In “The New Nature” (Boston Review, Jan 11, 2016), author Jedediah Purdy opens provocatively when he asserts that the current age “adds nature to the list of things we can no longer regard as natural.” His essay’s not easy going, but it definitely rewards close reading — and re-reading. Purdy’s ultimate argument is that with the profound impact of our human presence on the planet, “nature is now a political question.”
How he pushes beyond this seeming truism is significant. Those of us alive today “confront the absence of political institutions, movements, or even widely shared sentiments of solidarity and shared challenges that operate on the scale of the problems concerning resource use and distribution we now face.”
Of course, the challenges that humans have faced throughout our history frequently outpace our existing institutions, wisdom and capacity to take effective action. That’s one workable definition of “crisis,” after all. And the compulsions and sufferings of a crisis often catalyze the formation of just those institutions, wisdoms and capacities. (They also fail to do this painfully often, as we’ve learned to our cost.)
But Purdy’s contention goes beyond apparent truism or the obvious. Our current ecological predicament takes its shape as part of the third of three “revolutions of denaturalization.” The first of these is the realization that any political order is a human choice. The “divine right of kings” is out; flawed human agency is in. Whatever is “natural” about “the way things are” is what we’ve made and accepted. It decidedly does not inhere in the universe. It is not the will of any deity. (The caliph of Daesh/ISIL has no more claim to legitimacy than a local mayor. Humans put both of them in power. Humans can take them out.)
The second revolution, not surprisingly, concerns economics. Like politics, the “natural order of things” in a given economy is anything but natural. People aren’t destined by some cosmic law to be laborers, leaders, warriors, wealth-bearers, priests, etc. Humans choose how to feed and house themselves, what things have value, and who can gain access to them. Though nowadays we define prosperity in narrow terms, as one of my favorite political writers C. Douglas Lummis points out, “How and when a people prospers depends on what they hope, and prosperity becomes a strictly economic term only when we abandon all hopes but the economic one.”* Hope for more than a paycheck means a life based on more than money.
The third revolution hinges on nature. Purdy notes, “Both politics and the economy remain subject to persistent re-naturalization campaigns, whether from religious fundamentalists in politics or from market fundamentalists in economics. But in both politics and economics, the balance of intellectual forces has shifted to artificiality.” So too is “nature” subject to deification and renaturalization, and here the implications for modern Paganism and Druidry hit home.
Given the modern reflex abhorrence in many “organic” quarters towards anything “artificial,” it may take you a moment, as it did me, to move past such associations and hear what Purdy is actually claiming. To put it another way, keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll keep getting what we’re getting. No god or demon (or magical elemental, set of “market forces” or cosmos) orders things this way — we do. Gaia, the clear implication is, won’t come to our (or Her) aid.
A religious re-naturalization of nature is therefore insufficient, whether it’s the RDNA (Reformed Druids of North America) gospel of “Nature is good” or Pope Francis’s emphasis on a divinely-ordered world of which we ought to be more compassionate stewards. Insofar as such a renaturalization or resacralization is part of any Druid program or agenda, it’s insufficient and perhaps even an obstacle. Only a political response, Purdy maintains, can begin to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene Epoch– the human era we’re now in.
Thus, Purdy points out, “Even wilderness, once the very definition of naturalness, is now a statutory category in U.S. public-lands law.” The Sierra Club still markets this (outdated, in Purdy’s perspective) view as one of its touchstones: “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” (By way of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, paraphrasing Thoreau’s Walden; Thoreau actually wrote preservation.)
We often uncritically hold to a romantic (and Romantic) notion of the natural world as pure or unspoiled, a realm or order which is, at least in a few surviving locations, uncontaminated by human agency. But, Purdy continues, “as a practical matter, ‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity. From now on, the world we inhabit will be one that we have helped to make, and in ever-intensifying ways.”
Purdy is not anti-nature by any means, as a cursory reading of his essay might at first suggest. He’s not a foe to demonize or take down on Twitter, if you’re a radical Pagan/environmentalist. But the challenges he depicts are real. As a Druid I need to pay attention when he writes things like this:
To invoke nature’s self-evident meaning for human projects is to engage in a kind of politics that tries, like certain openly religious arguments, to lift itself above politics, to deny its political character while using that denial as a form of persuasion. It is akin in its paradox to partisan mobilization in favor of constitutional originalism, which legitimates solutions to political problems by recourse to extra-political criteria—in the present case, what nature was created to be, or self-evidently is.
Such arguments succeed by enabling their advocates to make the impossible claim that only their opponents’ positions are political, while their own reflect a profound comprehension of the world either as it is or was intended to be.
