The Ecocriticism Seminar is a student group that was formed to bring together scholars working across the environmental humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY and in New York City. It meets every month to discuss readings and workshop writing related to the environment across different disciplines. The second meeting of the fall semester was a discussion of two recent works of public scholarship on climate change. The discussion was led by Catherine Engh, a Ph.D. student in English, who provides analysis of the books in this review.


"Two Perspectives on Environmental Responsibility in a Time of Climate Change"

At the end of this last month, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels passed a threshold symbolic to climate scientists as a point of no return: having risen above the benchmark of 400 parts per million, carbon levels are unlikely to drop below that mark again. This comes after a year of perpetual bad news: March saw the lowest arctic sea ice maximum on record and, last April, marine biologists announced that 93 percent of the corals had been bleached in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. As climate activists have been telling us for over a decade now, this is a consequence of human action. The “anthropocene,” meaning the age of humans, has become the watchword for an environmental justice movement dedicated to addressing the contradictions of a situation in which the monstrous climate system we’ve created cannot and will not be unmade. At this moment when the irreversible effects of climate change are setting in, what does it mean to take responsibility for catastrophe?

In After Nature(2015), Jedediah Purdy calls for a democratic environmental politics—what I take to be a vision of environmental activism for the ninety-nine percent. In the place of policy proposals or injunctions addressed to individual citizens, After Nature describes a history of the relationship between discourses about nature, on the one hand, and American lawmaking, on the other. The chief theory is that the way we think and feel about nature bears some relation to how, politically, our society does violence or justice to life. Purdy supposes that to understand the legacy of ways of thinking about nature in America is to begin to think and act differently. Prominently, we are urged to give up the great hope of the environmentalist movement—that is, that ecologies will be eventually restored to their natural balance. We are urged to imagine natural systems as stranger, more violent and unpredictable than before. But the difficulty with the term “anthropocene” is that makes it so that acknowledging our role in ecological ruination seems at times to magically reverse it—if politics has created this monstrous climate system, politics can adequately respond to the human and non-human suffering it will cause going forward.

David Collings offers a very different account of ecological responsibility in Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change(2014). That the earth is in trouble is not news. What is news is the rapid pace at which this trouble is coming on. The “stolen future” of Collings’ title describes one where the time we have to avert the irreversible implications of man-made climate change is rapidly receding. Admitting that we may not act in time will require new ways of thinking ethically and acting morally. Collings proposes that we in the West acknowledge our complicity in an “infinite” scale of violence committed for generations against the web of life that makes all human activities possible. We need not despair, however, if we can take a leap of faith; the uniqueness of Collings’ work lies with his insistence that we renew our ethical commitment to the biosphere despite the limitations of our agency and the great scale of our inhumanity. We are urged to regard ecologically responsible acts as goods in themselves, rather than as the means to a whole-scale solution. Our thinking about concrete actions for environmental justice—like, say, drafting a bill of environmental rights for the community—must begin with the admission that there will be no miracle cure to save humanity at the last moment. In this review, I evaluate Purdy’s and Collings’ accounts of climate change, noting the similarities between their aesthetic visions of nature today and the difference between their respective accounts of environmental responsibility.

Purdy begins After Nature by introducing what is a key term for him--“anthropocene,” which was first popularized in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. For scientists, the anthropocene is the geologic era that follows the “Hollocene,” in which climate conditions were optimal for life. For Purdy’s purposes, the Anthropocene is a call to democratic political action. Purdy points out that the spheres of ecology, economy and politics are in crisis. Because they are all to some extent man-made, we are obliged to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating the crises and we must do this, Purdy insists, through politics. We must resist a politics of environmental management beholden to market logic and indifferent to the radically uneven distribution of resources. Though Purdy gives a clear picture of the yawning wealth gap that is to come if we don’t resist what he calls the “neo-liberal politics of the anthropocene,” he offers very few positive suggestions towards an alternative. Democratic “politics” is for him more like a general ideology and, perhaps inadvertently, the book reflects a situation in which it may be far easier for us to imagine the particulars of a future of business as usual than a future that we’d actually want.

The strength of After Nature lies with Purdy’s exacting evaluations of the discourses of nature that have motivated political bodies to pass laws regarding the use and abuse of the landscape over the course of American history. He points out that the ‘Romantic concept of nature’ introduced in America by the Transcendentalists and, later, John Muir, taught a culture to value natural spaces as aesthetic and spiritual resources, and helped to ensure that we conserve National parks for this purpose, but at the same time ignored the kind of public health and labor issues that a broader conception of nature as the stuff that saturates our ordinary lives everywhere, not just in the parks, would make available. Purdy traces the notion that destruction of the natural environment is a consequence of everyday actions to the environmentalist movement that is often dated to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

While Purdy urges us to embrace a way of thinking that understands that we are always already connected to nature as we go about our ordinary lives, he views the environmentalist picture of ecology as too beholden to a promise of harmony on the horizon. Personally, I imagine Purdy’s target to be the idea, which I was taught in grade school in the 90s, that ecologies are naturally robust and that, by recycling, we will restore the global climate system to its proper balance. In a confessional passage at the end of the Prologue, (p 10) Purdy at once highlights the seductiveness of an aesthetic-harmonious vision of life on the planet earth and quickly undercuts that vision. As he qualifies his feeling of reverence for the only planet that we know has proved hospitable to life, a new imagination of nature emerges. This is a nature that is at once bound to human activity and indifferent to human thriving. It is a nature that includes “acidifying seas, climate refugees [and] resource wars” and that is violent, volatile and unpredictable. It is as intractably a source of pain and suffering for birds, deer and moose as it is a source of suffering for humans.

