Contemporary social science seems to be addicted to “turns,” both as markers of theoretical shifts and as tools of disruption of established categories. All kinds of such turns are thus vindicated on a constant basis, from the digital to the aesthetical. Of course, some turns are more convincing than others – or, at least, they succeed in attracting attention and thus become more convincing for that simple reason. Either way, turns seem to be the new normal as far as academic research is concerned: they boost the reflection on a given topic, provide legitimacy to the latter, and create new combinations and recombinations as the new viewpoint is duly applied to existing topics or traditions of thought. In this chapter, two such turns will be connected as a means to illuminate a wider issue; namely, the nature of nature. In other words, I study the way in which both nature’s reality and the social understanding of nature have evolved in the last decade or so.
On the one hand, there is the Anthropocene; that is to say, the Anthropocene turn that is taking place as the concept is gaining more and more recognition in both the natural and the social sciences. The proposition that human beings are now a geological force in their own right, so that social and natural systems have become coupled, is supported by a great deal of scientific evidence (see Castree, Chapter 2). Although there are a good number of dissenters, the conversation is increasingly focused on the meaning and interpretation of the notion rather than on its plausibility. After all, the Anthropocene is both a state of socio-natural relations and an epistemic tool that invites us to see such relations from a new standpoint (Arias-Maldonado 2015). As Clive Hamilton and colleagues suggest, “In the Anthropocene, social, cultural and political orders are woven into and co-evolve with techno-natural orders of specific matter and energy flow at a global level, requiring new concepts and methods in the humanities” (Hamilton, Bonneuil, Gemenne, Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne 2015: 4). And this is the case whether or not geologists officially recognize the Anthropocene as a new geological time or epoch, since the evidence gathered by the different scientific disciplines that measure human impact on earth is enough to make the term the best possible depiction of the socio-natural entanglement. To some, in fact, the Anthropocene is mainly a cultural idea that creates new political and ethical possibilities (Purdy 2015: 16–17). This shows that the idea of the Anthropocene has gained already some autonomy from its scientific foundation, which will, however, remain relevant as the ultimate source of legitimacy for the former. If there had not been such a material process of human colonization, the Anthropocene turn would have never taken place.
In this regard, it can be said that the Anthropocene confirms that nature has morphed into human environment. Obviously, nature as a deep structure of causation – a raw material upon which all existence rests – remains in place. But that does not make the change less significant, especially in the light of the ever deeper human interventions in “deep nature,” as Kate Soper (Soper 1995) named it. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology are two apt examples of a reinforced human ability. At a different level, climate change is an unintended consequence of the same process; that is, the human colonization of nature. These material transformations suggest that the Anthropocene turn revolves mainly around the hybridization of nature, as it becomes less and less autonomous with respect to human actions and social processes. To sustain a clear separation between these two realms is now more difficult than ever (Castree, Chapter 2). For Hamilton and colleagues, the Anthropocene should even be the foundation for a new way of seeing reality: “Grand shifts in philosophical understanding are always built on new ontologies, new understandings of the nature of being” (Hamilton, Bonneuil, Gemenne, Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne 2015: 8). The suggestion is twofold: the Anthropocene is in itself a new material reality, and it opens up the possibility of understanding nature – writ large – in a new fashion.
Enter the neo-material turn – sometimes also called “ontological” – that has taken place in the social sciences for some years now. Needless to say, materialism is not a novelty in the history of thought, but the original way in which it has been reformulated by a number of scholars and the variety of disciplines that it covers (from sociology to geography and philosophy, not to mention technology studies and anthropology) merits the special recognition that it has been granted – as a proper “turn,” that is. Above all, new materialists have rejected the deterministic explanations of early materialism, embracing instead key insights from post-structuralists and constructivists (Fox and Alldred 2016: 6). Paradoxically, then, a materialist shift that can be largely explained as an answer to the exhaustion of the linguistic turn that had dominated the social sciences since the early 1970s is also an outcome of such a paradigm. Be that as it may, the neo-material turn has brought about a new view of the material world with quite an emphasis on techno-scientific advancements, based upon a rejection of traditional dualisms such as body/mind or nature/culture (Pellizzoni 2015: 72). The latter should thus not be seen as distinct realms, but as part of a continuum in which entities are relational and in constant flux. As we shall see, this has important implications for agency, as the capacity to produce the social world extends far beyond human actors to the nonhuman and even the inanimate.
