On the Concept of Nature Today

Looking back at the class on the philosophy of the environment I’ve just concluded, it seems to me — in good Hegelian fashion — that only now am I in a place to talk about the course’s methodology. To design a syllabus is a matter of selection, and every selection is politically as well as conceptually informed.

After a brief introduction to the problem of the actuality of global climate change with Naomi Klein — whose This Changes Everything we read throughout — the class began in earnest with Marx. From Capital, vol. I we read chapters 7, 16, 23, and the first two parts of 24. This gave us the distinction between the production of commodities and the production of surplus-value, which is the real end of capitalist production; the distinction between absolute and relative-surplus value, which let us think about some of the mechanisms by which surplus-value is produced; and a basic idea of capital’s expansive tendency, the propensity for capitalism to reproduce itself on an ever-increasing scale.

So why begin with Marx? I simply do not think that it is possible to develop an adequate understanding of the problems of environmental or ecological crisis, or natural resource depletion, unless we put them in the context of concrete social relations of production.

I will allow myself the luxury of a polemical digression here. The question could also have been: why not begin with Heidegger? After all, a lot of continentalist work on the environment takes Heidegger as the philosophical point of departure, whether via the concepts of technicity and enframing, dwelling and the earth, or even Ereignis. One knows the critique of technology, which Heidegger tells us is not a particular kind of product or production, but is rather a mode of revealing being [aletheia] that, by enframing and ordering it in a certain way, reduces it to a pure means: ‘The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such. … Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing-reserve [Bestand].’ Modernity is cast as the historical era in which this technicity comes to reign supreme among ways of revealing being, in which being and nature are not poetically engaged with but are enframed, reduced always and everywhere to the standing-reserve, that teleologically subordinated way of being a mere means on hand. And thus we ruin the Rhine. Often then we are instructed to seek escape from this teleological schema, cultivating the ethical disposition of Gelassenheit or letting-be; not to use nature or make use of it, indeed to refuse even to frame nature as something for use, but rather to let it be what it is in its being.

Now there is a long tradition of ethical thought that, in many ways, reaches its apex in Kant, in which the principle of morally reprehensible behavior is identified as treating a person as a means. Kant’s second articulation of the categorical imperative, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in the form of the ‘supreme practical principle’, runs as follows: ‘act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an ends, never merely as a means.’ It’s hard to object to the claim that to follow this rule would be categorically ethical, and easy to multiply instances of clearly unethical actions that break it. In any event, one can read Heidegger’s critique of technology as a critique of Kant’s moral philosophy, not for the formal character of the imperative, but for its illegitimate restriction to humanity alone: it’s not just people that shouldn’t be treated ‘merely as a means’ — when we move to the level of fundamental ontology, nothing should. So that also animals, but even forests, mountains, and coal deposits ought never to be used as a mere means.

For the most part I think this is all fine. Much of the Heideggerian language here can be reformulated — without, I think, too much loss — into terms deployed by the figures we read in the class: ‘enframing’ is something like the ideologies of nature critically analyzed by Neil Smith; an imaginative vision of practical Gelassenheit could sound a lot like the practices of renewal and regeneration that Klein argues for toward the end of This Changes Everything. And surely Merchant, Haraway, and Moore agree that there’s something violent and destructive, and ultimately self-destructive, about treating nature as a pure means. So why do I prefer this Marxist lineage to the Heideggerian approach?

First, the whole way the story is constructed is one in which the problem is modernity, and consequently the goal will be to get back behind modernity, to suspend the modern enframing of technicity, in order to reclaim a more authentic or primordial way of letting being be. Now of course history does not teach us that before the advent of modernity (let’s say the 1600s? or does modernity commence with Plato?) humanity lived in a golden age of harmonious coexistence with each other and with nature. I am at this point usually informed that I am misreading Heidegger, and that there is no romantic nostalgia at work in these lines. In any case it all sounds a bit too theological to me, this fall from grace that we call the destining of modernity.

