Nietzsche claimed that his time was that of the death of God. Maybe we should characterize our present as the time of the coming of the Earth. More precisely, our time might be that in which the Earth is making its appearance on the stage of history. This, at least, is what a certain number of scholars have recently claimed, including Chakrabarty, in his already classic article on the Anthropocene, Stengers and Latour in their respective appeals to Lovelock’s Gaia, and Viveiros de Castro in a recent article with the Brazilian philosopher Déborah Danowski (among others). I will support their claim. However, it is also my contention, as I think it is theirs, that we can only become prepared to interact with this new actor if we accept that it raises considerable ontological challenges. It is not only a new being; it is also a new kind of being.
Many have already argued that this present requires us to overcome the distinction between nature and culture, reality and representation, constructivism and realism, being and sign, world and language. I will support this idea too, but from a particular line of argumentation: I will argue that getting ready for the Earth requires us to accept a form of radical ontological pluralism, specifically of the kind introduced by what has been called the “ontological turn” in the discipline of anthropology. This movement, as is well-known, begins with a simple observation: the very notion of “culture” is self-relativizing in the sense that it is itself attached to a particular “culture.” Consequently, anthropological relativization must not pluralize and compare “cultures,” but rather “ontologies,” one such ontology being characterized by the distinction between nature and culture. According to such a pluralism, to be is ultimately to be an alternative of what could have been instead, or to be situated at the intersection of various lines of virtual becoming-other. I will thus argue that the redefinition of anthropology as comparative ontology defended by a certain number of anthropologists today (Viveiros de Castro, Descola, Latour, Strathern, Ingold, Holbraad, etc.) is exactly the sort of theory we need to approach the Earth that is coming, on the condition that it is slightly redefined in light of the new concept of the Earth.
My point here will be that this new actor that we can call the Earth is at the same time unique—there is no planet B, as the activists rightly say—but nonetheless not unified. The oneness of the Earth is not separable from the diverging ways this oneness is made on each locality of the Earth (and a locality will have to be defined as such a diverging construction of globality itself). This situation, I will claim, is the new situation in which anthropology, understood (following Viveiros de Castro) as the art of controlled equivocation, is yet again needed, as it was in the past as a counter-poison to colonization. And it is from there that we will understand what sort of ontological turn in anthropology is indeed necessary at the age of the coming of the Earth. If you liked the ontological turn in anthropology, you will love the geological turn!
A certain number of preliminary clarifications are in order so that what I mean by the statement “the Earth is a new actor in history” might not be misunderstood.
- First, I must stress that I understand this statement as a contribution to what Foucault and Deleuze called a “diagnosis of the present”: it tries to characterize an event, to expose what is new and challenging in our present situation. And it does so by trying to diagnose what needs to be reshuffled in our critical toolbox. Indeed, what is “critique” if not the capacity to push the present to its limits? In consequence, nothing better expresses the novelty of an event than the modifications it imposes on our critical tools.
- I also want to emphasize that this statement does not mean that human beings are transforming their environment on a significant scale for the first time in history. This would obviously be wrong: we know, for instance, what the Amazonian forest itself owes to human action. Very few parts of the Earth have not been impacted by human presence over long spans of time. But what is happening today exceeds that in two ways.
First, the coming Earth is not only a passive recipient of human influences; if the Earth can be called an actor it is because it has some initiative. It fights back. What that means can be understood, for instance, by reference to dynamic systems theory. In such systems, a local transformation is not a linear function of some isolated parameter but rather the consequence of the attempt of the whole to reach a new equilibrium. Such a system is thus not simply modified by our intervention; it reacts to our action, it has initiative. It is in this sense that the Earth is understood here as an actor. This could be put in Hannah Arendt’s terms, if only for the sake of irony. She distinguished in The Human Condition the world as the playing-field emergent in human action from the Earth as that which constrains it from outside. Arendt’s concern was of course that this ethical playing field might one day escape from that planetary constraint. But we can now say that the Earth has come into our world: it is a partner in the making of history; it is just another actor in the plurality that makes the world what it is. This is exactly the argument made by Chakrabarty about the Anthropocene, when he remarks that the pace of geological transformations is now faster than the pace of institutional change; or by Stengers, when she gives the name Gaia to what we call the Earth precisely because Gaia is what intrudes and responds.
The second reason why our present situation is new is that we are no longer talking about the reaction of a local environment to human action. Human beings have been confronted in the past by significant unforeseen reactions of an ecosystem to their own actions within it, and this is precisely what motivated the formulation of the ecosystem concept itself. We have understood for quite some time already that “environments” are not passive outer frames for our actions, but something that responds to them in unexpected ways. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, is emblematic of such an awakening. In this bestseller from 1962, Carson showed that the unforeseen and undesired consequences of our actions are delimited by the characteristics proper to “ecosystems.” We develop pesticides to kill insects at a particular location and those pesticides have consequences on the biology of birds: they hinder the development of their eggs, for instance, which generates large-scale infertility, and this is why, the more we spread pesticides in the fields, the more likely we are to end up with silent springs, springs deprived of bird songs, among other unfortunate consequences. This kind of observation has been repeated over and over again and has encouraged a new sensibility to human action in modernity in general.
First Ontological Challenge of the Earth: The Concept of Hybridity and Why It Does Not Suffice to Characterize This New Actor
Now the question is this: why has this challenge so defined, i.e. the appearance of the Earth as a new actor in the world, attracted the particular attention of some of the most significant proponents of what is known as the “ontological turn” in anthropology? Typical of this encounter is the way Bruno Latour introduces his Inquiry into Modes of Existence: “The diplomatic scene that I seek to set forth through this inquiry is one that would reunite the aforementioned moderns with the aforementioned “others” as Gaia approaches.” What is ontologically so challenging about this new actor? And what does our confrontation with “global warming” have to gain from anthropology?
There are two ways these questions can be addressed. One might be to claim that the need to face the Earth provides a good reason for repeating the sort of intellectual moves for which the proponents of the ontological turn have already argued. In other words, facing the Earth would require that we redefine anthropology as ontology (in a sense that will be clarified shortly).
But it can also go the other way. It might be that to think through what is at stake in the ontological turn, we have to realize that anthropology, in the end, is not only about Being qua Being, it is also about the Earth. “Ontologies” would then be regions of the Earth. The object of anthropology would neither be cultural variation nor ontological variation but, to borrow a term from Elizabeth Povinelli, geontological variations, variations of the Earth itself within itself. This means that there would be here a turn within a turn. It is in that sense that I warned the reader: “You liked the ontological turn? Then you will love the geological turn!”