being ecological, Bogna Stefańska, Jakub Depczyński

narrator Bogna Stefańska, Jakub Depczyński
term being ecological
published 9 April 2021, Warshaw, Poland
affiliated institution Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

It’s not possible to simply talk about the weather anymore. Since we are aware of the power and scale of planetary changes, even the simplest weather-themed small talk has lost its innocence[1]. Unbearably hot and dry summer; never-ending, grey autumn rains; sudden winter blizzards or pleasant spring drizzles - in 2021 discussing those means entering a weird, uncertain and muddy territory. We know that all weather phenomena are, to a certain degree, a manifestation of anthropogenic climate change. And we can’t simply ignore this fact and “just talk weather” without mentioning processes happening on planetary scale. This moment of unease – a sting of weirdness; a sudden, unsettling feeling – is symptomatic of the fact that conditions of living on Earth are undergoing a rapid change, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences.

 

We live in a critical moment, when we finally grasp that the world as we know it is coming to an end. The planet is mutating – for some this process remains imperceptible, for others it’s happening quickly and violently. The authors of World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, a text published in 2019 and signed by almost 14 000 scientists from 156 countries say:  “We declare, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. [...] An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis.”[2]

 

We need to keep the global temperature rise under 1,5°C, max 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels (which currently seems very difficult, if not impossible). If we fail, we won’t be able to save human civilization as we know it and face untold suffering. Large parts of the planet will become unlivable and all forms of life will be constantly threatened by all kinds of unpredictable, violent cataclysms[3]. Even if we somehow deal with climate change, we will still need to cope with other environmental challenges that haunt the Anthropocene – the epoch in which Homo sapiens species becomes the most powerful geological agent[4] [5]. In the Anthropocene, humanity is pushing the life-sustaining systems of the planet to their limits, causing rapid climate change, soil impoverishment, ocean acidification, destabilization of planetary biogeochemical flows and sixth mass extinction. We are exceeding planetary boundaries and reaching tipping points beyond which there is no more recovery, no more preserving life as we know it, no more coming back to the “stable and safe” conditions of the Holocene[6].

 

And yet, in spite of all the grim, apocalyptic rhetoric, constant flow of numbers, data and facts, we don’t really seem to be mobilized. Climate change is probably the most thoroughly studied phenomenon in the history of science - its anthropogenic roots are as certain as taxes and death[7]. We’ve built the “vast machine”[8] – the most refined and complicated scientific tool in history just to be able to see and understand hyperobjects[9] such as global warming and mass extinction[10]. And yet in the face of the “intrusion of Gaia”[11] we remain paralyzed. Bruno Latour has pointed out that in the Anthropocene the roles have been reversed: nature/environment (formerly known as Nature with a capital N) no longer plays the role of a mute, inert and predictable backdrop against which the human history unfolds – instead it has become an active and violent force that shapes our common, human and more-than-human, world. On the other hand, human societies, economies and cultures (formerly known as Culture with a capital C) have ceased to be a sphere of activity, innovation and constant change – Homo sapiens remain inert, not willing to change and adapt to the conditions of the New Climate Regime[12]. Humans desperately stick to the “good old ways”, endlessly repeating worn-out claims about “the unquestionable laws of economics”, “non-negotiable lifestyles” and the “necessity of progress”. Oh, so Holocene. And in the 21st century being Holocene is a grave mistake. Polish philosopher and sociologist Ewa Bińczyk calls the state we find ourselves in “the marasmus of the Anthropocene”[13]. In medicine the term “marasmus” describes a condition of an organism that makes it impossible to think clearly and act, which results in complete apathy.

 

Who or what is to blame for our inaction? Merchants of doubt that produce denialist propaganda on demand of fossil fuel corporations owned by the world’s richest and most powerful people[14]? Naive, technocratic techno-optimism championed by the likes of Bill Gates, who wants us to believe in solutions that don’t exist and are very unlikely to come in the next decades[15]? Deceitful and terrifying idea of geoengineering, promoted by people who were the inspiration behind Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove[16]? Telltales and contradictions of capital M Modernity[17]? Psychological and cognitive mechanisms[18]? Colonial capitalism[19]? Insidious individualism[20]? All of the above, and many more, perhaps.

 

The question we face, as both individual and collective subjects is simple: how to live (and die[21]) “in catastrophic times”[22]? For sure, we can’t rely on the ideas born in the Holocene. Yes, we still need critique of capitalism, studies on power, post- and decolonial thought, anti-imperialism and other critical tools, but they will not suffice[23]. It is very important “what thoughts think thoughts”[24], and in the face of the planetary ecological mutation we desperately need new languages and imaginations.

 

As a point of departure we want to propose a term that may help us think about how to live in the world that changes irreversibly: being ecological. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Media, researchers, scientists, politicians, activists, global corporations, our friends and families constantly remind us to be ecological. Don’t waste water. Spend time in nature. Buy an electric vehicle. Plug off your charger. Take a train. Meditate.  Bike. Go vegan. Spend your holiday locally. Don’t send unnecessary emails. Use tap water – after all you are responsible, and you are the change. Protest corporations. Sign a petition. Chain yourself to a harvester. Join a coop. Support climate justice. Promote degrowth. Mock capitalism – after all the corporations and the whole system are to blame. Still, the emissions are rising, right?

