New Genres of Being for the Mitigation of Ecocide

Author: Terence Sharpe

From a human viewpoint, climate change is fundamentally an economic problem, existing not within but as part of the very fabric of the economic system in which we are entrenched. As it seems a non-economic conception of the human cannot be realized at scale during this point in history, the global financial system must be re-engineered to divert its interests towards green energy along with different models of value engineering.

Harm van den Dorpel. Algues Artificielles (web version), 2017. Courtesy of the artist

 

Homo economicus vs homo oeconomicus

The decentered human subject has become a standard theme in the West of the twenty-first century, an emergent property running parallel with the gestation of a new school of euro right-wing populism, the unverifiability of narrative, and the overall deflation of consciousness. From an anthropocentric viewpoint, these phenomena are for all intents and purposes strategic weapons. They can be traced back to the beginnings of Western humanism when the existential trajectory of man was placed firmly upon his shoulders, and the Earth and its universe were to be bent to his will. The cultivation of solutions to the crises of our time requires a sober realization of a collective self from a non-anthropocentric perspective that runs counter to the process that began in the infrastructure of the fifteenth century. An inhumanist perspective, taking reason as a way of doing, as philosopher Reza Negarestani described in 2014 in The Labor of the Inhuman, allows the human to determine and revise what it ought to be by reconstructing and revising the reasons or norms by which it transforms itself. An exercise in inhumanism is an exercise in self-conception and conception of self. For all our acceleration, it bears repeating that we are living in what Patricia Reed has described aptly as a prehistory to what will become not just the defining model of the human in the twenty-first century but that which might delay its extinction and allow for new evolutionary processes to take place. The legacy of Western humanism has determined humans as evolving to become, amongst other modes of being, metabolic economic units.

“…Our present mode of knowledge production and its “perceptual categorization system”…which [is] reciprocally enacting of our present sociogenic genre of being human… [is] that of the West’s Man in its second liberal or biohumanist reinvented form, as homo oeconomicus; as optimally ‘virtuous breadwinner, taxpayer, consumer’…systemically overrepresented as if it, and its behavioral activities, were isomorphic with the being of being human, and thereby with activities that would be definable as the human.”

Sylvia Wynter in Human Being as Noun? Or Being Human as Praxis? Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn: A Manifesto

The concept of homo economicus, coined by John Stuart Mill, described man as a being of utility, of rationality that seeks for themselves the highest possible well-being. Whereas Stuart Mill sees this as a human virtue, the utility function of this concept has been interrogated thoroughly in the work of Sylvia Wynter, expanding its horizons beyond the economic to the inhuman, in what she describes above as homo oeconomicus. From the point of view of the globalized capital, the hierarchically dominant part of the planet’s cartography, humans are an economic category, a unit. This unit is not fixed, and each unit has values both real and nominal, but in no way, shape, or form is that unit homogenous in its function and value in any given economic and ecological system, even though it is treated like that by Western orthodox economics.

The modeling of our existence through cultural design, or as Patricia Reed describes as technicity, within capital would not be possible, according to Wynter, without the foundational construction of the “economic conception of being human.” Climate collapse from a human viewpoint is fundamentally an economic problem existing not within but as part of the very fabric of the economic system in which we are entrenched, something that should be considered if a non-economic conception of the human cannot be realized at this point in history. Apart from the genocidal nature of some governments’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, this problem of economics is also obvious if we look at what agents have major swing in climate policy. Insurance companies who stand to lose in climate collapse hold much more weight in the narrative of capital and growth than any activists. Reforestation/afforestation and geoengineering appear as absolute necessities, but must take place in tandem as the financial system is re-engineered to divert its interests towards green energy along with different models of value engineering.

If the crises we face are economic, then the adaptability required to change this lies in the Overton window as a kind of technology, a technology that now must break the cultural set. Direct action, state-led governance, and citizen-led divestment are bringing about financial incentivization towards more sustainable practices, part of which has seen the wider emergence of the field of green finance. Two of the main tasks of green finance are to internalize environmental externalities and to reduce risk perceptions in order to encourage investments that provide environmental benefits. It is undeniable that civil disobedience has had some positive effect on climate policy at state levels. Projects like 350.org have divested over $11 trillion USD from fossil-fuel company investments. It is still necessary to have a nuanced understanding of where non-profits like this fit within history, for example in relation to the #NoDAPL movement. Through the direct action of #NoDAPL the Dakota Access pipeline has been temporarily halted, which is to say that while the solutions to the crises of our time require economic activism, grassroots non-white-led initiatives indirectly dealing with finance are also areas requiring attention and support, particularly when they don’t achieve a clear cut end goal but succeed where it was thought impossible. It is also necessary to note initiatives like Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

