By Nanna Lilletvedt Sæten

The most recent IPCC (AR6 2023) report suggests that we are already living in the Anthropocene. This novel geological epoch is defined as the age in which humans take on planetary powers, fundamentally reshaping not just our societies but the earth system as such. The concept of the Anthropocene can be hard to grasp. It is so omnipotent, so all-encompassing, that it seems to suggest a fundamental refitting of so much of what we think we know about the world. While knowledge of the Anthropocene has become reasonably well-established in the sciences, particularly those that feed into the IPCC’s official diagnostic and prognostic advice, political thought (and the history thereof) has been late to the party. Perhaps this is symptomatic of what political thought understood as both political theory and intellectual history really is; the study of ideas is shaped over time, and as Pocock says, the pursuit of intellectual history might have an inherently conservative character (Pocock 1960, Politics, Language and Time). As a result, there seems to be a growing gulf between the vocabulary and theories we have for speaking about political society and the actual situation of that society; for how can we talk about politics in a world that is being reshaped and perhaps made uninhabitable for and by humanity?

The 2023 Cambridge Graduate Conference in Political Thought and Intellectual History on the 20th of June 2023 responded to exactly this question, calling for a rethinking of political thought through the lens of the Anthropocene. While there is no shortage of conceptualizations of nature in the history of political thought, such conceptualizations are based upon premises that are no longer tenable, for example, an implicit Othering, where nature becomes that against which politics and society are defined, e.g., in the thought of Ibn Khaldun or the social contract theorists. On the other hand, the concept of nature has been used to explain human behavior and development. From the Aristotelian notion that man is political by nature to the Socio-Darwinian ideas of domination, nature has been a concept of authority that political projects can appeal to; that which is by nature necessarily cannot easily change.

In yet a different vein, other traditions in political thought have conceptualized nature both as that which can be shaped by human hands through domination and as that which cannot be controlled and which returns with a vengeance to wreak havoc on human society. There is, in short, no absence of nature in political thought. However, the Anthropocene fundamentally shakes the very foundations on which theorizing about politics can be done because the nature-politics distinction is breaking down. Nature is no longer the stable backdrop to our politics, the authoritative Other we can appeal to, or the malleable clay in human hands; it is in motion, moving, acting, changing, and being reshaped by what we do and how we choose to proceed. The Anthropocene is, therefore, an age of fundamental interdependence; the flipside of human impact on its earthly habitat is the realization that this earthly habitat was always part of human societal and political life.

Human action in the Anthropocene necessarily veers between hubris and humility. There is invariably hubris in the idea that human action is impacting the planet, but there is also humility in the experience that this impact has disclosed the situation of humans to be not the uncontested mastery of the Arendtian toolmaker (The Human Condition 1958), but the subjection to a danger that might threaten survival. In the words of Duncan Kelly: “[…] the Anthropocene remains a conceptual work in progress, argued about by human beings who are, in what is also taken to be indicative of the novel age of the Anthropocene, the first species to be self-consciously aware of their power in having transformed the earth.” (Politics and the Anthropocene 2019, 1-2).

The Cambridge Graduate conference was a one-day event at the McCrum lecture theatre in Corpus Christi College Cambridge. Sam Harrison kicked off the day on behalf of the conference organizers, emphasizing how the conference started from a desire to understand more of how new traditions of thinking with the Anthropocene can be combined with and challenge the well-established ways of conceptualizing nature in the history of political thought. After this followed four panels undertaking a conceptual but also historical travel in what it might mean to rethink political thought for the Anthropocene; seeking a deeper understanding of the dominant categories of thought in intellectual history, investigating the moments of rupture in which the Anthropocene intrudes upon political thought in the form of crisis, as well as revisiting the origins of Anthropogenic thinking and imagining possible futures for political thought in the shadow of the Anthropocene. The panels spanned disciplines from archaeology and anthropology to political theory, history, political science, and philosophy.

