In Raymond Williams’ essay “The Idea of Nature,” he probes the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of our idea of nature. This essay was published before we had become aware of climate change, but after the 1960s ecological movement had exploded in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Williams points to the word nature’s fundamental polyvalency, its inherent multiple meanings in the English language, and our attempt to make it the stable background against an ever changing human history. This idea of nature obscures, specifically, the effects we have on nature through the ceaseless production at the heart of capitalism. As he writes towards the end of the essay:
In our complex dealings with the physical world, we find it very difficult to recognize all of the products of our own activities. We recognize some of the products, and call others by-products; but the slagheap is as real a product as the coal, just as the river stinking with sewage and detergent is as much our product as the reservoir. The enclosed and fertile land is our product, but so are the waste moors from which the poor cultivators were cleared, to leave what can be seen as an empty nature. Furthermore, we ourselves are in a sense products: the pollution of industrial society is to be found not only in the water and in the air but in the slums, traffic jams, and not these only as physical objects but as ourselves in them and in relation to them.
There are many ideas of nature, but perhaps the idea of nature is one that pulls into view our constant but hidden relationship to it. At the close of his essay he writes: “We need different ideas because we need different relationships…[w]e need and are perhaps beginning to find different ideas, different feelings, if we are to know nature as varied and variable nature, as the changing conditions of a human world.” Williams here betrays the by now standard approach to how we think about ecological crisis: nature is a conceptual problem, something we have to conceive of correctly in order to correctly approach. In such a view, environmental politics hinges on who has ideas, how they are produced, and the regime of effects and causes they induce.
In what follows, I want to explore two different ways we can have ideas about nature — indeed, about anything — and two different ideas about the effects of ideas. The overwhelming tendency in modern philosophy, and in theory more broadly, is to assume that the solution to the climate crisis lies in having the right ideas. The problem, after all, is conceptual — a new concept, climate change, enters the lexicon around 1987. It then proceeds to seed more concepts, such as the Anthropocene. This, and the data behind it, are problems of knowledge, and inaction is a sign of either ignorance or denial (from the psychological to the ideological defense mechanism).
There is a different way to think about ideas and their political function. This emerges in the notion of intellectual equality as argued for by Jacques Rancière, and in a differing form, by Sylvain Lazarus. Intellectual equality creates a non-normative political theory, one wherein the theorizing of politics as such is divorced from theorists, or at the very least our traditional notion of theorists. It is not so much that theory is useless, as that everyone theorizes, and as such, theory as vocation, as a special place position, as a force of illumination from the few, must disappear from politics. This does not mean one cannot conceptualize this fact, or study politics itself. It does mean one must occupy a certain distance between the study of politics and doing politics. There is nothing in Rancière or Lazarus that will tell you what to do, except to be wary. Properly understood, they are both minimal political ontologies, eschewing normative content for a description of politics as the emergence of the new and the possible.
This not only poses problems for the academy and intellectual life today (all the worse for the moribund academy!), but for environmental politics, our apocalyptic horizon, and its attendant sense of despair that has loomed over us ever since the Kyoto Protocols of 1997. The failure of international agreement on this topic — an inability to bind governments to action, despite consistent lip service to the nature of the problem — is combined with both a policy failure and a political failure. There has been no dearth of protests, of lifestyle shifts, of rising awareness. At this point in time, however, CO2 emissions are on the rise, and there is growing concern that the planet is heating faster than anticipated. Recent figures from the Arctic suggest a perilous shift in conditions there, perhaps no better signified than by the fires that emerged in the Arctic Circle in 2021.
Academics have responded to this crisis as academics, by conceptualizing the problem in various ways. Stephen Gardiner, in his 2011 book The Perfect Moral Storm, sees the issue as conceptual all the way down. Climate change is difficult for us to grasp as it is non-local, taking action to combat it is high-cost low payoff for this generation (or more accurately, Gardiner’s generation), and its ethical dimensions and dilemmas are not captured well by contemporary ethical theories. It is conceptually and morally counterintuitive. So we need to retool our conceptual approach to the world, our ethical concepts. Where, exactly, are ethical concepts forged? In ethics departments, one must assume.
Gardiner’s analysis is, in fact, pretty convincing. It does seem like, by all accounts, we are in unfamiliar territory. We need some kind of map, and perhaps new forms of understanding and new concepts to make our way through. This approach, however much it belatedly concedes to praxis, is at odds with the notions of intellectual equality that Rancière and Lazarus espouse. There is a clear tension here, in a moment when the stakes couldn’t be higher. Should we discard these theorists of the political who seem incapable of guiding us through our present malaise? I think otherwise. The traditional academic approach also has its limits, limits exemplified in the work of Andreas Weber and Timothy Morton. Despite my criticisms of other approaches, I admit it is difficult to see how an approach based on intellectual equality could lead to any confronting of new problems whatsoever. In approaching this question, I turn to the writings of Aldo Leopold and his famous Sand County Almanac. This book is much beloved by some of the aforementioned thinkers, especially Weber. Yet it also presents a model for confronting the environment that does not require the proliferation of concepts.
Intellectual Equality in Rancière and Lazarus
For both Rancière and Lazarus, people think. From this follows two strange and compelling accounts of politics. Lazarus is explicit about this category, but Rancière tends to talk more in terms of intellectual equality, a concept he develops in detail in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. In order to understand Rancière’s concept of intellectual equality, it is worth first understanding his account of politics.
