A New Kind of Human Being: Reply to Steve Fuller

An article I wrote critical of those who plan to build a spaceship to escape an Earth ruined by climate change attracted a response from Steve Fuller, who is described as the sociologist of the “space ark” project I had in mind.

Fuller situates my commentary within my wider critique of “ecomodernism”. He writes that he is puzzled by the provenance of my position: “where does it come from, philosophically and theologically speaking?” It is a fair question as the view of the world I have begun to articulate over the last three or four years, particularly from the publication of Requiem for a Species, is very different to my previous one. But nor does it fit into any recognisable existing category.

Although I have come to see that my position demands a total philosophical rethinking, the shift was forced on me by a confrontation with scientific facts, with the full meaning of what the climate scientists are telling us.

In 2008, while reading a scientific paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows I came to see that it is too late to “save the world”. Led by the industrialized nations, humans have already put so much greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and, even under the most optimistic assumption, will continue to do so over the next two, three or four decades, that we are heading into a hot and unstable world from which there is no turning back. Accepting that future possibilities for the world have changed in a most fundamental way was an emotional shock, one that took a long time to get over, and it led me to write Requiem for a Species.

I soon came across the literature on the Anthropocene. This new geological epoch is defined by the fact that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”. With our technology we have become so powerful that the geological evolution of the planet now lies in our hands more than those of the forces of nature.

The advent of the new epoch means that the mild and stable climatic conditions of the last 10,000 years, conditions that enabled civilisation to emerge, are gone and will not return. We have changed the conditions of life on Earth irreversibly.

The implications could not be more far-reaching.

My emerging philosophical stance radiates from these facts; they are its provenance. If one accepts them then (it seems to me) one must completely rethink the role of human beings on the planet, and the nature of the Earth we inhabit, because the evidence contradicts all previous understandings – before and after the scientific revolution, before and after religions, before and after humanisms, before and after all philosophies of the subject.

The decisive truth to recognise is that in the last two centuries, and more likely the last several decades, there has been a break or rupture in both Earth history and human history, one that demands a wholesale rethinking of the modernist concepts and categories that most of us take for granted. Among the beliefs that ask to be discarded as relics of the previous geological epoch, the Holocene, are the following.

  • The modernist distinction between subject and object has always had its critics, yet now it cannot withstand the material mingling of the “human” and the “natural”. In the Anthropocene “the environment” can no longer be thought of as the inert backdrop to the drama of human affairs – almost a definition of modernity – and so the prevailing understanding of history must be abandoned.
  • We must come to grips with the new object that has appeared, the Earth as understood by Earth System science. It is no longer the passive, unresponsive collection of environments we inhabit but a single, integrated, dynamic, volatile system. No longer dormant, the Earth System has characteristics that have scientists reaching for metaphors like “the wakened giant” and “the ornery beast”.
  • All attempts to establish a biocentric or ecocentric philosophy become romantic dreams when humans dominate the Earth System and when it is too late to step back from this reality.
  • At the same time, all anthropocentric philosophies founded on the modernist idea of the rational subject are no longer tenable.

Steve Fuller’s assumption that I must accept some kind of ecocentrism, with a “deep concern for nature as an end in itself”, is understandable because that has been the alternative to conventional anthropocentrisms. But now my view is not that philosophy is too anthropocentric but that it is not anthropocentric enough. By this I mean that humans have yet to accept the deep responsibility that goes with the power to enhance or destroy the life-giving capacity of the Earth.

If these foundational ideas of modernity must be abandoned, what kind of philosophising is to replace them? It is impossible to begin from nothing, so where does one go for some philosophical or theological resources that can point the way towards a new understanding without using those ideas to dodge around or corrupt the essential scientific facts? Here I can give only a couple of hints. (I am attempting a prototype “Anthropocene philosophy” in a short book in draft.)

It seems to me that the essential philosophical and theological question is the tension between the recent human-Earth convergence, on the one hand, and the nature and use of freedom on the other.

In the Anthropocene, our ontological status, our being-nature, has changed. If humankind has become a “force of nature” and as such is transforming the very functioning of the Earth on which it stands, we can only understand our existence within the new relationship of humans and the Earth.

With the advent of the Anthropocene, one cannot understand the human without seeing us as immersed in the world in a profoundly new sense, and this new kind of “being” causes us to think again about the meaning and significance of the world. We are no longer merely the conscious creature capable of giving meaning to the creation through our understanding, nor the being who questions the possibility of its own being; in a real sense we have “the creation” in our hands.

We have become more than a creature that roams the Earth, more than the incarnation of a deity, and more than animal rationalis, and this change in our essential nature affirms the idea that ontology is not fixed and given but evolves. If our “being” is not static but evolves, and humans now stand at the centre of a world that has been set alight by the advent of the Anthropocene, then this suggests to me some kind of common destiny.

And it implies that the development of human freedom, both in the sense of self-determination and our growing technological power over the environment, was not an accidental event but has meaning in the larger whole. It is as if freedom were granted to the unique creature, rather than won by a vanguard of courageous Europeans – granted as a test of our willingness to accept responsibility for the enormous powers we now possess and which have been used to bring a new and dangerous epoch.

I hope these words give some food for thought and go some way towards answering Steve Fuller’s questions.


First published on ABC Religion & Ethics 17 September 2015.


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