Can world politics save planet Earth?

With the world on track this century for 3-4 degrees of global warming, accelerating species extinctions, polar melting, the devastation of marine ecosystems and the loss of the Amazon as a tropical ecosystem, planet Earth faces an unprecedented ecological crisis; one that constitutes a profound threat to international security and a seemingly insurmountable political challenge.

This forum follows the publication of the Manifesto of “Planet Politics” in 2016, which argued that a state-centric mentality and world order was failing to both see and respond to this crisis. Our diverse group of experts consider just what it will take to reorient the field and global institutions to support efforts to prevent dangerous levels of climate change and reverse global ecological degradation. We asked them to consider what political, cultural and system change would look like – whether in particular sites or struggles, or in the system as a whole - and how best might it be pursued. What practices of ecological solidarity and resistance can be most effective? How can we imagine and create a different kind of world order, one that truly appreciates the ecologically entangled world which it claims to govern?

Opening Comments From Chairs

The history of international relations over the last century is replete with egregious examples of strategic shock and failure that have done grave damage to global security.

The Allies were warned in 1919 that imposing a harsh settlement on Germany could have dangerous political consequences; in the 1940s, atomic scientists warned that serious efforts to cooperate with the Soviet Union would be needed to forestall a nuclear arms race; and in the early 1960s, US leaders were warned that a war in Vietnam could not be won. More recently, in the late 1990s, neoliberal economic dogma blinded policymakers to warnings about the potential for economic collapse in Southeast Asia. The Bush administration ignored the warnings of its most senior US counterterrorism officials that an attack on the scale of 9/11 was likely; then it ignored warnings about the chaos that could ensue in Iraq after an invasion.

Now, in 2017, many of us worry that a similar ideological, conceptual and institutional myopia is laying the ground for a disaster as profound - and in many ways worse - than those of the 20th Century: unchecked climate change, and the devastation of planet’s Earth’s biodiversity and fundamental ecological systems. The evidence emerging from climate and earth system science is increasingly disturbing: the highest levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 1 million years; accelerating rates of polar icecap, permafrost and glacial melting; widespread coral bleaching events like that in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; unprecedented species extinctions and declines in wild animal populations; unsustainable rates of deforestation and habitat destruction; and ocean acidification and overfishing that will devastate marine biodiversity. And even after the signing of the Paris agreement, the world is still on track for 3°C of global warming which would see massive sea level rise and the loss of the Amazon as a tropical ecosystem.

We were motivated to write the Planet Politics manifesto by our alarm at this crisis and the manifest failure of our political institutions and leadership to see and act on it. While we have all been involved with environmental politics and thought in various ways, the Manifesto’s authors have all made significant critical contributions to thinking about international and environmental security. If we expand our concern beyond human and national security to ecological security on a planetary scale, it is clear that the looming ecological crisis is the greatest threat to global security in this coming century.

The manifesto is thus a demand for International Relations - understood both as a field of study and structure of institutions that includes states, the UN, corporations, and more - to reorganise their efforts around a global political project: to end human-caused extinctions, prevent dangerous climate change, repair the oceans, and support vulnerable multi-species populations, enfolded within a dual commitment to social and economic justice. We argue that this should be pursued as a multilevel “cosmopolitics” that combines governance and resistance, law and subversion, in a common project of human and ecological survival.

The current world order, we charge, is both too state-centric and too anthropocentric: the nonhuman world is seen merely as a strategic and economic resource for human purposes and corporate profit, and political attempts to address climate change and biodiversity protection have been hampered by a world order that enables states to weaken international agreements with power politics and lowest common denominator outcomes.

Instead, we demand an eco-centric politics that places the interests of the global ecology and nonhuman life first - this is the true meaning of sustainability, which can no longer be an anthropocentric process of bargaining human interests against ecosystem protection. The nature and dynamics of industrial capitalism - whether in fishing, agribusiness, mining, biotechnology or energy - are a major part of the problem; but so is the structure and commitments of the existing global order and international law.

Policymakers and international relations theorists often congratulate themselves on their “realism”; we charge that they are failing to understand the reality of the way in which industrialised humanity is affecting the course of planet Earth, and the manifold threats to human and nonhuman life that it will produce. We are thus in a very dangerous kind of “social nature” - nowhere can we say that the natural world is unaffected by human activity, and nowhere can we pretend that social and political life can carry on in ignorance of the dramatic responses and changes in the natural world.

This situation is often called the Anthropocene, a geological epoch that deserves the name of the “age of Man”. However, against some versions of the Anthropocene narrative, we caution that in this situation humanity is both remarkably powerful and dangerously weak, having set ecological changes in train that will turn back on human societies in dramatic and unpredictable ways. We are aware of the insights of post-structural and social constructivist thought, and also of the implicit biases of ecology and Earth system science, but we believe it important to argue that ecological change is occurring in ways that are both affected by and independent of human will; in ways that resist and trouble all of our constructs. Science will remain extraordinarily valuable, but it must abandon its modern project of making and domination for a project of ecological listening, response and repair.

The political, philosophical and institutional forms that the planet politics project could take have been left somewhat open, focused however by our fundamentally eco-centric (or “post-human”) worldview that makes the needs of ecosystems and nonhuman life a fundamental priority. This is a profound challenge to the political, economic and ontological systems of modern humanism. We suggest multiple lines of departure: an Earth-focused ethos of worldliness and entanglement; new kinds of animal and ecosystem rights and representation in international law and global governance; and more rapid and intensely-directed efforts to arrest ecologically damaging processes such as deforestation and the mining and burning of coal.