For Rancière, politics is about dissensus, disagreement. His theory relies on a concept he calls “the distribution of the sensible.” This is literally the carving up of social and political space into a specific number of roles and subjectivities, only some of which can be understood as specifically political, capable of thought or even speech. He is fond of citing Aristotle who tells us that slaves do not possess logos (i.e. language) but only phonos (noise), i.e. we can communicate with them as one would a pet, but we shan’t be having dogs or slaves debating policy (or solving equations). Such a distribution can be morally bad — as in the case of Aristotle’s opinions on slaves or indeed many other such views — but it doesn’t have to be. The distribution of the sensible is inherent to any order, it is a necessary condition of community. Politics is precisely what disrupts this order.
In Disagreement, Rancière describes the example of the Roman plebeians who secede and set themselves up on the Aventine Hill. The plebs, much like the ancient Greek slaves (at least according to Aristotle), do not speak, at least not according to the patricians, for “the order that structures patrician domination recognizes no logos capable of being articulated by beings deprived of logos, no speech capable of being proffered by nameless beings.” It is important to note that plebeians do not revolt insofar as they riot or attempt to kill the patricians. This would reinforce the established order, much as a dog biting its master does little to truly reverse their hierarchy. Instead, the plebs set up another order, “another partition of the perceptible, by constituting themselves not as warriors equal to other warriors but as speaking beings sharing the same properties as those who deny them these.” They demonstrate their capacity for speech, reason, and political organization, and in doing so they shift the distribution of the sensible; they show they possess a capacity denied to them.
What is important about Ranciere’s conception of politics above is its self-driven character. The distribution of the sensible is disrupted by subjects showing that they have the capacities supposedly denied to them. Equality is at the heart of Ranciere’s system. People are always capable of thought, action and emancipation.
These moments of politics that disrupt the distribution of the sensible, wherein proles display intelligence instead of stupidity, where the nameless take on a name and the speechless speak, are all grouped under Rancière’s term dissensus. He defines dissensus as “a division inserted in ‘common sense’: a dispute over what is given and about the frame within which we assume something as a given.” Rancière’s classic example of dissensus is Olympe de Gouges. During the French Revolution, de Gouges was put on trial for betraying the revolution. De Gouges’ defense consisted of her pointing out that to be tried for betraying revolution was inconsistent in a system where women could neither vote nor stand for election. De Gouges’ point was not something that could be endorsed by lawmakers; she was not pleading her case. Rather, de Gouges enacted a dissensus. De Gouges staged a dissensus by her demonstration that she has the very rights she is denied, that to put her to death is to make her a subject of the very order she is being excluded from.
De Gouges was a well-educated woman, but Rancière’s examples are drawn across class positions and historical periods. How do these moments of dissensus occur? For Rancière, it is not a question knowing one is unequal or oppressed. In his polemics against political art, he challenges the very assumption of political art, that “art compels us when it shows us revolting things.” For Rancière “[t]here is no straightforward road from the fact of looking at a spectacle to the fact of understanding the state of the world; no direct road from intellectual awareness to political action.” Against the shift in knowledge political art assumes is necessary for action, Rancière is interested in the triggering of passions, an aesthetic sensibility. He writes, for example, of the effects of literature in the following way:
What literature does is not messages or representations that make workers aware of their conditions. Rather it triggers new passions, which means new forms of balance – or imbalance – between an occupation and the sensory equipment appropriate to it. The politics of literature is not the politics of writers.
This is an unusual position. Rancière rejects the path from ignorance to knowledge to political action. This approach, however, makes the role of theory and knowledge in emancipation deeply unclear. It is not that knowing things cannot aid one, it is that one can come to know by themselves what is necessary. Yet much of left-wing theorizing assumes a situation in which some kind of block on knowledge has been placed. The analysis Marx offers in Capital is, after all, one of a deeply vast system whose mechanisms are obscured, a system whose “hidden abodes” must be uncovered. Or think of a crucial term in Critical Theory: denaturalization. I have come to assume something is natural, and someone else must come and show me that what I thought was natural or instinctive is in fact learnt. These discourses are what Rancière calls a master discourse, one that assumes the necessity of the figure of the critical theorist. They assume either that knowledge is what enables action — for example, in the idea that “people revolt when they see revolting things” — or that only a specific group can see through the mire.
Rancière doesn’t think politics happens all the time. Indeed, for him, it is rare. Yet Ranciere also does not think it is correct to link this to a lack of knowledge. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, he tells the tale of Joseph Jacotot who taught his class how to speak French. They, obviously, did not speak French. But Jacotot did not speak their language, Flemish. He gave his students a copy of François Fénelon’s Telemachus in both French and Flemish, and from there the students learnt French. This was not a transfer of knowledge from the master to the pupil, the circle of knowledge which can never be escaped from. For Rancière, education is mostly founded on a circle of mastery based on the belief that the student needs one to explicate the class material or text to him and in so doing constructs and perpetuates this very dependency. Rather, this was a circle of emancipation, triggered by an act of willpower.
What Jacotot demonstrates in his teaching is the fact of learning without explication. The old method, the method of explication, would require the schoolmaster to explain the text to the student who could not otherwise understand. Rancière calls this the “the myth of explication”, which divides the world into “knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid.” This is a division between superior and inferior intelligence, the intelligence of those who think and those locked “within the closed circle of habit and need.” Against this circle, Rancière proposes a circle of power and emancipation, a circle which “must be begun.” It is begun by Jacotot’s decision to teach the students without explication, to break with the circle of powerlessness. In doing so, he assumes the equal intelligence of students, which is both a demonstration of equality and what enables the students (and Jacotot) to break out of the circle of powerlessness, and begins the circle of power and emancipation. It is a singular act of the will that both presupposes and demonstrates equality.