My second objection is that this story doesn’t involve any concrete historical account. An adequate response to a problem, I think, requires that its causes and conditions be articulated, both historically and conceptually. Even if the Heideggerian, being no romantic, correctly identifies that we abuse nature by enframing it as standing-reserve — this does not tell me why we do so today, or in any concrete way how we do so. The Marxist approach here seems to be both less abstract and more compelling; it tells me about the dynamics of capitalist social organization — accumulation and expanded reproduction — and explains why it is necessary that, under conditions of capitalist production, and certainly from the 1450s onward, nature will come to be exploited to catastrophic exhaustion. This strikes me as just much more helpful, and certainly as more historically concrete.

Finally, if I’m not convinced we’ve accurately named the problem with modernity, I’m equally unsatisfied by the suggestion that the problem is technology as such. I am not sure it is possible or even desirable to reject modern technology either in its technical forms or as a way of framing things through means and ends. As a pure matter of fact, I would argue, the scope and scale of the logistical problems involved in contemporary social organization are only navigable through a thoughtful and concerted mobilization of a wide variety of modern technologies. For example, rising sea levels will, within decades, drown millions of people, primarily impoverished people of color in global south megacities, unless those people are relocated en masse, or unless we undertake massive constructions of levies and dams; surely neither will be possible without the appropriation and repurposing of a host of natural matters and energies. Similarly, the logistics of providing sustainable, nourishing food for over seven billion humans — which, let us remind ourselves, contemporary capital does not and will not do — is almost certainly an impossible task without deploying advanced technological and scientific knowledges.

Simply put then I think the way out of the present crisis must be a passage through it. I think it would be suicidal, and catastrophic for nonhuman natures, to have allowed imperial capital to develop and deploy modern technologies to get us to where we are today, on the eve of the sixth great extinction event, but then to jettison technoscience entirely in favor of other modes of relating or revealing. But this requires that we cultivate some understanding of how scientific knowledges are produced and of the concrete mechanisms of technological intervention available to us today.

Preventing a lapse into naïve scientism here is this recognition of the historical fact that capital and empire have been more than capable of using technoscience for its ends, and if Marx and Moore are correct, those ends — the continued and always-increasing accumulation of capital — are necessarily incompatible with global sustainability, no matter how you parse it. Justin McBrien’s somewhat stronger formulation is that capital accumulation just is the process of extinction, and the continued development of scientific knowledges in the 20th and 21st centuries under the auspices of global capital have certainly not done much to respond to this catastrophic identity.

The development and deployment of technology and science must therefore be accompanied, complemented and constrained by a historically and politically informed critique of their logics and presuppositions, their historically accreted prejudices and entwinements with asymmetrical power relations. For this I had the class turn to the critical feminist philosophy of science and epistemology of Donna Haraway, the ecofeminist philosophies and critiques surveyed by Carolyn Merchant, and the affirmative xenofeminist injunction to experiment with alienation and nature-hacking. These all suggest that science and technology are neither emancipatory nor repressive in themselves, but that this is a matter of their specific orientation and the manner of their mobilization. And while all voice serious doubts and reservations about the whole enlightenment project of scientific knowledge production, they also keep alive a cautiously optimistic sense that these knowledges and technologies might be critically disentangled from their imperial and patriarchal origins and put to genuinely emancipatory use. So that, for example, when above I suggested that feeding several billion is probably impossible without modern science and technology, this was absolutely not to advocate for colonialist monocultures, high-carbon industrial animal farming, or the intellectual property racket of GMO agricultural production.

This class was about the politics of scientific knowledge production, the ecological foundations and consequences of capital, and the critical prospects of emancipation-in-nature. My position is that questions like: what is the environment? or: what is nature? cannot be answered in an even minimally adequate way without involving historical relations of power, modes of social organization and production, and the limits of scientific discursive formations. If we leave any one of these out, we end up with a one-sided or idealist concept of nature or the environment, which ignores or obscures its historical character, its role in relations of social organization, or the way it is bound up with class struggle and the constructions of race and gender. That is: we end up with a bad concept.

If philosophy is a practice of constructing concepts, of exploring and expressing conceptual necessity, in this class I tried to argue that these determinations are all necessarily involved in an adequate concept of nature today. If I wasn’t able to make that argument convincingly in ten weeks, I still learned a lot from making the effort. And hopefully my students are better off for the experience too; they were fantastic, and deserved at least that much.


Recommended viewing: Chasing Ice, The World of Tomorrow, ‘Cities’ from Planet Earth II.


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