Now I’ll offer a criticism of After Nature. I suspect that Purdy could have better clarified what he means when he talks about a democratic politics of the anthropocene. Does the word democracy refer to a theoretical ideal or to concrete processes through which laws get passed? Though Purdy well supports the claim that there has historically been a connection between ideas about nature and political practices that transform it, he focuses almost exclusively on ideas in his discussion of the present crisis. He readily acknowledges that American lawmaking has supported the depletion of ecosystems, genocides, and ruined landscapes, but he nonetheless confidently proposes that democratic ideals are what are needed to motor a politics that would resist all of this. If the democratic political system has failed us in so many ways, how is an ideal of democratic participation going to lead to anything different moving into the future?

I got a sense reading After Nature that the imagination can do a lot of things to change politics. Though Purdy is not so naïve as to claim that we can reverse the damage we’ve already done to the biosphere, he does suggest that, if we begin to imagine things differently, we will be able to demand a politics fully responsive to human and non-human suffering going forward. One may worry, however, that the causal connection between discourses of justice and concrete political actions is not strong enough to lead us in the US and the global north more generally to divest from fossil fuels on the requisite scale. This is a concern that Collings directly addresses, pointing out that global political bodes formed in the West have failed to prevent genocides and ecological crises in the twentieth century because our “tolerance of state power in the abstract authorizes a potential abuse of power.” So now I’ll turn to Stolen Future, Broken Present.

Though Collings makes it evident that it is necessary that we as individuals reduce our energy dependency, he also draws our attention to the fact that our individual actions, and even local political actions, will not avert a crisis that is a consequence of generations of environmental abuse. Because the climate system is massive and slow moving, the effects of collective action at any point in time continue to be felt for some decades into the future. The first couple of chapters of Collings’ book address the science of climate change, discussing “tipping points” which refer to thresholds after which warming accelerates so that there’s no possibility of counteracting the damage. Collings points out that the pace of warming—evinced by the melting Atlantic ice cap and the acidifying of seas—is happening faster than scientists had previously predicted. Whatever we do, our greenhouse gas emissions will be far too high. Collings writes that, “as a result, we are caught in the contradiction between our willingness to act and the radical limits of our agency, between ethical principle and pragmatic reality.” For Johnathan Franzen, who addressed this issue in a 2015 New Yorker article titled “Carbon Capture,” this contradiction leads to an attitude of defeatism and willful indifference. The importance of Collings’ work for me has been in his resistance to this kind of thinking.

Collings writes: “This moment…requires us to do something we seldom imagine: fighting for the planet even if it may be too late, sticking with all our efforts—and increasing them—precisely when we begin to admit that the cause may be lost.” Whence our motivation here? Collings suggests that, once we acknowledge that the scale of historical violence has been “infinite,” we must begin “aiming for a good that is valuable in itself—a good visible, perhaps, only in our intention.” Collings’ notion of “infinite responsibility” is taken from the postmodern French philosopher Immanuel Levinas, whose concept of “infinity” grounds acts of hospitality in the metaphysics of an other, endlessly different from itself. The concept is useful in the context of climate change because it provides a basis for ethics outside of any totalizing conception of politics at a time when the political track record makes us seem doomed. We must be “honest” and this means “owning” the West’s particular complicity in ecological ruin. Alexander Schlutz comments on the issue of Western privilege in his review of Collings’ book, writing that “to give up on the unfairly distributed comforts of the contemporary Western way of life, of our own accord, without being forced at gun-point by an outside power, would in fact be, as Collings points out, entirely unprecedented in human history.” Acknowledging our responsibility for ecological violence means giving up any residual ideas we might have about our human exemplarity and recognizing that our responsibility to a nature in ruins cannot be exhausted by any finite action that we may take as individuals or collectives.

Awe is the aesthetic feeling through which Collings supposes we must come to respect natural systems. Collings draws from the biblical book of Job, where the “God of the whirlwind” may just as well bring the floods as avert them. In the face of an inexplicable, transcendent power in nature that may bring untold suffering, we will discover that the fate of the universe has little to do with our aspirations, and this may be comforting. The “God of the whirlwind” seems to be a suitable mythical counterpart to Purdy’s nature of the anthropocene. While I’m convinced that it is necessary that we learn to respect natural systems as an “end in themselves” whatever they may do, I wonder a little about Collings’ idea of “serenity in destitution.” This phrase comes up where Collings urges us to “embrace trauma and grief themselves without reserve.” He proposes that, once we give up on the idea that we can heal ourselves and our ecosystems, we will find serenity knowing that we can still act with integrity. It’s a nice thought, but elsewhere Collings points out that the prospect of “owning disaster” is bound to meet with resistance and not a little discomfort. This seems to be an important part of the internal work to be done. So I’m left wondering why this turn to serenity?


Catherine Engh

Catherine Engh is a PhD. Candidate in English at The Graduate Center, City University of New York and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Hunter College. She is interested in how poetic language mediates the relation between humans and the physical world. ...