To be emancipated is to be free in this sense. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière offers us Jacotot’s definition of emancipation: “that every common person might conceive his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it.” Later on Rancière says: “whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe.”
This vision of always latent and fundamentally uncontrolled emancipation — that being free includes doing nothing — is hard to square with standard accounts of environmental politics. Furthermore, how can the model of Jacotot help us understand the necessary knowledge content required to grasp the issues of climate change and ecological crisis? As we will see below, these problems only multiply when it comes to Lazarus.
Lazarus’ project centers around understanding politics. For him, the central statement of politics is that people think. He, however, divides politics into two kinds: politics in exteriority and politics in interiority. He is keen to point that in both, people think. In his essay, “Can Politics be Thought in Interiority?”, he writes:
People think: whether in the framework of a politics at a distance from the State (politics in interiority), or in the framework of a politics in the space of the State (politics in exteriority). In order to make it possible to have politics when people adhere to parliamentarianism, to syndicalism, it is necessary to admit that people who vote, who are syndicalized, also think. The principle people think legitimizes a politics in interiority, far from the State, but just as well its opposite, a politics in exteriority. In both cases, there is a thought and a politics.
This is true enough. One of the great contradictions Rancière exploits in his work is the fact that so much of our political and social order requires a presupposition of intelligence to function. While in a dialogue one of the members may not know something or understand something, the premise of speaking with them is often that they could come to understand, and it is hard to legitimize dialogue, speaking, and explication without assuming the possibility of thought and understanding. The twist in Rancière is that even those forms of speech that assume the impossibility of non-knowledge or intellectual hierarchy actually make this presupposition.
However, Lazarus’s main concern is politics in interiority. This is a politics where the statement that people think occupies its full force. In politics in exteriority, people think, but that is only part of the picture. The expertise that goes into policy, the immense discipline of economics and political science, the things we can simply be wrong about even as they become topics for elections and demonstrations, the constant contesting of facts and figures, all form part and parcel of politics in exteriority and thus necessarily limit the extent to which we can adhere to the statement people think.
This is why Lazarus looks towards politics in interiority, wherein “people think” and politics come to be synonymous. Politics in interiority appears in a variety of emancipatory and revolutionary contexts. Labor strikes and disputes display people’s thought, as do anti-colonial struggles. What Lazarus focuses on is the subjective element of politics, the people’s assertion of their own thought and categories. This is what he means by politics in interiority, defined by what he calls modes in interiority. We will explicate this concept of modes in detail below, but first we need a few more ideas in view to see how Lazarus’ account coheres.
How can Lazarus’s concept of politics be defended against those for whom politics is about knowing better than? For Lazarus, what marks the gap between politics in exteriority and in interiority is the gap between cause and possibility. In short, he contrasts his position against what he calls scientism, which is “in exteriority… because a special configuration of repeatability is dominant in it.” Against scientism, the repeatable and its domain of causal laws, is the term possibility. Politics in exteriority is subject to the thought of determinism, politics in interiority is tied to the possible. In Workers Anthropology and Factory Inquiry he writes:
An anthropology of people’s thought such as I have conceived finds itself confronted with the following: the category “possible” is the category through which thought constitutes itself. For a situation to be understood by its possibles is a reversal compared to historicist or scientific thought, for which it is the precise investigation of what is, in terms of determinism, cause or law, that makes it possible to respond to the question of what could be.
For politics in interiority to escape scientism and become tied to the possible, it cannot be generalized or abstracted, except in a very particular way; i.e via an anthropology of the name. As Lazarus writes, “politics is unnamable; its total thought is impossible. All that will be thought are the categories and the places of the unnamable name.” The anthropology part stems from Lazarus’ definition of anthropology as the discipline which investigates people’s thought, and the issue of this term “the name” is precisely what is at stake in delimiting a subjectivist thought outside of scientism and politics in exteriority.
In order to approach the unnamable name and think the thought of politics, one must proceed via what Lazarus calls the modes of politics. Specifically, politics must be thought in modes of interiority (i.e. at a distance from the state, subjectively). Lazarus elaborates at length on modes in his essay “Lenin and the Party”:
I propose the category of mode of politics, maintaining that non-statist politics, that is, non-historicist politics, is uncommon, sequential, and identified by what I call its mode: a mode of politics is the relation of a politics to its thought, the bringing to light of its specific categories that permit an identification of the subjective on its own basis. Politics does not have to be conceived by way of a hypothetical object, the content of which is the state and power. A political sequence in interiority creates its categories, its theorists, its sites.
All of this is an attempt to preserve the singularity of politics. A mode comes with its own theoreticians and key terms, all of which are singular. It is obvious that if we consider The French Revolution, say, there is only one Saint-Just. We might be tempted, however, to argue that The French Revolution inaugurates the modern concept of revolution (or even the modern era!) and that all following revolutions repeat this gesture. In such a view, The Russian Revolution is really an off-broadway reproduction of its French original. Such a view is subject to the repeatability of scientism discussed above, and we not do not preserve the idea that people think. Instead, Lazarus argues in his “Lenin and the Party” essay that the term “revolution” is exhausted in the mode of the French Revolution. What is new in the Russian Revolution, what marks it out as a mode of politics in interiority and thus singular and non-repeatable, is the category of the party, a category that fades after the Bolsheviks seize power in 1917.
