It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet? —Sun Ra, 1970
On April 30, 2018, the temperature reached 122.4⁰ Fahrenheit (50.2⁰ Celsius) in Nawabshah, Pakistan, a city of 1.1 million people a mere 127 miles from Karachi, the capital city with approximately 15 million residents.1 Although Pakistan is a large and varied country geographically speaking, it is the fifth most populous country in the world, with just under 230 million residents. This was not only the hottest April day ever in Nawabshah; it was the hottest April day ever in recorded human history.
Many climate scientists who work on “dangerous heat”—in some ways the most straightforward social impact of global warming—talk about “wet-bulb” temperatures, a combination of heat and humidity measures.2 And for good reason. Wet-bulb thresholds are much lower (around 32-35⁰C) and are already being crossed all over the world.3 But even a “dry-bulb” threshold (around 35⁰C) without the compounding issues is “dangerous.” For a few days, maybe even a few hours, 50.2⁰C is deadly.4
There is so much to think through with an example like this: from the obvious—climate change, rising temperatures, and its systemic causes—to the less-so: even with mitigation, these are millions of people who can and will move. But what I wish to focus on for the moment are the temporal aspects such blunt empirical realities pose. Horizons seem to fade, a fog descends, the past is churning geologically in the present while if there is a “future,” it is already here. So many warnings about climate change—even when consciously people know this not to be the case—make appeals as if they are about a future about to arrive “before it’s too late” to “leave a better future for our children or grandchildren,” and so on. But the Anthropocene, definitionally, has already existed for some time, and the challenges it poses are already here.5 A whole way of thinking about time changes.
Two of the greatest confusions around climate change are political and temporal. My focus here is on the second category, time. This is a question of political-time, though. And that political-time is “out of joint” when one understands the political divide of climate politics, their non-universal nature.6 It is often assumed that climate change is the “issue” that “finally brings us together.” Or that faces “humanity as a whole.” Or, “unites humanity against a common enemy.” It is often assumed that all people face dire consequences of climate change; that it will be a loss, in an ordinary sense of that word, to all people.7 Climate is spoken of apocalyptically. The world will end. Humanity faces extinction. Civilization will collapse. And so on.
My first intervention here is that none of these positions—common in journalistic, scholarly, and other discourses—are correct. There is a stark political divide that characterizes this moment in the Anthropocene. Not everyone will die; only a rather large number of people. It is far more likely that a large number of people will live, just even more miserably so. There are people with a deep investment—not just for immediate gain but for long-term payout—in non- or delayed mitigation and adaptation scenarios.8 This need not be understood in terms of malevolence; it is merely the imperatives of Capital and its constitutive social relations as it has developed to overcome and adapt to endemic crises. It is not my task here to give a full socioecological portrait of what I call “the extractive circuit,” or the form that capitalism as we know it takes in the twenty-first century.9 I need only underline the vicious cycle in which more and more, in material terms from the individual to the ecological, is extracted, exploited, expropriated, and exhausted for less and less, in the most base material terms, for majorities across the world. Far from tales of market efficiencies, we find a system efficient only at the maintenance of profit, creating institutions and technologies specifically designed to chew through ecological, social, and even individual life in pursuit of profitability and the maintenance of existing power.
Although there are so many stark political divides that one can imagine, the political divide of this moment in the Anthropocene is almost the quintessential, perfectly political divide. It is literally zero-sum. The divide is not, as many would imagine it, between those who accept and those who reject the overwhelming evidence of climate science.10 It is about those who stand to gain—both in this moment and in the future as traditionally conceived—from fundamental system preservation or other modes of right-wing climate realism, and those whose current exhaustion is part of the fuel for that system as much as any petro-chemical or industrial agricultural practice.
As you can probably already hear, there are different ways of conceiving of time embedded in these different ways of understanding the politics of climate change. Different presents, different futures. Much “green” discourse talks about the relationship of present and future in which the current “generation” or current “interests” are robbing “our children” or “grandchildren”; that the fundamental issue is some broad register of the “desires” of this moment outweighing the needs of the future. This too is in error. The challenge of climate adaptation and mitigation is about the here-and-now; it is not a question about doing something today for hopeful results tomorrow. It is rather a question of the direct intervention and fundamental transformation of the systems of today as the precondition for even thinking about tomorrow. This is not only in terms of the overt characteristics often associated with climate change: atmospheric carbon, soil depletion, ocean acidification, but with the attendant economic, social, and political crises that are internal to our global human ecological niche.11 Social, economic, and political systems are utterly embedded within this ecological niche. They are a key site in which we can see the way in which our “current global socioeconomic system”—in one of the careful phrases to describe capitalism that appears so frequently in climate science literature12 —is extracting from social systems and the biosphere alike. It is not simply that climate impacts exacerbate existing inequalities and inequities. Such relations, social and natural, are drivers of climate change; both in contributing to overall systemic “overheating,” but also in the ways in which profits and wealth concentration are principle forms of political power. Paradoxically, today’s needs and today’s desires among the vast majority of people on Earth are precisely what we need to fulfill to meet the fundamental technical needs of a sustainable global human ecological niche. This is true not only in terms of a Global North/South divide but even within relatively wealthy and well-off Global North states. It is not about what “we” can achieve tomorrow; it is a political struggle in this moment.
I call this moment “The Long Now.” The ecological challenges so many different forms of understanding time. But I am not interested in moving past these understandings to talk about some “true nature” of time. To pursue more metaphysical or existential questions—to search for a “fundamental ontology” of time—would be to miss the everyday affective structure of time. It is precisely there—in this moment as a “structure of feeling,” to use Raymond Williams apt phrase13 —that the temporal and political implications of the ecological are most vital.
The Anthropocene strictly speaking is a geological epoch perfectly understandable within standard linear frameworks of what Walter Benjamin called “empty, homogenous time.”14 It is visible in the geologic record. Such a standard temporal framework is vital for understanding climate change. Conditions like those of Nawabshah are only knowable through these kinds of temporal measurements. But when we think about time in more social terms, we reach a limitation. Take another example from the climate science literature. Assuming all carbon emissions magically just stopped, right now, as you’re reading, global warming would continue.15 “Committed warming” is an active cumulative effect of the history of carbon-fueled economic life. The rate and pace of that continuation would make avoiding some of the catastrophic outcomes outlined in the Δ1.5°C IPCC special report quite probable. But the warming itself would continue. “Committed warming” is our history literally haunting us. The ghost of dead labor living on not only in commodities, but in “externalities.” The past is here, whether we’re looking stratigraphically at layers of plastics, signs of increased carbon emissions, or even radiological changes. Similarly, Nawabshah is likely unlivable. That future is also already here.
The Long Now attempts to capture both the strangeness and the radical potential of this particular moment. The Anthropocene, as an epoch, is here to stay. If all of the most optimistic outcomes come to fruition, we will still be living in a world in which human activity is fundamentally organizing its ecological niche.16 I am far from the first to note the idea that this time feels different. Lauren Berlant, for example, argued that, before it is an object for contemplation, “the present” is felt and that, currently, we exist within an “elongated durée of the present moment.”17 Mark Fisher, riffing on Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi, wrote of the “long slow cancellation of the future” that accompanied the triumphalist spirit of the era of what he called “capitalist realism” and what Francis Fukuyama famously identified as Hegel’s “End of History.” A time in which the hegemonic commonsense is that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”18 Speaking of political instability and a larger sense of a cultural masculinist, chauvinist backlash, Dayna Tortirici writes of “The Long 2016” that seems without end.19 In both social and ecological terms, Rob Nixon argues, “ours is an age of onrushing turbo-capitalism…with rare exceptions, in the domain of slow violence, ‘yes, but not now, not yet’ becomes the modus operandi.”20 At the turn of the millennium, Stuart Hall recapitulated the title of his now classic analysis of the dawn of neoliberal hegemony, “The Great Moving Right Show,” as the “The Great Moving Nowhere Show” to characterize its Blair-era crystallization.21 Although there are significant differences in all of these authors and positions, there is a sense in all of them of a future-forestalled, stolen, waiting to be rekindled, reinvented, or reached. Time has run out. Not only in these texts but in social, economic, and political crises the world over, we can observe the exhaustion of our moment. That this time feels like it will never end is often presented as a barrier to some unknown “future.” The heavy blanket of capitalist realism—growing more and more threadbare by the day—alongside the weight of particulate matter—growing more and more palpable by the day—are changing the stakes of the game.
The “vertigo” we feel as we reconstitute our vision of time as truly geological is not something we should push past, but rather something we should embrace. It is inseparable from the stark presentation of empirical reality, like the heat record in Pakistan, and its effect on us. Somewhere between unbridled optimism (“the arc of history is long, and it bends towards justice”) and absolute fatalism (the die-is-already-cast, there-is-nothing-you-can-do) lies The Long Now.22 “This civilization is over. And everyone knows it,” writes McKenzie Wark.23 The question is, what now? A whole different way of looking not at the future but at the present opens up.24 A flourishing already latent, possible, potential, here, not on some distant temporal horizon.
That proverbial vision on the horizon leads to a series of analytic and political responses constructed accordingly. A certain morality is preached, and we dutifully place ourselves on Hegel’s slaughter-bench to sacrifice ourselves for the promise of a future perfect, of a heavenly end. Theological ideas—in particular a Christian ideal of providential history—suffuse dominant modes of thinking about time.
There’s a game I play with students when I’m teaching philosophy of history, and Benjamin’s view in particular. During the game, we imagine a coordinate plane, where the y-axis tracks some quantum of “progress” and the x-axis some quantum of time (see figure 1). With this graph, it’s possible to draw a series of figures that roughly conform to famous arguments in the philosophy of history and even broader human systems for understanding time. It’s not only Hegel and his dialectical stepladder (or curlicues) ever proceeding up to some definite point, the End-of-History. If we utilize negative coordinates, we can draw Platonic cycles of the instantiation, flourishing, decay, destruction of any material object; we can create great oblong figures from the Brahmanical account of cosmic Yugas spanning eons, but, like the Platonic story, fundamentally returning us in a perpetual cycle. I can show with a simple line the very idea of temporal forward motion through ideas from the Hebrew Bible; definite irreversible pinpoints of creation, covenant, flood, revelation at Sinai, and so on. We can paint Augustine’s decoupling of the “truth” of Christian theology from the political “success” of the Roman Empire, creating an early prototype of “empty, homogenous time” in which the “City of God” sojourns among a separate “City of Man.” In this way, politics has its own distinct virtues but, fundamentally, ideally serving the true needs of the “City of God” far beyond our coordinate plane. As with Platonic Forms, this heavenly end is truly not of this world. We can talk about how this forward moving but empty time gets refashioned—secularized and universalized—into capitalism’s “labor hour.” And we can return to the figure I started with, Hegel’s progress of history, in which quite literally the Christian ideal of Heaven, static, unchanging, “perfect,” ended, over, is brought down to being something that will be historically actualized on Earth.
