being ecological, Bogna Stefańska, Jakub Depczyński

narrator Bogna Stefańska, Jakub Depczyński
term being ecological
published May 2021, Warshaw
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 these 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. We can’t simply ignore this fact and “just talk weather” without mentioning processes happening on a 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 having catastrophic consequences.


We live at 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 state: “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]


What the scientists keep telling us is simple: we need to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5°C, a maximum of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels (which now seems very difficult, if not impossible). If we fail, we won’t be able to save human civilisation as we know it, and face untold suffering. Large parts of the planet will become uninhabitable 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 has become the most powerful geological agent.[4] In the Anthropocene, humanity is pushing the life-sustaining systems of the planet to their limits, causing rapid climate change, soil impoverishment, ocean acidification, destabilisation of planetary biogeochemical flows and the 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 “safe and stable” conditions of the Holocene[5].


On the other side of the academic spectrum scholars specialising in the humanities and social sciences remain suspicious of the Anthropocene thesis and keep reminding everyone that there is no universal, undifferentiated, collective Anthropos to be “blamed” for the planetary ecological mutation. Certainly they are right when they stress the importance of the long and complex histories of climate change, exploitation of the planet, mass extinction, environment destruction and ecological catastrophes, and their historical, economic, social, racial, imperial, gender, colonial and political dimensions.[6] The many alternatives to the Anthropocene posited by those scholars aim at shifting our attention to other culprits: capitalism – Capitalocene;[7] colonialism and plantation system – Plantatiocene;[8] planetary violence and death – Necrocene;[9] a few privileged, white males – Oliganthropocene;[10] technology and the inequalities it generates – Technocene;[11] etc. While recognising all of those propositions and their importance, we stubbornly stick to the good old “Anthropocene” as we embrace the generosity of the term and the one unique feature that all the alternatives lack – the ability to break through disciplinary boundaries and bring many diverse parties to the discussion table.


In spite of their different approaches, both scientists and humanities/social sciences scholars agree that life on the planet as we know it is in great danger. And yet, in spite of the grim, apocalyptic, constant flow of numbers, data and facts, we don’t really seem to be mobilised. Climate change is probably the most thoroughly studied phenomenon in the history of science – its anthropogenic roots are as certain as taxes and death.[12] We’ve built the “vast machine”[13] – the most refined and complicated web of scientific tools in history just to be able to see and understand hyperobjects,[14] such as global warming and mass extinction[15]. And yet in the face of the “intrusion of Gaia”[16] we remain paralysed. 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) ceased to be the sphere of activity, innovation and constant change – Homo sapiens remain inert, not willing to adapt to the conditions of the New Climate Regime.[17] We 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. The Polish philosopher and sociologist Ewa Bińczyk calls the state we find ourselves in “the marasmus of the Anthropocene”.[18] In medicine the term “marasmus” describes a condition of an organism that makes it impossible to think clearly and act, resulting in complete apathy.


But wait, who are “we”? Haven’t we just agreed that there is no undifferentiated, universal Anthropos that caused the planetary changes and now has to face them? Yes, that’s true, but still, different, collective subjects exist. Our understanding and perspective is grounded in the histories and experiences of Central and Eastern Europe – which is Europe, but not quite Europe. Still, when we say “we”, we mean a little bit more than just us and our closest neighbours – we mean many Westerners and Easterners, most of them from the Global North. We mean those who live in OECD countries – the 18% of world’s population that accounts for 74% of planetary GDP and thus is responsible for “most of the human imprint on the Earth System”.[19] So, we are the perpetrators, guilty of our unsustainable lifestyles and excessive consumption. But at the same time only some of us belong to the 10% of the richest people in the world, who are responsible for the 52% of cumulative carbon emissions.[20] And we’re not “the richest 1% […] responsible for 15% of cumulative emissions, and 9% of the carbon budget – twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population”.[21] And we don’t own the world’s 100 biggest fossil fuel companies which are the source of 70% of carbon emissions.[22] We’re not the super-rich CEO’s with their private jets, mansions and limos – we’re just trying to catch up to civilised, Western standards. So we’re not the ones to be blamed, are we?