As it happens, these two turns can be fruitfully connected, although the connection itself will not be exempt from complications. Yet a constructive dialogue between new materialism and the Anthropocene concerning the nature of nature – as well as socio-natural relations – is worth the effort, as they help to illuminate each other in unexpected ways. How does the Anthropocene relate to new materialism? In which ways can new materialism help us to understand, conceptualize, or deal with the Anthropocene? And what does this all mean for the old but contested question of nature? Does a materialistic approach even allow the view that nature has ended? And also, what does the Anthropocene say about new materialism? How should we see the claims of the former under the light of the latter? The remainder of this chapter will deal with these questions, while searching for new answers to the old interrogation about nature in the new circumstances the Anthropocene has brought about.
New materialists should be well suited to understanding classical environmental concerns. Diane Coole (Coole 2013) has argued that one of the most recognizable features of new materialist thinking is a renewed attention to material changes and processes that are currently under way – complex and volatile transformations that are congruent with the new materialist ontology. Environmentalism has always emphasized the material character of socio-natural relations, pointing to earth’s limits and to the actual damage done to ecosystems and nonhuman species. Besides, human colonization of natural systems resulting in the Anthropocene may very well be regarded as one of those “material changes and processes” Coole refers to. After all, a key Anthropocene insight is precisely that human action throughout history has altered the reality of nature, so that the latter can hardly be conceived – except in an abstract way – as a universal and timeless essence. Attention must thus be paid to actual nature, to the nature that we can observe, that is engaged in multiple exchanges with human beings and societies, being transformed by them while in turn constraining or influencing them. As we are about to see, this reciprocal influence is also recognized by new materialism, albeit in a particular and ultimately flawed way.What distinguishes the new materialist ontology, and how well does it explain the puzzles posed by the Anthropocene? Despite a number of differences among its advocates, a number of basic features can be singled out. Coole and Frost summarize the neo-materialist position in this way:
Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist?
Yet the “matter” so invoked is a process rather than a state: being is less important than becoming. That is so because the old passive matter described by the mechanist tradition is replaced by a lively and vibrant one that is always transforming itself. Such dynamic self-organization lacks a plan: as it is not teleologically prefigured, matter’s emergence cannot be predicted. Nature is just one of its configurations, but the neo-materialist emphasis on matter’s unpredictability suggests that its future cannot be predicted either, despite the long-standing attempt by natural scientists to find patterns and laws in the unfolding of natural systems. Moreover, the very idea of nature as a separated realm is rejected by neo-materialism as an anachronistic categorization. Phenomena are closely intertwined, and entities lack clear boundaries, all sharing the same ontology – a “flat one,” as Bruno Latour (Latour 1993) puts it, that does not privilege entities or agencies, as they are constantly emerging in new configurations and assemblages across a horizontal plane. This matter, however, is multiple: those entities and structures are multidimensional and move with variable speeds. It should be noted that new materialism is informed by modern physics’ description of the underlying structure of reality as a field of subatomic particles. All things, living and nonliving, are constituted by the same basic elements. Connolly (Connolly 2013a) describes this ontological position as a “protean monism.” Under the surface, outer differences collapse.
Crucially, this view drives new materialism to the claim that agency is distributed across a vast range of entities and processes. This is a key and controversial insight that reverberates strongly in the debate on the Anthropocene. It is opposed to a long-standing Western tradition shaped by anthropocentrism and humanism, where agency – the ability to produce changes in the world – has been primarily assigned to human beings. New materialism thinks otherwise, claiming that even categories such as agency, self-consciousness, or rationality are abstractions that hide a complex and manifold process of reciprocal influence between different agentic capacities. The latter are distributed across a vast range of beings and entities, both human and nonhuman. Agency, in short, is decoupled from humanity and is said to emerge in diverse situations and unexpected ways (Burke and Fishel, Chapter 5).
