John Buell

Nature as Actor

Major weather disasters are often an occasion not only to lament the damage to property and loss of life but also to parcel out blame. Just as Job’s friends attributed his multiple misfortunes to purported violations of God’s codes, some religious fundamentalists blamed “the gay lifestyle” for the pummeling Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans. So far as I know religious fundamentalists have not issued a judgment on the values of Houstonians, perhaps because the city is renowned for its exploitation of its God-given resource, oil.

Nonetheless though oil barons differ both demographically and ideologically from fundamentalists, both share something in common. Both portray nonhuman nature as basically predictable and a benign servant of our moral values. Even many environmentalists, while scolding fellow citizens for abuse of the environment, regard it as relatively predictable. William Connolly, author of Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, highlights the assumptions shared by many across the environmental spectrum. Drawing on contemporary work in not only the earth sciences but also neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and philosophy he presents an alternative interpretation both of the climate crisis and our relative quiescence in its face.

What if non human nature is an actor in its own right? Connolly attaches priority to the planetary, by which he means “a series of temporal force fields, such as climate patterns, drought zones, the ocean conveyor system, species evolution, glacier flows, and hurricanes that exhibit self-organizing capacities to varying degrees and that impinge on each other and human life in numerous ways.”

There were rapid changes in several of these force fields even before the advent of capitalism. Nonhuman nature is not a “pristine wilderness waiting for ecotourists.” Connolly, however, does not draw from this the familiar right wing theistic conclusion that only God changes the climate or the neoliberal claim that if factors outside of human volition are involved, capitalism’s role must be insignificant or even beneficial.

The combination of dynamic natural forces and an extractive, growth obsessed economy make our situation more dangerous than if only one were involved. Some ecologists talk of the role that man in the abstract has played in the climate crisis. Even capitalist systems, seen as generally exploitative, differ considerably in their impact. And even perspectives critical of the growth imperative “may not attend closely enough to numerous self-organized nonhuman amplifiers that operate within these planetary cyclical constraints and make huge differences on their own.”

Paying attention to these amplifiers can both make us more attuned to the urgency of our situation and perhaps make us more humble. In addition, looking back over the earth’s history, an extinction event 250 million years ago warns us that the breakneck pace of global warming could once again release extreme amounts of especially heat trapping methane gas. Fragile systems passing beyond trigger points can cause uncontrollable change. And rapid changes in key variables are especially dangerous.

An understanding of dynamic force fields and their interaction contributes not only to our recognition of the dangers of global climate change but also reminds us that we too are constituted by our own internal force fields. These are entangled with multiple social and natural currents.. These complex, layered, usually unconscious forces play a key role in our political life.

This resort to biology may scare some on the left, who remember the invocation of a supposed “selfish gene” to undergird Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism. This fear is understandable but misplaced. The biology and neuroscience to which Connolly and like- minded theorists turn embraces a theory of evolution that rejects genocentrism. They emphasize teleodynamism, a searching, exploratory process that yields outcomes not reducible to or fully explained by prior states.

“We are distinctive but not unique. Many of our prized possessions operate to some degree in other species. Even our vaunted capacity to come to terms with our mortality seems to be shared with elephants and crows.”

Those prized possessions are themselves more complex and layered than simple theories of human autonomy allow. “The unity of the self is actually a series of interfolded and conflicting pathways, with some paths being more deeply situated and widely entangled with others.

“As with the partially open and complex systems of the cosmos, “the relational, teleodynamic capacity of drives provide an element in the real creativity of human life while this feature also poses sharp qualifications to highly centered visions of human autonomy.”

These complexes are often murky and operate below the level of full awareness. Their interaction can be the source of blockages and anxieties. Redressing these troubles requires work on the self, but their tenuous supports still do leave them open to modest revision. Connolly emphasizes the role of arts of the self. Various forms of meditation, structured dreaming, art, and music may all evoke new or altered pathways. Important as these insights and steps are, they must be supplemented by broader political initiatives, including both a politics of everyday life and electoral politics, subjects of my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2017

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