I want to say that the single greatest development in human affairs in the post war period (i.e., after 1945) is the entry of the nonhuman. In fact, we could say that the period starts with a bang: with the bursting of the nuclear bomb. With those two explosions, it became clear that the non-human was a permanent force in human affairs. Will civilization end? Will we be smart enough to overcome this crisis? We don’t know but whether we overcome it or not is besides the point. The fact is that the nonhuman has entered the human arena and will not go away.
There’s never been a time after 1945 when a non-human apocalypse hasn’t been part of our everyday lives. We lived in the nuclear shadow for half a century but that’s gone now — not that the threat has been completely removed — and it’s been replaced by climate catastrophe.
Nuclear holocausts are nothing like climate collapses. Solving the nuclear weapons crisis is nothing like addressing climate change. Therefore it’s important not to confuse the entry of the non-human into our affairs with any specific manner in which they do so.
You may want to extend rights to animals. I may want to protect rainforests. He may want to focus his efforts on carbon sequestration. Fine. Go right ahead. But collectively they constitute a new condition and in my view the condition comes first. That’s why there are so many ways of articulating this insight. For example:
- We have broken the world and now we own it. The most common interpretation in my circles, which leads to books like “The End of Nature.” This is the Pottery Barn version of the insight.
- We have a whole world of riches to exploit — that we can now hack the world all the way from molecules to continents. immortality is within sight. This is the singularity university version of this insight.
- A reduced version of 2 but much more influential in practice is the idea of Globalization — that we can all become richer and more connected by exchanging goods, services and ideas across the world. Globalization describes the lived reality of much of the world right now, though it goes without saying that it’s lead to as much division as connection.
- Increasingly, the single most important line of interpretation of our planetary condition — closely related to 1 and 3 above but much more all encompassing — is the Anthropocene, i.e., that we live in the age of humans. In this interpretation, humans have become a geological force, commanding energies and material flows at the scale of tectonic forces.
- There’s always the possibility that we have been infected by a bug that spreads through cat videos, that what we think of as our planetary condition is just the beginning of the age of bacteria. Except that every age has been the age of bacteria.
It’s a bit like European expansion into the rest of the world. Starting with Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, Europeans colonized much of the earth. That lead to dreadful catastrophes such as the genocide of the Americas and Atlantic slavery and later, the colonization of India and Africa, but independent of the moral consequences of that expansion, from 1492 onwards the societies of Europe were tied to societies elsewhere in real time. European parliaments had to debate the rights of Native Americans, Black people, Indians and anyone else who came under their thumb. Their factories were fed by cotton coming from the tropics. Their newspapers and travelogues were full of stories about these new peoples.
Similarly, the nonhuman world penetrates our lives today. Every newspaper runs stories about bacteria and how they might be involved in regulating brain function. Every newspaper talks about climate change. Every newspaper talks about robots taking our jobs. We are only half a step away from geoengineering the climate.
However it happens, the economics and the politics of the future will involve shaping the earth and recognizing the extent to which we are shaped by it. The human abstracted from the planet is no longer a viable category. To be human now is to be a member of a category stabilized by the non-human. How long will that stability last?