This is formulated by Bruno Latour in his well-known actor-network theory, where a distinction is made between human actors and nonhuman actants, both possessing agentic capacities. The novelty is that the latter are explicitly ascribed to nonhuman beings and even inanimate entities, that is, actants that have efficacy: they produce effects and affects, influence human actors by encouraging or blocking them, alter a given course of events, and so forth. On her part, Jane Bennett (Bennett 2010) espouses a new vitalism – or enchanted materialism – that, dwelling on Latour’s actants, develops a whole “political ecology of things” in which matter is vital and active rather than passive and hence submissive to human ends. In her view, the very idea of a dead matter calls for an active human manipulation and should be corrected by emphasizing the “interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” that produces culture, subjectivity, and the social world. Her main example is telling: that of an electrical power grid that must be included in the “agentic assemblage” that explains a blackout. The notion of the assemblage is often invoked: temporary and unpredictable associations of actors and actants that exhibit agentic capacities. In the words of Karen Barad, though, “there is less an assemblage of agents than there is an entangled state of agencies” due to the “inescapable entanglement of matters of being, knowing, and doing, of ontology, epistemology, and ethics” (Barad 2007: 23 and 3).Ontology, it should be mentioned, is at stake. Neo-materialism ascribes generative powers and inventive capacities to materiality, thus proposing a new ontology that stresses immanence rather than transcendence. Matter being vital and agential, it cannot be conceived in a Cartesian way anymore, especially since even inorganic matter is taken as “alive.” The distinctions between organic and inorganic, animate and inanimate, human and natural are ontologically inconsistent according to new materialists, so that,
if everything is material inasmuch as it is composed of physicochemical processes, nothing is reducible to such processes, at least as conventionally understood. For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable.
It is interesting to note that this view has not been completely absent from the environmental debate, as Biesecker and Hofmeister (Biesecker and Hofmeister 2006 and Biesecker, Hofmeister, von Egan-Krieger, Schultz, Thapa and Voget 2009) show. Although they do not go so far as new materialists and in fact approach the subject from a different angle, they stress that nature is a dynamic entity that changes on its own and changes in contact with humanity. Nature lives and is in itself productive, forming a non-separable unity of productivity and re-productivity with humanity. And it comes as no surprise that Marx (Marx 2009) himself, an old materialist, talked of a socio-natural “metabolism.” What new materialism suggests is that ontology must also be reconsidered along with the primacy of human agency. Yet this is a contestable idea.
New Materialism and the Anthropocene (II): Agency
At first sight, new materialism can help us to explain the Anthropocene, because it offers a framework that emphasizes the vitality of matter and the transformative power of agentic assemblages that comprise both human actors and nonhuman actants. By pointing to the geological dimension of planetary change, the Anthropocene seems also to displace human agency, or at least dissolve it into a wider field of agentic assemblages, as climate change would show. In fact, climate change would in turn act as an actant that constrains human actions, producing new ecological circumstances to which some form of adaptation is demanded. Moreover, the Anthropocene would be far from a deliberate effect of human actions, thus demonstrating how alive and productive matter is. From this viewpoint, the Anthropocene itself involves a rematerialization of human societies, as the biophysical basis of their existence and its changing quality – as the favorable conditions provided by the Holocene give way to an unpredictable new geological age – make themselves present in a dramatic way.
As its very name suggests, however, the Anthropocene is at odds with new materialism. After all, it puts human beings at the center in an admittedly peculiar manner: they would have massively transformed the planet without being aware of the scale of such change. But that does not make human beings any the less protagonists, a prominent role that does not fit well with neo-materialist claims about the distributed quality of agency. This is the much-discussed core of the Anthropocene turn: the unexpected capacity of human beings to become, by displaying their transformative powers, a major geological force. In this regard, an obvious problem of the neo-materialist account is that – despite offering a new view of socio-natural relations – it blurs the distinction between humans, nonhumans, and things. Such emphasis in connection and agency does not say anything about why assemblages are produced in the first place, or whether any causality can be established (Fuller 2000; Kirsch and Kirsch and Mitchell 2004). Neo-materialism seems to fall into the trap of fetishism, in that it attributes intrinsic qualities to entities and categories that are “extrinsic,” that is, defined (at least in part) socioculturally (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 14). If we think of the Anthropocene, is it the outcome of an indefinite number of agentic assemblages or rather, the effect of one prevalent agentic capacity, that of humans?