We are eager for further dialogue and research on how such a project of Planet Politics can and should be pursued: the ways that it is already being pursued; can challenge the ways in which environmental politics is currently pursued; or might itself be revised and challenged. We thank Professor Joseph Camilleri for the opportunity to pursue this dialogue here, and welcome all readers to pursue it in every place and community in which you are engaged: to take it as widely as you dare.

Responses

What we've got here is failure to communicate

Comment: 

As one of the authors of “Planet Politics,” I have had the opportunity to present the ideas in it to various audiences since its publication. We hoped to begin a wide-ranging dialogue about possible ways to address the weaknesses in international institutions around responses to climate change, species extinction, and ecosystem damage. These weaknesses are often not so different from other complex problems that IR has grappled with—the legal gray areas and theoretical aporias inherent in sovereignty and the international system of sovereign states. In an anarchical, self-help system with no overarching power to enforce punishment for breaches by states and state actors, things get sticky quickly and suffering often ensues for those least deserving.

Add to these weaknesses a (minimum) 4 degree C rise in global temperature leading to loss of arable and livable land, acidification of the world’s oceans and a marked decrease in sea life (to name but two issues facing us) and we can see tragedy of epic proportions for human and non-human communities faced with issues that transcend state borders.

This leads to our second important provocation in “Planet Politics”: disciplinary myopia. In addition to institutional and legal weaknesses, IR, and its disciplinary understandings of the planet are insufficient at best, and deficient at worst. As Tony Burke writes in the introduction to this forum, IR is both too state-centric and too anthropocentric to see what is right there in front of it.

Put differently, the inability to respond to the above—either because of political will, disciplinary myopia, or purposefully weak institutions—occurs because IR only factors in human systems, actors, and communities. Human induced changes in Earth’s climate and ecosystems will affect us, yes, but where is the discussion about the 8 million species that will also be in dire need of aid and care?

This leads to my third and final provocation. What we asked in “Planet Politics” was for IR to think about the overlapping and entangled non-human systems that exist within, among, and around our own. This lays bare the fact that we humans find ourselves having to acknowledge that we need the biosphere much more than it needs us. The Earth is indifferent to our need to save it. It will continue with or without our presence. And for most of the other species on this planet, our extinction would come as a relief.

This leads me to the most concerning response when I try to outline a non-anthropocentric course of action: emotional resistance, and even defiance, when I ask how humans might love and care for the worlds with which we are entangled on Earth. How do we stop separating ourselves from “nature” and to see other species as kinfolk (to use Donna Haraway’s term) with intrinsic value of their own and not just as resources for our use? Dominion is not ours and never should have been. This, as my grandmother would have said, is how we got into this pickle in the first place.

I have been told again and again that my project is utopic, hopeful and completely naïve and this has led me to the conclusion that our most crucial challenge is that we need to learn how to love.

Most can just look on and watch the suffering and immiseration of other species with few qualms. Sometimes this blasé dismissal is couched in the two ways I organized my response above. One, it would be much too difficult to add in nonhuman animal and ecological systems because the international can’t even handle human problems. Two, from a disciplinary viewpoint well situated in the quantitative social sciences, we can only be attentive to what we can measure. Broadly, it is perhaps because nature, as most understand it, has no value until it is destroyed. Trees are only the lumber they become. Cows, pigs, and chickens are only livestock to be slaughtered for food. Oceans only supply raw materials for humans to consume. I am always asked, “Where is your data?” “Why waste time on thought experiments?”

This could be a communication problem: a very important mentor and supervisor of my dissertation research, in an early conversation about how to approach IR with my research project in mind, told me that I might want to find a new language to speak to my discipline: “You can’t talk about love in International Relations. Think about another way into your project.” This was said not as a gatekeeper (she is not in IR), but rather as a provocateur. I needed to think about what my field of study could, or in this case could not, say about the world it endeavored to explain. What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Therefore, in my book The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic, I begin with the line “International Relations needs a bigger vocabulary.” I created some metaphorical conceits to expand our vocabulary.

Now I believe we need bigger hearts. It is essential to love in such a way that our hearts could encompass the world and all its creatures. And there is an impossibility in this love, a deep and painful tragedy. We will have to see the suffering we up until now refused to see and know that there may few ways to ameliorate it, but we nonetheless must try. And we must mourn.

Of course, being able to count and quantify will be important—vital even, to acknowledge the scope of the changes that will happen—but what about feeling, care, and love for that which lives alongside us?

To use the framing given to me by this forum—one of salvation—earth may not need saving, but our souls do. Not responding to human induced climate change for all of those affected is first and foremost a moral failing, not a systemic or political one. Let us not be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

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Nature/Humanity as Affinity

Comment: 

“Can world politics save planet Earth?”

Yes. It can. It must.

However, world politics cannot do so in its current formulation. This is because the type of ‘thinking’ – the dominant approach or logic – to world politics does not think relationally, that is to say, it does not think dialectically through to the actual social relations that could shift practice to balance human/nature that is so urgently required by the severity of ecological crises facing the planet.

Key to its error is how the deep core of the disciplinary mainstream of international relations (IR) accepts the bifurcation of the subject/object: all it sees is nominalism and separation, competition and anarchy, both in the ‘human world’ and the ‘natural world’. Subjects are separate from each other, and separate from nature too. There is only endless division in anarchy, power, and the state. From this premise, comes its grand self-delusion: that by this separation, it objectively knows the ‘real’. Yet it is blind to actual reality specifically because of these assumptions that excludes any ‘real’ engagement with nature or the affinity of human and nature. Blind to this reality, it continues to assume inter alia: that nature is something outside IR ‘proper’, that environmental costs are mere negative externalities, and that ecological crises can be solved through existing cooperative institutional frameworks supportive of the status quo.