Another example can be found in the indigenous-led efforts against the Adani coal mine in Australia. Native title, a legal protection fought for by indigenous communities, was appropriated from Wangan and Jagalingou land in 2019 in favor of Adani’s coal mine. Green finance offers some solutions to these types of problems. Adani is not the only one, but the governance of Australia fails to include non-white interests at the protocol level. To put this point another way, if, hypothetically, the only possibility of effective climate action was white-led, then when something got rewilded, who was it rewilded for and what were the second- and third-order effects of that policy? It’s not that #NoDAPL and W&J Council are opposites of 350.org, but it is important to note where both their strengths and vulnerabilities are in order to determine what kind of mitigation would be best, and for whom.

With evolution comes culture, and with culture comes cultural logic, and with cultural logic come fields of knowledge, ones that compete, and through this, there will always be some form of othering. As Sylvia Wynter has described, the plantations instantiated by European colonialism constituted an emergence of a dominant logic. These considerations are vital in any potential re-formatting of what constitutes the being of being human, as the racialization of humanity is potentially irreversible, and therefore a twenty-first century form of humanism requires solidarity without homophily. Otherwise, the legitimized genocides that began in 1492 in the name of progress will be unavoidable. Again looking at the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that these genocides are possible.

The Anthropocene is just another dominant cultural logic. History cannot be green-washed, and the economic restructuring required to tackle collapse cannot be anachronistic or ahistorical. The crises we find ourselves in are one way or another man-made, made by a certain type of man, a particular branch that is pathologically parasitic. In this predicament, we are not capable of a mode of categorization at scale that exists outside of our atomized economic units. On our current trajectory, it is through us that the autonomous macro-system of the Earth now has the opportunity of reigning us in for good and re-stabilizing itself. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into sharp focus. The construction of new genres of being human is a constant process. What it currently lacks is verifiability and accountability. Sylvia Wynter’s evaluation of Foucault’s episteme, that which is the discursive backdrop of any given history, asserts that knowledge is something that is given, something controlled, something that facilitates a sociality that enables “…survival, well-being and stable reproduction of the mode of being human that each ruling group embodies and actualizes”. It would seem logical that given current projections of ecological collapse and the eugenic response of some countries to the COVID-19 pandemic, homo oeconomicus as an infrastructure is not a genre of being that is enabling survival, well-being, or stable reproduction.

 

Infrastructure defines context of cultural logic

“If the state uses a strategic weapon to distract the masses, this does not mean that the weapon always functions properly or reaches the intended target... Strategic weapons are not merely autonomous in their versatility, but also in their departure from the line of command.”—Dr. Hamid Parsani

From the point of view of governance, the question of what constitutes the state is up for revision in the twenty-first century, as the quote above from Dr. Hamid Parsani, the fictional Iranian archaeologist from Reza Negarestani’s novel Cyclonopedia, makes clear. At this moment in history the state certainly seems weak. The strategic weapon Parsani speaks of could be applied to economic free-zones with their special infrastructures, tax exemptions, foreign ownership of property, cheap labor, deregulation, and, specifically relative to this text, environmental provisions. We see this earlier in history with the East India Company which through forced monopolies developed a trade route that was the corporate arm of the colonization of India to contemporary negotiations of land settlement in Canada—infrastructure brings context, or to go further defines context.

According to philosopher Sylvia Wynter, the proliferation of anthropocentric self-affirmation is rooted in the year 1492 which she cites as the beginning of a cognitive shift rooted towards Western humanism. She sees this as a new age that is “performed as being for all humanity, yet in its development redirects the distribution of its benefits and legitimizes the violence it propagates.” We know Octavia Butler conducted research into climate change in the 1960s, and while Parable of the Sower (1993) is the more often referenced work by Butler in relation to climate change, a reference can also be drawn for her book Mind of My Mind (1977), the second book in her Patternist series. Among the core themes drawn upon in this work, the question of how we define the human and the ethics of power are central. Mind of My Mind climaxes in a battle for survival between the creator and the created, representative of a transition between pre-history and post-history—the death and rebirth of models of power distribution, executed by Butler in a manner that revises the essence of what the human can be, showing us that the laws and archetypes of what has come before are simply layers placed upon reality.