Guilty or not, another question emerges: who or what is to be blamed for our inaction? Merchants of doubt that produce denialist → propaganda on demand for fossil fuel corporations owned by the world’s richest and most powerful people?[23] 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?[24] The deceitful and terrifying idea of geoengineering, promoted by people who were the inspiration behind Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove?[25] The tell-tale signs and contradictions of capital M Modernity?[26] Psychological and cognitive mechanisms?[27] Colonial capitalism?[28] Insidious individualism?[29] All of the above, and many more, perhaps.


The question we face, both as individual and collective subjects, is simple: how to live (and die[30]) “in catastrophic times”?[31] Certainly, we can’t rely on the ideas born in the Holocene. Yes, we still need a critique of capitalism, studies on power, post- and decolonial thought, anti-imperialism and other critical tools, but they will not suffice.[32] It is crucially important “what thoughts think thoughts”,[33] 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 a world that changes irreversibly: being ecological. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The 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. Unplug your charger. Take a train. Meditate. Bike. Go vegan. Spend your holiday locally. Don’t send unnecessary emails. Use tap water – after all you’re responsible, and you are the change. Protest corporations. Sign a petition. Chain yourself to a harvester. Join a co-op. Support climate justice. Promote degrowth. Mock capitalism – after all the corporations and the whole system are to blame. Still, whatever we do, 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.[34] We are in Apocalypse now! mode[35] – instead of looking for easy solutions and smooth quick fixes (those will result in something far worse than apocalypse, for sure[36]) we want to stay with the troubles brought by the planetary changes, and learn to live with them, here and now.[37] We see the planet as damaged, and we want to seek spaces of liveability in capitalist ruins.[38]


When we think about being ecological we don’t imagine the planet as a lovely blue marble – beautiful, fragile sphere just hanging out there, in empty space. We let go of this globalist imagery and paint Earth differently: this planet is a mesh, an interspecies puddle, a system of loops of loops of loops.[39] We don’t look from nowhere and we don’t see everything: every experience of the planetary ecological mutation, environmental disaster and climate change is localised, rooted in identity, history, society, economy and story. Perhaps, the shock of Anthropocene gives us a perfect occasion to give a new answer to the question of “who-we-are as humans”.[40]


When we think about being ecological we struggle to bridge gaps and let go of Holocene divisions. We think with connecting, adding and composing – no more intellectual monocultures![41] We try to bring together the sciences and humanities (perhaps the humusities?[42]), academia and politics, activism and faith, arts and knowledge. We see them as the 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[43]. We’re not afraid of the word “Gaia” and we don’t fear the ways of → ecofeminisms – whether socialist or cultural.[44]


When we think about being ecological we try to bring as many parties to the table as possible. We are sensitive to the more-than-human world, we → learn from indigenous knowledges, histories and practices and we follow non-human beings – mushrooms are our favourite teachers.[45] We always know what our eco-activist comrades are up to, and we support them with artistic tools and creative imagery. And yes, we always have scientists around us – not the hierarchs of the capital S science, but rather the sensible practitioners of small s sciences.


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.[46] We embrace the dark, ugly and toxic side of reality[47] and avoid Nature with a capital N, as it cannot help our cause.[48] 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.[49]


When we think about being ecological we think with pluriversality. Yes, the end of the world has already happened which means that we can finally start inhabiting our many different worlds.[50] And it is true that every day some worlds die – we mourn them and learn from their histories to bring new ones to life.[51] When we try to be ecological we are struggling to find many, localised and situated responses to many, localised and situated urgencies, not one big solution to one, big emergency.


When we think about being ecological we are not reducing things – neither upwards, nor downwards.[52] Yes there are millions of local catastrophes, but the overarching planetary problem exists. Yes, extreme weather events happen in specific places and harm specific humans and non-humans, but the global climate change is also real. Yes, particular species vanish from particular areas, but we are all living through a mass extinction event. Yes, every individual human has a different impact on the planet, but collectively as a species we also have an impact – and it is enormous.