The latter seems more likely. Thus, a balance must be kept between the recognition of the unintentional agentic capacities of nonhuman actants, on the one hand, and the far more powerful human agency, both intentional and unintentional, on the other. As this vast, transformative agentic capacity has been exerted throughout history as part of the human attempt to adapt to nature – an aggressive adaptation that involves adapting nature to human ends – the Anthropocene has been produced: a massive colonization of nonhuman matter that now exhibits multiple signs of direct and indirect human intervention. If we just talk of agentic assemblages that coproduce reality, we are neglecting the fact that some agencies are more significant than others. This is also the case with nonhuman agencies, as some actants accumulate more powers than the rest. For instance, it has been claimed that the Anthropocene is the age of “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013), defined as things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans – the biosphere, the Florida Everglades, the climate – and involve profoundly different temporalities from the human ones. Regarding human powers, they are outstanding even when they are not intentional – as when the increase in population in a given territory impacts on biophysical systems without anybody having planned it. In fact, when human beings act unintentionally but produce effects on the world, they might be considered human actants rather than actors. In either case, they show an exceptional ability to transform, influence, and colonize nature. Be the underlying ontology as it may, this ability has left its mark on socio-natural history. And it is history that counts. Actually, evolutionary history sets another limit to the neo-materialist view, insofar as human ultrasociality (the fact that human beings cooperate more efficiently than other species thanks to language and culture as storage and transmission devices of useful information) can be singled out as a key explanation for the Anthropocene – an ultrasociality that gradually, but sometimes exponentially, increases human transformative powers (see Gowdy and Krall 2013).
However, human exceptionality is sometimes recognized by neo-materialists, albeit implicitly. Coole (Coole 2013: 460) has argued that “responsibility” should be considered as an agentic capacity, in order to underline that human beings are particularly responsible for the endangering of planetary systems and the massive extinction of nonhuman species. She is careful enough to point out that she does not refer to “moral agency.” Yet if human beings can be particularly responsible, do they not act more decisively than nonhuman actants? Moreover, if they can be warned about the damage they produce, it is because they can be forced to restrain those powers or to channel them in a different direction. As William Connolly (Connolly 2013b) has aptly argued, humans may not be the center of things, but they think more profoundly about their situation than other species and thus have a greater responsibility; surely an indication of agency, if there ever was one.
A more promising convergence takes place between new materialism and the Anthropocene regarding the notion – and the reality – of hybridization. Although neo-materialist thinkers are not solely concerned with the hybridity of nature, the latter is encompassed within the hybrid quality of matter, so that a fruitful dialogue can be established between neo-materialist accounts of hybridization and the socio-natural entanglement as revealed – or confirmed – by the Anthropocene. After all, the latter is grounded on the premise that natural and social systems are now “coupled” (Liu, Dietz and Carpenter 2007). And although this coupling does not necessarily involve an actual hybridization, in the sense that something new is produced, there is no lack of examples – from climate change to species alteration, from anthropogenic biomes to newly found rock formations that mix plastic and natural components. Hybridization is arguably one of the key features of a post-natural understanding of nature – a view reinforced by the Anthropocene.
Neo-materialism sees hybridization as the effect of breaking down old dualisms, such as those separating subject and object or the natural and the artificial. If the world is made up of heterogeneous materialities that form transient and unpredictable assemblages with agentic capacities, reality itself cannot be but hybrid, as there are no clear or fixed boundaries inside it. The human being itself has been presented as a “cyborg,” a mixture of organic and technological constituents (Haraway 1991). As for nature, its ontology is less significant than its history – one that assembles the natural, the artificial, the social, and the cultural in a way that can only produce a “quasi-object” that is both material and discursive. That is at least Bruno Latour’s view (Latour 1993, Latour 2004, and Latour 2005), one for which “naturalness” does not exist anymore, nor did it ever really exist: it was a cultural representation based upon the denial of hybridity.