In May 2019, following guidance from the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy and the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) formally declared that we are living in an age that can be defined as the Anthropocene. Stratigraphic labeling itself is a political strategy, a weapon that negates just what human activities and power dynamics have resulted in the current state of the planet’s ecosystem. The Anthropocene itself is a Western concept that narrativizes “impending” collapse that has already been underway elsewhere for decades, and unless it is disseminated in a historically accurate manner it will likely become weaponized in the West as part of twenty-first century international eco-fascism. The 1970s oil crisis and the wars that came about because of that crisis have already led to instances of indirect eco-fascism.

In his book The Conflict Shoreline, Eyal Weizman meditates on the aridity line and its abuse from imperialism to the formation of the State of Israel. The aridity line is a threshold for what is viable land for farming and what isn’t, and there are different levels to this threshold based on non-linear processes of aridity. A key point of Weizman’s is that if you follow the aridity line, for example where the Bedouin people have been displaced by the Israeli government, you will find problems or water scarcity, heat stress, and conflict coalescing. Weizman notes that Western drone strikes, the shadow of Western dehumanization/occupation of the Middle East, can be traced close to the aridity line and further exacerbate what climate change is already doing there. The compartmentalization of the crises of our time only compounds them. The resurgence (which as the name implies is a repetition: it’s always been there, it just hasn’t been this local) of right-wing populism in the West should not be overlooked in relation to the mainstreaming of the Anthropocene when genocide has already resulted in geoengineering within our history.

The year 1610 was the lowest point in a decades-long decrease in atmospheric carbon, measurable by traces found in Arctic ice cores. The change in the atmosphere, according to climate scientists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, was caused by the death of over 50,000,000 indigenous residents of the Americas in the first century after European contact, the result of “exposure to diseases carried by Europeans, plus war, enslavement and famine.” With an estimated 6,000,000 indigenous people remaining, there was a sharp decrease in farming, fire-burning, and other human activities. It also needs to be considered that the introduction of plant and animal species from Europe into a different ecosystem, accelerating the extinction of many species, was performed in the name of “progress.” The normalization of narratives that would favor these kinds of genocides is not outside the realm of possibility in the age we live in. It is quite possible that collapse is becoming an issue of hegemonic dominance in the eyes of many. This is consolidated by the view of the human as a metabolic economic unit.

 

Failures of Growth

How humans have evolved as metabolic economic units is arguably shifting, and with a longer time frame it would be interesting to see how that trajectory plays out. In his 2017 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, biologist Edward O. Wilson, while writing in a manner one might find slightly utopian, does raise the point that along with population growth slowing down, product design is moving in a favorable manner, given the success of products that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy, effectively raising benefit-to-cost of production and driving the evolution of the economy.

Wilson’s assertion bears some of the hallmarks of humanism in that the solution is to “progress” and that it is in our production of “better” machines that we will find a cleaner way of consumption. The solution for Wilson is in the evolution of the free market system. Wilson marks a shift in growth from the twentieth century to the twenty-first century; from extensive growth, the increase of per-capita income by accelerating capital, population, and more undeveloped land, to intensive growth that is generated by high-performance new products through sustainable design.

Wilson goes on to speak of economic realism, yet negates the key fact that the development of intensive economic growth will not and has not been the first step in developing nations—for example, as China colonizes Africa through extensive growth first. He assumes an ethical consumer and trickle-down effect that there simply isn’t time for. This could be an unintended validation of the more comprehensive critique that yes, the old models of economic growth are not suited to the geopolitical climate of the twenty-first century, but that what is required, and perhaps what Wilson misses, is a more densely integrated economic system that understands checks and balances and also the distinctions between different economic units in different localized value systems. Circular economics offers solutions here also.

We have seen faith in “efficient” exponential growth and production before with the advent of German forestry science, thoroughly analyzed by anthropologist James C. Scott in his 2008 book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In his analysis we learn that the German model of forestry was adopted as standard in British colonies, where humanist ideals of recent history would begin to rot and contaminate. We’re reminded here of the Bedouin, who were able to farm in areas of a certain level of aridity, but were displaced to areas of unfarmable land, in the name of more contemporary means of farming. In the case of the Bedouin, the meteorological and climatic were and continue to be harnessed in the name of progress, weaponized as a tool for dispossession by disregarding localized, older practices, as had been done in that land during British occupation. Both of these processes show the legacy of humanism as a hegemony of failure, and can be said to be forms of genocide in slow-motion.