Instead, we must change our thinking to view the relation of human/nature as an affinity – as a dialectical unity or correlation.1 That is, we must give proper account to the interstitial situatedeness in which humans relate intersubjectively within nature as a totality (inclusive of all human communities, biological life, and earth systems). The basis of all social life must be seen within, and as part of, the ecological whole in which humans play an active conditioning rather than determinative role.

It is no longer that reflective/critical interpretations of IR must respond to the positivist/rational core of the discipline, that is, “be testable” as Keohane once said.2 It is that both the critical and the positivist must respond to the material contradictions that are so obviously emanating from ecological crises in world politics.

The Planet Politics Manifesto was a huge step in the right direction: a cosmopolitical project “to end human-caused extinctions, prevent dangerous climate change, repair the oceans, and support vulnerable multi-species populations, enfolded within a dual commitment to social and economic justice.”

But even here an engagement with the social-relations to actualise this radically normative project remained muted. Moreover, its appeal to ‘post-human’ worldview (is that even possible? I am dubious on anything with the prefix ‘post’! ) seems to continue the same separation of subject or object that characterises the mainstream: this time, from human to nature “first.”

Here, I would like to add to the Manifesto in two ways. The first, is by showing how dialectical naturalism is capable of not only transcending dualistic conceptions of “man/nature” but in expanding our awareness of the potentialities of history toward what Murray Bookchin termed the “liberatory pathways” to a social ecology as a restorative relation between human/nature. The second is through recognition theory as a means to ground the cosmopolitan aspirations of the Manifesto within processes of mutual recognition that respect and foster the diversity of the global community, and, that can actively draw upon the ecological norms that already constitute rational claims in international society (however weak and nascent these may be) and potential for their future development.

1. I have outlined this elsewhere. Shannon Brincat & Damian Gerber (2015), “The Necessity of Dialectical Naturalism: Marcuse, Bookchin, and Dialectics in the Midst of Ecological Crises,” Antipode, 47(4): 871-893.
2. Robert Keohane, 1989: “President Address to ISA, 1988,” in International Institutions and State Power: Essays in International Relations Theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 173.

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Entanglement can be Scary

Comment: 

The “Planet Politics” manifesto calls for “a politics that is Earth-worldly, and an Earth-worldliness that is political” (70). ‘Earth-worldly’ means recognizing that humans are (already) entangled with the more-than-human. But that acknowledgment is not enough; what makes a politics ‘Earth-worldly’ is the emotional tenor of that acknowledgment. Humans need to look, smell, hear and feel around them; to sense their multi-species partners; and then – the tricky part! – to embrace the state of entanglement. In this way, humans “reframe [their co-vulnerability] as a source of positive solidarity, rather than simply the fearful, clinging, negative solidarity forged by survival anxiety” (70-71).

The move from co-vulnerability to ‘positive solidarity’ has proven difficult for humans historically. Positive solidarity is not impossible for humans, but it is always an achievement. Sustaining positive solidarity with others is an emotional tightrope that traverses an abyss of fascistic desires for purification, border walls and homogeneity. In the recent rise of populist movements in the global North, we witness a more common emotional reaction to scarcity and uncertainty: xenophobia. These movements should remind us, as does the “Planet Politics” manifesto, that acknowledgment is necessary, but always insufficient. The hope borne by many environmentalists and scientists – that if only enough people knew the facts about climate change and the Anthropocene, they would act cooperatively and constructively – misunderstands human politics and its frailties.

If we are to build an eco-politics of generosity, we need to focus upon those many, micro-moments of recognition as fraught with danger. The political challenge arises in the uncertainty of that final step – in the movement from recognition to embrace. As more severe weather seeps into people’s quotidien existence, as food prices swing wildly, as flows of climate migrants intensify, we need to be prepared with real affective strategies to triage our anxieties. The future contours of world politics will follow the outcome of that single sentence in the manifesto – can we reframe entanglement as solidarity, or will it catalyze the violent politics of ‘survival anxiety’? This is the real threat of ‘climate security’ to world politics: not from the desperation of the most vulnerable people in the global South, but from the anxieties of the most privileged and powerful.

Because recognizing entanglement is dangerous, eco-centric politics should be careful with its tone and its narratives. We need to diversify beyond the genres of dystopia and horror to describe our contemporary condition and our possible futures. We need to rethink the almost universal tendency for eco-centric texts to begin with a litany of deaths and horrors (I am guilty of this too). Such a litany focuses on the first step – the need to make people recognize – but too often neglects the most important maneuver that follows – the attempt to inspire humans to feel generous about that entanglement, something that is not suffocation or panic.

This is what makes the “Planet Politics” manifesto so helpful. Not only does it catalogue the ‘reality’ of the planetary and the problems we face, it begins to generate an alternative politics, one in which coal would be a controlled substance, and non-humans would have rights. Eco-centric movements are emerging through many such experiments, at multiple sites.

One possible site, and the subject of my own research, is the politics of work. As it stands, the ideology of work – that having a job in the market economy is related to one’s worth as a citizen and human – blocks our ability to imagine ways of existing beyond the scope of neoliberal capitalism. The vicious circulations of production and consumption demand copious, cheap supplies of energy, and reduce human life to the role of worker/consumer. We are told that we cannot relinquish fossil fuels, or have 100% renewable energy, or enforce a tax on carbon, or limit our consumption, because it would threaten jobs, which, in turn, implies a threat to human life itself. Thanks in part to the ideology of work, the human relationship to energy is framed as one of growth (having unlimited, cheap energy from fossil fuels) versus one of sacrifice (treating energy as limited). Through such a framework, eco-centrism cannot help but appear as a politics that demands self-denial, while fossil capitalism drapes itself in luxury and indulgence.

