We have been aware for centuries that we are responsible for the earth’s denudation: its ‘cold staring spaces’, as English writer John Evelyn called them in 1706, mourning the trees chopped down on his estate. Around a hundred years later, the Prussian explorer Alexander Von Humboldt worried over ‘mankind’s mischief’, conjecturing that if humans ever ventured into outer space, they would carry with them a tendency to leave everything ravaged and barren. (The closer they resembled man, he also observed, ‘the sadder monkeys look’). ‘Are the green fields gone?’ asked the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published fifty years after Von Humboldt’s 1801 diary, as he watched his fellow Manhattanites staring dreamily out to sea. And yet, even if it was to take part in the industrial massacre of whales, Melville’s Ishmael could outrun his depression in that ‘great tide-beating heart of the earth,’ the ‘mysterious, divine Pacific’. Over the last half-century, predictions of global environmental catastrophe have loomed, but always far ahead. ‘Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life,’ wrote Rachel Carson in The Silent Spring, opening the eyes of the public in the 1960s to the agricultural chemicals poisoning soil, water, and air. This scientific conception of a ‘chain of connection’ (in Von Humboldt’s words) between the plants and animals of our world dates back to his era, though Carson would make us poignantly aware of the fragility of the web of life and the risk of a deathly hush on the other side of its destruction.
Of course, a natural and cosmological system whose duty it is humans’ to care for as kin has been central to the world’s Indigenous cultures for thousands of years, including among Australia’s many First Nations; though by Von Humboldt’s time many had already seen their worlds violently disrupted by colonialism. In 1855, four years after Melville’s novel was published, Duwamish chief Seattle would write a(n unsubstantiated) letter to US President Franklin Pierce, echoing Ishmael in his rebuke to the fantasy of the open frontier: ‘When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt, the end of living and the beginning of survival?’
Yet today, if we think of Melville’s grand ocean, we are as likely to associate it with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of plastic, wood pulp, and chemical sludge, which covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometres between Japan and America’s west coast (and is, in fact, two distinct collections of mostly fingernail-sized trash connected by the currents of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone). If we think of whales, they no longer loom in our imaginations as Leviathans in their mysterious deep, but as embattled creatures, now offered some protections after being hunted almost to extinction. Though free, they can no longer exist entirely apart from us, in a warming and acidifying ocean, filled with our garbage and our noise. It’s becoming increasingly clear, especially after a decade of devastating global mega-fires and the Coronavirus epidemic, that the impact of fossil-fuel dependent economies on the earth’s systems has been inescapably profound.
Since around 2014, when the (not uncontroversial) term ‘Anthropocene’ entered common use, the knowledge has come upon us with shocking swiftness that the future of climate chaos is coming much sooner than predicted. At 1.1 degrees of warming (and we are on track for 2.9 on the current trajectory), the Earth’s most dependable systems are already fraying and going off-scale in a series of cascading and increasingly unpredictable events. Haunted by deep time in the form of the carbon from the primeval forests we burn as fossil fuels, we are witnessing awe-inducing phenomena caused by global heating. Methane craters are blowing ‘like a bottle of champagne’ in Siberian permafrost—in turn adding more heating methane into the atmosphere—while we are seeing the loss of the seasonal patterns and other creatures by which we have navigated our very sense of ourselves. Still, in industrialised economies we live in a state of disconnect as global markets carry on assuring us that such effects can be gamed or managed — even as a world gone out of whack ‘speaks’ to us. As writer Christopher Schaberg observes of our uneasy present, in Searching for the Anthropocene, we are often troubled by ‘a sense of something having gone wrong, even when it all appears to be going exactly as planned.’
It was this awful uncanniness that the eminent Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh tackled in The Great Derangement (2016), which might be thought of as Part One of his latest work of nonfiction, The Nutmeg’s Curse. ‘Who can forget those moments,’ it began, ‘when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?’ For Ghosh, our insistence on carrying on as normal in the face of the unthinkable is the enabling madness at the centre of modernity’s addiction to extraction and consumption. At a time in which ‘the wild has become the norm,’ and ‘freak’ events such as tornadoes are becoming more common, he wrote, we are suffering in the ‘West’ from a ‘crisis of imagination’.
American-based Ghosh—academically trained with a doctorate from Oxford in anthropology—is an eloquent synthesiser and his book, which began as a series of 2015 lectures for the University of Chicago, drew on many of the major ideas bubbling in this field. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty was the earliest to lay out, in a ground-breaking 2009 paper, the potential of this new epoch, in which human activity has become the planet’s driving force, to also destabilise the very pillars of humanist thought, incuding the distinction between natural and human history. Philosopher Tim Morton had written about the sticky unthinkability of huge changes like global heating across time and space; while other writers, like Robert Macfarlane had described the uncanniness of our moment as once long-scale change accelerates around us. Perhaps most closely informing Ghosh’s project was the galvanising argument, put forward by philosopher Bruno Latour in 2014, that the Earth, agitated by global heating, really was speaking to us. Animism was far less strange, he argued, than the magical thinking by which Western science, in the name of being ‘modern,’ had deanimated a self-sustaining world alive with interdependent agencies and reduced it to mere stuff. The Great Derangement’s title so potently captured the perversity of the collective delusion capitalism depends on to conduct business as usual that it has become part of the vocabulary of others working in this space…
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