For Latour, Western societies have emerged through the interaction of two processes: one of purification (involving the separation of the human world from the world of things and the scientific study of the world of nature) and one of hybridization, as we are caught in networks of interactions and relations between more or less natural and more or less social phenomena. That is why the human social world has never been pure and we have never been modern: it was all a delusion. Therefore, supposedly “natural” objects are actually nature–culture objects that are produced by social practices. Haraway (Haraway 2007) has also talked about “naturecultures” to conceptualize a similar phenomenon. On their part, Cudworth and Hobden (Cudworth and Hobden 2011 and Cudworth and Hobden 2015) advocate a “complex ecologism” that assumes the coevolution and co-constitution of social and natural systems in dynamic configurations, developing relations of dependency and reciprocity within complex natural/social systems. In the same vein, Swyngedow (Swyngedow 1999: 47) has pointed out how the process of hybridization has ontological priority over any natural essence, describing it as a process of production, of becoming, of perpetual transgression. Interestingly, though, he claims that historical materialism offers a better explanation of the former than neo-materialism, given the latter’s propensity to blur any distinction between different agencies – thus downplaying the exceptional human powers that seem to have brought about the Anthropocene itself.
It could be argued that the process of hybridization commingles society and nature in a promiscuous, productive way, generating new forms that result from their reciprocal influence. In other words, this process allows for change in all parties as they relate to one another, while at the same time it produces a novelty that cannot be reduced to its component parts (Hinchliffe 2007: 51). It is in this respect that a relational view of materiality makes sense – one that shows that the competencies and capacities of things are not intrinsic, but derive from association (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 16). Therefore, neo-materialism seems to offer a more convincing ontology than traditional dualist positions, as it emphasizes entanglements and connections over divisions and hierarchies.
But how well does the Anthropocene fit with this view? If we take it to be a given state of socio-natural relations, what does it teach us about hybridity and hybridization? And what about nature itself? On a general level, of course, the Anthropocene même could be seen as a hybrid: the novelty created by the intermingling of social and natural systems, a socio-natural entanglement whose main driver has been the transformative powers of the human species in its quest for adaptive survival; an aggressive adaptation, however, that includes both intentional and unintentional alterations of pristine nature. Perhaps climate change is the most obvious example of such hybridity, as the climate system has been unintentionally altered by human activity. But the latter has also left its mark on the components of ecosystems, as biologist Erle C. Ellis has tried to show. He has introduced the notion of “anthropogenic biomes” in order to describe how the unit of ecological analysis (the biome) can no longer be understood as being purely “natural,” as recent studies suggest that human-dominated ecosystems now cover more of earth’s surface than “wild” ecosystems (Ellis and Ramankutty 2008; Ellis and Cutler 2013). This has been produced by deliberate as much as by unintentional human activity – but human all the same – over the last centuries. Ellis has even cautioned that “natural” biomes have never been the norm, as human beings have been treading the earth for a very long time.
Similarly, Young (Young 2014) has called for a “biogeography of the Anthropocene” that adapts to a new reality where hybridization is the new normal. This includes the developing of methods that allow the study of “novel species assemblages.” It has also been argued that “speciation by hybridization” might become one of the key signatures of the Anthropocene, as human development boosts diversity in unexpected ways: new anthropogenic habitats contain some new species previously rare or absent, while the ensemble of new and old habitats, together with climate change, increases habitat, evolutionary origination accelerates, and hybridization brings formerly separated species into contact (Thomas 2013). At the same time, species invasions have become normalized, a process by which some generalist species – those accommodating best to human systems – take over large portions of the planet, pushing out the specialist species that developed in isolation. Zoologist Gordon Orians has a name for this: the “Homogocene” (Rosenzweig 2011). Finally, in what looks like a phenomenon tailored for neo-materialist observers, hybridization can also combine “natural” and “artificial” inorganic matter, as the rock formations found in a Hawaiian beach demonstrate: formed from melting plastic in fires lit by humans who were camping or fishing, they are cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals ( Corcoran, Moore and Jazvac 2014). Tellingly, they have been named “plastiglomerate” – a humble but significant assemblage that could very well serve as a symbol for the Anthropocene as a whole.
