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With global catastrophe on the horizon, a writer asks: what do the Rojava Kurds, Pope Francis, and Silicon ...
2018-11-24 00:00:00
Edwin Bendyk

How to Save the Earth in the Era of the Anthropocene

How to Save the Earth in the Era of the Anthropocene

In her poignant Epoka człowieka. Retoryka i marazm antropocenu [The Human Epoch: The Rhetoric and Apathy of the Anthropocene], Ewa Bińczyk writes: “The Anthropocene desperately needs critical hope and conviction that constructive change is possible.” The philosopher examines the strange condition of mankind that has just reached the peak of its dominance, gaining the power to shape the entire geo- and ecosystem. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, the epoch of humans. Instead of rejoicing, however, we must accept that its swift culmination may equal an ecological apocalypse. And although we are well aware of the scenarios describing the approaching catastrophe, we are not able to take action that would protect us from the worst. Bińczyk sums up her work with a complaint: “How wonderful would it be to offer an array of inspiring utopias at the end of this work. Unfortunately, I did not come across any while examining the discourses of the Anthropocene.”

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Is the situation truly as bleak as she claims? After all, there is no shortage of proposals for how to better organize the world. While the Kurdish Rojava are experimenting with the system of democratic confederalism, Bolivians and Ecuadorians have revised their constitutions to reflect the principle of buen vivir – ‘good living’ or ‘well living’ – questioning the idea that development should be understood in terms of quantitative expansion. Led by Ada Colau, Barcelona advances the idea of municipalism; grassroots civil movements taking over power in towns and cities, leading to, among other things, the feminization of politics. All such local initiatives can be seen as utopias, or projects that feed on the hope that a better world is possible. More importantly, they are not just literary visions, but rather tangible projects implemented within existing social and political realities.

Yet is this adequate in the wake of the challenges we now face: the possible end of the world; the apocalypse? Are these initiatives simply lulling us into a false sense of security, creating a deceptive illusion that it is enough to arrange one’s own backyard in order to fix the world? There is a real risk of provincial complacency. In order to avoid it, we need a universal transformation of imagination that would combine all these singular initiatives into a joint project of saving the world. Is such a change possible?

It is worth noting at least two opposing principles: hope and responsibility. The principle of hope is the basis for cognitive optimism and the belief that man is able to control the course of history and shape the future. The principle of responsibility was formulated by the philosopher Hans Jonas in response to a world in which development got out of hand and began to bring disastrous consequences for humanitarian and ecological efforts.

Conveying a vision of integral ecology and a call for a bold cultural revolution necessary to avoid an ecological catastrophe, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ is one example of a story shaped by these principles. The encyclical is a radical critique of contemporary capitalism based on pathological anthropocentrism, violence, and the ceaseless exploitation of human, cultural and environmental resources. The Pope does not share the naive conviction common to many Catholics – namely that ‘God will protect us from the worst’ – and urges us to take responsibility for global affairs.

Recognizing that the mobilization of all resources (in other words, the entire cultural and religious diversity of humanity) is the necessary condition for avoiding global catastrophe, Francis rejects the temptation of Christian universalism. The ‘integral ecology’ is surely the type of metaproject that could accommodate Rojava, Barcelona, as well as the practices of the Indigenous Bolivians.

At the other end of the spectrum, techno-utopia has been developing for decades – a world controlled by humans equipped with increasingly potent technology at its horizon. Indeed, its most radical and transhuman variants assume that this horizon would reach beyond human history. The inevitable result of technological progress is an evolutionary leap, heralding a new era of fusion between technology and biology, in which it will no longer be possible to consider Homo sapiens using today’s categories. To put it more mildly, and following the tech critic Evgeny Morozov, techno-utopia can be framed as ‘solutionism’ – the idea that technology will sooner or later provide a solution to any social, political or environmental issue. Silicon Valley is, of course, instrumental to the development of techno-utopia. It is where the greatest concentration of capital and human genius works towards a single goal: finding a way to save the world and profit from it.

Therefore, the problem is not that we are lacking in utopian scenarios, but rather that they do not stir the imagination nor fuel political projects that could, with the force of communism or socialism, galvanize into action. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote at the end of his life, only retrotopias – visions of the future derived from imaginary representations of the supposedly better past – hold the power to inspire.


Translated by Joanna Figiel