I can draw other critical figures as well. Reactionary lines sloping downwards (see figure 2). Or, slightly altering the y-axis, Marx’s substantive and formal transformation of Hegel (see figure 3).25 A long series of lines representing classes, ever simplifying towards the classless society, not “Heaven on Earth” or any end of history, but rather, the end of prehistory.
Marx’s transformation is incomplete on its own terms. The story in the Manifesto is not quite as neat as it first appears and is not obviously complementary with the history of Capital’s development, even in Marx’s hands.26 By the time of the collapse of the Second International, “orthodox” Marxism, exemplified by political actors and thinkers like Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in general, had reduced historical materialism to a mechanistic, deterministic “catechism.”27
While fascism was on the rise, economic conditions cataclysmic, and socialist power riven, Kautsky—with almost unfathomable detachment from the actual conditions surrounding him—posited a faith in technological, social progress, Benjamin was already underlining how the War had demonstrated that there is no such thing. Capitalism and imperialism shaped technology towards destruction and the “domination of nature.” In the pursuit of profit “the bridal bed” of the promise of technology was turned into a “bloodbath.”28 Communist political struggle was about arresting “an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development (a moment signaled by inflation and poison-gas warfare).”29 “Before the spark reaches the dynamite,” Benjamin wrote, “the lighted fuse must be cut.”30 Given how focused Benjamin is on capital, technology, nature, and catastrophe, it is easy to see why he is so frequently a theoretical reference point for ecological thought. However, he was hardly the only Marxist who regarded such naïve, deterministic, and “progressive” teleology as absurd. Before and after the interwar period, anticolonial Marxists across the world31 like Aimé Césaire, M.N. Roy, W.E.B. DuBois, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Claudia Jones, C.L.R James, Mao Zedong, to name just a few, advanced varied critiques and breaks with “orthodox” models in the face of the realities of what capitalist progress was in actuality, and what it necessitated. Closer to home for Benjamin, Luxemburg (whose periodical Die Internationale was likely Benjamin’s first introduction to Marxism) and Vladimir Lenin (who Benjamin cites as a political model)32 grounded their political theories in the clear understanding that capitalist progress had become catastrophic.
For many such thinkers, and Benjamin in particular, Marx’s substantive revision is insufficiently critical, insufficiently materialist. Even if Marx does so thoroughly transform Hegel and breaks with stageism in his late thinking, his work still contains traces of the bourgeois concept of progress.33 Traces that are contorted into socialist fantasies, amplified by hegemonic liberal idealism, or rejected in undialectical conservative projections of pure regress. True to the language of catechisms and confessions, such views find us lost again on our coordinate planes, following idealistic lines of Hegel’s stepladder or reactionary cascades from some projected Golden Age. Stripped of their progressive (or reactionary) valence, at best they merely return us to “homogeneous, empty time.” This is not the way a good historical materialist views time and matter. Instead, Benjamin offers the view of the “Angel of History.” “His eyes are wide, his mouth is open…his face turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”34 The question I ask students as I wind down this exercise is, in the graphs we’ve been making, in the simple lines and geometric figures we’ve drawn on our coordinate planes, “where a chain of events appear before us,” where does this “Angel” go and what does that do to our understanding of progress and time?
It helps to look at the original Klee painting (see figure 4) while doing this, since unlike the easy-to-read chart—left-to-right, precise, elegant—this “Angel” looks out of the page. Benjamin tells us the “Angel” is facing the past. Just as with drawing out the simplified figures of philosophies of history and theories of time, eventually, after several tries, someone inevitably offers up a solution to the question. If we are placing the “Angel” on our graph, we would have to draw it in profile, hovering somewhere just off or all the way to the right of the plane, eyes open, mouth agape, looking backward on all of our various lines (see figure 5). Then the question: what does the “Angel” see? (figure 6). The “Angel” sees a gigantic pile of detritus—“wreckage upon wreckage”—not these linear theodicies telling us a story of the Fall or of future redemption, but layer upon layer of the failure to bring about the Messianic condition that, for Benjamin, is complete and utter emancipation and redemption. The Angel sees the present as the accumulation of ruins—“hell is not what awaits us but this life, here”; “that it goes on like this is the catastrophe.”35
Progress as critiqued relies on “empty, homogenous time.” This three-dimensional crystallization demonstrates the allegory; Christian providence is not replaced with Jewish messianism. Rather, the latter helps historical materialism understand that the possibility for revolution is in the present and its constitutive, accreting past, and paves the way for a more materialist, historical materialism. It “coincides exactly” with the biological view that “in relation to the history of all organic life on earth, the paltry fifty-millennia history of homo sapiens equates to something like two seconds at the close of a 24-hour day.”36 (Compare now with figure 7.) Where, in our graphical simplifications, we see a fairytale that justifies today and whose payoff is tomorrow, the “Angel” sees stuff, stratigraphically. The “Angel” sees, well, a Long Now. (If not The Long Now.)
The IPCC indicates that to implement any plausible climate adaptation and mitigation scenario “all [mitigation] pathways begin now and involve rapid and unprecedented societal transformation.”37 At this juncture, the horizon is the last place we need to look. Nearly every political ideological construction around time—our temporal common sense—is pointed, sometimes almost comically, away from the present. There are always brighter tomorrows, tomorrow; never brighter or different or new todays, today. Tomorrow is somehow always “today” again in political-time. Simultaneously, every economic incentive is pointed at maximizing the profit of this very moment. The mainstream macroeconomic approach to climate change—the so-called discount rate—perfectly encapsulates both these ideas. In trying to “price in” the “externality,” potential future costs are “discounted” against present economic “need.” Economic benefit (i.e., profit) is to be maximized, even while a better future is promised.38 William Nordhaus and the interwar SPD agree: “the fabulous expansion of the capitalist mode of production” is worth it. In language that matches common “green” discourse, we’ll sacrifice a little today—in the form of a largely meaningless added cost, a very modest carbon tax for example—for an eventual payoff for “our children.”
Lee Edelman’s radical queer critique of futurity—encapsulated perfectly in his slogan of “No Future”—is in this sense right: the invocation of the symbolic Child is omnipresent. The Child of tomorrow demands sacrifices today. For Edelman, the radical possibility of queer politics is precisely in embracing the “pure” jouissance of non-productive sexuality as set against that of “reproductive futurism.”39 The best answer to the deep inscription of providential or reactionary history is to take seriously the seemingly hyperbolic right-wing critique that queer life might be a challenge to nothing less than civilization itself. All other politics, according to Edelman, have an investment in “the Child” and in a vision of the future for that child. Edelman’s argument is elegant, and he is undeniably correct in diagnosing the overall commitment of existing politics to a rhetoric of “reproductive futurism,” as well as in his excoriation of the “cult of the Child,” which is used as both normative, reactionary prop and as a hammer against the politics of the present.
But a politics for the Anthropocene is a politics of this moment. Whose benefit and whose cost; whose today and whose tomorrow. One might even ask: whose child? Thinking in terms of the Anthropocene in particular, not all reproductions are equal, and not all politics as actually practiced are particularly concerned with social reproduction.40 . It is difficult to square Edelman’s reproductive portrait with the actual conditions of most parents in the twenty-first century, even in the overdeveloped North—“exhaustion, impoverishment, and exploitation.”41 Racialization often marks a site of social abandonment, let alone investment in reproduction. Ruth Wilson Gilmore for example paints a bleak portrait, in her thoroughgoing examination of the nexus of the California penal system and political economy, of the “utter abandonment by capital” of racialized “surplus populations.”42 These are not universal concerns or conditions in The Long Now. In contrast, there is a reconfiguration and intensification of political conflict—in a word, repoliticization. In this, Edelman is simultaneously wrong. To be invested in a specifically socially “reproductive futurism” in The Long Now is to abjure the cult of the Child in favor of a radical politics of today. The Long Now helps break the grip of providential history, of Hegel’s liberal belief in the orderly progress of reason.
It is tempting to put this time stamp on The Long Now: it’s the next two decades, the next ten years or even less. But The Long Now is not synonymous with rough timelines for implementing sustainable pathways. A paper in Nature Communication points out that a world where warming is only an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible if all “carbon-intensive infrastructure is phased out at the end of its design lifetime from the end of 2018.”43 Such phasing out starting in 2030, even at a rapidly accelerated rate, does not guarantee such an outcome. The difficulty is, of course, “socioeconomic constraints.” Since such a phase out has not happened, more recent studies, like those synthesized in the most recent IPCC AR6 reports, call for even more dramatic drawdowns to hold to a Δ1.5°C world.44 “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”45 Part of the urgency and intensity of this moment is born out of the growing realization of facts likes these. But The Long Now is not only a concept for a different way to understand time, it also describes a feeling about time. Social and ecological exhaustion is palpable today. Climate mitigation and adaptation is not about the mythical future or Child. Climate change is driven by already existing exhaustions. The Long Now defines a political-time of this immediacy and actuality.
José Esteban Muñoz, in a different imagining of queer futurity that moves away from Edelman’s stark opposition between the reproductive, queerness, and social reproduction, talks of “another world.” Following Ernst Bloch, Muñoz wants to linger with and project “concrete utopias”—abjuring the “abstract utopias” of classical utopianism in favor of the “actualized or potential” utopian elements buried in history or coming to be.46 But what if that other world is not another time? One of the underappreciated aspects of Benjamin’s concept of history is that it smuggles in the Judaic concept that “the world to come” [HaOlam HaBa] is “this world” [HaOlam HaZeh] in the Messianic age.47 It is not bringing heaven to Earth but allowing what is already here to come about “at any moment.” Except there’s an anti-utopian rub: only the Messiah redeems, you can’t make it happen. “No cookshops for the future.” Benjamin’s political theology is unsurprisingly well-suited to Marxism. You are not creating the entire world from scratch but building and transforming from what developed before.48 The Long Now may not promise the Messianic rupture, but it does still work from the pieces of what is here, all those potentials and possibilities, and that life among the ruins, not to dwell in ruins but to create “another world” right here in this one.