As Noel Castree (Castree 2014; see also his contribution to this volume, Chapter 2) has argued, some human geographers see the Anthropocene as an opportunity to rethink old Western categories that foster a false separation between human beings and the nonhuman world. Moreover, this has implications for conservation and ecosystem management, as a post-natural paradigm is emerging that is grounded on the hybrid character of current “nature” (Lorimer and Driessens 2013; Marris 2013). Castree points out that many conservationists now accept that “natural biomes” are a myth – one that is grounded on a “purified” view of nature hardly tenable in the Anthropocene age. In truth, this purity view has long been challenged by cultural historians (Cronon 1996). Yet the angle from which the argument is put forward is new: not the cultural construction of nature but the ultimate materiality of it. This is interesting because, as we have seen, Latour’s view of nature as a hybrid involves both matter and discourse, physical realities as much as narratives and figurations. Yet this is not the kind of hybrid that the Anthropocene produces, as the latter reinforces the material dimension of socio-natural relations without overlooking its cultural dimension. Ultimately, what is at stake here is the social construction of nature – or rather, the validity of such a position.
In part, neo-materialism is an attempt to go beyond the realist–constructivist debate, taking the side of a newly found reality in which the distinction between nature and culture collapses under the unanimity of matter. This turn has resonated in geography as well, where a materialist revolt took place against the emphasis on the social dimension of nature: resource and environmental geography have conceptualized nature in predominantly physical terms (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 8). Waste studies, for instance, have accentuated an engagement with materiality as transformation and process (Kirsch 2012: 438). Such an emphasis also possesses a normative side, as this re-ontologization of nature is seen to remind us of its resistance against human transformative efforts, a quality that the constructivist account may help to obscure (Fitzsimmons 1989). Yet this resistance is weaker than it used to be, as human efforts are now more fruitful in more and more realms. Be that as it may, though, these views confirm that constructivism must incorporate the physical dimension of the socio-natural relation in order to be credible. In other words, a material version of constructivism is to be developed: the recognition of the fact that any social construction of nature is first and foremost a material reconstruction of nature, a process which, of course, is conditioned in turn by cultural representations of nature. Through this process, nature is transformed into human environment, so that it can be said to be a hybrid in at least two senses: as the Latourian quasi-object, where matter and ideas merge, and as a product of the complex process of hybridization that results in new socio-natural forms.
Remarkably, the social construction of nature reaches more and more deeply into nature due to the increase of human manipulative abilities – as genetic engineering and synthetic biology attest. This means that our understanding of what it means to reconstruct nature must change, since it cannot be restricted anymore to “shallow” nature (Demeritt 2002: 776). In turn, this leads to the existential question: does nature still exist? To put it differently: is a reconstructed and hybridized nature, the nature of the Anthropocene, natural at all? The question is not trivial, as the prior reference to conservation strategies shows.
At first glance, there is nothing new in the claim that nature has ended. For over two decades, this event has been announced repeatedly, either by sociologists interested in risk or by environmentalists resigned to accept a sad reality (McKibben 1990; Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Despite the grandeur of the statement, it is a simple idea: nature can no longer be defined by its independence from human beings and society. Socio-natural relations currently exhibit a number of features that reinforce this entanglement: hybridization, transformation, and manipulation. It is not that nature is seen as dead matter in a mechanistic fashion; rather, the process by which human beings colonize the natural world has reached a quantitative degree that makes for a qualitative change. This is reflected in the social sciences, where simple “nature” has been replaced by concepts such as social nature, second nature, or hybrid nature (Pollini 2013: 30). An uncomplicated nature is not on offer anymore.
Yet natural beings and forms stay out there, as a living proof in the eyes of many environmentalists of the nonsensical character of this absurdly anthropocentric claim. Even climate change can be seen as a denial of this premature death, reminding human beings of their dependency on the living conditions provided by natural systems. Moreover, nature cannot end: we should not conflate the shallow nature that is manifest in nonhuman beings and wild landscapes with the set of causal powers and deep structures upon which our social activity ultimately depends. In this regard, Valerie Plumwood (Plumwood 2006: 135) speaks of “elements of independence” that demonstrate the indestructibility of nature. All in all, this quarrel has been taking place for a long time now.