The idea of the mode of politics thus preserves the singularity of politics. Lazarus is not making some historical-relativist argument that the category “revolution” is actually incomprehensible to us moderns. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the singular thought that occurred within a mode. This thought does not imply past modes are unintelligible. Lazarus is at pains to clarify this with his “method of saturation.” Once a mode has lapsed, its categories are exhausted, but it is not inaccessible to us as one might assume. We can, in fact, investigate this mode via the “method of saturation,” which Lazarus defines as “the examination from within a body of work or a thought of the lapsing of one of its founding categories. It is a matter of interrogating the body of work from the standpoint of the lapsing of the category and of re-identifying it in this new conjuncture.” This is to say that a lapsed mode has relevance for us, insofar as it allows us to think through the next moments of politics, whether in its formation or in explaining its mode.
Lazarus’ complicated theoretical edifice leaves room for people’s capacity. It has, like Rancière’s system, an idea of equality. Lazarus’ locates this in capacity, but it is important to note that for him “the people” of “people think” is not well defined. Politics may proceed under certain modes, but who participates in those modes, who comes to constitute the “people” of “people think” or the site where there was a thought, cannot be determined in advance. Doing so would place the mode of politics under the discourse of scientism.
Lazarus’ strength as a theorist of politics (let’s say, as opposed to a political theorist), is that he can tell a history of radical and emancipatory movements that allows struggles to be connected without being determined by history and the development of forces beyond the agency of persons. He frees revolutionary thought from the temptation of accelerationism, and affords the people their place in the making of their world and freedom without invoking the importance of a place position, as in the early Marx and in Georg Lukács. Yet how can a politics freed from the order of causal laws possibly help us understand the environmental crisis? What can the category of environmental politics be? What will its mode look like? And what will it mean for such a mode to lapse? We will explore these questions in due course, but first it is worth examining some more traditional approaches to environmental politics.
Ecology in the Academy
It is worth drawing a sharp line between the above conceptions of politics and the standard discourse on ecopolitics in academia. The academy loves to coin terms, as a new word is surely the expression of a new idea. Yet as the planet heats up, so too do the stakes of a discourse. Now we must grasp things by the conceptual root if we wish to understand.
Take, for example, Andreas Weber. Weber’s 2018 book Enlivenment sees himself again coin the titular phrase of the book, by which he means “getting things, people and oneself to live again — to be more full of life, to become more alive. The idea is at once concerned with the ‘real life’ of threatened species or ecosystems, or people under attack, and with the ‘inner life’ of ourselves”. Enlivenment is the idea that “could help us understand the current planetary crisis,” meant to correct a “a lack of understanding of what life is.” Weber goes on to tell us that “We are unaware of our most profound reality as living beings. This absentmindedness is an astonishing fact – but it is also a logical outcome of our rational culture. The ‘meaning of life’ and questions about human purpose, satisfactions and aspirations have long been ignored in biology, in economics and the humanities.” This is perhaps the clearest cut example of a particularly noxious mode of theorizing about environmental politics: one that places the production of concepts and neologisms as the precondition of political action. More specifically, it is one that assumes a specific model of conceptual production, one wherein ideas stand apart from politics. Despite Weber’s raging against the academic discipline of his day he is actually reproducing the very methodology at its heart, an objective social science ala Durkheim or Levi-Strauss, the kind we saw Lazarus criticize above.
Weber’s deployment of Enlivenment is the standard approach to what it means to have “different ideas because we need different relationships,” that ideas are perfected on the factory line of the editor’s desk, and that they are shipped out across networks physical and digital in the minds of those otherwise duped by the power that be. Despite Weber’s activist and collectivist pretensions, the very performative essence of his book is to place the keys to saving humanity into his hands, a concept shaped key for a politically shaped lock.
Before proceeding, is it necessary to say a few brief words about ecological Marxism. The tradition of intellectual equality itself draws on a Marxist lineage and a proper discussion of their relation, both in general and in relation to environmental politics, requires another essay in and of itself. What is at stake here is essentially the legacy of Marxism, and the gap between what Marx set out to do as a thinker and Marxology, in which the texts of Marx and early Marxism become crucial. At the outset, the point might be put in the following way. In Lazarus, there is room for the turn Marxism takes under Mao, and scholars such as Michael Neocosmos and Ernst Wamba Dia Wamba have taken his (and to some extent’s Ranciere’s) work as guidance to understand the history of emancipatory politics in Africa. Neither Lazarus nor Ranciere’s work requires people to eschew environmental struggles if they may have not read Marx.
John Bellamy Foster is the most well known exemplar of Ecological Marxism, and resolutely believes that the ecological crisis is not merely caused by capitalism, but that capitalism must be overturned to avoid the crisis at all:
What is needed instead [of posthumanism] is a revolutionary humanity inspired by reason and dedicated to the struggle to create what Marx called “the perfected unity in essence of man with nature.” This can only be achieved through the transcendence of the capitalist order and the rational regulation of “the interdependent process of social metabolism” by the associated producers. There is no other way.
The possibility that capitalism may be able to, belatedly and horribly, but eventually, respond to this crisis, is ruled out de facto by Foster. Hence the antagonism between Foster and Jason W. Moore, who suggests capitalism might just escape from the crisis it currently faces. It is a shame Foster so readily dismisses Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in his recent essay, “The New Irrationalism” (which, let us note, consistently only cites the opening pages of many of the books it criticizes), for they were both aware of the capacity for capitalism to adapt, to absorb counter-hegemonic tendencies, and to evolve. This is a more promising approach than centralizing the critique of political economy as the tool for environmental salvation because Marx wrote in some notebook that the separation between man and nature is already posited in “the relation of wage labour and capital.”