There is a precedent for this talk of potentiality and creating among the ruins of a world that is passing away. That precedent is modernism. Owen Hatherley notes that “modernism, in many (if not all) of its manifestations had no interest in the continuity of our civilization and the uninterrupted parade of progress.”49 To speak of modernism is to conjure images of industrialism at its worst, or perhaps the European avant-garde at its best. Closer to today, perhaps the “supermodernism”50 of architects like Zaha Hadid or Norman Foster, throwaway Ikea furniture, or the often racially charged and historically muddled visions of public housing blocs, whether in Chicago, Moscow, or London. Modernism in the pages of so many late twentieth-century texts (for example, the influential political science of James C. Scott51 ) is shorthand for a deeply oppressive, flattening, standardizing, routinizing, and difference-obliterating planning, policy, aesthetic ideology and practice.
So-called “ecomodernism” is even worse.52 As it is currently used, it is a worst-of-both-worlds doubling down on the shortcoming of some of those “if not all” modernist projects. Coming in left and right varieties, this Promethean techno-mysticism imagines the extremes of the developed bourgeois world—the consumption patterns of the American top 4 or 5 percent or so—expanded to all human beings everywhere through technological innovation and a true, final domination of the Earth. This rests on unfounded technological assumptions. Against vast evidence to the contrary and serious time constraints, literally magic technology is thought to be able to overcome what the climate science literature notes as already exceeded “planetary boundaries” and a deep constriction on the most classic question of political philosophy: what constitutes “the good life”? Ironically, so-called “ecomodernists” on the first count are not particularly ecological, and on the second, not particularly modernist. For all their claims to a kind of rigorous, reintroduction of science and engineering into the discussion of climate, their view of aptly described technological “miracles” is as dubious as the technocrats they often deride.53 For all their claims to hew to a radical reintroduction of “the future,” they seem to be unable to imagine any life, any culture, beyond a particular vision of an idealized, wealthy American or perhaps European lifestyle, just writ large and universalized. This is precisely that vision of the good life that constitutes “cruel optimism”—far greater than simple “false consciousness”: a holistic vision shot through with emotional resonance, from family to economy to society to state.54 We do, indeed, need a “concrete utopia,” although, depending on local conditions, that “concrete” is possibly “rammed earth” or “compressed stabilized earth blocks” or bamboo, and that “utopianism” is, paradoxically, anti-utopian in the best sense of the word.55 Getting pulled into “the pragmatics of the present” can be a kind of radical realism, particularly at this moment in the Anthropocene. To be truly utopian “concedes…everything realistic to the enemy.”56 I have in mind rather all those other modernisms; some repressed, some never achieved, and some never dreamt. Think of the Black modernism described by Fred Moten as “one of space-time separated coincidence and migrant imagination, channels of natal prematurity as well as black rebirth, modernism as intranational as well as international relocation.”57 What is more modern and more of a tradition than jazz, one of the objects in question in Moten’s formula? Or the oft-misunderstood, when addressed at all, Islamic modernism of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who argued against the parochial nature of European modernism while still holding out that new forms—of literature but also of life, politics, economy, and society—could be fashioned in a rejection of an antinomy of an essential traditionalism and the erasing, dominating capitalist modernism that conjured it.58
One can find similar modernisms across the Global South (and, in those increasingly large pockets of Global-South-in-Global-North). Not simply in cultural practice or in the built form. The immediate ruins of our past also include the dreams of what was once the non-aligned movement for alternative modernisms, from Lagos to Tehran and to “the visions of a domination-free international order that anticolonial worldmakers pursued” in Adom Getachew’s phrasing.59 From the Bandung Conference to the New International Economic Order (NIEO), non-aligned states proposed rather different alternatives to the encapsulation and enclosure of the global neoliberal world we live in today.60 As Theodor Adorno once said, “in the determinate negation of that which merely is,” what we discover is that “it could have been otherwise.”61 This is not only the truth of even the most “sublimated art,” it is also a way of telling a history, one less of missed opportunities than of prevented possibilities. We are in many ways living through a specific set of political solutions to a simultaneous economic, social, and political crisis that began in the 1970s (or even since the First World War). Whether truly global, as with the NIEO, or parochial, as in the long-forgotten American liberal alternative of a “permanent incomes policy,”62 such possibilities might be, even if in some sense truly radical alternatives to the present day, shockingly prosaic. It is simultaneously, again with Fisher, “unimaginably stranger than anything Marxism-Leninism had projected.”63 We must understand that the global institutional, national political, economic, cultural, and total socioecological path taken was structurally necessary for Capital, even as we grasp the potential of the “otherwise” that lies all around us.
This potentiality is perhaps best imagined, experienced, or felt in the built form. Upon seeing “Split 3,” the last of the great Yugoslavian public housing blocks, in 1981, of all people, Jane Jacobs—the famous American critic of modern urban planning and development—wrote, “Split 3 makes me feel so optimistic, thank you!”64 Split 3 is less than a hundred miles from the Šerefudin White Mosque, but both are traces of a very different ideal of modernism. Split 3 stands as a brutalist refutation to both the conservative and liberal critiques of “public housing,” “an exceptional achievement: the transformation of modernist mass housing into a planned environment nevertheless marked by the diversity and spontaneity typical of vital urban neighborhoods.”65 It incorporated space for human solitude and human society. In many ways, Split 3 is the idealization of the design philosophy and process developed in Yugoslavia called the “social standard” where neither market principle (nor party necessity) guided the development but rather a commitment that all people have access—without monetary or physical restriction—to decommodified housing, education, arts, and cultural goods. And in the Yugoslav case in particular, the diversity of the possible expressions of those goods was part of the mode of their expression. The Šerefudin White Mosque—built as part of an overall dense town center also including a public library and other community spaces—integrates an expansive sense of the “social standard.” The spiritual needs of the largely Muslim community are integrated in a design that is utterly modern and yet consonant with theological concepts from a Sunni Islamic tradition. In sharp distinction with, say, the postmodern excesses of contemporary Mecca, the White Mosque utilizes its modernist aesthetic to achieve an enhanced effect of communal spiritual seclusion. “Only after a visitor makes the slow descent from street level to the subterranean level of the Mosque—a descent which removes her not only from the chatter of the surrounding market but also from her everyday preoccupations—can she fully appreciate the dignified austerity of the light-bathed interior.”66 This space elevates (metaphorically) an Islamic spiritual ideal of contemplative and devotional seclusion through an utterly modernist aesthetic and ideal.
My point with these examples—raising the specter of modernism—is not, as some have argued, to underline how a new urbanism will be the end-all be-all of a “good Anthropocene.”67 It is rather to highlight just how much and in how many different ways a real ecomodernism can salvage and develop from the world all around us. Not terribly far from these two sites one can find examples of traditional North African agriculture which are without question part of the portrait of a sustainable global human ecological niche.68 Thinking on those basic realities of “dangerous heat,” the impoverished worldview of the techno-mystic imagines American-style air-conditioning on a maybe global scale, powered by endlessly and catastrophically increasing energy consumption, resource use, and sometimes miraculously “cleaned” fossil fuels or rings of nuclear power plants (that each take ten years to build with all the enormous economic, extractive, and emission costs upfront). These are HiFi delusions on Hegel’s stairway to heaven that simply buy time for capitalism as we know it. But cooling systems have long been built into architectural design before there ever were such things as wall units or central air. From the Red Fort in India to the Alhambra in Spain, one can see examples—decorative fountains, water channels—of deceptively complex passive, evaporative air-cooling systems that were (and sometimes still are) prevalent in geographies experiencing high temperatures (both dry and humid) as well as water scarcity. Sometimes coupled with wind towers, small water bowls, courtyard design, plant life, specific building materials, mashrabiya (ornate carved windows), such technologies developed over considerable time are in many estimates more efficient and more effective than more seemingly “high tech” alternatives; moreover, these technologies detach cooling from energy needs.69 As scores of Asian and African engineers and architects have noted, such technologies and designs are frequently more comfortable than contemporary “global” equivalents. They are also considerably more beautiful.
Some of these technologies are quite common in peasant housing. Others—say, the mashrabiya—are historically associated with aristocratic privilege, though forms have been adapted already in much broader contexts. “Rationing” within planetary boundaries can be luxurious. In the face of this generalized abundance realized through ecological limits and “the mastery of our mastery over nature,” faux-populist defenses of “cheap plastic crap” evaporate and, alongside them, the “green consumption” of “elevated” crap looks like the marketing strategy it always was.70 There is nothing magical about technology simply because of its age. Contemporary technologies and techniques are as much a part of a sustainable ecological niche for mass flourishing. Some current ideas—like vertical green covering, in which urban buildings are insulated with living plant materials—are complementary with these kinds of so-called “vernacular” ideas, as are commonly understood practices in energy efficiency and retrofits.71 Nor is there any magic in the “vernacular” itself: Ugandan bricks may make concrete look comparatively sustainable since they have 5.7 times the embodied energy, while mud-brick cities in Yemen look like urban modernism avant la lettre but at a fraction of the ecological or economic costs.72 In Niger, some examples of compressed earth building are relatively recent postcolonial constructions, already an alternative modernism. Or one could look to Cuba’s “special period” in which more and better food was produced, with increased soil quality and less labor inputs, through cooperative development of agroecological farming.73 In both classical and modern forms, there is sedimented knowledge born out of generations of doing quite a lot with extraordinarily little under adverse circumstances. Engineers and researchers of all kinds continue to develop these applied sciences, only these are not the sciences that “business-as-usual” or techno-utopians are interested in. A real ecomodernism represents a kind of starting point for intervening in the structure of feeling that characterizes The Long Now.
