PhD Candidate/Associate Lecturer
Nottingham Trent University
The question of how to live together harmoniously with our earthly co-inhabitants has never been more pressing amid the severe and worsening socio-ecological perturbations of the Anthropocene. Perhaps the most troubling is the systematic annihilation of our co-evolutionary kin that is the planet’s sixth mass extinction. In monopolizing the earth for ourselves- largely through neoliberal-capitalist socioeconomic systems predicated on ceaseless growth and consumption, spurring deforestation and related land-use changes, and the commodification of life itself for profit accumulation as an end-in-itself- a staggering 60% of monitored vertebrate species per 1970 levels have disappeared. Crucially, such loss is no mere epistemological phenomenon, as if these beings were quantifiable resources that could be recuperated, but a protracted event that marks the slow unravelling of cherished and irreplaceable ethico-political relations.
The aforementioned trends further stem from the long-standing tradition of anthropocentrism and its positing of humans as separate from and superior to the natural world and non-human entities, a legacy of the deep-seated Cartesian reduction of non-human animals to things acted upon, as not seeing but merely ‘seen’ by human subjects. If one conceives of politics as the manner by which society or the collective is arranged so as to enable its members to live well, then traditional conceptualizations have been woefully deficient in their arrogant exclusion of non-human others. Aristotle’s conception of the polis was famously logo-centric- a community predicated on its citizens’ abilities to speak, listen, and share a common vision of the good life. Similarly, Kant’s famed cosmopolitan proposal in Toward Perpetual Peace for a global citizenry bound by universal law and solidarity was thoroughly Western-Euro-centric in its exclusion of beings external to the human-world correlate. Kant regarded only rational beings as worthy of being treated as ends in themselves; non-rational beings (i.e., animals) had only “relative worth, as means” and were therefore regarded as mere things.
Such legacies are alive and well in contemporary political thought, which continues to construe the ‘cosmos’ far too narrowly. The non-human world is still posited- often implicitly and sometimes explicitly- as mere inert background to the unfolding human drama. In popular, policy, and even academic discourses, the natural world and other species are still framed matter-of-factly as resources for the satisfaction of human needs and desires. Yet, as Latour poignantly observes, the litany of ecological crises proliferating amid the Anthropocene in the form of super hurricanes, scorching droughts, raging wildfires, and rapidly vanishing flora and fauna constitute a ‘generalized revolt of the means’- protests by recalcitrant entities who no longer consent to being treated as mere inert objects for furthering human ends. Hence the fundamentally ethical imperative of a radical reconstitution of our common world, to be carefully designed by and for the long-excluded multitudes. As with the old schism between ‘Society’ and ‘Nature’, the ‘proliferating associations of nonhumans’ behind every human- and without whom we simply could not be- highlight the profound deficiencies of traditional conceptualisations of the cosmos and polis.
Both Latour and Stengers attempt to extricate themselves from these profoundly humanist traditions through their conception of cosmopolitics- ever-expanding assemblages of multiplicities of actants- human and non-human- that must be continuously negotiated and co-constructed. However, Latourian cosmopolitics perhaps affords a little too much primacy to the existing collective’s right, and indeed capacity, to decide, pending compromise and accommodation, who and on what terms is to be ‘welcomed’. In this case, new arrivals are to be welcomed pending the degree to which they can harmoniously mesh with existing actants by finding their rightful place in the collective, and on condition that they do not fundamentally disrupt the already-existing order. The query, ‘Can we live together?’, is posited as the sacred duty of those in the already-established collective rather than equally posed by external others. Moreover, the collective’s perimeter, however tentative, is still policed by those on the inside. It is here where Latour fails to direct sufficient attention to the violent, undemocratic, and therefore unethical implications of exclusion.
We must always ask ourselves who is left out and, crucially, from an ethical standpoint, what effects this might have on them. When Latour enquires as to what obliges one to “reserve the water of the river Drome for fish as opposed to using it to irrigate corn fields subsidized by Europe”, the answer doesn’t simply lie in whether or not we’ve taken into account all entities affected by such an act or in considering how excluding fish will affect the whole collective. Depriving the fish of water is ethically unacceptable because the fish needs water in order to live and flourish. Thus, a new ethic for the Anthropocene demands that we treat the vast profusion of more-than-human life on earth as singular and irreducible entities who matter in and of themselves, as political subjects worthy of inclusion and active participation in the earth collective, and crucially, as fellow earthlings who are with and not for us.