A final word about Foster. He is keen to point to what he terms “the environmental proletariat.” This term defines those, mostly in the global south, who are at the forefront of environmental struggles. Foster bases his analysis on Marx’s “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” in which Marx claims the proletariat are the class who in overcoming their own oppression must abolish all oppression itself. This is to say the proletariat occupy a unique place in the structure of capital and that the hope of humanity lies at their feet. If we wish to follow the threads of intellectual equality indicated above, however, we can see this analysis falling into the problem of repeatability that Lazarus associated with scientism. Ranciere has his own critique of Marx’s “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” seeing in it a metapolitical discourse that obscures the possibility of dissensus. There is more substantive objection, however. It is unclear how this notion, following Marx’s analysis, captures the actual composition of environmental movements, which appear the world over, drawn from a variety of class positions. Part of the problem here is the vexed question of how we understand a term like proletariat today, and whether as capitalism evolves we can simply transpose Marx’s analysis in “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” There is much more to be said about all dilemmas and complications presented above, but the essence of it is that all too often ecological Marxism is really simply ecological Marxology.
I want to turn to the work of Timothy Morton, in part because of his popularity — profiles in the New York Times and a deal with Penguin is about as good as it gets for a literature academic — and the fact he represents the conceptual approach criticized above. Unlike Weber, however, who serves as a pristine example here, there is a tension in Morton’s work. This tension is instructive for the problem of this essay, of how intellectual equality and environmental politics could possibly go together. The tension exists between two notions in Morton, two notions he believes belong together. These notions are “hyperobjects” and “being ecological.” In short, Morton’s notion of “being ecological” suggests we already are ecological, though perhaps we are not aware of this fact. Morton’s point is that saving the planet might not require a certain sharp reorientation of our lives, as much as readjustment to some of what we already do. It’s optimistic in the extreme, but the logical structure of the point is worth pondering: we are already there conceptually, though perhaps we lack a little bit of self-awareness or willpower. Yet this notion, which appears to cut against a standard approach in which the problem of climate change is a failure of conceptualization or imagination, is undermined by Morton’s theorizing of “hyperobjects”.
Morton, following the framework of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) — an ontological view about the reality of objects, one in which human like effects of causation and action (i.e. aliveness) extend to the immaterial world (think here of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter) — suggests that certain global events and things are best thought of as hyperobjects, mass objects of which we can only get a partial glimpse. Climate change is Morton’s classic example, but if you want to think about all the plastic pollution on Earth, this too would become a hyperobject. All of a sudden there is something we don’t know about, something we need to confront if we are to make sense of our impending catastrophe, and Morton is explicit about this: “For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance.”
This concept stands in contradistinction to another one of Morton’s ideas, that of “being ecological.” In his book, Being Ecological, Morton wants to suggest that what’s at stake is not more knowledge about our impending doom or how to live a different life. He is explicit about this in the book’s introduction: “It seems to be not enough just to know stuff. In fact, it seems like “just knowing stuff” is never just knowing stuff, according to what I’ve been trying to argue. “Just knowing stuff” is a way of living things too.” For Morton then, we already know how to live and be ecological. This means the response to catastrophe is within our grasp already. This is partly because being ecological is, for Morton, just a means of nonviolently relating to nonhuman beings — one example is anyone who strokes their cat instead of strangling it. There is something like a radical equality here. Being Ecological consistently emphasizes the already latent possibility of a shift. Yet Morton doesn’t ask how we go from this mode of relating to large-scale change, nor does he present a theory of why his book may not be the place for such an account.
There’s a tension in this notion of being ecological. If we already are, what is the exact nature of the ecological crisis? And what role does the idea of hyperobjects now play in Morton’s philosophy? In Being Ecological, Morton skirts around this problematic with the claim that people aren’t aware of their already being ecological. There is a demand to pay attention to oneself, an egoistic phenomenological reduction (how does the object of myself appear to myself?). In the closing passage, Morton writes:
You are a fully embodied being who has never been separated from other biological beings both inside and outside your body, not for one second. You are sensitively attuned to everything happening in your world, which is why you end up blocking some of it, because you are afraid the stimulation might be too intense. You have an idea that there is an inside and an outside of yourself, and perhaps this is the deepest way in which you start to think that being ecological involves some massive change….But you are already a symbiotic being entangled with other symbiotic beings. The problem with ecological awareness and action isn’t that it’s horribly difficult. It’s that it’s too easy. You are breathing air, your bacterial microbiome is humming away, evolution is silently unfolding in the background. Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead. You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.
Here the tensions are apparent. The idea you have that there is an inside and an outside is a wrong idea. It is one that can be corrected, but how does it get corrected? Morton’s impulse to say that we are already there can’t be sustained from the dominant mode of writing philosophy and theory. He even formulates the problem in Being Ecological as follows:
Psychically it’s as if we are being crushed. And the modes we have to draw on that might restart things are part of the problem. Currently our ways of restarting reality tend to be based on severing our connections with nonhuman beings in every respect: social, psychic, and philosophical. So we have inadequate political, technical, and psychic tools at our disposal with which to fix things.