A desire for the future is often the lament of living postmodernism, capitalist realism, or just the accelerating daily exhaustion of the vast majority of people on this planet. The endless recycling of the themes and styles of what have defined capitalist modernity under the hegemonic certainty that there is no alternative; the endless personal and structural “adjustment” to the conditions of one’s own exhaustion. The recession of temporal horizons in The Long Now is an opening up of political ones, not least the path to a new political imagination that the cruelest optimism tells us we must wait for. Even some who are trying to grasp the possibilities of this remain trapped with not only that ever-present Hegelian “step-ladder,” dancing up that coordinate plane to heaven-on-Earth, but also mistake the aspiration to modernism with the material fantasies of some “future” as imagined by capitalist modernity. Capitalism as we know it, as we experience and feel it, is unrealistic. Its fantasy life, far from overabundant, decadent, or free, is stulted, pathetic, and limited. The “concrete utopia” for The Long Now presents not one single answer but an enticing panoply of real possibilities. It’s not air-conditioners vs. asceticism. It’s Green Proletkult. Fantastic visions with Mughal cooling systems. Local knowledges linked and spread. It is the desire for the future realized in creating a truly different world built from the materials and dreams, ecological and cultural, of the world we actually live in.
Even on the left, green discourse is often trapped within a question of the limit or limitlessness of desire. Do “we” need some kind of green asceticism or “fully automated luxury communism”? Should “we” want more or less? One can roughly describe the necessary parameters of a sustainable world (and it should always be mentioned that these in no way comport in natural or social scientific terms to what mainstream liberal policy consensus argues in terms of climate action), but who would possibly want to live in such a world? These are the questions that characterize many recent debates concerning climate policy in this moment, like that between the economists Branko Milanović and Kate Raworth. Raworth presents one plausible picture of what a sustainable world might require. Milanović translates that into starker economic terms (extraordinarily high taxes, an extremely limited work week, an effective end to much air travel, dramatic transformation in food systems, etc.). The question that is prompted in debates like these is not about technological or economic feasibility but about political desirability. Speaking about the UK specifically and wealthy Global North states in general, he asks why would people want such a life? Who would politically support it?
These are fascinating question on two levels. First, on the bare numbers, what Milanović describes is already an improvement for significant numbers in geographies like the UK or the US. Smaller but still relatively ample incomes with guaranteed social goods and services is almost certainly already better for a simple majority in the UK and just under an equivalent number of people in the US. For the 48 percent of Americans earning $27,000 or less, it’s clearly a better deal without even taking into account qualitative questions. The second level, though, is that of desire and ideology. Only 16 percent of Americans identify “becoming wealthy” as essential to “the American Dream.” Americans now value social goods, or what the authors call “amenities”—like parks, libraries, food sources, and schools—far more than they value individual wealth or even homeownership. This survey, from the American Enterprise Institute of all places, reflects pre-existing trends that have been even more sharpened by the pandemic.74 According to the more recent 2020 General Social Survey, Americans report an all-time low level of happiness and optimism. A scant 14 percent of Americans describe themselves as very happy, and over 60 percent are pessimistic about their own future and, where applicable, their children’s future, a stunning turnaround from mid-century or even mere decades ago. “A majority felt anxious, depressed, or irritable in the past week” in 2020, increasing over already growing numbers from recent years.75 The political promise of climate politics, the political possibility of The Long Now is a differently socially and aesthetically rich life of greater economic and social security, less work, greater material and what I like to call temporal freedom, a slower, less exhausting pace of life, let alone the relief from ever intensifying socioecological pressures.
Milanović, and many of his ecological critics, seem to share a bedrock conviction that it is simply “more” or “less” of this life—of “wealthy” capitalist modernity—that defines the boundaries of the politically possible. Capitalist realism and cruel optimism reinforce each other in what some social psychologists who study exhaustion would call a “loss spiral”; an ever more hopeless expending of resources on an impossible resolution. On this level, Milanović and Raworth (both of whose core work I deeply respect) are actually in much agreement, Milanović coming down on the side of “more” of this life and Raworth on “tolerably less.”
But whether one looks to measures of social and psychological stress, ecological economic calculation, social and political instability, or the direct experience of climate catastrophe, the question would not seem to be about the proper distribution of “this life” but rather whether anyone desires it at all. When I speak of the exhaustion of our global human ecological niche, I have this in mind as well. Time has run out on this life. Deleuze and Guattari once argued that capitalism, knowing no external limit, would constantly recast “immanent limits on an ever widening and more comprehensive scale.”76 There is a descriptive power in their understanding of capitalism but they make an idealist’s error in ascribing capitalism a kind of transcendental constant on the world itself. There are external limits on capitalism—its political life-extension program that we call “neoliberalism” stumbles on today, extracting ever greater ecological and social inputs for ever-diminishing returns, its legitimacy in shambles.
Deleuze and Guattari provocatively suggest, of course, that perhaps the answer lies not in opposition to Capital but in allowing its internal desire-producing functions to “accelerate” and exceed capitalism itself.77 But desires for what? What kind of excess? Again, whose desires? As designed and fulfilled by what? In almost every direction we turn in green discourse we find these questions unanswered and rarely addressed. Here again, a different turn to modernism—and its attendant aesthetic, political, and temporal implications—haunts us with experiments and ideas, with lives and desires unfulfilled. The proliferation and freedom of queer desire, sexualities, and spaces discussed by Muñoz are excessive in a way that was predicated on the slowdown of the 1970s in a place like New York City. Elsewhere, I have discussed the political organizational and policy implications of what an example like the Kerala model provides for the possibilities of social need addressed at dramatically lower and different organizations of social wealth.78 Communist-led participatory democracy not only achieved the living standards of a Portugal on the budget of a Sudan, but it also necessarily fostered one of the world’s greatest (in both scale and scope) modernist literary cultures—both popular and avant-garde—among the mere thirty million readers and writers of Malayalam. A far richer aesthetic life is possible within the enabling constraints of an emancipatory ecological niche. Here, again, we might think with Moten (as he says with and against Adorno) not of an accelerated modernity-of-the-new-but-same but of syncopated, punctuated ever-proliferating modernisms, of acoustic possibilities that are seemingly inexhaustible. Not of the desires that must be withheld to make “the future” possible. But of the desires that are cast out to keep the present the same.
Charles Mingus’s resistance to electrified jazz was supposedly in part a testament to all the new possibilities that had hardly been and never have been exhausted through acoustic music. This should hardly be held up as a rejection of the technological or the digital. Even in new medias, the most compelling creations are stifled in obeisance to official progress, in which human desires are ever rechanneled into logics of profitability and reproduction. Through low-power circulation, refurbishment and repair, in technology and tool libraries, opportunities proliferate to further develop nascent, radical, and popular digital cultures from games to media. There are real challenges to how certain contemporary media technologies—not to mention the renewable energy systems they could run on—must be designed quite differently than they are now through cheap, carbon-intensive production, with rare-earth metal batteries, built for planned obsolescence. But how many people really want a new iPhone? Or a phone at all. Designing within limits provokes creativity and excitement among artists, designers, engineers, and audiences alike. The possibilities for radical digital cultures—potentially reproducible practically ad infinitum at relatively low ecological costs—are also part of a sustainable, flourishing human ecological niche. As are simple individual indulgences, solitary pleasures, or collective, effervescent ones. A real ecomodernism weaves a vivid socioecological tapestry from threads strewn about and cut short in the progress of the extractive circuit, found in the impasse of The Long Now.
Just as the austere buildings that dot the landscape of what was once the built world of failed, forgotten, or suppressed modernisms were often festooned with bright colors, individual qualities, and vital daily life, we can imagine a real ecomodernism characterized by different vectors of desire and excess. One of the fascinating qualities of Split 3 is that it was not built to dominate the natural landscape but to fit snugly within it. The human world realized in its “natural form” as a mere appendage of nature. As Višnja Kukoč observes, Split 3’s design is particularly well-adapted for a low-carbon, high-density urban plan.79 Planetary boundaries are real, but in many ways scarcity is still an ideological fiction.
These are not the markers of some future to come; they’re the possibilities already here, all around us. It is not that we must wait for some distant time of technological, economic, or cultural maturity to achieve them. Our collective crisis, our general exhaustion, are caused by the failure to actualize these potentials. Our collective crisis, our general exhaustion, in turn causes, is fuel-for-the-fire which consumes, our ecological niche. In the context of the contradictions of capitalism, theorists like Adorno and Marcuse, Fanon and Césaire would return to the point again and again that the material potential for human flourishing had long since been achieved within global capitalist development. The Long Now forces us to confront this not as a question of aesthetic longing and autonomy (Adorno) or as philosophically existential orientation (Marcuse), but as political limit case. That the “dialectic of Enlightenment” might lead to global catastrophe was always on the table. That human life might go on with the material potential for mass flourishing obliterated was not considered. This is the “immediacy” (Fanon) of socioecological political time.
The ecological pulls the rug out from under so much of the philosophy of history. It’s not that the world is ending. It isn’t. But rather that the end of the world is so perfect for so many of these theories; the apocalypse so sublime. What our thinking about time wasn’t prepared for was for the very constitution of that world to change. For it to not become destroyed for everyone (or forever and ever, Amen) but increasingly—and permanently—incommodious for ever more people. Whether time was cyclical or linear, progressive or regressive, it floated comfortably on a world where only, at best, the human bits changed. On that initial diagram it is only Marx, really, who ever thought seriously that conditions in the natural world—the messy, sensuous, material one we actually inhabit—might change. And even then, only in bits and pieces. These ways of thinking are so deeply engrained culturally—and are so frequently repackaged and so hegemonic in their congruity to existing power—that they worm their way back into our thinking time and again. Not only in our thinking about “the world,” or rather our ecological niche within it, but also in other concepts that have become suspiciously Platonic over time—“the economy,” “the state,” capitalism itself. None of these concepts exist outside of time; they have all changed, some so much as to hardly be recognizable. They don’t have Forms or Heavenly Bodies. We don’t have nineteenth-century states or nineteenth-century markets; why should we have the nineteenth-century’s past, present, and future?