However, the Anthropocene seems to reinforce the claim that nature has ended. As the evidence about the socio-natural intermingling stacks up, the pristine autonomy of nature seems harder to defend. The latter existed before humans, whereas we are writing now after history and thus after nature. Erle C. Ellis (Ellis 2011: 1027) reaches the same conclusion: “From a philosophical point of view, nature is now human nature; there is no more wild nature to be found, just ecosystems in different states of human interaction, differing in wildness and humanness.” What Ellis is suggesting is that we should forget about the supposed essence of nature and focus instead on the socio-natural interaction as it is. Again, history trumps ontology. And from this standpoint we can simultaneously acknowledge nature’s “elements of independence” and a state of relations marked by the coupling of social and natural systems, the development of more and more human manipulative abilities, as well as a hybridization process accelerated under the unpredictable conditions provided by the Anthropocene. To talk about the end of nature in the Anthropocene, then, is to claim that natural processes can no longer be defined as independent of human influence (except in a very general sense), as well as to observe that natural forms and processes have been influenced by human beings to a very high degree. It makes no difference whether this colonization has been intentional or unintentional, and the same goes for the visibility or invisibility of such influence: a dog may bear no traces of human manipulation of the species, but that does not make it less true.
Interestingly, neo-materialism seems to travel in the opposite direction. But it does so by operating on a different level; namely, that of matter. As the latter becomes rather than is, it makes scant sense to talk about nature’s “end.” This is especially patent in the case of the new vitalism advanced by Jane Bennett (Bennett 2010), for whom nature is less a passive object of human action than a dynamic entity that changes on its own as well as in contact with human actors, while constraining and influencing them as well. She goes on to argue that nature’s definition should make room for this natural creativity, so that the very term “nature” describes a process of morphing, formation, and deformation – the outcome of the strange conjunctions of things in motion. Therefore, if a “creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” is recognized as the main source of change, nature simply cannot ever end – it is just transformed. That is why she describes a “vibrant matter.”
However, the neo-materialist position is not incompatible with the claim that nature has ended and can, in fact, help to illuminate it. Leaving aside for a moment the theory of agency defended by neo-materialists, the key here lies in the distinction between matter and nature: as they are not necessarily the same thing, neo-materialism may very well serve as an additional foundation for a post-natural conception of nature in the Anthropocene. The reason is that matter lies below nature or is contained within it, but is not identical with it: nature would be a phenomenon of matter, which remains as the noumenon that often escapes our senses. At first sight, matter would seem to be tantamount to “deep nature,” so that this further reconceptualization might appear as unnecessary. But it is something else: matter in the neo-materialist understanding encompasses both shallow and deep nature, as well as the world of things and artifacts, as they all are made of it and, at a subatomic level, there are no differences among them. Therefore, nature can be said to end without matter ending at all. To put it differently: nature’s end is not the same thing as nature’s death, as the former can take place without the latter also happening. Because even if nature ceases to be autonomous with respect to humanity, matter retains its autonomy as a vital force that underpins the visible world. This vitality is, however, captured by human beings for their own goals through a number of techniques, in such a way and to such degrees that the distinction between shallow and deep nature becomes increasingly untenable. As we saw earlier, human agentic capacities are prevalent over those of nonhuman actants – a hierarchy that neo-materialism fails to recognize, but without which it is hard to make any sense of the Anthropocene. There is a distributive agency, to be sure, but one where human actors possess more influence than others.
On the other hand, such enhanced capacities do not provide anything close to human “control” of nature, as environmentalists rightly point out. For them, it is another proof of the impossibility of nature’s end. But that is not necessarily the case, since the end of nature can take place in the precise sense that has been explained above, while an increasingly self-reflective control of socio-natural relations gradually takes shape. This is not a perfect control, but an increased one that proves to be sufficient for realizing a number of human goals – among them the protection of species and ecosystems.
What emerges from this reconceptualization is actually a post-natural understanding of nature; that is, one that accepts that we are not dealing with old nature anymore but rather, with a transformed, hybridized, humanized one. A questioned nature thus leads to a new formulation of the question of nature.