Here is the demand for the new, then, against us already being part of the way there. This tension between the everyday and conceptual innovation can be bridged in two ways. One is the method of intellectual equality. One is to say, with Rancière and Lazarus, that yes, we sometimes require new concepts, but then to ask who generates those concepts and what it means to generate the concepts and subjectivities we require. The other is to conceptually engineer something like hyperobjects, to make ontologizing and politics the same. This is what Morton does, and it is how theory handles the climate crisis. In Hyperobjects, Morton even says: “I have also come to understand… that it is indeed on the terrain of ontology that many of the urgent ecological battles need to be fought.” The promise of being ecological comes out of the concept of the hyperobject, which is to say that it’s only through Morton’s own singular conceptual invention that we can reach a notion like being ecological. As he writes in Hyperobjects:
What we need, then, is not only ecology without Nature, for which I have argued. We also need, as I shall argue later in this study, ecology without matter. And just to cap it all, we need ecology without the present. Indeed, one could successfully argue that it’s the presentism of contemporary environmentalisms that put them on the wrong side of history. This presentism manifests in a wide variety of ways. Consider the rhetoric of immediacy common to what I have called ecomimesis: stop thinking, go out into Nature, turn off your irony. Presentism also manifests in the injunction to stop thinking and do something, the paradoxical form taken by the contemporary beautiful soul, a defining, overarching subject position of modernity that has been with us since the late eighteenth century.
For our purposes, let’s focus on this “ecology without the present.” This notion, that the alarm sung by environmentalists the world over gets something wrong, is present too in Being Ecological, which opens with a warning against warnings and information dumps, all of which, as we have seen, he thinks of as divorcing knowledge from living. So, the above insight is crucial to the quasi-egalitarian impulse of Being Ecological. The critique of presentism does not stem from the insight that we are all already ecological, rather that the conceptual apparatus behind “hyperobjects” forces Morton to say that any theory of hyperobjects is a theory of being ecological:
But more important for our purposes, hyperobjects themselves prevent us from being presentist. The present is precisely nowhere to be found in the yawning Rift opening between the future and past, essence and appearance. We simply make it however big we want, and this product of our imagination is a fetish, a fiction: one second, one hour, one day, a century—even a millennium or a geological period. The overbearing metaphysics of presence inscribed into every timekeeping device (especially the digital ones) is, I suppose (without much evidence), responsible in some measure for the psychic distress of modern humans. There is a very simple explanation for this distress: there is no present, yet the clock screams that you must change your focus now and have that meeting, pull that face on the chat show, sign the divorce paper, buy the product.
First then is the concept, one for whom the stakes must be filtered through. Morton’s ecology follows his ontology but what this means is simply that the right ontology is necessary. This is indeed the opening gambit of Hyperobjects when he writes: “The strategy of this book, then, is to awaken us from the dream that the world is about to end, because action on Earth (the real Earth) depends on it.” The hyperobject is the guarantor of the efficacy of Morton’s project, and if you find his idea ridiculous — because you are neither a proponent of OOO nor a phenomenologist or think it is simply wrong — it becomes unclear how you could get to being ecological, a term whose significance can fully loom only in the shadow of not just understanding but agreeing to the theory of hyperobjects.
In my discussion of Ranciere and Lazarus, I raised questions about how intellectual equality could face the climate crisis. Yet I want to point out that a position like Morton’s faces its own challenges, suggesting that a worldview and an action coincide in a single moment. To return briefly to Williams quote with which I opened this essay, for Morton to have a different idea of nature is to have his idea of nature. Even if Morton isn’t so bold as to say this straight out, it is clearly the premise of much of his work, and when leans away from this position, as he does in Being Ecological, he cannot disavow it and in fact returns to it.
Aldo Leopold and Intellectual Equality
What does intellectual equality look like in the context of environmental politics? The beginning of the answer to this question can be found, I think, in the writings of the American naturalist Aldo Leopold, whose work has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Leopold’s principal book The Sand County Almanac now figures as a standard reference point in discussions of ecological crises. Leopold does, at times, offer an eco-harmonious and hippyish vision of man and his relationship to the environment. This part of his ideals is what has been grasped upon so frequently by his commentators. His oft quoted chapter “Thinking like a Mountain” is one in which he asks us to contemplate the eons a geologic formation comes to witness, and if we can grasp such an eternity. The hope is that such exercises in imagination will make us better caretakers of the planet. Weber makes much of Leopold’s idea, identifying with what he terms “poetic objectivity,” a coinage which captures his hope that we don’t simply study nature but imagine it as persons.
The celebrated “Thinking like a Mountain” chapter only captures, however, one aspect of Leopold’s thought. What separates Leopold from a drum circle-esque vision of man recommuning with nature is a specific vision of what it means to be human. Leopold can’t quite become one with the post-humanists, because he draws from a philosophical anthropology that believes people have certain capacities. Specifically, he does not think that we become more ecologically attuned through the acquisition of concepts:
The incredible intricacies of the plant and animal community — the intrinsic beauty of the organism called America, then in the full bloom of her maidenhood — were as invisible and incomprehensible to Daniel Boone as they are today to Mr. Babbitt. The only true development in American recreational resources is the development of the perceptive faculty in Americans. All of the other acts we grace by that name are, at best, attempts to retard or mask the process of dilution. Let no man jump to the conclusion that Babbitt must take his Ph.D in ecology before he can ‘see’ his country. On the contrary, the Ph.D may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries which he officiates. Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas. Perception, in short, cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much.
Perception can grow or be used, but it is not something that is added to. The vision Leopold presents above is one that is fundamentally about intellectual equality. Perception cannot lose its quality, “the weeds of the city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods,” “he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much.” Yet if perception is useful in small amounts as in large, turned towards the minuscule or the massive, how could its development be possible? What, in Leopold, does the development of perception mean? How does one begin to see differently?
It is here that I think a concept of the will is at play in Leopold, just as it appears in Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. The circle of emancipation is a circle of wills, a moment to break out of a standard way of doing things, one that does not occur through the gathering of concepts. Leopold does not provide us with a slew of neologisms, he does show us things side by side, via a form of poetic redescription.