Cutting the fuse, pulling the break—today, these Benjaminian metaphors for revolution mean stopping the “extractive circuit” that lies as the parasitic center of our global human ecological niche. It is fundamentally and radically transforming that system. It is not inventing the future so much as it is building the present. It is a fight for time: a temporal freedom, a temporal luxury that stalks about a rather different ecomodernism. It is hard to say—even within the temporal parameters of something like The Long Now—if that is “truly socialism” or merely “managed capitalism.” And these are merely abbreviated shorthand for the massive systems of social and ecological relations they encompass. The coordinates of this revolution do not turn on a metaphysics of alienation, nor on a redemptive justice. This revolution is not a way station on the road to “The Revolution,” nor a step beyond it. It is a “lateral” politics all its own. It may very well be that something like the absolute overcoming of “alienation”—in the strong sense in which many propose it—could actually stand in the way of this revolution.80 It turns out the “vector of happiness”—Benjamin’s own graphic metaphor for the specific politics of the here-and-now—has its own revolutionary needs. Like the Messianic, it is a political rupture, but, to be simple, it is not the Messiah. This rupture is closer to Fanon’s material decolonization which “cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magic wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman’s agreement. Decolonization, we know, is a historical process…captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History.”81 The constellation one might see from the point of view of the Angel of History is not the constellation of this rupture. The spotlight of history shines on unexpected “wreckage upon wreckage” with a more immediate task at hand. For the time being, perhaps the better political theology is that of Imam Mahdi, the twelfth Imam in the Shii tradition. This Messiah is not “gone,” merely in occultation. The Messianic hope not overturned, abandoned, or overcome; simply in temporary abeyance, always there to remind us of yet another imaginable standard against which we can hold, critique, and transform the present.
But the principles expressed in all those concepts—“concrete utopia,” “no future,” “materialist history,” “Messianic time”—can still serve us in The Long Now. And this revolution, I would argue, for all its urgency and for all its departure from the Messianic, is no less radiant. In the classroom exercise, the Angel of History sees what we cannot. We can only catch a glimpse of the constellations the Angel must see so clearly. The graphic picture of The Long Now shares in this. As with the Angel, we see the great “pile of debris” that contains history that—like atmospheric carbon—never really goes away. If we try, we can see the potent present possibilities, hidden or submerged but held back, rechanneled, unfulfilled. But not only can we not see the whole picture, the Messianic—and the Angel with it, even as allegory— are in abeyance. We grasp about as if in a maze. We are in the rubble, breathing the past, living the enemy’s future already. But we can build from that rubble. We can steal pragmatism and realism from the reigning powers that are anything but pragmatic or realistic. All around us we see a world shot through with the paradigm of Nawabshah. A world where, unexpectedly, the literal grounds of history have shifted. But the longer we look—if we know where to look, in the distance between unrealistic realism and anti-utopian reality—the more we begin to see a different constellation, one that corresponds to a radical portrait of the possibilities latent in the present, waiting to be loosed from the fetters that hold them back today. This is the geometry of The Long Now which, we see, is not splayed out on an imaginary coordinate plane but rather in biomes, in built worlds, in systems, in our niche.
And that dream—a world freed from exhaustion and arrayed, organized for human flourishing—is no cheat for revolutions or messiahs. Better—at least as far as I am able to see—than the End of History or its beginning, it is otherworldly in the only sense that can be true. While “we all await the Imam, each in our own way,”82 we may discover that we never really understood what the Angel was looking at in the first place, what the Messiah is, or what it might bring. The dreamworld—held back not by technical limitation but by political enervation—born from our sensuous ecological life and dreamed for the ruin, for the world, for the possibility of The Long Now, may prove, in all its Earthly splendor, more attractive than Heaven on Earth could ever be.
- 1. Maggie Astor, “Hottest April Day Ever Was Probably Monday in Pakistan,” New York Times, May 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/04/world/asia/pakistan-heat-record.html. ↩
- 2. Ethan D. Coffel et al., “Temperature and humidity-based projections of a rapid rise in global heat stress exposure during the 21st century,” Environmental Research Letters 13, no. 1 (2018): 1. ↩
- 3. While work produced as recently as the 2010s generally projected such thresholds to be frequently crossed by the end of the twenty-first century, Colin Raymond et al. in Science Advances point out that they were already being exceeded with some regularity by 2020 “in South Asia, the coastal Middle East, and coastal southwest North America.” See Raymond et al., “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance,” Science Advances 16, no. 19 (2020): 1. ↩
- 4. Thresholds for children, the elderly, and anyone engaged in strenuous activity (such as manual labor or sport) are considerably lower; see Raymond et al., 8 ↩
- 5. The contemporary use of the term “Anthropocene” was coined by biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the 1980s and popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in the early 2000s. Writing together in the Global Climate Change newsletter, Stoermer and Crutzen pointed to the long history of scientific theory and measurement of increasingly global anthropogenic transformations, concluding that, “considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including, global, scales, it seems to us more appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘Anthropocene’ for the current geologic epoch.” See Stoermer and Crutzen, “The Anthropocene,” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17. In 2016, a team of natural scientists led by Colin Waters published evidence that “novel stratigraphic signatures support the formalization of the Anthropocene at the epoch level” that “renders the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs”; see Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” Science 351, no. 6269 (2016): 138. By May 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences had presented evidence for final bureaucratic approval of the classification. Eighty-eight percent of members voted in approval of an “official” recognition of the epoch; see “Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’,” Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, accessed December 17, 2021, http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene/. The Anthropocene as a concept has been critiqued, much as I argue here, for an overly universal read of “human agency.” In his 2014 PhD dissertation work, published as Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016), Andreas Malm first posed “Capitalocene” as a corrective—a term also taken up slightly differently by Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015)—positing the understanding that it is not “all people” but rather Capital that has produced the stratigraphic variation. Others, like Anna Tsing, have proposed “Plantationocene,” thinking of not only Capital but its broader historical and constitutive social relations, particularly in terms of colonialism and racial capitalism; see Tsing et al., “Anthropologists Are Talking—About the Anthropocene,” Ethnos 81, no. 3 (2016): 556ff. In A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Kathryn Yusoff underscores how the visibility of geologic change is differently perceived across heterogenous, particularly racialized, populations. I find all these critiques deeply productive, and my affinity for Anthropocene is purely practical. Elsewhere I have written of the “intuitive critical theories” of the climate sciences, and “Anthropocene” is the term with the most traction in current climate science; see Chaudhary, “Emancipation, Domination, and Critical Theory in the Anthropocene,” in Domination and Emancipation: Remaking Critique, edited by Daniel Benson (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2021). This is largely a comradely gesture toward natural scientific fellow travelers, most of whom already understand the centrality of Capital and, sometimes, related historical questions. Such a comradely approach, as McKenzie Wark argues in Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (New York: Verso, 2015), is vital for bringing historical materialism, analytically and politically, into the current moment. My use of the term Anthropocene also acknowledges the anti-romantic nature of any climate mitigation and adaptation scenario that could be understood as emancipatory, i.e., a left-wing climate realism. Even in the most positive projection, what any such scenario proposes—no matter how (wisely) detached from techno-mysticism and Prometheanism—still involves humans as a primary geological force in our global ecological niche. I will return in this text to the question of Anthropocene temporality also in terms of the past. Dating the origin of the Anthropocene requires thinking not simply about stratigraphic layers but questions of causality that cannot avoid political characterization. The existence of anthropogenic climate change is not a matter of dispute, and it requires that we think of something like the “metabolism” between society and nature that Marx proposed. This is as much a political as a natural scientific question. Interestingly, the term Anthropocene originates in the Soviet Union in 1928, with the geologist Aleksei Petrovich Pavlov and with precursor theorization by Vladimir Verdanskii—the former largely unknown and the latter acknowledged in passing in texts like Cruetzen and Stoermer’s; see Alec Brookes and Elena Fratto, “Towards a Russian Literature of the Anthropocene,” Russian Literature 114-115 (2020): 1-22. The lines of reasoning around the Anthropocene in Soviet thought are in many ways parallel with that of the later eco-Marxist James O’Connor, each pointing towards what O’Connor calls a “second contradiction” in capitalism between political economy and the environment. Both the early Soviets and O’Connor, and important Critical Theorists also thinking a mode of eco-Marxism like Alfred Schmidt, saw this “contradiction” at best becoming a question of, as Schmidt put it, “mastery by the whole of society of society’s mastery of nature”; see Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Verso, 2014). Such a situation is not necessarily dissolved in a classless society. ↩
- 6. My “political-time” is adapted in part from Sheldon Wolin’s concept of “political time,” although without his romanticism and particular commitments. See Wolin, “What Time Is It?” Theory & Event 1, no. 1 (1997): 1. The experience of climate change splinters in a “temporal disjunction” based, in part, on non-universal time horizons of mitigation and adaptation. The political divide relates to a fuller sense of Capital as a socioecological system. As Wolin observes, “political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture.” But this does not have to be a problem per se. Rather it can be part of a foundation for genuine political conflict. Wolin’s concern in “What Time Is It?” is about the instability and difficulty of such temporalities for a “deliberate” liberal democracy, and he is hostile overall to any overarching “synoptic” political theory—precisely the kind of political theory which my analysis of political-time and climate change is a part of. However, Wolin is astute in his observation about how out of synch political-time can be and what challenges such temporalities might pose. The temporal disjuncture between theory, practice, and socioecological reality is not limited to liberalism but implicates many radical and critical modes of politics, including many versions of “orthodox” Marxism. In Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), William Scheurmann, while also hampered by a conventional account of liberal democracy as the millennium of political form, is particularly attentive to the “empire of speed” that is today’s global economy, a decent characterization of one aspect of Capital’s socioecological present, and how this speed is at odds with many conceptions of politics. Global Value Chains (GVCs) and supply chains, for example, are specifically structured to elude “the rule of law”; for more, see Chaudhary, “Toward a Critical ‘State Theory’ for the Twenty-First Century,” in The Future of the State: Philosophy and Politics, edited by Artemy Magun (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2020). Lars Tønder has also taken up the question of political-time in the Anthropocene, proffering five overarching theses. Tønder’s overall gesture is welcome, particularly in recognizing how the ecological challenges the most basic foundations of political theory. However, as he moves into existential and metaphysical territory—making claims about the political agency of non-human life or posing an endless shift in temporalities—his theses lose sight of the practical politics of climate change altogether. However, Tønder is entirely on point when he discusses “mood” and “affect” as key to contemporary political theory; see Tønder, “Five Theses for Political Theory in the Anthropocene,” Theory & Event 20, no. 1 (2017): 129-36. We will return to this question herein, and I have addressed it in more detail in “Subjectivity, Affect, and Exhaustion: The Political Theology of the Anthropocene,” Political Theology Network, February 25, 2019, accessed December 18, 2021, https://politicaltheology.com/subjectivity-affect-and-exhaustion/. ↩
