsmiths PERC, which chose After Nature as its inaugural title.* But the book’s substantial focus is not on the present day. Rather, what it comprises is a compelling history of American concepts of nature and their relationship to political thought. Its contribution to contemporary debate on the Anthropocene is both to set it in historical context, and to make the argument that what this moment calls for is democratic renewal.
The overarching theme of Purdy’s history is that the Anthropocene has a long history in America. This is in the sense, first, that its environmental politics have always conceived of nature as being formed for mankind to manipulate; second, that nature in America has from the start been used as the basis for arguments as to how social life ought to be organised.
In organising its material according to this theme, Purdy’s history reflects on currents within the political imagination, not just of the United States, but of the modern more generally. This can be seen most clearly in his discussion of the use of the idea of New World nature made by the English political philosophers of the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. America presented to Europeans the idea of a natural society; “In the beginning all the world was America”, as Locke wrote. Seen as a pre-existing order, this state of nature could provide the rational foundations on which a consciously-designed polity could be built. Classically, for Hobbes, this meant the need for government, in the name of the people, to establish peaceful rule over them; for Locke, the self-justification of the rights of property and industry.
This theme was taken up by Tom Paine in the later eighteenth century. For Paine, the natural world was free, non-hierarchical, unencumbered by the arbitrary or illogical. By contrast, the established social order was the product of human decision – and precisely because of this it need not be respected as it was, but could be entirely redesigned.
Purdy notes that in Paine’s use of nature to attack social convention he developed an “almost total lack of regard for custom, culture, habit, tradition, and the loyalties and sympathies that these instill in people”. In depicting Paine as an unlikely forerunner of the new left, Purdy alerts us to the way in which viewing oneself in the mirror of an idealised vision of nature could lead to radical individualism. This individualist narrative is developed further in his discussion of Thoreau, who exhorted “his fellow Americans to realize their destiny by pressing always westward, not so much by the compass as into the unrealized wilds of their own experience”.
What unites the account of such disparate thinkers as Locke, Paine, and Thoreau is something common to their vision of nature in America: it is an essential reality; timeless, boundless. But there is a drama to be played out within this narrative. In order to function as a source of essential lessons for the design of society, nature has to remain separate from it. It has to remain bigger than, anterior to, society; only in remaining untamed can it retain the sense of existing beyond material and temporal limits.
The dramatic turn in this history came in 1893, with a famous speech by Frederick Jackson Turner in which he declared the American frontier closed: society had finally colonised the continent of the USA. For Turner – as for Hegel, who had earlier looked forward to this moment in American history – this marked the transition of America to mature politics, in which escapist individualism would have to give way to responsible debate on the division of scarce resources. But while the political imagination of Turner’s progressive era may have given up on geographical boundlessness, it held fast to a boundless confidence in technological and social improvement, under the guidance of technocratic experts. It was not until the ecological turn in environmental imagination, beginning in the 1960s, that the frontier was truly declared closed. This is the struggle which environmentalists have been waging, in opposition to the central currents of American political thought, ever since.
Arriving at the present day, Purdy argues that the way forward is for environmentalists to fully embrace democracy. This is something which in its various forms the American environmental imagination has failed to do, too often separating nature and responsibility for it from the ordinary man and woman. Now this has got to change: the Anthropocene is the moment when Americans (one presumes all citizens of democracies) must take responsibility for nature, and in doing so assert the powers of democracy most fully. As he puts it, “The democratic responsibility is the responsibility of making a world” – now this means not just the social but the natural world, too.
Alas, Purdy’s writing on democracy does not convince. There is, to begin with, the unprecedented test which environmentalism sets conventional politics. Purdy bases his faith in democracy on Sen’s observation that no democracy has ever suffered a famine. But as he acknowledges, the benefits of economic sacrifices made by today’s Americans to pay for climate mitigation would largely go to people in other countries (who haven’t even been born yet). Acting in their name would be a quite other dynamic to that operating in response to incipient food shortages among one’s own countrymen. Even Purdy himself acknowledges that: “No political system has succeeded by contradicting the demand for more: more energy, more calories, more technology, and so more pressure on natural resources of all kinds.”
More essentially, there is the question of human purpose in a time when “the frontier has closed”. Purdy takes a circumspect interest in post-humanism, a philosophy which erases the boundary between the human and natural, emphasising the role of biological “actants” – including (as in the case of bacteria in the gut) within our bodies. Is this the key to appreciating the natural world in its own right, and thus making economic sacrifices on its behalf?
At one point Purdy speculates as to what the next phase of the environmental imagination might look like, in such a post-growth, post-humanist world:
The nature we might imagine in this way would not be the Bankers’ Nature of “natural capital,” or the Backpackers’ Nature of the Wilderness Society. It would be a Mother Nature for a post-gender caring economy (a Parent Nature, then?) and also a Sister, Brother, or even Comrade Nature – a collaborator in the given and necessary work of carrying on living.
It has got to be said: a political vision and rhetoric more at odds with powerful currents in contemporary democracies – both the Brexit and Trump votes being marked by a clear nostalgia for the high modernity of the postwar period – it would be hard to find.
It should be obvious that a philosophy of post-humanism is unlikely to yield a renewed sense of human purpose. At one point Purdy suggests the possibility of founding a new virtue ethics on the example of those environmentally-conscious individuals who live sustainable lifestyles. But without a philosophy of what human lives are for in a positive sense – something more than the negative prescription to consume as little as possible while we are here – this will only collapse into an individual lifestyle choice. And as Purdy himself says, without radical economic and legal changes, “a good deal of changed consciousness will mean no more than shuffling furniture between the first-class and second-class cabins of the Titanic”.
There is a grasping toward an answer in this book. Purdy suggests it is time to take responsibility. We have broken nature, and now we get to keep it. This is a tough ask because it means simultaneously accepting responsibility for managing the world (social and natural) that we live in, while renouncing the dream that we have the power to realise our designs just as we wish. We must take on the responsibility to ensure the world remains hospitable to civilised life through the Anthropocene, precisely in the knowledge – precisely motivated by the knowledge – that our power is limited. We must try without the knowledge of success: that begins to sound like a noble human purpose. The question remains: how does it become a common purpose?
* The next book on the Anthropocene Reading Group list is The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. Discussion of the book will take place at 4pm on Wednesday, 11 January 2017, in the basement seminar room of 41 Lewisham Way, London SE14 6NW. Anyone is free to join the discussion – no registration required.
Richard Douglas is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is working on the ‘M’ theme (on meanings and moral framings of the good life) at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.