So far, I have taken the Anthropocene as a valid scientific observation, which in turn is deduced from a number of measurable facts that can be compared with previous data, in order to make a statement about the current state of socio-natural relations. To accept the basic facts communicated by scientists, of course, is not compulsory: it is well known that science is not isolated from society, and thus, a perfectly neutral scientific knowledge does not seem feasible. That said, the impact of sustained human activity on the planet seems uncontroversial, and the Anthropocene provides a new framework for studying the socio-natural entanglement, as well as a new vantage point from which to make normative claims about it. Thus, I would distinguish between the acceptance of the Anthropocene as a scientific observation and the conversation about its causes, meanings, representations, narratives, and normative implications.
In this chapter, I have reflected upon the relationship between neo-materialist thinking and the Anthropocene. The former’s emphasis on matter over nature, on becoming over being, on a distributed over a human-centered agency, poses an interesting challenge for environmental thinking, as it offers new answers for old questions concerning socio-natural relations and, ultimately, their long-term sustainability. But how can we translate this into normative language? And what are the implications for environmental policy practice? In sum, what would a post-natural agenda entail for both environmental thinking and policy practice?
To begin with, such normative translation is not easy; at least not in the case of neo-materialist claims concerning ontology and agency. If nature, as well as the distinction between the natural and the human, dissolves into matter, what is left? Which would the object of environmental thought then be? Therein lies the danger of hollowing out not just “nature,” but even socio-natural relations themselves. In other words, to talk about matter is, despite the ontological verisimilitude of neo-materialist claims, normatively sterile. Besides, there is a limit to the explanatory capacity of this approach as far as socio-natural relations are concerned: the loss of biodiversity might be irrelevant on a molecular level, as matter is simply transformed, but the same cannot be said if we adopt an ecological or a moral viewpoint. As for agency, similar issues can be raised, since a distributional view of the former cannot fully explain human impacts on the environment. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on nonhuman agency and suprahuman processes such as those of geology or deep time may give the impression that human action does not count for much, thus weakening the case for political involvement and sustainable policies.
On the other hand, the neo-materialist case for hybridity should prove more helpful as a contribution to devising a post-natural understanding of nature that is both non-reductionist and nuanced. Hybridity, as manifested in a spectacular fashion in the Anthropocene hypothesis, means that society and nature are irrevocably entangled. In that sense, nature does not exist anymore. But this claim is not to be taken literally. Instead, the natural should be seen as a matter of degrees, as hybrids have a composition and a history that allow us to establish their place in the nature–social continuum. This has undeniable implications for environmental policy and the environmental research agenda. As Adams (Adams 2016) has pointed out, new conservation strategies can thus be conceived wherein the idea of a pristine or untouched nature is discarded. At the same time, the complexity of this socio-natural entanglement demands explanation on a number of levels, ranging from the ecological to the technological and, of course, the technonatural. Future emphasis should not be placed on the entity called “nature,” but rather, on socio-natural relations in all their complexity.
Human beings have been asking themselves about the nature of nature for millennia. Now, this question looks more pressing than ever – as the coupling of social and natural systems brought about by the aggressive adaptation that is typical of the human species has reached such a degree that a new geological epoch has been announced. In the Anthropocene, it is not just ecosystems or species that become endangered, but rather, the whole planet. Human transformative powers go more and more deeply into natural forms, processes, and even causal structures. As a result, leaving the risk of unsustainability aside, nature seems to lose its autonomy with respect to human beings and social systems. The question thus arises as to whether nature is still nature – or whether its end can finally be proclaimed. This chapter has tried to shed light on this intricate question by crossing the Anthropocene literature with that of neo-materialism, as both epistemological turns can fruitfully engage in a dialogue about the different aspects of nature’s nature: from ontology to reproduction, from agency to representation. Neo-materialism proves to be an interesting angle from which to observe nature in the Anthropocene: its emphasis on matter, its claim about distributive agencies, as well as its view on hybridity illuminate the current state of socio-natural relations and thus the wider interrogation about nature. It also exhibits some limitations, the most troublesome of all being the neglect of human agency as the main source of natural transformation. In this sense, it is the Anthropocene that serves as a correction for neo-materialism. At the same time, though, the distinction between matter and nature creates new possibilities for framing the controversial “end of nature.” By doing this, neo-materialism indirectly contributes to the urgent task of formulating a post-natural understanding of nature for the Anthropocene age.
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