- 7. Such political assumptions can be found in a variety of positions. For example, one of the most prominent academic proponents, announcing “the species” in toto as the political subject of a new “universal history” can be found in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197-222. Similar sentiments are common in liberal discourse, like the otherwise quite salutary journalism of David Wallace-Wells, adapted in his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019). On the left, Ellen Meiskens Wood presents an earlier but similar claim: since environmental issues are so universal, they make poor ground for politics (266). Wood’s case is the most politically interesting because of her understanding of politics as turning on antagonisms between social identities capable of marshalling strong social forces. Furthermore, while a thinker like Chakrabarty bafflingly claims that capitalism is largely unrelated to climate change, Wood is quite sanguine on how capitalism, specifically through its drive for endless accumulation, is inexorably at odds with ecological necessity. Wood is correct insofar as the antagonisms she describes are necessary for politics, but she misses the ways in which contemporary ecological realities (of which we not only know more today but are also more omnipresent today) can precisely be the ground for the very social formations and power in which she is interested. See Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). ↩
- 8. For a more complete picture of the material reality of these claims, see Chaudhary, “We’re Not in This Together,” The Baffler, April 2020, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/were-not-in-this-together-chaudhary. ↩
- 9. For a more detailed examination, see Chaudhary, “The Extractive Circuit,” The Baffler, November 2021, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-extractive-circuit-singh-chaudhary; Chaudhary, “Critical Theory… Anthropocene”; Chaudhary, “Sustaining What? Capitalism, Socialism, and Climate Change,” in Capitalism, Democracy, and Socialism: Critical Debates, edited by Albena Azmanova and James Chamberlain (Springer, forthcoming); as well as Chaudhary, “The Climate of Socialism,” Socialist Forum: A Democratic Socialists of America Publication (Winter 2019), https://socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/winter-2019/the-climate-of-socialism/. A more thorough empirical and theoretical account is forthcoming in a chapter of my book. ↩
- 10. The United States is the principal home of climate denialism and yet, even here, this has become a fairly minority position across the normative political spectrum. Surveys vary, but as of 2018, for example, the Annenberg Center for Public Policy found that about 71 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of self-identified Republicans, expressed “belief” in anthropogenic climate change. See Motta et al., “An experimental examination of measurement disparities in public climate change beliefs,” Climate Change 154 (2019): 37-47; and “Do most Americans believe in human-caused climate change?” Science Daily, May 9, 2019, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190509133848.htm. ↩
- 11. See Chaudhary, “Sustaining What?…” ↩
- 12. Will Steffen et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” PNAS 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252-59. Many climate scientists have grown far bolder in explicit engagement with capitalism; see, for example, McPherson et al., “Large-scale shift in the structure of a kelp forest ecosystem co-occurs with an epizootic and marine heatwave,” Communications Biology 4, no. 298 (2021) or Steinberger and Pirgameir, “Roots, Riots, and Radical Change—A Road Less Travelled for Ecological Economics,” Sustainability 11, no. 7 (2019): 2001. ↩
- 13. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132; this is only one aspect of the failure of such investigations, though a critique of various forms of transhistorical philosophy is beyond the scope of this essay. ↩
- 14. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4: 1938-194, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 395. ↩
- 15. Christopher J. Smith et al., “Current fossil fuel infrastructure does not yet commit us to 1.5°C warming,” Nature Communication 10, no. 101 (2019); this aspect of climate change, although long known, is what garnered significant journalistic attention in the IPCC AR6 “physical sciences” report. Although much coverage implied that this meant nothing could be done and everything is “irreversible,” this is not the case presented in the report nor in climate science literatures more broadly. ↩
- 16. Such “organizing,” to adapt Jason Moore’s language from Capitalism in the Web of Life (New York: Verso, 2015), is not synonymous with quasi-mystical Promethean exhortations for technological domination as positive program. It is rather the acknowledgment of the reality reflected in the impetus to thinking the Anthropocene in the first place: humans are now the dominant geological force on the planet and will continue to be in any number of possible scenarios. ↩
- 17. Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 195. ↩
- 18. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2014); Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2009), 2. ↩
- 19. Dayna Tortorici, “In the Maze,” n+1 30, (2018). ↩
- 20. Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 20-21. While all the thinkers mentioned here have differing (if overlapping) conceptions of time in the current conjuncture, I should note that Nixon reverts to more conventional stories of time and climate borrowing from “the future” and “the past.” Furthermore, in trying to grapple with his central problem—the many challenges in representing what he terms environmental “slow violence”—Nixon is far too dismissive of the fundamental difference of spectacular and political violence (descriptively and as part of potential positive programs) and particularly misunderstands Frantz Fanon and how well his political thought can be adapted towards climate politics today. ↩
- 21. Hall, Selected Political Writings (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 283. ↩
- 22. I must thank my colleague, Rebecca Ariel Porte, for translating some of my thinking into these two “poles,” which I discuss more thoroughly later, and for pushing me to write down some of my temporal ideas and lessons. ↩
- 23. Wark, “Communicative Capitalism,” Public Seminar, March 23, 2015, http://publicseminar.org/2015/03/communicative-capitalism/#.VRCKzPnF-So. Such an embrace is also suggested by Kathryn Yusoff: “This geologic prehistory has everything to do with the Anthropocene as a condition of the present; it is the material history that constitutes the present in all its geotraumas and thus should be embraced, reworked, and reconstituted in terms of agency for the present, for the end of this world and the possibility of others, because the world is already turning to face the storm, writing its weather for the geology next time.” See Yusoff, 101; italics in original. ↩
- 24. Alberto Toscano argues, “The debate around the Anthropocene event, its date of inception, with which I began, ironically marks this short-circuit between supposedly being able to think a geological time scale and being entirely rudderless when it comes to cognizing historical difference in the present.” See Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” Social Text 34, no. 2 (2016): 118. The Long Now helps us to think geologic time with historical difference as part of what I have called elsewhere “left-wing climate realism” or “the politics of exhaustion,” wherein exhaustion is an affective matrix in which political solidarity is possible through (not above, beyond, or against) difference at the present socioecological conjuncture. ↩
- 25. This is merely an approximate schematic from Marx’s class theory, derived largely from texts like The Communist Manifesto and “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.” Restricted to just texts like The German Ideology and the Manifesto, one could also graph the development and transformation of modes of production. However, this would require ignoring Marx’s revisions (c.f. his response to Vera Zasulich in the preface to the Russian edition of the Manifesto) which continued till his death. Marx’s theories of politics remained underdeveloped, especially in comparison with his magisterial work in demonstrating the logic and development of Capital itself. All of this, though, is in part Benjamin’s point. Marx’s method not only needs but requires reexamination. And Benjamin’s critique is a further refinement, however radical and unorthodox, of historical materialism. ↩
- 26. Nor does this disjuncture map easily onto an “early” vs. “late” Marx. In this light, it is the early, philosophical writings that appear all the more mechanistic and the later scientific writings all the more open-ended pace “structuralist” and “humanist” interpretations alike. ↩
- 27. Kautsky himself embraced this terminology in the first edition of The Road to Power. And not without precedent. Engels’s initial work on a proto-Manifesto also utilized the form of a catechism, which Marx wisely abandoned for the now-famous structure of The Communist Manifesto. This was not simply economism. Every step of capitalist development, such as imperialism or even the War itself—which most of the socialist parties in Europe joined, with the notable exceptions of the Bolsheviks and the Italians, precipitating the collapse of the International—was just another advance in the ripening evolutionary progress of socialist victory. Benjamin excoriated this naïve faith in progress: politically, economically, and technologically. Kautsky, writing just about a decade after the historical carnage of World War I, and just about another decade before World War II, was still arguing that “the fabulous expansion of the capitalist mode of production in the past hundred years leads us to expect that its transformation into socialist forms will also occur extremely quickly everywhere where the necessary economic and psychic conditions have been created by the successful employment of modern technology” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1929/12/naturesoc.htm). This was December, 1929; not only were the scars of the war still fresh but the Great Depression—which struck Germany harder than almost anywhere else—had already begun. “Orthodox” Marxism had turned Marx on his head and, against all evidence, recreated the temporal ideal of the Hegelian stepladder as an article of blind faith. In earlier work, Benjamin had differentiated Kautsky from this tendency in the SPD, but that was in a different historical light and during a time when there was greater overlap between the two thinkers. Kautsky later adopted precisely the attitudes that Benjamin critiques in the “Theses.” See Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 48; and Jukka Gronow, “Karl Kautsky (1854-198),” in Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Postmarxism, edited by Alex Callinicos et al. (New York: Routledge, 2020), 162. ↩
- 28. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Harvard/Belknap, 2016), 95. While Bernstein openly called for socialist colonialism, Kautsky treated the war just as he treated the rise of fascism: they were interruptions. Imperialism was demoted from a Hilferding-derived monopoly/finance theory to a kind of bourgeois policy choice. (In contrast to Lenin, but even more so to the most thorough treatment of the subject at the time, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital.) ↩
- 29. Benjamin, OWS, 66. ↩
- 30. Benjamin, OWS, 66. ↩
- 31. It is too far afield from this essay for an in-depth review, but it is worth noting that, understood as such, these formations and ideas represent the clear majority not only of Marxist theory but of socialist, communist, and Marx-influenced political movements the world several times over, and on a mountain of clear political economic, ecological, and experiential evidence. As Fanon presciently suggested at the end of The Wretched of the Earth, “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.” See Fanon, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 235. ↩