Eco-centrism can escape this bind by rejecting the ideology of work. Eco-theorists should partner with post-work movements: marginalized voices, and especially feminists, who have critiqued work since the 19th century. Most importantly, post-work politics offers a vision of human life that is fulfilling and pleasurable, even sumptuous, but that does not require intensive commodity and energy consumption. At the fraught moment of recognition, when faced with entanglement, we need just such a generous and creative politics.

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We need a politics of worlds

Comment: 

Earth, and the multiple, distinct worlds, it sustains, are performing a powerful critique of IR by refusing to conform to the categories, predictions and methods of analysis that it offers. The phenomena mentioned in this section's introduction – global warming, global patterns of extinction, polar melting and more – are embodiments of this critique, and IR scholars (amongst others) need to attend to them. However, this is not the revolt of ‘the Earth’ against ‘human activity’ in general. Instead, these phenomena reflect the responses and conditions of plural, distinct worlds sustained on and by earth to particular, deeply destructive modes of organization and relations. By 'worlds' I mean plural constellations of beings that co-constitute one another and, in so doing, create and sustain the conditions for their collective existence.

The introduction asks how a ‘different kind of world order’ can be imagined and created. From my perspective, the challenge is to become receptive to the existence and expressions of plural worlds. In our original argument, the authors of the ‘Planet Politics Manifesto’ wrote about the irruption of a ‘planetary real’ that is shattering the abstract structures of International Relations, both in theory and practice. I would argue that there is not one ‘real’, and it is not the expression of ‘a’ planet. Instead, what the Manifesto points to is the force-fulness of worlds, which extends far beyond the status of mere background conditions or material substrates for ‘human’ action. In trans-forming, colliding, merging, co-existing and being extinguished, these multiple worlds each express their own ‘reals’. If there is friction between the forces of reality and the abstractions of IR, it is the expression of the plurality of these worlds as they are traversed by the totalizing, homogenizing forms of worlding associated with the formation of ‘the globe’ as a sphere of action.

From this perspective, addressing the crises of today involves not simply formulating a new way of knowing ‘the’ world, but rather becoming sensitive to other worlds. My own research is pluriversal in its grounding and normative commitments. Engaging with Indigenous knowledges and cosmo-visions from across Turtle Island, Australia, Hawai’i, southeast Asia and other distinct places, it seeks to understand the transversal structures that engender global patterns of extinction. As such, it requires attunement to the various worlds that are disrupted or destroyed by Western forms of worlding that seek to elide earth with an enclosed globe.

I am concerned that some of the proposed approaches to narratives of planetary crisis reinforce this impulse. For instance, the ‘Earth system’ framework discussed in the Manifesto offers a vision very different from those embraced by traditional IR; yet it reproduces the idea that there is one, unified planet and that any single worldview can reflect it. Similarly, the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, in its attempt to gain critical purchase on global crises, ironically encloses earth within the homogenizing envelope of ‘human’ activities, erasing the specificity of the relations and modes of organization that it encompasses. Instead of imagining ‘another’ world, I argue for a politics and ethos of co-existence that honours, expresses, protects and nurtures the plurality of worlds.

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A leap of faith

Comment: 

I agree with the authors of the "planet politics" manifesto that confronting the ecological crisis calls for a profound rethinking of how we understand ourselves as inhabitants of the earth. We need a new basis for our politics, precisely because our existing arrangements are incapable of sustaining activities that care for the planet as a whole -- our political interests are constituted along provincial or national lines, not global ones. But I do not think that planetary systems science can or should be that new basis, as this mis-states the relationship of science and politics; the attempt to base politics on science converts science into a contestable political position, and thus deprives science of its capacity to serve as a non-partisan input into political life. What we need instead is an eco-theology that can inform both a science and a politics of and for the Anthropocene.

In the manifesto, "the real" of the Anthropocene underpins the call to put planetary systems scientists on an Earth System Council as though such scientists would be empowered to speak for that "real" on the basis of their superior knowledge about it. This in turn presumes that planetary systems science is a privileged discourse for accessing that "real." But incorporating planetary systems science into the political process makes it one political position among others. Scientific claims therefore become politically contestable, and we open up the possibility of bargaining with planetary systems science as one perspective among others, or rejecting or opposing planetary systems science because it serves one's political interests to do so. And this is inconsistent with the very idea of a science of planetary systems, because a scientific claim is simply not a matter of (political) perspective. Facts -- including facts about climate change -- are not partisan positions.

To put this another way, I think there's a real tension between invoking the science of the ecological crisis as a corrective to our currently-dominant scientific ontologies that presume the independence of the human social world from the rest of the natural world, and drawing political positions from that ecological science. To the extent that planetary systems science actually gives us the parameters for any future sustainable politics, then any politics has to be curtailed in accordance with those parameters. It's almost as if in the manifesto the authors simultaneously want and don't want to say that; they want the scientifically-grounded urgency of the crisis, but they don't want the epistemic imperialism over other perspectives that such an appeal entails. I don't think we can have it both ways.

Indeed, at the end of the day what the authors want readers of their manifesto -- a manifesto that is directed, in the first instance, at academic social scientists -- to do is to adopt a different scientific ontology, a different set of presumptions and starting-points for the creation of valid knowledge: a profoundly relational account of life, human beings as embedded in broader systems of ecological transaction, and so on. But the grounds for adopting that scientific ontology can't simply re-state the premises of that ecological way of worlding, or urge us to adopt that "embeddedness-in-the-wider-ecosystem" approach on political grounds. Instead, the grounds for adopting a scientific ontology have to be scientific ones: this way of approaching the explanatory challenge of climate change is a systematic body of theoretical propositions that has been subjected to a public process of contestation. Those epistemic grounds might be good enough for scientists, social or otherwise, but that is precisely because they are not partisan grounds. Their status is quite different from the pronouncements of political parties.