In the nineteenth century German forestry streamlined, making the mass-produced new softwood forests producers of “...a single product line, simplifying forestry into a one-commodity machine...”, a mode of efficiency that could be codified and taught, the same as urban-planning, collectivization, and rural resettlement—a blueprint that failed to take into consideration that which was outside its realms of understanding. Once again, capital fails in its ability to value externalities.

 

The Reconstruction of Self as Ecological Utility

Scott asserts that soil is an interesting metaphor for the schemes that man envisions for progress, as soil—that which naturally provides—is itself the original capital. If soil is the original capital then what is a plant, its means of distribution? It’s a worthwhile consideration when thinking about geoengineering projects including regenerating forests, and even bio-engineering projects like the Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative to make plants more effective carbon capture machines. The value of Scott’s account of scientific production forestry is that it conveys the dangers of trying to streamline a complex and misunderstood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. If the human is taken as an economic unit, much like the refashioning of the complex ecology of forests as commodity machines, can we really say with absolute certainty that at this point in our history we have a sufficient understanding of the human and its relations to the multitude of environments we inhabit?

As with forests, homogeneity is not good for us. Monocultures are more fragile and prone to collapse than polycultures. Like the complexities of nature in its raw form, the raw social patterns of human interaction in relation to nature are something we don’t have a full understanding of yet. Some Western cultures derive meaning from narrative, from time itself, rather than land and soil. Philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. recognized this distinction back in the 1970s, stating that whereas the West is concerned with the philosophical problem of time, indigenous cultures are concerned with the philosophical problem of space. It seems impossible for state agents to understand the entirety of social reality and account for this. Ecological diversity hinges not on diversity, but on inclusivity. According to Glen Sean Coulthard this tension between emphasis on time and space is not just a statement about an attachment to land so much as an explication on the importance that land holds as “an ontological framework for understanding relationships.”

It is questionable as to how we could assume that shifts towards intensive forms of growth could be benign and productive, given what we can now observe in the history of extractivism and our (not nature’s) projected timelines of ecological disruption. It is not nature that will collapse, but us within it. The concept of the human as an economic unit bleeds into Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan’s concept of creorder, in that capital is not just machines and production lines and their offspring, but perhaps more concretely a representation of the organized power of dominant groups.

Perhaps a reconfiguration of self, as argued by Wynter as something that exists outside of bios, requires a conception of self reduced not to biological urges, not to genetic function, but to that of ecological utility. Wynter’s re-conception is an opportunity to move beyond humanism through a perspective of inhumanism. Using Wynter’s categorization of Man1 (tethered to the theological order of knowledge of pre-Renaissance Latin-Christian Medieval Europe) and Man2 (a figure based on the Western bourgeoisie’s model of being human since the nineteenth century, liberal monohumanism’s homo oeconomicus) is it possible to determine that Man3, a term coined by myself, has already existed, not in Western history but in geologically linked mutual aid? Man3 incorporates the requirements of now, such as alternative means of growth and sustainability as well as rewilding, reforestation etc., but the transition that must take place in order for Man3 to flourish may need to happen through Man2 2.0—if Man2 is that mode of being that requires a reengineering of economics, Man2 2.0 acts on this. This is both a non-liberal and non-Marxist understanding of the self as an integrated economic unit, and a justification that the problem of climate change and destruction of biodiversity that is already happening now is an economic one that requires economic solutions at this point in history. It’s fair to say that what Wynter might be trying to move towards is Man3, however within the genres of being human as they emerge it is worthwhile to give precedence to the economic category of human as something to overcome from an inhumanist perspective that appreciates the flourishings that could be, and the mourning for what has already been lost.

Images: Harm van den Dorpel. Algues Artificielles (web version), 2017. Courtesy of the artist

Terence Sharpe

Terence Sharpe is a designer and researcher living in Berlin. His work currently focuses on behavioral design, value propositions, and inhumanism. He has been published by Ocula, Triple Ampersand Publishing, and Strelka Mag, and has presented work at Trust Berlin, Spike Quarterly, and Phi Centre Montreal.

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