- 32. Gershom Scholem, perhaps ironically, introduced Benjamin to Luxemburg’s work in 1915 (see Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 32). Benjamin was likely introduced to Lenin beyond casual knowledge from current events through early conversations with Ernst Bloch dating back to the late war period, Benjamin’s brother Georg—a member of the KPD—gifting Benjamin a copy of the first German collection of Lenin’s writings, and more famously through Benjamin’s reading of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, and his tutelage by the Soviet theater director and popular educator Asja Lacis. References to Lenin and Bolshevism first appear in the early twenties in Benjamin’s writing and proliferate over time. The Bolshevik slogan “Kein Ruhm dem Sieger, kein Mitleid den Besiegten” (“no fame for the victor, no pity for the vanquished”) was originally the epigraph for “Thesis XII,” which contains Benjamin’s interpretation of it in light of his historical materialism: “Marx presents it as the last enslaved class—the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.” In a line deeply resonant with politics and time in current socioecological terms, Benjamin continues that radical politics (including its necessary “hate”) is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.” Out of fear of postal interception or censorship, Benjamin cut the Bolshevik slogan. See Leslie, 200; Benjamin, SW4, 393. ↩
- 33. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 62. Parts of Benjamin’s interventions in terms of time are concerned with how to conceive such a history of Capital, as is the case with his incomplete Arcades Project from which much of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is derived. See Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002). To be fair, Marx understood that he was laying out the methodology of an open science and was not an undialectical, evolutionary socialist or technological determinist, as he is too often cast. ↩
- 34. Benjamin, SW4, 392; italics in original. The colonial echo in Césaire just a few years later: “I hear the storm. They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements,’ diseases cured, improved standards of living…but Europe is responsible before the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history.” Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, as quoted by Branwen Gruffydd Jones in “Time, History, Politics: Anticolonial Constellations,” Interventions 21, no. 5 (2019): 605. And the ecological echo today: “Solar radiation management would in no way eliminate nature, only raise the stakes in a society that seeks to overmaster it. And onwards the history of capital goes, from one combination to the next, the perils mounting along the curve and, with Benjamin, the debris growing ‘towards the sky. What we call progress is this storm’” (italics in original). Malm, The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, (New York: Verso, 2018), chap. 5, iBooks. ↩
- 35. Benjamin, Arcades, 473. ↩
- 36. Benjamin, SW4, 396. Despite frequent citations of his work in radical climate literatures, the Anglophone reception of Benjamin has paid relatively little attention to his engagement with the natural sciences of his day; see Christiane von Buelow, “Troping toward Truth: Recontextualizing the Metaphors of Science and History in Benjamin’s Kafka Fragment,” New German Critique, no. 48 (1989): 109-133, and parts of my own “Religions of Doubt” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013) for exceptions, even though it is a significant constant in Benjamin’s later works, including the Kafka essays, The Arcades Project, and the “Theses.” In the latter example, no one seems to have tried to discover who the unnamed “biologist” is in “Thesis 18”—for example, the whole section is simply omitted from Michael Löwy’s often illuminating Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, translated by Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2016). The quote that I cite is from Jean Rostand’s Heredity and Racism (1938) which Benjamin wrote an unpublished review of in 1939. Benjamin’s review can be found in Volume III of his Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019). Rostand was an enthusiastic eugenicist and a soft fascist sympathizer who endorsed the 1933 Nazi edict “Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases,” which mandated the forced sterilization of people with mental or physical disabilities. Heredity and Racism marked Rostand’s rather late break with Nazi sympathies. What clearly interested Benjamin in his work was this turnaround and how Rostand saw it as scientifically necessary to refute spurious theories of biological progress in order to do so. “Progress” was ideological “second nature” smuggled into pseudo-scientific accounts of “first nature” or, simply, nature. Although he explicitly rejected race theory, Rostand remained in his rather successful and celebrated post-War life and fame (long after Benjamin’s death) an enthusiastic eugenicist. His Nazi flirtations were completely buried in both Europe and the US, as a 1971 New York Times profile reflects in its title, “A Gentle, Rumpled French Biologist Says There’s More to Life Than Pure Chance.” See John L. Hess, New York Times, May 30, 1971, https://www.nytimes.com/1971/05/30/archives/a-gentle-rumpled-french-biologist-says-theres-more-to-life-than.html. ↩
- 37. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, edited by V. Masson-Delmotte et al. (2018), in print, 77. ↩
- 38. See longer discussion in Chaudhary, “We’re Not in This Together.” ↩
- 39. Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 2-5. ↩
- 40. Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018) ↩
- 41. Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 51-2. ↩
- 42. Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 74; see also David Neilson and Thomas Stubbs, “Relative surplus population and uneven development in the neoliberal era: Theory and empirical application,” Capital & Class 35, no. 3 (2001): 435-453. ↩
- 43. Smith et al. Emphasis added. ↩
- 44. As of finalizing this piece, only the Working Group I report on physical sciences, and the Working Group II report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability have been published. ↩
- 45. IPCC AR6 WG II, 35. ↩
- 46. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 3. ↩
- 47. Contrary to much speculation otherwise, Benjamin was not particularly learned as a Jew, nor was he committed to mystical, kabbalistic interpretations of Judaism personally or in his work. Benjamin did advance a Judaic political theology but in a thoroughly secularized form—as concepts for materialist thought—drawing on relatively common, well-known, and normative Jewish ideas such as the Messiah. Although he was close with Gershom Scholem, he seems to have picked up relatively little from Scholem’s scholarship. Benjamin does not write of kabbalistic themes, and indeed critiques all forms of neo-platonism in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (New York: Verso, 2009). His uses, for example, of halachah and aggadah in his essays on Kafka and Krauss drew not on deep scholarly or yeshiva education but on then-contemporary essays by Hayyim Bialik that Scholem sent along at Benjamin’s request; for more, see Chaudhary, “Religions of Doubt.” In this case, Benjamin is advancing one of two prevalent ideas about “the world to come” that have circulated from Second Temple through Talmudic and contemporary times. One view, closer to that of Christianity, holds that the world to come is a spiritual recompence largely unrelated to the Messianic age. The other, which Benjamin advances and which is far more in accord with his Marxist materialism, identifies the world to come with the Messianic age as a physical transformation or adjustment of “this world.” See olam ha-zeh v’olam ha-ba: This World and the World to Come in Jewish Belief and Practice, edited by Leonard Greenspoon (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2017); Jacob Neusner, “Death and Afterlife in the Later Rabbinic Sources: The Two Talmuds and Associated Midrash-Compilations,” in Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section 1, The Near and Middle East, edited by Maribel Fierro et al., vol. 49 (Leiden: Brill, 2022); or even “The World to Come,” from Chabad’s “My Jewish Learning,” accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-world-to-come/. ↩
48. What developed before is natural history. As Deborah Cook notes—bringing together Benjamin, Adorno, and the unlikely support of John Bellamy Foster—“nature and history co-evolve owing to their metabolic interaction.” See Cook, Adorno on Nature (New York: Routledge, 2011), 77. Benjamin has quite literally a geologic view of time:
“As rocks of the Miocene or Eocene in places bear the imprint of monstrous creatures from those ages, so today arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe. On the walls of these caverns their immemorial flora, the commodity, luxuriates and enters, like cancerous tissue, into the most irregular combinations. A world of secret affinities opens up within: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, prostheses and letter-writing manuals. The odalisque lies in wait next to the inkwell, and priestesses raise high the vessels into which we drop cigarette butts as incense offerings. These items on display are a rebus: how one ought to read here the birdseed in the fixative-pan, the flower seeds beside tile binoculars, the broken screw atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl—is right on the tip of one’s tongue. After all, nothing of the lot appears to be new. The goldfish come perhaps from a pond that dried up long ago, the revolver was a corpus delicti, and these scores could hardly have preserved their previous owner from starvation when her last pupils stayed away” (Arcades, 540). Benjamin’s quick note takes the form of metaphor but, both in the “Theses” and in the Arcades, Benjamin is explicit in their actual dialectical relation and continuity: “No historical category without its natural substance, no natural category without its historical filtration” (Arcades, 864). This is wholly consonant of course with Marx’s argument in the preface to the first edition of Capital in “which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history” (92). ↩
- 49. Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2008), 6. ↩
- 50. Hatherley, 12. ↩
- 51. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). ↩
- 52. ”An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” April 2015, http://www.ecomodernism.org/. Ironically, I discovered while further researching this essay that Stuart Brand – of Whole Earth Catalog fame and one of the signatures to the Ecomodernist Manifesto – whose slogan “we are as gods, and we have to get good at it” is, as political ecologist Anne Fremeax notes, “probably the acme of this Promethean vision” has also coined a use for the phrase: “The Long Now.” However, unsurprisingly, the phrase means almost exactly the opposite of my usage. Brand’s “Long Now Foundation” describes its understanding of The Long Now as follows: “Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.” (https://longnow.org/). True to Promethean form (see footnote 53), Brand’s version of the long now emphasizes normative understandings of time with a thin veneer of science fiction painted over the top. The kinds of inquiries into the political-time of the current socioecological conjunction and the intensity of this particular moment are wholly absent. As Fremeax continues: “It seems obvious that those eminent eco-constructivists, some of them being members of the Breakthrough Institute, make a confusion between ‘human-induced planetary change’ and ‘human planetary control,’ thinking that the extent to which we alter the planet gives us control of it.” Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene, edited by Manuel Arias-Maldonado and Zev Trachtenberg (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018), 99. ↩