So we are left in a conundrum: planetary systems science, and any successor social science that incorporated it, claims an epistemic status that places it outside of the political realm. But injecting that perspective into the political process undermines that very epistemic status, in effect converting science into one political position among others. How, then, to proceed? I am struck by the fact that even though the authors call for the use of all resources to confront the challenge of the ecological crisis, their account is quite relentlessly secular. The manifesto never mention notions like "creation care," or points out that a relational account of human life as embedded-in-nature is profoundly present in many if not most of the religious traditions that have ever existed in human history. It is as though the authors are implicitly saying that science, the science of planetary systems, is sufficient to save us. In my view this simply cannot work, precisely because science of any kind (to invoke Max Weber for a moment) doesn't answer the question "how should we then live?" Instead, science tells us the consequences of our most basic commitments, and the likely outcomes of our possible courses of action. Science is not a value-system that tells us which outcome to choose, which is precisely why it has to remain constitutively separate from the political process through which we collectively determine our courses of action.

So I would argue that "planet politics" based on planetary systems science isn't what we need. What we need instead is a new set of value-commitments, and those don't and can't come from science. What we need is something like "eco-theology," a recognition of the commonalities and what Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called "tissues of resemblance" that emerge between and among various ways of knowing including planetary systems science, but also including a wide variety of religious and spiritual traditions that make ethical claims on us. Those commonalities and that broad theology -- and I call it a theology deliberately, because I can see no way that doing this doesn't involve notions of our obligations in the face of something sacred -- can then inform the (social) science that we produce and offer to the political process as a non-partisan, non-political way. At the same time, a robust eco-theology can inform the political process through avenues other than that of non-partisan scientific advice, precisely because theology works directly on value-commitments and makes imperative claims involving how we ought to live. Planetary systems science can clarify how we might go about dealing with the massive environmental changes we human beings have set in motion, but it can't tell us why we ought to do so. Only a changed theological vision can do that.

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Hospice Politics

Comment: 

One of the central aims of the “Planet Politics” Manifesto is to push international relations (IR) scholars into uncomfortable positions. This it accomplishes in spades. Readers are forced to confront the exceptional conditions of planetary change and the abject failure of international relations to see, acknowledge, and respond to the new Anthropocene world. We are tasked with no less than a “profound restructuring of international politics and order that can assure the planet’s survival…” (522). Clearly, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

The Holocene age - the 12,000-year present – in which international relations was formed, is now over. That period defined by relative climatic stability and the gradual expansion of Homo Sapiens, both in numbers and impacts, has now given way to an age of exception – where humans are geological agents, capable of fundamentally transforming the Earth system. This new reality presents a host of downright weird conundrums for a discipline that traditionally viewed the Earth as an inert staging ground for the human drama - or as a distinct object that offered humans either protection or danger. We are now left with a creeping realization that the ideas, concepts and institutions that have shaped global politics have all been bred for life on a planet that no longer exists. We have no true sensibility of what is happening, let alone for what comes next.

How might we, as IR scholars, go about fulfilling the call to action found in the Manifesto? If IR is so profoundly out of touch with the planetary real, then are we better off staying out of the way? Perhaps we should stick to what we know best and leave it to others to deal with environmental change. As Green and Hale (2017) have recently shown, IR has done just that. Less than 4% of surveyed scholars identify the environment as their primary research focus, despite climate change consistently labelled as one of the three most important policy issues of our time.

Yet, somehow, this is deeply unsatisfying. It reflects ignorance and indifference to increasing harms across human and nonhuman worlds rather than enlightened restraint. Given its role in preserving a violent status quo, IR has a responsibility to reflect deeply upon its ontological, epistemological, and ethical foundations. It needs to figure out ways to co-exist with, learn from, and respond to an entangled, social nature that is fundamentally different than what it has supposed. The Manifesto is a welcome addition to this ongoing process.

My own work examines one direction that, ironically, harkens back to the roots of IR and security studies: the notion of care. Often neglected, care is in fact fundamental to the concept of security. As the literary scholar John T. Hamilton (2013) has explained, the Latin root of security - Securitas - invokes the Roman figure Cura to describe an ideal state where there is no risk and care is no longer needed in our actions; a place where we can exist without worry and with the knowledge that no harm is coming. To be secure is to be care-free.

Yet, given what we know about the Anthropocene – ongoing extinctions, rapid climate change, cascading ecological transformations and tipping points – it is clear that the promise of security needs reconfiguration. We need more, not less, care.

What can care offer us as IR scholars in the Anthropocene? First, by activating multiple traditions of care, already found often in feminist and other subaltern traditions, we can recode and reclaim security away from its fatalistic determinism that relegates the future to apocalyptic conflicts over dwindling resources. Second, care allows us to cross the massive scalar and temporal zones that are impenetrable to conventional security studies. We can care for future unborn generations, or past ancestors, in ways that transcend conventional security ethics. Third, it transcends the human-nature binaries that restrict who or what is worthy of ethical consideration. Finally, it makes visible the immanent forms of relationality that bind us with distant others, including non-humans.

All of these reasons, and others, help create new forms of planet politics. Care is appropriate because it demands nothing in return - no search for justice and reciprocity in a world that is often indifferent or openly hostile to us. In fact, care helps us respond to inevitable loss and failure. Given some of the environmental realities outlined in this forum, perhaps planet politics is fundamentally a hospice politics. This subverts the security problematique – the search for stasis, control, predictability, and survivability. A caring response obliges us to act in a spirit of empathy; to extend hospitality and kinship to human and non-human strangers; and to feel gratitude in the midst of ongoing, seemingly perpetual, social and ecological crises.

