Illustration: Joseph Walsh 2019
Reflections on the Rites of Spring: Rights of Nature Working Groop, Massia 12–18 May, 2019.
Before I left Massia, at the tail end of our inaugural Rights of Nature Working ‘Groop’, Daan, a scholar of comparative religion, observed that the current stakes of Climate Change have all the trappings of religion; believers and non-believers, an urgency to work collectively to overcome overwhelming existential problems and with the failure to do so being Armageddon. It is indeed a time of revelation, and as with other religion narratives, it makes me wonder if this is the only story. What might we learn from indigenous people about living through apocalypse? Or to put it another way, in this moment of anthropogenic planetary transformation, as the Anthropocene and Gaia theses face off, which world(s) are we attempting to save and which are we willing to let die?
In a recent volume A World of Many Worlds (2018), the editors, anthropologists Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser describe the Anthropocene as ‘a scenario of politics characterised by an undeclared war’ (2018, p. 6), highlighting the tension between indigenous realities and the way ‘modern knowers’ understand their world. Cadena and Blaser coin the term ‘Political Ontology’ to describe such antagonisms that occur when, for example, a mountain is considered a mineral resource by one group and a person by another. For me this brings to mind—and is likely a reference to—the work of philosopher-anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli made in collaboration with the Belyuen Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory of Australia. In her 1995 essay ‘Do Rocks Listen?’ she recalls:
We stood listening to Betty Billawag describing to the land commissioner and his entourage how an important Dreaming site nearby, Old Man Rock, listened to and smelled the sweat of Aboriginal people as they passed by hunting, gathering, camping, or just mucking about. She outlined the importance of such human-Dreaming/environmental interactions to the health and productivity of the countryside. At one point Marjorie Bilbil turned to me and said, ‘He can’t believe, eh, Beth?’ And I answered, ‘No, I don’t think so, not him, not really. He doesn’t think she is lying. He just can’t believe himself that that Old Man Rock listens.’ (Povinelli 1995, p. 505)
The contributors to A World of Many Worlds present arguments against a dominant mode of worlding that sociologist John Law (2015) describes as the ‘one-world world’. The book urges its readers to be attentive to indigenous worlds in which ‘other-than-human’ persons exist and different ‘natures’ are practiced; often in ways that do not engage with the demands of modern epistemology such as material history and empirical scientific evidence. Elaborating further on how Political Ontology presents itself, the editors give the example of ‘a mountain in the Andes of Peru that is also a being’ and ‘forest animals in Paraguay that are also spirit masters of their world’, observing that:
their destruction, perhaps unlike the destruction of nature, is hard for analysts to grasp. Similarly, making public these kinds of other-than-humans is difficult for those who live with them; translating their destruction into a political issue is often impossible and even disempowering. After all, hegemonic opinion is that nature is—publicly—only nature; to think otherwise, to think that mountains or animals are other-than-human persons is a cultural belief (Cadena & Blaser 2018, p. 2).
The book thus charges its readers, invariably modern knowers, to accept what are often regarded as cultural practices or indigenous cosmologies as realities— to ‘think earth beings or animal spirits that populate the forests once again’ (Cadena & Blaser 2018, p. 5).
Cadena and Blaser describe the one-world world as ‘a world that has granted itself the right to assimilate all other worlds and, by presenting itself as exclusive, cancels possibilities for what lies beyond its limits’ (2018, p. 3). They argue that corporate-industrial resource extraction—extractivism—continues the practice of terra nullius by rendering the spaces it occupies as empty, erasing the worlds that such places were a part of. They make note of the recent flourishing of grass-roots activism and movements against extractivism:
while they are not exclusively a matter of indigenous concern, groups known as indigenous figure prominently in creative, difficult, and complex partnerships with allies hailing from heterogeneous worlds: nongovernmental organizations, peasants, Afro-descendant groups in Latin America, organic produce growers, small merchants, some workers’ unions, university students, liberation theology priests and nuns, feminist lawyers, and, of course, environmentalists. (2018, pp. 3–4).
Across these alliances, different groups’ modes of worlding, and thus the worlds they are defending, may not so readily correspond or align. Rather than focus on what might be a common enemy Cadena and Blaser emphasise that these groups have ‘negotiated [the] coming together of heterogeneous worlds (and their practices) as they strive for what makes each of them be what they are, which is also not without others’ (2018 p. 4). Following the lead of philosopher Isabelle Stengers who also considers such ‘interests in common which are not the same interests’, Cadena and Blaser propose such heterogeneous alliances develop an ‘uncommons’. In doing so, they counter an idea of a ‘common good’ as it is raised in statist or state-like political imaginaries (and perhaps even in diaspora ‘imagined communities’) arguing that these political formations still presume the destruction of worlds they are incapable of recognising. Instead, Cadena and Blaser emphasise a negotiated coming together of different struggles that are ‘built upon a heterogeneity that negotiates for symmetry (if with difficulty)’ (2018, p. 4). Via these practices Cadena and Blaser arrive at the notion of ‘a pluriverse’ in which ‘heterogeneous worldings coming together as a political ecology of practices, negotiating their difficult being together in heterogeneity’ (2018, p. 4).
To bring a notion of pluriversal politics towards the ideas discussed by the Groop, I want to draw attention to a recent article by Brad Plumer (2019) in The New York Times: Climate Fwd newsletter about an alarming report on the scale and speed of biodiversity loss published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Plumer addresses the report’s alleged appeal to the managerial field of ‘ecosystem services’, in which ‘scientists try to quantify in dollar terms all the benefits that nature provides to humanity, in order to make an economic case for conservation.’ He notes that some scientists are skeptical of such rationalising, arguing that it is ‘simply wrong’ to drive species to extinction even if they are not understood as being crucial to economic growth.
