Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews

Planetary Goggles

Action on climate requires weighing historical scales correctly.

Rhoda Feng

France’s Atlantic Coast in the 2050s, artist’s interpretation; Arthur R./Alamy Stock Photo.

Ever since the notion of the “Anthropocene” was proposed by two scientists, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and marine scientist Eugene Stoermer, in a newsletter article published in 2000 by the International Council for Science, this label for the current geological epoch has led two distinct but related lives. Considered the successor to the Holocene Epoch, the Anthropocene is characterized by human harm to the earth system, including global warming and ocean acidification, the dissemination of synthetic chemicals, the redistribution of life forms across the planet, and a prospective sixth mass extinction event. In one life, the Anthropocene has been a lightning rod for questions of political economy and power. In its other, it has served as a useful scientific heuristic, assimilating mountains of measurements and calculations.

In The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, University of Chicago historian and theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty provides an expansive, but hardly exhaustive, overview of the Anthropocene, focusing on how historians, in particular, have grappled with the conditions of a world under physical duress. As humans have become a “geological force” in this new epoch and the earth has itself become an archive, with human behavior imprinted in the fossil record and ice caps, we are at the cusp of a new understanding of the agency of humankind and other terrestrial beings. This “planetary” understanding can, in turn, offer a new ethical paradigm for inhabiting this afflicted present, and can apply to remote pasts and possible futures. Such, at least, is the hope expressed in Chakrabarty’s book.

He begins by taking a scalpel to the anthropocentrism of his own discipline. What perspectives are necessary for elaborating the concept of the Anthropocene—a process that will require a greatly expanded outlook, a bird’s-eye or even God’s-eye view of things—that also avoid becoming aligned with tendencies toward anthropocentrism? Chakrabarty’s book is a kind of discontinuous map that provides a working knowledge of the epistemological expectations of a historical account of the Anthropocene. In place of a will to power, he sketches out a will to knowing how to get around, calling on fellow historians and other humanists to create space for the parallel consideration of nonhuman life.

The complex history of the Anthropocene suggests that human agency be viewed on multiple scales. The urgency of the climate crisis “require[s] us to behold ourselves from two perspectives at once: the planetary and the global,” Chakrabarty writes. The latter is the old anthropocentric one that undergirds most political theory as well as political institutions. One advantage it offers is a high-resolution recording of events, allowing us to closely observe the devastating impacts of oil spills as well as the pillaging and deracination of land. The planetary perspective, on the other hand, is harder to metabolize—it “outscales” our quotidian, calendrical concepts. To borrow a formulation from the journalist Ben Ehrenreich, fifty human years is “not even the heartbeat of a gnat on a planetary scale.” Yet if we were somehow able to put on planetary goggles, we would be able to take in a much broader, albeit lower-resolution, sweep of history—one that would topple humankind from its place at the center of the unfolding narrative of anthropogenic global warming. “The climate crisis is about waking up to the rude shock of the planet’s otherness,” Chakrabarty writes. For him, the two paradigms correspond to different cadences: The global skates close to being the “history of life including that of human evolution on the planet,” while the planetary is tantamount to “the history of the Earth system.”

The global paradigm “proceed[s] on the assumption that we have ideas about ideal forms of justice, rights, democracy, and so on,” according to Chakrabarty. This is the type of thinking that gives rise to agreements like last autumn’s Glasgow Climate Pact. At the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP26), activists rebuked world leaders from almost 200 countries for failing to agree on one crucial mandate: to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The absence of such an agreement, activists said, would spell disaster: a future of extreme weather events and irreversible damage to the natural world.

The planetary paradigm, on the other hand, has no use for such aspirations. “There is nothing in the history of the planet that can claim the status of a moral imperative,” Chakrabarty writes. Microbes, to give one example, tell the story of “deep time in the history of life.” Bacteria long preceded us on this earth; for three billion years, they multiplied fruitfully on land and in the air and water, and “set conditions for the evolution of multicellular life.” From their point of view, one might say, they did not lack for anything before humans showed up. Now that humans have become a veritable “force” to rival other “geophysical forces” (to use Chakrabarty’s conceptualization), such as the carbon cycle, our “ecological overshoot” makes it imperative that we “both zoom in to the details of intrahuman injustice” and “zoom out of that history or else we do not see the suffering of other species.”

But where another writer might have steered us down the seditious path of imagining the world from a bacterium’s point of view, Chakrabarty refrains, for great stretches of the book, from either speaking about how it feels to be living in a time of planetary peril or showing us what it would look like to enter a subjectivity that recognizes the radical alterity of a planet that we only inhabit on loan. Environmental humanities scholar Steve Mentz, conversely, has vividly dramatized the plural narratives of the Anthropocene as embodied by three punctuation marks: the period (declarative and scientific), the exclamation point (anguish and horror), and the question mark (uncertainty and futurity). The Climate of History in a Planetary Age works in a different mode, but in the second section of the book, Chakrabarty slips into a more affective register, as if he were sliding into a pair of unexpectedly comfortable slippers.