 

When we think about being ecological we don’t think about numbers, facts (or factoids), info-dumps, hockey stick graphs or personal responsibility, not even about political/activist engagement. When we think about being ecological we are thinking with situated knowledges, speculative feminisms, bodily practices and interspecies relationships[25]. We are in Apocalypse now! mode[26] – we want to stay with the troubles brought by the planetary changes, and learn to live with them, here and now[27]. We see the planet as damaged, and we want to seek for spaces of livability in capitalist ruins[28]. We are sensitive to the more-than-human world, we learn from indigenous knowledges, histories and practices[29] and we follow other beings - mushrooms are our favorite teachers[30].

 

When we think about being ecological we struggle to bridge gaps and let go of Holocene divisions. We think with connecting, adding and composing. We try to bring together science and humanities (or perhaps humusities?[31]), academia and politics, activism and faith, arts and knowledge. We see them as hybrids that they truly are. We think of ourselves as Earthbound who deal with Terrestrial matters: we study the many connections between human activity and more-than-human world and we see no difference between Earth System Science and fundamental ethics[32]. We’re not afraid of the word “Gaia” and we don’t fear the ways of ecofeminisms – whether socialist or cultural[33].

 

When we think about being ecological we try to grasp different scales simultaneously (think both deep time and election cycles at the same time) and be sensitive to hyperobjects, monsters and ghosts that haunt the landscape of the Earth in the Anthropocene[34]. We embrace the dark, ugly and toxic side of reality[35] and avoid Nature with a capital N, as it cannot help our cause[36]. We know and we feel that we are ecological beings, enmeshed with billions of other creatures, all interconnected and dependent on the environment and the planet. We do believe in solidarity – with both humans and non-humans[37].

 

When we think about being ecological we believe that being ecological is not primarily a question of content but rather of style[38]. It’s important not only what you think, say and do, but also how you think what you think, say what you say and do what you do. It’s clear to us that we’ll never be ecological without fun, play and party, and we’re sure that being ecological means more art not less art.

 

When we think of living in the Anthropocene as being ecological we realize that we are, and always have been ecological[39].

[1] T. Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013.

[2] P. Barnard [et. al], World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806.

[3] D. Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Tim Duggan Books, New York 2019.

[4] P. J. Crutzen, E. F. Stoermer, The „Anthropocene”, „Global Change Newsletter” 2000 41; W. Steffen, P. Crutzen, J. R. McNeill, The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?, „Ambio” 2007 8.

[5] For the sake of this brief intervention we stick to the often criticized term “Anthropocene”. At the same time we acknowledge the importance of the debates on the beginning of the Anthropocene, it’s long history and the suspicious collective anthropos implied by the term. We are also very fond of many alternative propositions, such as Capitalocene, Anglocene, Misanthropocene, Oliganthropocene, Chthulucene, Plantatiocene etc. that stress the importance of different historical, economic, social and political dimensions of the problem. Still, we embrace Anthropocene's generosity and its unique ability to bring so many different parties to the discussion table.

[6] W. Steffen et al., Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet, “Science” vol. 347, iss. 6223, 2015; https://stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html.

[7] E. Conway, N. Oreskes, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, New York 2014.

[8] P. N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, MIT Press, Cambridge 2013.

[9] T. Morton, Hyperobjects… op. cit.

[10] E. Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Co., New york 2014.

[11] I. Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Open Humanities Press, London 2015.

[12] B. Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Polity, Cambridge 2017.

[13] E Bińczyk,

[14] E. Conway, N. Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change, Bloomsbury Publishing. London 2010.

[15] B. Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Penguing Books, London 2021.

[16] C. Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate, Routledge, London 2010.

[17] B. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1993.

[18] K. Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, MIT Press, Cambridge 2011.

[19] J. W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Verso, New York 2015.

[20] C. Hamilton, op. cit.

[21] R. Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization,  City Lights Publishers, San Francisco 2015.

[22] Isabelle Stengers, op. cit.

[23] D. Chakrabarty, The Climate of History: Four Theses, “Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, pp. 197–222; C. Hamilton, F. Gemenne, C. Bonneuil, The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking modernity in a new epoch, Routledge, London 2015; C. Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Duke University Press, Polity, Cambridge 2017.

[24] D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham 2016.

[25] D. Haraway, op. cit.

[26] B. Latour, Facing Gaia…, op. cit.

[27] D. Haraway, op. cit.

[28] A. Tsing, H. Swanson, E. Gan, N Bubandt (ed.), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2017.

[29] A. Tsing, J. Deger, A. S. Keleman, F. Zhou (ed.), Feral Atlas. The More-Than-Human Anthropocene,

Stanford University Press, Palo Alto 2020.

[30] A. Tsing The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press. Princeton 2015.

[31] D. Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, “e-flux” no 75 2016,

https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/.

[32] B. Latour, Facin Gaia… op. cit.

[33] C. Merchant, Earthcare: Women and the Environment, Routledge, New York 1995.

[34] T. Morton, Hyperobjectsop. cit.

[35] T. Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, Columbia University Press, New York 2018.

[36] T. Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2009.

[37] T. Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, Verso, New york 2017.

[38] T. Morton, Being Ecological, Pelican, Lndon 2018.

[39] T. Morton, Being…, op. cit.

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