To answer the organizing question of this forum, no, world politics cannot save planet Earth. The world we once knew has already ended. Once we learn to acknowledge that it will be possible to think and act creatively and, hopefully, carefully.

References:
Green, Jessica F., and Thomas Hale. 2017. “Reversing the Marginalization of Global Environmental Politics in International Relations: An Opportunity for the Discipline.” PS: Political Science. 50.2: 473-479.

Hamilton, John T. 2013. Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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Embracing a Wild Tapestry

Comment: 

We have lived by the assumption that our political system will naturally evolve for the better. We were wrong. World politics can only save planet Earth if it reforms, and IR scholars must reform ahead of the change.

The near future now holds unprecedented environmental and political chaos. The need to arrest climate change is urgent. But, our frayed political system is incapable of taking action. Big business has been empowered to monetize the natural world—a convergence that condemns thousands of species to disappear from the tapestry of the earth. Trees have become carbon sequestration, gorillas are an ecotourism destination and species without market value are invisible.

People across the world intrinsically know that once wildlife is gone the place they once lived will be hollow. These are the threads we must protect.

Before we collected into giant cities, we managed our relationship with our wild community—the nonhuman species that share the landscape and seascape of Earth with us. We made local decisions, and we reflected on the nature of the wild relationship that surrounded us.

Now cloistered in our monetized societies, we are disconnected from the venerable bond between animal and human that still exists in communities close to the wilds of the world.

We rake against the natural fibres of local conservation, destroying their form and texture until they are smooth and uniform. In our determination to replicate solutions for diverse and complex local problems, we have been seduced into weaving with neutrality—with sameness.

Whole villages have been forced from their ancestral forest homes—wilderness they have harmoniously inhabited for generations. In their place armed border guards stride, paved roads snake and exclusive hotels stand. Where children once learned from their elders of the leaves and fruits and animals around them, tourists now stare from open top cars at the last surviving tiger. Hunters once stood on the ice edge at sunrise, offering thanks to the spirit world before hunting meat for their community. Now they meet wealthy sport-shooters, from half a world way, who lust for blood and a polar bear trophy.

A transnational elite control funding and policy directions, through globally centralised decisions. They discipline populations into neoliberal market acceptance and a limited, toothless version of environmentalism that ignores the debt of historical resources harvest of colonial and imperialist actors. They reinforce their own construction of nature, silencing different interpretations and viewpoints, in a quest for a homogenised world.

The fabric we are weaving is dystopic.

There is another option; a rooted cosmopolitan option. It is time for ancient, wise, stories to be the core of a wild tapestry of future decisions.

International environmental governance form should be born of the community—their home, their solution, their management. Political institutions must be reformed in a rooted cosmopolitan direction that serves as a constructive supplement to the laws of the state. We can break from the neoliberal agenda by tuning conservation to the community landscape level—respecting cultural identity and expression and the connectedness of human and non-human members of the community—and channelling this broader, messier, more inclusive community directly into international discussions.

In turn, civil society must claim a formal seat at the international decision-making table, as communities advocating for the wildlife they live with.[1] Communities should have the power to speak for the wildlife that surrounds them.

This reform is more than hiring local people as park rangers or ecotour guides, or systematically enabling them to monitor and blow the whistle on illegal hunting. Truly acknowledging community connections to place and wildlife—recognising that forests, grassy plains, arctic tundra or wetlands are homes—can build powerful local conservation initiatives, that don't need the market to determine they have a value.

The weft of a rooted cosmopolitan potential exist where activists fight to protect waterbirds and wetlands from mining; herders make peace with snow leopards in the Himalaya, and people stand in the footprints of elephants that walk the plains and forests of Africa. We can let go of our vice-like grip on the current international political order, embrace these local voices, and choose the warp thread that empowers them.

The ‘Planet Politics Manifesto’ leads the way. Like a weaver sitting at an empty loom, there are many possibilities ahead. The tapestry of our future is our collective choice. We can sit, indifferent, and weave plain fabric, allowing others to dye and shape it into projects of their own making—projects that will impoverish communities and subjugate nature until we lose the last of what is precious. Or, we can design a beautifully woven tapestry that reflects the depth, texture and colour of what we want to save.

This is our choice.

[1] I have outlined this elsewhere, see: Margi Prideaux, 2017, Global Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife, Routledge, London

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Science, climate, and new social-ecological systems

Comment: 

The crucial point about the Anthropocene discussion isn’t whether the science is right or whether it is an alternative to IR, but that it requires social scientists to rethink the implicit contextualisations that inform their analyses. The earth system is being transformed at a rapid rate; the key determinant of the future climate conditions of the planet is now humanity and the decisions the rich and powerful make in coming decades about what carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will be. Climate on this planet is no longer a matter of orbital dynamics and Milankovich cycles.

The transformation underway is also causing the sixth extinction event in planetary history, and the movement of species by humans in the last few centuries has rearranged biological geographies in a way probably not seen since Pangaea split up hundreds of millions of years ago. Thinking about human affairs in that context is key; the implicit geopolitical assumptions of most of IR is that there is a given context for human rivalries. The Anthropocene discussion makes that an impossible formulation as the premise from which to begin investigations or think politically.

It also raises great difficulties with the formulation of ‘saving the planet’. Humanity has already dramatically altered the planetary system, and has done so by making all sorts of new things, and moving and reassembling others, not least animal and plant species. In the last couple of centuries, but most noticeably in the last couple of generations, we have been making carbon dioxide in prodigious quantities. And cities, roads, the ecological deserts that are agricultural mono-cropping systems, as well as plastics and all sorts of ‘novel entities’ in the earth system term, that are making the future context for humanity very different from the past.