In a section called “The Difficulty of Being Modern,” which lands exactly halfway through the book, he gives a reading of the epistemological construct of “the Dalit body.” Chakrabarty explains that precisely because the Dalit, a class of individuals considered to be lower than even India’s lowest caste, are ostracized by their forced proximity to fecal matter and animals—i.e., nonhuman life forms—we stand to learn from them. Adopting the guise of “native-turned-ethnographer,” Chakrabarty, who grew up in Calcutta in the 1950s, gives an account of the Dalit as a figure whose marginalization and “untouchability” hinges on his intrinsic connection to nonhuman matter. Overturning tides of caste-based thinking, Chakrabarty argues that we should see the Dalit body as a locus for vitalist thinking. Although aware of the risks of romanticizing or essentializing “vulnerable bodies,” Chakrabarty suggests that the Dalit body exemplifies symbiotic relationships with other entities—connections that we should appreciate. “The Dalit’s body is itself constructed nonanthropocentrically,” he writes. “It is always human with animals, live or dead, and embedded in the world of microbes.”

Even though the designation “untouchable” lost legal standing in India in 1949, social striations and discrimination exhibit a remarkable tenacity. Chakrabarty tells the story of the death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student born to a Dalit mother and low-caste father who faced discrimination for his activism and took his own life. Chakrabarty seizes on one line in Vemula’s suicide note: “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust.” A keen reader of Carl Sagan, Vemula would not have made the cosmic connection lightly; his second sentence, for Chakrabarty, is not simply rhetorical window-dressing. Instead, it points the way to a “planetary” account of humankind’s place in the universe; it encourages us to displace the notion of a liberal sovereign subject with a picture of individuals bound up with “ancient atomic and subatomic particles, Vemula’s ‘stardust.’” Yet to label this an “emancipatory horizon of thought,” as Chakrabarty does, strikes a discordant note, not least because Vemula’s formulation was made in a suicide note. Still, Chakrabarty’s larger point is that the Dalit body shifts us away from thinking of the environmental crisis primarily in terms of the “abstract, unmarked body” that axiomatically serves “as the carrier of rights” in political philosophy.

Although “human institutions and practices are geared to a human sense of time and history,” the problems we most urgently need to address happen over a much longer sweep of time. This is, in short, the central political challenge of the climate crisis. Sometimes, the planetary erupts in the global, as with “once in a millennium” storms and other catastrophic weather events. For the most part, though, the global and the planetary don’t sync up. Despite the fact that many of us plan and live our lives without regard to planetary timescales, Chakrabarty makes the claim that the human species now constitutes a “geophysical force.” Central to his argument is that this “force” gets folded “into the human-existential category of power that is intrinsic to world history.” We move from the physical world of “force” to the human world of “power” and “responsibility”—a transition that, for Chakrabarty, is evidenced “in all texts searching for a planetary human ethics in the present time.”

But his account offers only a partial picture. Nowhere does he discuss, for instance, Simone Weil’s famous notion of force as that which dehumanizes the one wielding it. In “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” written in 1940, after the fall of France, Weil showed that “the human spirit” is “modified” by force, “swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” Taken to an extreme, force “turns man into a thing[...]it makes a corpse out of him.” This is a spectacle we should not be so quick to turn away from. If humans are today seen as “geological change agents” that wield an incredible amount of force—in the Newtonian, stratigraphic, and metaphorical understandings of the word—then we should perhaps think more about what having that power does to us. To most of us, or only a vanishingly few? What would it mean to relinquish the exercise of such force and dreams of dominion and share the world with other creatures with the capacity for agency?

Viewing the Anthropocene as “a measure of human impact on the planet” allows us to tell only one story. It’s a story that comes in handy at conferences like COP26, with their privileging of quantifiable metrics. What Chakrabarty suggests in The Climate of History in a Planetary Age is that rather than view the Anthropocene as a rigidly epistemological category that balkanizes disciplines and methodologies, we need to gather a plethora of stories. We can ill afford a “pragmatic compartmentalization of knowledge.” The planetary concept demands that we reach and rethink—it aims to be properly transformative.

With its de-emphasis on the role of humans, the planetary concept is an idea that will be unsettling to some. Foreseeing as much, Chakrabarty admits that donning planetary goggles is not necessarily a useful expedient for—and might even stand in the way of—climate action. It can enable bad-faith hemming and hawing and serve as a convenient excuse for political quietism: The climate has been changing for eons, goes one specious strand of thinking.

Insofar as academics intuitively think in world-historical time while policies must adopt a programmatic focus to be actionable, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age will serve no immediate use. Yet its vitalist vision that humans are just one of a plurality of life forms inhabiting the planet might prompt us to think differently about care. Rather than boil the existential quandary down to the question, “How do humans achieve a reduction in their emissions of greenhouse gases in the coming few decades?” Chakrabarty argues for a thicker understanding—one that reconsiders our reliance on a moral scale to weigh questions about historical responsibility. It’s a vision that combines sustainability and habitability. Sustainability for Chakrabarty corresponds to activities that humans carry on with relation to the globe, while habitability corresponds to what makes life on the planet—from the microbial to the human—possible. There are parallels here with some aboriginal lifeways that make imaginative moves across experiential divides, choreographing flickering encounters across life/death and human/animal realms.

We might begin to think about our responsibility to, rather than responsibility for, others—a change that establishes a sense of mutual responsibility as the lived experience of ethics. Responsibility to the other is not the same as a paternalizing or hierarchical notion of responsibility for the other. Exercising this responsibility to nurture a habitable planet is a challenge facing all of us. As Chakrabarty writes, “The planetary environmental crisis calls on us to extend ideas of politics and justice to the nonhuman, including both the living and the nonliving.” What kind of world would be possible if we saw humans as enmeshed with other entities, including microbes, insects, sea creatures, and trees, all in a rhizome of relationality? Whether we can live up to (or rather down to) this vision remains to be seen.