When we think about being ecological we don’t think with modern, linear time – our multiple pasts and futures are much more complicated than that. We learn from other time models – cyclic or quantum ideas truly are a relief. We pay attention to how different timelines unfold – some of them are coming to an end, while others are just beginning. Our goal is to convince the angel of history to finally turn around and face the many futures that are coming at us.[53]


When we think about being ecological we’re thinking with world building and storytelling. To live in the Anthropocene, to be ecological we need passionate and fascinating narratives – it is not enough to debunk myths, we also need to create new ones.[54] Speculative and science-fiction stories are our allies – especially those that are woven with a carrier bag instead of a spear.[55]


When we think about being ecological we believe that being ecological is not primarily a question of content but rather of style.[56] 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. “Shake hands with a hedgehog and disco!”[57]


When we think of living in the Anthropocene as being ecological we realise that we are, and always have been ecological.[58]

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

[2] Phoebe Barnard et al., “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”, BioScience, vol. 70, no. 1 (January 2020).

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

[4] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene’”, Global Change Newsletter, vol. 41 (2000); Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?”, Ambio, vol. 36, no. 8, Springer (December 2007), 614–621.

[5] Will Steffen et al., “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet”, Science, vol. 347, no. 6223 (15 January 2015).

[6] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, (London: Verso, 2017); T.J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017).

[7] Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, (New York: Verso, 2015).

[8] Gregg Mitman, Reflections on the Plantationocene: A Conversation with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, (18 June 2019), published by Edge Effects Magazine, Madison, WI.

[9] Justin Mcbrien, “Accumulating extinction: Planetary catastrophism in the Necroscene”, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland, 2016), 116–137.

[10] Term proposed by Eryk Swynegdouw, mentioned in: Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil and François Gemenne, The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch (London: Routledge, 2015), 168–174.

[11] Alf Hornborg, “The Political Ecology of the Technocene”, The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, eds. Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil and François Gemenne (London: Routledge, 2015), 57–69.

[12] Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View from the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[13] Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

[14] Morton (2013).

[15] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014).

[16] Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015).

[17] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

[18] Ewa Bińczyk, Epoka człowieka: Retoryka i marazm antropocenu (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN filozofia, etyka, 2018), 326.

[19] Will Steffen et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration”, The Anthropocene Review, vol. 2, no. 1 (16 January 2015), 81–98.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Paul Griffin, “Carbon Majors Report 2017”, Carbon Disclosure Project (London: CDP UK, 2017).

[23] Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010).

[24] Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (London: Penguin Books, 2021).

[25] Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate (London: Routledge, 2010).

[26] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1993).

[27] Kari Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

[28] J. W. Moore (2015).

[29] Hamilton (2010).

[30] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilisation, (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2015).

[31] Stengers (2015).

[32] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2 (2009), 197–222; Hamilton et al. (2015); Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge: Duke University Press, Polity, 2017).

[33] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[34] Haraway (2016).

[35] Latour (2017).

[36] Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (New York, Verso, 2019).

[37] Haraway (2016).

[38] Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan and Heather Swanson ed., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[39] Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[40] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/overturn, Its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)cognition”, Black Knowledge/Black Struggles: Essays in Critical Epistemology, eds. Jason R. Ambroise and Sabine Broeck (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 184–252.

[41] Andrzej Marzec, “Jak długo jeszcze będziemy uprawiać myśl?”, Ryzosfera. Grzyby i bakterie w sieci kultury, ed. Marta Smolińska (Poznan: UAP, 2019), 121–130.

[42] Donna J. Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene”, e-flux, no. 75 (September 2016).

[43] Latour (2017).

[44] Carolyn Merchant, Earthcare: Women and the Environment, (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[45] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[46] Morton (2013).

[47] Morton (2018).

[48] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[49] Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (New York: Verso, 2017).

[50] The End of the World Has Already Happened, UK, 16 January 2020, 28´, podcast.

[51] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[52] Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (London: Penguin, 2017).

[53] Clive Hamilton, “Human Destiny in the Anthropocene”, Hamilton et al. (2015), 32–43.

[54] Marcin Napiórkowski, Dlaczego potrzebujemy mitów, żeby uratować świat? (Warsaw: University of Warsaw, 2021).

[55] Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Dancing at the Edge of

the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 165–170.

[56] Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (London: Pelican, 2018).

[57] Alex Blasdel, “‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene”, The Guardian (15 June 2017).

[58] Morton (2018).