Is nature (or Nature) “self-evidently” anything? If so, what? Do Druids and Pagans generally have any special insight to share that can respond to views like Purdy’s with any kind of authority or credibility? Can we demonstrate a “profound comprehension of the world” in terms that matter and more importantly will shape policy? For environmentalists (and for Pagans, though Purdy doesn’t name them), “inspiration and epiphany in wild nature became both a shared activity and a marker of identity. They worked to preserve landscapes where these defining experiences were possible.”
But throughout human history, Purdy notes, various and successively changing ideals of nature have underpinned diverse economic and political arrangements that always consistently disenfranchise a designated fraction of humans. Whether slaves, minorities, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, certain racial or ethnic groups, someone always gets the short end of the stick from these idealizations of “nature.” To hold the natural world to anything but a democratic politics, Purdy says, is to exclude, to perpetuate injustice, and to oppress.
However, Purdy goes on, if we abandon an idealized nature,
if we embrace not just the Anthropocene condition but also the insight—if we accept that there is no boundary between nature and human action and that nature therefore cannot provide a boundary around contestation—we may have the basis of a democratic future. It will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.
Whether a thoroughly politicized nature can aid us in creating a just future is an experiential question. We’ll prove or disprove it by political action rather than by theologizing about nature. (Yet every time we’ve attempted to discount a religious or theological view, it has returned in surprising force. Should we abandon theology for activism?)
In attempting to outline what a future democratic politics of nature might look like, Purdy offers the Food Movement as a kind of Exhibit A. Though the movement can be reduced to or parodied as privileged (mostly white) humans indulging in artisanal cheeses and wines at prices no one outside the 10% can afford, it marks the beginnings of much more, and
includes a number of elements that might be generalized to help shape the politics of the Anthropocene. First, it recognizes that the aesthetically and culturally significant aspects of environmental politics are not restricted to romantic nature but are also implicated in economic and policy areas long regarded as purely utilitarian. For example, a beautiful landscape worth preserving so that people can encounter it need not be pristine: it could be an agricultural landscape—preserved under easements or helped along by a network of farmers markets and farm-to-table organizations—whose cultural contribution is that people can work on it.
One problem with past policy is a fragmentation that separates and de-couples landscape from economy. The land is not merely a neutral resource. “The most credible food politics would combine an aesthetic attention to landscape with a concern for power and justice in the work of food production … [and] “ask what kinds of landscapes agriculture should make and what kinds of human lives should be possible there, so that the food movement’s interest in landscape and work is not restricted to showpiece enclaves for the wealthy.”
This blog and many of its concerns come under critique when Purdy remarks
It is too easy to say that, in the Anthropocene, we have to get used to change—a bromide that comes most readily to those with some control over the changes they confront—when the real problem is precisely how to build politics that can make the next set of changes more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.
I write from a decided position of privilege. So, of course, does Purdy. He and I both belong to that tiny minority on the planet “with some control over the changes they confront.” And if you’re literate and have time to read blogs and access to the technology where they appear, so do you. Though some days it may not feel like it, we have the luxury to question why and imagine how and even manifest what next.
Here on this blog I contemplate and explore a minority practice and belief, and try to make sense of my experience and the historical period I find myself in. To blog at all is to write from time left after making a living. How many of us have that? Besides, if everyone talks, who listens? Blogs ideally create dialog. But often a blogger like me can be guilty of doing more talking and less listening. (It’s ideally a balance rather than a binary opposition.)
Purdy notes in that last excerpt that he spies a definite trend or direction. He hopes “the next set of changes [will be] more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.” And he ends with a curious bow that seems to evoke much he has taken pains to empty of force.
Even that thought, however, is a reminder that this is only a fighting chance, part of a fighting future. The politics of the Anthropocene will be either democratic or horrible. That alternative is no guarantee that a democratic Anthropocene would be decorous, pleasant, or admirable, but only that it would be a shared effort to shape our more-than-human future with human hands.
Is there no alternative between democratic or horrible? Isn’t our own era an example of both? And what is that “more-than-human” future he says that we will shape with our own less than godlike human hands?!
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*Lummis, C Douglas. Radical Democracy. Cornell University Press, 1997.
[I happened on Lummis years ago and have been grateful ever since. A professor of cultural studies at Tsuda University in Japan, Lummis, who has spent much of life overseas, ably critiques Western trends and politics from the vantage point of an inside-outsider. Most of his work has been published in Japan, and often in Japanese — and hence he’s not as widely known in the West as he deserves.]