On the first page of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold introduces us to a “meadow mouse” who, startled by his approach, darts away. Leopold asks why the mouse is out and about in broad daylight. He answers his own question as follows:
Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw. Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule. Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine economic system! The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
What this places side by side is not French or Flemish, but humanity and nature. The mouse’s world is inscribed in terms of the value of humanity. There are two strands in this passage worth noting. The first is Leopold’s imparting to the mouse human, emotional characteristics that are communal. I am ridiculed by someone, I feel shame (am mocked) by and in front of others. Similarly, I am a citizen only if I belong to a political community. Notice too, however, that the mouse is attributed with human characteristics we might think of more negatively. An obsession with safety not couched in terms of mere survival but in terms of ‘freedom from want and fear’, aspirations shared by the American polity in the post WWII years, in terms normally associated with human welfare and economy, ‘supply, demand and transport.’ Imparting emotional qualities, even more negative ones, to animals may anthropomorphize them, but it can also make the animal morally considerable, by weaving it into an emotional spectrum we associate with our lives. Consider Franz Kafka’s story The Burrow, in which an unnamed burrowing creature displays an immense human-like paranoia for the safety of his home, which only humanizes the animal further. The anthropomorphizing that goes on here allows us to interpret otherwise strange behavior. The darting of the mouse now becomes, for Leopold, something that happens because the mouse and I are similar in our concerns. Pure instinct is replaced by the all too human desire for freedom from want and fear.
This is then an exercise in exercising a different vision, in triggering different sensibilities. Leopold is not particularly interested in showing us revolting things in the hopes that we revolt; he is interested in triggering a different set of passions or perceptions. In this sense, the poetic character of his work is crucial, but also what makes it more worthwhile than many attempts to conceptualize our way out of catastrophe. Leopold does not assume that the problem is ignorance, and a failure to notice something is a question of sensibility and not knowledge.
Consider, for example, how J. Baird Callicott recounts his reaction to reading Leopold’s marshland elegy. In this passage, Leopold describes the ecosystem of a marshland built on an “endless caravan of generations” of cranes. Leopold asks “to what end?” such an ecosystem exists and has been built. Leopold does not know, but the crane does: “Out on the bog a crane, gulping some luckless frog, springs his ungainly hulk into the air and fails the morning sun with mighty wings. The tamatacks re-echo with his bugled certitude. He seems to know.” Leopold’s account is more than imaginative, it is affecting. As Callicott writes of this passage:
After reading this passage for the first time, my very perceptual experience of cranes changed. No longer were they just large birds differing from herons in flying with neck outstretched rather than crooked into an S shape. They were flying fossils, only an evolutionary step or two removed from the pterosaurs from which they evolved. They were to me indeed “wildness incarnate,” a living bridge across the Quaternary and Neogene periods into the Paleocene.
Callicott shows that Leopold’s description leads him to see the crane differently. Yet has Callicott been lifted out of ignorance? Something else happens in this passage, and something else underpins Leopold’s vision of ecological change and humanity, one that stands at a fair distance from modern academic ecophilosophy.
Ecopolitics and Intellectual Equality
In Rancière’s recent book The Time of the Landscape, he turns his attention to the emergence of the art of gardening, and its overlap with painting. He writes that “the great lesson landscape artists can learn from painters does not have to do with the creative process.” Rather than technical acumen, what they learn is “to look at the world like those masters. Painting is first and foremost an art or science of the gaze.” The effect of this science of the gaze which unites gardening and painting is as follows:
What is created in the alliances between the appearances of the canvas and the real of the art of gardening, or of the journey across mountains and lakes, is another idea of art. According to this new art, art is less concerned with producing forms, and more concerned with forging a way of seeing and feeling that extends the sympathy of illusions and movements that was then being designated by the word nature. It is less about defining criteria of artistic perfection, and more about the principles of an aesthetic education[.]
What is at stake here is that what Rancière elsewhere calls the triggering of new passions and it coincides with Leopold’s articulation of the concept of perception. The link Ranciere forges between sensibility and equality – the life of sensation is the life of potentially everyone – is replicated in Leopold’s insistence that perception is inherent to all and some can be used as well as plenty.
Leopold’s work often appears in exhortations to think differently because he often does not offer much in the advice of what is to be done. His book does not conceptually engineer anything, it merely points towards something you may not have noticed. Rancière’s work is also often criticized for its lack of prescriptive content. Yet we can expect nothing else from a man who equates emancipation with doing nothing.
If we believe that we can have both intellectual equality and environmental politics, what becomes of theory? I think here is where we can return to Lazarus. Lazarus, as we recall, insists on the work of identifying and studying modes of politics. This work has been taken up by a handful of scholars. One notable one is Michael Neocosmos, whose book, Thinking Freedom in Africa, uses Lazarus’ framework to offer a history of emancipatory politics in the African continent that proceeds via Lazarus’ concepts of modes. It may perhaps be possible to understand the history of environmental activism in such a way, to separate into different modes and trace the exhaustion of certain kinds of eco-activism going forward. This includes not just getting a grasp on what may separate environmental activism pre and post the anthropocene, but studying the documents and words left behind by activists themselves. One could consider, for example, the Porto Marghera workerist collective, who left behind a trove of documents on their idea of ‘noxiousness’, which tied the damaging effects of work on the body to the damaging effects of the factory on the environment. And one could wonder if today we need to propose a global mode of politics in interiority, as a way to capture the global dimensions of environmental struggle. Work then on what environmental activists think the world over, and what if, anything, is singular about their thought may prove more productive than our continual conceptual retooling.