In so far as what needs to be ‘saved’ can be clearly articulated, it’s the key elements of biodiversity and the habitats that these species live in, as well as a fairly stable climate, something akin to the Holocene conditions that humanity has known through history. The last 12,000 years have had a very unusually stable climate. The prospect of rapid climate change introducing a fluctuating, rather than fairly predictable, climate isn’t something that an urban humanity of 9 or 10 billion people can reasonably expect to cope with given its needs for food which requires reliable production and an economy to move it around.

This isn’t about saving a given context but a matter of thinking intelligently about how we make multiple socio-ecological systems that allow humanity to, in various diverse ways, live well in new contexts without burning large quantities of material (biomass or fossil fuels) to do so. Its also about thinking about ecologies that can absorb the huge amounts of carbon dioxide that already are in the atmosphere, not least to slow, and hopefully eventually reduce the problems of ocean acidification, that so threaten numerous aspects of Oceanic life. This point is often overlooked; being a land based species we are, and IR is, usually guilty of a profound terrestrocentrism that ignores the fact that life is an aqueous phenomenon first and foremost.

Planet politics is thus about production, about who decides what gets made, where, and how. The rich and powerful have disproportionate influence on these matters through their investment strategies and economic decisions. It matters greatly if fossil fuels power our cities or if instead windmills and solar panels do. If we use fossil fuels we make yet more carbon dioxide. No economic system is innocent; mining raw materials will continue to be a dirty business, but how we do these things, and which ores we use, dug from where, and processed how, has consequences that need to be worked into production decisions. These are now far too important to be left to the vagaries of so called ‘markets’.

Planet politics has to be about trying to think about systems that deal with the worst human suffering caused by economic inequities, and doing so while ensuring that what we make doesn’t preclude living well for future generations. It’s obviously about technical change, but it’s also about social changes that operate on the clear understanding that we are earth, are a part of earth, not apart from earth, and our societies are dramatically altering both human and non-human habitats.

This ontological premise requires abandoning the distinctions between Nature and Society, and understanding that we are moving species around, literally making new ones by selective breeding and building artificial habitats in a series of new ecological arrangements that are just that, new! IR has been mostly concerned about how to dominate a divided world or how to deal with the consequences of efforts to do so. Planet politics now has to be about figuring out how to share a crowded world, one constituted of many new ‘worlds’, in the sense of interconnected assemblages, that operate in ways that allow others to flourish too in a biosphere that humanity is rapidly remaking.

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We need a more encompassing yet more focused dialogue

Comment: 

Let me first say how much I have appreciated and benefited from the rich insights that the chair and panellists have so far contributed to the forum.

If there is one underlying theme in most, if not all, of the comments, it is the contention that life on planet Earth has reached a critical threshold, which requires of humans new ways of seeing the past and imagining the future.

Some speak of the need to reframe our ecological understanding in terms of ‘love’, others prefer to see the relationship between humanity and nature in terms of ‘affinity’, or ‘care for the planet as a whole’. Others still invite us to shift our thinking from notions of ‘co-vulnerability’ to ‘positive solidarity’, or even to ‘an eco-politics of generosity’.

These are indeed appealing exhortations for us to think and act in more enlightened and ethically informed ways. But several critically important questions I consider central to this discussion have yet to be given due consideration:

  • Who is the intended audience of these exhortations? Do the panellists have in mind the whole of humanity, or certain individuals, groups, and social strata? If so, which ones? Are they primarily directed at the West, or are they seen as having equal relevance for the Global South, including Indigenous societies?

  • Are the intellectual and moral insights articulated in the various comments entirely new, or are there pre-existing and potent reservoirs of wisdom from which they consciously or otherwise draw inspiration?

  • Is this primarily a conversation of interest to the so-called IR community, a case of IR scholars addressing their more conservative, less ecologically aware colleagues?

  • And, perhaps most importantly, if far-reaching change is envisaged in the way we think, feel and act, what are viable strategies for change? Who – not just individuals but collectivities and institutions – are in a position to exercise leadership, or at least to contemplate ground-breaking initiatives? Simply put, what would it take to actualise something of the ecologically centred revolution called for by the Manifesto?

While there are no simple or single answers to any of these questions, they merit urgent attention. I would like to come back to some of these questions in future comments, but for now may I confine myself to the question of the IR community.

Having taught, researched and published in the field of International Relations for over half a century, I am less than convinced that a new and concerted effort to convince IR realists and other traditionalists of the errors of their ways is the best use of one’s intellectual capital and political energies. Several considerations are worth keeping in mind here.

First IR is hardly a discipline in the sense that psychology or anthropology might be. The study of international affairs, world politics, globalisation studies and other germane areas of inquiry are in no way the monopoly of IR or politics departments. They are integral to the teaching and research of many sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, geographers, social theorists, philosophers, educationalists, economists, legal scholars and theologians, as well as those located in such parts of the academy as foreign languages and literature, area studies, media studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, and environmental studies. Global ethics and a planetary perspective are critical to each of these fields of inquiry, many of which offer far more fertile ground for the kind of discourse proposed by the Manifesto of Planet Politics, and far more influential, intellectually and culturally, than their IR counterparts. As for the kind of unreconstructed traditionalist IR still to be found in some UK and US universities, it now wears the scars of the withering criticism to which it has been rightly exposed over many decades. And one more thing: don’t let’s too readily assume that what passes for scholarship at MIT, Georgetown, or King’s College is dutifully replicated in German, Russian, Chinese, Brazilian or Argentinian universities.