How might these thoughts bear upon the activities being pursued at Massia, especially those which might otherwise seem like cultivating or foraging plants to eat? For example, Sepi who founded the ‘radical herb garden’ Massia Officinale, approaches apothecary by considering the agency of plants. Her tea meditations encourage participants to speculate about how plants experiment on us. Vicki, a medicinal botanist who was at Massia last Autumn, described knowing plants as friends and recognising them ‘by face’ regardless of having studied them taxonomically during a science degree. Might such methods of noticing, sensing, attuning and familiarising better shape our pursuit of pluriversal politics rather than appropriating anthropological mediations of indigenous realities?
In her 2015 essay ‘Uncommoning Nature’, a text which influenced the convening of the Rights of Nature Working Groop, Cadena exposes the ‘anthropo-not-seen’. Within the debates surrounding the scientific naming of an ongoing geological epoch in which the activities of certain humans have transformed the planet irreversibly, Cadena perceives an ontological war being waged against those who refuse to distinguish nature from humanity, often legitimised as the inevitability of progress against backwardness (Cadena 2015). Echoing Povinelli’s account of Betty Billawag describing her peoples’ relationship with Old Man Rock, Cadena (2015) writes of a statement issued by the leaders of the Amazonian Awajun-Wampi people about the destruction of their world: ‘The river is our brother, we do not kill our brother by polluting and putting waste on it.’ Cadena notes how kinship transforms rivers, plants, animals into entities which can be killed, contra to an understanding of other species and more-than-human assemblages as resources that can be depleted and destroyed (or defended).
‘Geontological power’ or ‘geontopower’ is a neologism coined by Povinelli (2016) that yokes non-life (geo), rather than life (zoe or bios), together with being (ontology). Formulated alongside Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower to describe modes of governance emerging in 19th century Western Europe concerned with the organisation of biological life and populations, geontopower highlights the ‘biontological enclosure of existence’ (2016, p. 17). Geontopower works in the difference between the lively and the inert. Arguably, it is most dramatically grasped when considering ‘Nonlife’—the never-having-lived—in the context of extinction and finitude. In this era of transitioning climate it is conceivable that the planet is returning to a state as it was prior to the existence of ‘Life’ as we know it. Thus, geontopower indicates governance via the manipulation and politicisation of the difference between Life and Nonlife as the once self-evident distinction between them crumbles. As Povinelli explains:
The emergence of the geological concept of the Anthropocene and the meteorological modeling of the carbon cycle, the emergence of new synthetic natural sciences such as biogeochemistry, the proliferation of new object ontologies (new materialists, speculative materialists, speculative realists and object-oriented ontologies), all point to the perforating boundary between the autonomy of Life and its opposition to and difference from Nonlife. (2016, p. 14)
During the week, Jo pointed out that corporations are also common more-than-human entities that modern knowers grant personhood. Coincidently, just days before I’d attended a workshop, ‘The Ontological Turn’ at the ICI, Berlin, where scholar of Sociology and Development, Robert Fletcher, observed that while corporate entities have legal rights they are not granted life or ‘liveliness’. Nevertheless, corporate entities are far from inert and are often (over)represented in the kinds of policy making and electoral politics that shape life on Earth and propel the anthropo-not-seen.
Indeed, struggles of ‘progress’ against ‘backwardness’, the weighting of ‘rational science’ against ‘cultural beliefs’ and the positioning of interests to ‘expand markets’ above them all indicates a fundamental issue at stake in this era of transitioning climate: who gets to decide how to save the planet and for whose practice of ‘humanity’? Whose reasoning, rationality and reality will endure? By pursuing all-encompassing means of ‘fixing’ the climate, such as atmospheric engineering, what kind of world is currently being made? Furthermore, as Povinelli indicates, must we attribute agency and intentionality to Nonlife as pollution and toxicity renders parts of the world hostile to life as we know it?
Words and World-Making
In their introduction to A World of Many Worlds Cadena and Blaser begin with the following quote credited to Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, ‘Fourth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle’:
Many words are walked in the world. Many worlds are made. Many worlds make us. There are words and worlds that are lies and injustices. There are words and worlds that are truthful and true (trans. Cadena & Marisol 2018).
Following the inaugural Working Groop and as we return to our respective worlds—or practices of worlding—we might ask: ‘What should we do next?’ Perhaps first we should consider who is included in the ‘we’ that indicates our political alliances? What entities? What groups? As someone who writes, I am attentive to how words make worlds and I’ve been thinking about the drafting of policies by democratic initiatives such as the Green New Deal for Europe . Could understandings of multiple agencies and more-than-human entanglements and kinships challenge a dominant mode of worlding—what Stengers calls ‘a hegemonic machine’ that reduces nature to a resource (cited in Cadena & Blaser 2018, p. 86). How might pluralising practices of natures at the level of policy wording, and thus institutional world-making, succeed?
I realise this is a very literal approach to doing politics. There are many other modes worth pursuing. In the words of Vivieros de Castro and Deborah Danowski whose chapter closes A World of Many Worlds (2018, p. 182): ‘It is, in short, a matter of deciding what world we want to live in.’
Cadena, Marisol de la and Blaser, Mario, 2018. A World of Many Worlds, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Law, John, 2015. ‘What’s wrong with a one-world world?’, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, vol. 16 no. 1, pp. 126-139.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A., 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A., 1995. ‘Do Rocks Listen? The Cultural Politics of Apprehending Australian Aboriginal Labor’, American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 97, no. 3., pp. 505-518.