While all speakers would have warranted a mention, in the interest of space, I will have to emphasize a few that illustrate the variety of approaches presented on this day. Phil Xing from LSE presented a fascinating paper arguing how Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana should be seen as an intervention at the level of international relations to defend Western civilizational views against mounting criticism in the 19th century. Such criticism surfaced both in the increasing indigenous resistance to civilizing missions in the settler colonies in this period and in the challenge by African diasporic thinkers seeing Africa as the origin of civilization. In the next panel, Nicolae Bîea from the University of Chicago innovatively traced and put in dialogue two reassertions of scarcity theory in 20th century economic thought as represented by Gary S. Becker and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen; first, the spread of models for optimization of scarce resources outside the typical domains of economic theory, and second the notion of absolute finitude to planetary resources.

In the panel titled Nature as Political Imaginary, Alina Utrata from the University of Cambridge persuasively argued that Silicon Valley’s use of natural metaphors obscures its colonial heritage and ethos. By presenting what are in reality monopolistic, extractive, and environmentally harmful infrastructures in the language of the cloud or cyberspace, technology corporations obscure their political rule through the language of the colonial frontier by making use of otherwise idle natural resources. Lastly, Nayeli Riano from Georgetown University presented a strong argument revisiting the debates on civilization and barbarism in Latin American political thought, specifically through thinkers like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), Jose Enrique Rodo (1871-1917) and Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930). All three thinkers were influential critics and actors in Latin American political and cultural life across countries, and their interventions in the civilization-barbarism debates imagined a different relationship between nature and civilization, a relationship that was not antagonistic and therefore broke decisively with modernist paradigms.

The day culminated with a keynote by the distinguished Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty titled ‘The personal is not only political but also planetary.’ Professor Chakrabarty showed how his specific strand of political thought through the category of the ‘planetary’ manages to bring the brunt of the problem presented by the Anthropocene to bear on categories of political thought. He also illustrated how he, as a young researcher and later academic, came to these conclusions, offering a theoretical and personal account of his work. This remarkable feat of combining the insights of his work with the story of them coming into being presented not just a deeply fascinating theoretical account of his scholarship but also a more methodological understanding of how political theory for this new age can be done by example.

He showed, for example, how the bushfire in the Australian Capital Territory in 2003 made him investigate the history of such fires before understanding the impact of anthropogenic climate change on the recurrence of bushfires, which later made him branch out into the growing scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change. His research made him question the evident discrepancy between the history that historians cared for and the history of the planet; could these be combined? Chakrabarty brings the perspective of earth system sciences to bear on his political and historical work, arguing for the perspective of the ‘planetary’ as necessary for political thought. While Chakrabarty’s concept of the planetary is too intricate to do justice to in such a short text like this, it entails a fundamental decentering of the human as merely a small part of the wider earth system and a short moment in the deep history of such systems. Unlike the concept of the globe, which is humancentric, the planetary is a necessary perspective for understanding the intricate interplay and interdependence characterizing the Anthropocene, where ways of life, modes of existence, timescales, and histories collide:

The doubled figure of the human now requires us to think about how various forms of life, our own and others’, may be caught up in historical processes that bring together the globe and the planet both as projected entities and as theoretical categories and thus mix the limited timescale over which modern humans and humanist historians contemplate history with the inhumanly vast timescales of deep history.

(Chakrabarty The Climate of History in a Planetary Age 2021, 4)

In his talk, Professor Chakrabarty made salient exactly what was the hope and aspiration behind the 2023 Cambridge Graduate Conference, mainly starting the work of approaching political thought (and the history thereof) through the lens of the Anthropocene; such work will necessarily entail both trial and error, and a collaborative effort spanning disciplines, histories, and geographies. The hope is that the Cambridge Graduate Conference 2023 can be a starting point for such work.

Nanna Lilletvedt Sæten is PhD student at the University of Cambridge in political theory using the history of time/temporality/historicity in political thought to investigate whether digital technologies are changing time. 

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: A bucket excavator removes layers of soil and sand from former farmland during an expansion of the Garzweiler coal mine on April 22, 2022, near Erkelenz, Germany. Gallup/Getty. Creative Commons.