One useful aspect of the above approach, an attempt to bring intellectual equality into line with contemporary ecopolitics, is that it forces us to stop and look around. Academic works on ecology begin with disaster stories, crushing sets of figures, and shrinking timelines. As we have seen, they then frequently locate the error in some misconception we have of the world. Yet, the tradition of intellectual equality asks instead that we perhaps look at the movements on the ground, the tradition of eco-activism and perhaps start not from the assumption that only academics think but that people think.
- Raymond Williams, Culture and Materialism (London: Verso 2006), 83.
- Ibid, 85.
- Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011).
- Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, trans. Julie Rose (Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 24.
- Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans Steven Corcoran, ed. Steven Corcoran (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 77.
- Rancière, “The Paradoxes of Political Art”, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 143.
- Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2011), 75.
- Ibid, 72.
- Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 7.
- Ibid, 6.
- Ibid, 7.
- Ibid, 16.
- Ibid, 17.
- Ibid, 18.
- Sylvain Lazarus, ‘Can Politics be Thought in Interiority”, trans. Tyler Harper, Cosmos and History, 12 no. 1 (2016): 109.
- Ranciere, Disagreement, 56.
- See: Sylvain Lazarus, ‘Worker’s Anthropology and Factory Inquiry: Inventory and Problematics’ trans. Asad Haider and Patrick King, Viewpoint Magazine. < https://www.viewpointmag.com/2019/01/09/workers-anthropology-and-factory-inquiry-inventory-and-problematics/; Michael Neocosmos. Thinking Freedom in Africa. (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016); Ernest Wamba-di Wamba, “Africa in Search of a New Mode of Politics” in African Perspectives on Development ed.Ulf Himmelstrand (London: James Curry, 1994): 249-261.
- Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, trans. Gila Walker (New York: Seagull Press, 2016), 56.
- Lazarus, ‘Worker’s Anthropology and Factory Inquiry: Inventory and Problematics’, Viewpoint Magazine.
- Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, 24.
- Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party, 1902-November 1917” in Lenin Reloaded, eds. Sebastian Bugden, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 267.
- Ibid, 262-266.
- Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, 25.
- Andreas Weber, Enlivenment (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2019), 14.
- Ibid, 14-16.
- Ibid, 16.
- John Bellamy Foster, “Marx's Critique of Enlightenment Humanism: A Revolutionary Ecological Perspective” Monthly Review 74 no. 8 (Jan 2023), https://monthlyreview.org/2023/01/01/marxs-critique-of-enlightenment-humanism-a-revolutionary-ecological-perspective/.
- Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster, “In Defense of Ecological Marxism: John Bellamy Foster Responds to a Critic”, Climate and Capitalism, 6 June 2016, https://climateandcapitalism.com/2016/06/06/in-defense-of-ecological-marxism-john-bellamy-foster-responds-to-a-critic/.
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (New York: Penguin, 2009), 231.
- Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York, Penguin 1993), 489.
- Foster, “Why Ecological Revolution”, in Monthly Review 61 no. 8 ( Jan 2010), https://monthlyreview.org/2010/01/01/why-ecological-revolution/.
- Another notable book in this vein recently is Nancy Fraser’s Cannibal Capitalism, which suggests any ecopolitics worth its name must be anti-capitalist. By the end of the book it turns out being anticapitalist just means being a social democrat. I am reluctant to lump Fraser entirely in with the tradition I am at odds within in this piece, as her recent books are clearly aimed at a wide audience and can be interpreted as attempts at engaging fellow partisans and should perhaps not be regarded purely as pieces of conceptual craftsmanship.
- Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 7.
- Morton, Being Ecological (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018).
- Ibid, 60.
- Ibid, 156.
- Ibid, 154.
- Morton, Hyperobjects, 22.
- Ibid, 92.
- Ibid, 7.
- Weber, Enlivenment, 57.
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Penguin, 2020), 132. Babbitt refers to any conforming middle class professional, whose obsessions lie solely with the vacuity of middle class life. The term comes from Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel of the same name.
- Ibid, 3-4.
- I do not want to get into an extensive literature on citizenship and political community here. We need only stay with the obvious and common-sense definition to understand Leopold’s point.
- The freedom from want and freedom of fear are references to F.D.R’s 1941 State of The Union Address, commonly known as the ‘Four Freedoms Speech’. The other two freedoms are freedom of speech and freedom of worship.
- For a further analysis of the burrow, Kafka and animality one can refer to: Duncan Stuart. ‘Kafka’s Bestiary; or, Regarding a Remark of Adorno’s Never Said’ Critical Flame Issue 62, March 2020, http://criticalflame.org/kafkas-bestiary-or-regarding-a-remark-of-adornos-never-said/; For an alternative reading of the Kafka’s story see: Mathew Abbott ‘The Animal for Which Animality is an Issue’ Angelaki 16 no. 4 (2011): 91-93.
- Leopold, Sand County, 71.
- Ibid, 72.
- J.Baird Callicott, Thinking Like a Planet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 27.
- Rancière, The Time of the Landscape trans. Emiliano Battista (Cambridge: Polity, 2023), 37.
- Ibid, 43.
- The Political Committee of the Porto Marghera Workers, “Against Noxiousness” trans. Lorenzo Feltrin in Viewpoint Magazine, https://viewpointmag.com/2021/04/01/against-noxiousness-1971/#:~:text=On%20February%2027%2C%201973%2C%20the,of%20workers'%20struggles%20against%20noxiousness.