Simply put, the planetary perspective is too important to focus primarily on the musings of the slender and not so significant IR community of the English-speaking world. The key must surely be to engage in a dialogue that is interdisciplinary, transnational, cross-cultural, and inter-generational in both scope and inspiration. 

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Resist reification

Comment: 

I want to thank Tony, Stefanie, Simon, and Audra for inviting me to take part in writing this essay, and for our host for lending us some ‘real estate’ on his weblog.

I shared some of Patrick Jackson’s concerns in my initial contributions to this essay. Specifically, I shared the concern that writing of this genre often verges into the radically a-political in the guise of being radically plural – that the non-human world goes from being an ontology one 'thinks through' to a radical claim of being as such; or that science and technology are used to trump politics, or to turn what are properly questions of value and meaning (Jackson’s ‘theology’) into a value-free science of administration. This is ever the concern with social science, and it has been thus at least since Wolin’s Politics and Vision, Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, and perhaps going as far as Comte and Saint-Simon.

Further, my sense is often that this concern is ‘weaponized’ in contemporary International theory. Some years back I wrote a book that spoke to the question of how values are ‘baked in’ to the academic study of world politics, in which I proposed that a particular kind of critical skepticism – drawing on the work of first-generation Frankfurt school scholars like Adorno and Horkheimer – that was meant to help us remain aware of, and reflexively engaged with those values, and their work in structuring scientific and social-scientific inquiry.

My sense is that such critiques are listened to selectively: such skepticism is fine when put to Joe Nye's liberalism or Barry Posen's realpolitik, but not when one moves to the corners of international theory that self-identify as ‘normative’ or ‘critical’. I understand why this happens – to speak of oneself as a ‘critical’ theorist is often to describe not one’s intellectual tools, but one’s position within the discipline – but there is a depressing quality to it nevertheless. It risks reviving a kind of emancipatory naïveté which post-war critical theory specifically sought to disavow. It is the regulative ideal of emancipation that is to guide us in our scientific work, not the practical instantiation of one or another account of it.

To fail to appreciate this adequately is to set the stage for ever more cycles of reification and closure. More repetition and less difference; more seeking at the margins for some magic combination of subaltern discourses which will somehow prove resistant to reification and tendentious appropriation and exempt us from burden of thinking deeply, reflectively, and circumspectly. The "tricky part," as Cara notes in her contribution (above), lies in learning to "embrace the state of entanglement" that such reflection generates; to dwell and abide in it. This strikes me as precisely correct.

In that vein, the claim that climate change is too urgent for us to get caught up in the problems of thinking that attend 19th/20th century catastrophes sounds eerily familiar. Is such a claim not essentially similar to those made in the 19th/20th centuries who said that the dangers of industrial scale military mobilization – or later, nuclear ‘sneak attack’ – were too urgent to allow us the luxury of woolly-headed navel-gazing? Are not periodizations of the ‘holocene’ and the ‘anthropocene’ just as historicist – and therefore, just as available to tendentious appropriation – as were the historical writings of Ranke and Meinecke?

In that vein, what was unique and special about this group (and this is reflected in many of the fine interventions offered above), is that they tried – really tried – to accommodate those views in the writing of the manifesto. The vast majority of the paper is Stef, Tony, and the other authors. The key contribution I wanted to make – that I felt I needed to make – came at the end of the essay:

"We [pursue the call made here] aware of the limitations of thinking, of the necessity for chastened, sustainable critique and self-reflection alongside engagement with other disciplines working towards similar ends. In claiming the notion of a new planetary real, and in borrowing from the natural sciences, we do not claim the naïve position that the findings of those sciences are incontestable. Even less would we argue that descriptive claims drawn from such science have only one possible normative or political reading. Planet politics, in other words, does not claim to have transcended the limits of conceptual representation, solved the age-old epistemological problems of mediation and reification, or somehow leapt over the normative problems of identitarian thinking with its associated dangers for politics.

Certainly, Planet Politics needs to enter the constellation of ontologies, epistemologies, and methods that define our discipline if that discipline is not to fail; if, that is, this discipline is to continue to speak meaningfully to the world that presents itself to politics as a demand. We are thus challenging IR to reorganise its very foundations around the complex system of processes and interactions that bind society and nature so terribly together and are producing such world-shaking results, rather than around the anthropocentric drama of human cooperation and conflict. Chastened as it is, that claim is bold enough without also taking on the claim of privileged irrefutability. We also acknowledge that the ‘cognitive, industrial, economic, affective, technological, epistemological and meteorological’ environments that make our life and studies possible are also destructive of the climate, and possibly ourselves."

That is, as I understand us, IR has failed because it simply doesn't know how to value this kind of thinking; that it remains a scientific/political discourse in the bourdieusian sense, rather than a properly scientific field. The social networks of science and prestige have served to exclude a view that's terribly important because, well, no-one knows how to get a job in the US writing in the idiom we have chosen. The failure of IR is thus a failure not of thinking, but of the academy; and the 'end of IR' is about a scientific community that prefers to keep talking in its preferred idioms than to confront the growing gap between our phenomenological encounters with 'the real' (not reality as such, but reality as we perceive it – the naive experience of watching Florida or Louisiana coastlines disappear into the sea, or watching the Great Barrier Reef die).

In that sense, we have failed; we've preferred the 'job' of being IR professors over the ‘vocation’ of thinking which that job means to sustain. In this vein, really original work like Audra's or Stef's or Tony's – or the work Simon has been doing for two decades – has this absurd disciplinary mountain it has to climb, while other folks do not. Bentley Allen has a nice piece on this that fills in some of that gap – the social construction of 'the environment' as an object of thinking – that I think fills in the gap between our piece and this claim, as does Inanna Hamati-Ataya’s 'field theory' work more generally.

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