- 53. Armin Grunwald, “Diverging pathways to overcoming the environmental crisis: A critique of eco-modernism from a technology assessment perspective,” Journal of Cleaner Production 197 (2018): 1854-62. So-called “ecomodernism” has a far larger footprint according to policy and public discourse than even in technology-focused natural scientific research. Grunwald’s paper is one of only a handful to try to engage ecomodernism seriously simply because its premises are so distant, and preposterous, in relation to almost anything approaching natural scientific consensus: “It is not clear to what extent the eco-modernist premise that technological progress promises to make central contributions to a more ecologically friendly world can be supported by sound arguments or whether these are subjective convictions and ideologies.” He concludes “The eco-modernist approach grounds on premises which are not based on knowledge or experience but rather on mere belief in the technological advance….” (1861). I prefer “Promethean techno-mysticism” or more mildly “techno-optimism” since I want to recuperate, as I argue here, the promise of what a real ecomodernism might be. Prometheanism in the context I am writing here is the classic Baconian ideal of the human dominance over “nature.” Some abstract “humanity” should embrace its role as “gods” through technological domination. As Fremeax writes, “Promethean hyper-modernists seem to have lost sight of the fact that Anthropocene scientific perceptions are not only concerned with dreams of mastery but also with nonlinearity, the existence of critical thresholds, bifurcations and stochasticity, that is with doubt, uncertainty, irreversibility, and unpredictability” (Fremeax, 26). Techno-optimism is perhaps the better catch-all for left and right, since for proponents of various forms of business-as-usual, a largely technological approach which affirms an ill-informed caricature of “Enlightenment” values like teleological progress is perfectly understandable. This approach is rational to a degree for those committed to existing power structures; there is plenty of time and comfortable space for business-as-usual to embrace such an approach, but it is wholly incompatible with even the most general, crass, utilitarian understandings of sustainability. On the left, this becomes “mysticism” because there is no way of squaring the circle of a genuine global human ecological niche with the support and development of some of the most destructive capitalist industries. “Ecomodernism” owes its increasing prominence to its appeal to existing policy makers and the world’s most wealthy firms and individuals since it rests on doubling down on existing practices. In scientific discourse it is rarely addressed directly and, when it is (for example in the much-cited Nature literature review “Scientists Warning on Affluence” by Wiedmann et al.), it is dismissed in passing since there is so little evidence for phenomena like “absolute decoupling” of energy and other material needs from GDP, i.e. no such thing as “green growth” as currently characterized by GDP growth per se. See Chaudhary, “Sustaining What?…” for more. Green growth is baked into a number of prominent synthesis reports, including IPCC documents. This is in part because of the political utility of win-win growth paradigms (and their hegemonic ideological position) as well as the real acknowledgement, even if growth is overall understood as highly correlated with ecological degradation, that geographies in the Global South will grow in the coming years. This is a blind spot in both many “ecomodern” and degrowth paradigms alike. As I discuss further here, curtailing the most affluent Northern (and globalized) consumption as well as addressing the specifically intense socioecological degradation in current systems, is of broad benefit, North and South. In the most recent Working Group II report, “ecomodernism” and degrowth are discussed, although the latter to a greater degree and challenges to prevailing growth (that is, profit) paradigms are more frequent. Of great dismay to ecomodernist preachers, many of their favorite techno-fixes—such as industrialized agriculture, BECCS, and other forms of carbon capture, the planting of new growth forests as “offsets,” etc.—are critiqued as underdeveloped and impossible within needed time frames or actively false. Despite its prominence among a subset of Western left-identified thinkers, “ecomodernism” is often, rightly, treated as quasi-synonymous with status quo apologetics. As many authors note, in practice so-called “ecomodernism” is embraced most fervently by large firms for which its claims provide a vision of “sustainable” business-as-usual, a contradiction in terms. ↩
- 54. One of the reasons why queer theory is such a fertile ground for continuing to rethink political-time in socioecological terms is best articulated in Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. Although they absolutely pillory the Cult of the Child avant la lettre in works like The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), in Cruel Optimism Berlant alights on the argument that “what it means to take the measure of the impasse of the present: to see what is halting, stuttering, and aching about being in the middle of detaching from a waning fantasy of the good life…” (263). What Berlant describes here is the letting go of normative fantasies and of preconceived trajectories, which they derive from queer theory and which is paramount in conceiving of a flourishing global human ecological niche whose parameters are so radically unexpected. In addition to presenting pure mystification as dogged realism, and dogmatic faith as scientific curiosity, this Promethean techno-mysticism, even in its nominally “left” forms, is profoundly conservative. While “ecomodernism” in this mold certainly shares affinities with accelerationism and other radical Promethean projects of the left, it is quite unique in its thorough conservativism. Many ecologically oriented thinkers may have serious reservations about Shulamith Firestone or Srinicek and Williams, but such thinkers certainly do not intend to replicate and preserve the corrosive world of bourgeois capitalist normality. What so-called “ecomodernists” seem to be missing is that the very people demanding something—anything—different do not seem particularly interested in this “dreamworld” any longer. They are—in a word that recurs with almost unbelievable frequency in so many current critical literatures—exhausted by this life. While some, in understandable contrast, invoke a kind of eco-romanticism, I wish to propose something quite different: a real ecomodernism, an ecomodernism that is the project of The Long Now in both the political and aesthetic implications of the term.[^Probably the most well-known academic school arrayed against so-called “ecomodernism” is the broad umbrella of “degrowth.” While degrowth positions usually demonstrate a lucid engagement with actual ecology, it is (a) difficult to call it a coherent ideology or movement; (b) insofar as it can be so characterized, subject to serious limitations particularly around a seemingly absolute allergy to modernism in any form in many sources; (c) sometimes impoverished in its understandings of politics and political economy; and (d) shares, to a degree, a temporal framework (just in reverse) with the Promethean techno-mystics. As mentioned before, many degrowth theories still do not account beyond a gesture for how development will occur in underdeveloped geographies (even by new standards) as well as how overdeveloped but highly unequal geographies will reconfigure beyond simply measures aimed at reducing growth. As many sympathetic natural scientists and social thinkers have noted, such measures on their own are inefficient in addressing climate mitigation and adaptation, even while they are far more realistic about ecology than “ecomodernists.” Still, contemporary work in ecological economics, much of it produced from what can largely now be clustered as degrowth perspectives, is invaluable for climate analyses, and “degrowth,” despite its unfortunate nomenclature and shortcomings, has made vital interventions, corrections, and continues to develop sharper analyses. See the work of Jason Hickel, Julia Steinberger, among others, for good examples of such contributions. Many degrowth scholars themselves are critical of degrowth’s singular and focus on growth (a symptom and not always easy to define) as opposed to a more comprehensive underlying causal set of social relations, i.e., capitalism-as-we-know-it. Such scholars have helped bring far more radical perspectives—from eco-Marxism to eco-feminism—to mainstream natural scientific consideration. I return to these questions via my examination of the debate between the economists Branko Milanovc and Kate Raworth later in this essay. Part of my turn here to reclaiming a real ecomodernism is as a comradely contribution to this developing school as well as overall a vital part of a climate politics. ↩
- 55. Binod Khadka, “Rammed earth, as a sustainable and structurally safe green building: a housing solution in the era of global warming and climate change,” Asian Journal of Civil Engineering 21, no. 1 (2020): 119-36; B.V. Venkatarama Reddy, “Sustainable materials for low carbon buildings,” International Journal of Low-Carbon Technologies 4, no. 3 (2009): 175-81; R. Sivarethinamohan and S. Sujatha, “Broad-Spectrum of Sustainable Living Management Using Green Building Materials,” in Recent Advancements in Geotechnical Engineering, edited by B. Soundara et al. (Millersville, PA: Materials Research Forum LLC, 2021): 1-8; Ousmane Zoungrana, et al., “The Paradox around the Social Representations of Compressed Earth Block Building Material in Burkina Faso: The Material for the Poor or the Luxury Material?” Open Journal of Social Sciences 9, no. 1 (2021): 50-65; Mohamed A.B. Omer and Takafumi Noguchi, “A conceptual framework for understanding the contribution of building materials in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” Sustainable Cities and Society 52 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2019.101869;Vaishali Sharma, “Building Sustainable and Livable Asian Cities: Learnings from Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks (CSEB) Constructions in India,” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350459494_Building_Sustainable_and_Livable_Asian_Cities_Learnings_from. This is not the place for a comprehensive review, but is it worth noting that such materials and techniques have both long vernacular and modern use and contemporary use and new research in engineering and architecture. This is just not the kind of scientific, technological, and design research that so-called “ecomodernists” are looking for. At the same time, many of them are quite modern in a way that is rarely embraced in degrowth literatures. ↩
- 56. Fisher, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), edited by Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018), 566. ↩
- 57. Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 25. In the sense that I am arguing here, Moten’s discussion of Delaney, Artaud, and Strayhorn marks jazz as the quintessentially Adornan art form, against Adorno’s own ill-informed and short-sighted objections. ↩
- 58. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, translated by R. Campbell (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1984), 34. ↩
- 59. Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 13. ↩
- 60. Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020). ↩
- 61. See Irving Wohlfrath cited in Richard Leppert, “Introduction,” in Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 70. ↩
- 62. Tim Barker, “Other People’s Blood,” n+1 34, (2019). ↩
- 63. Fisher, k-punk, 763. ↩
- 64. Roko Rumora, “A Utopia of Yugoslav Architecture at MoMA,” Hyperallergic, September 3, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/458084/a-utopia-of-yugoslav-architecture-at-moma/. ↩
- 65. Martin Stierli and Vladimir Kulić, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 157. ↩
- 66. Stierli and Kulić, 165. ↩
- 67. The concept of the “Good Anthropocene” is a mainstay of existing techno-mystical “ecomodernism,” particularly as popularized by the industry-friendly think thank The Breakthrough Institute, originating most likely with one of its only actual natural scientists, Erle Ellis. However, the concept has proved ambiguous if still often dominated by its original techno-optimistic, status quo preserving premises. Many authors have found utility in the term precisely rejecting some of those premises. See, for example, the marine ecologist Carolyn Lundquist et al., “Visions for nature and nature’s contributions to people for the 21st century,” which explicitly rejects in its energy mix “nuclear as an unnecessary high-risk option” and sets out to question economic growth orthodoxies; or Timon McPhearson et al., “Radical changes are needed for transformations to a good Anthropocene,” which repositions the “Good Anthropocene” as a kind of maximally sustainable, degrowth position involving numerous Promethean bête noirs like serious recognition of biophysical limits, planetary boundaries, and skepticism towards many techno-fixes. ↩
- 68. Max Ajl, “Auto-centered development and indigenous technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 46, no. 6 (2018): 1240-63. See Chaudhary, “Sustaining What?…” for more on the concept of a sustainable global human ecological niche. ↩
- 69. Despite the prevalence through political influence of green growth and technological narratives, the IPCC AR6 Working Group II is quite explicit in rejecting several prominent “ecomodernist” positions—from its long discussions of the destructive nature of industrial petro-farming vs. agroecological, agroforestry, and hybrid indigenous and contemporary methodologies (see chapter 5) to naming air conditioning as a form of “maladaptation” (see chapter 6 and 7As) in which an adaptation measure actually negatively impacts overall adaptive capacity (in this case through overall increasing temperatures and energy consumption in a negative feedback loop). Gesturing toward the soon to be released Working Group III report on mitigation, the report also notes how technologically and energy-intensive methods can also disrupt mitigation efforts. In contrast, the report highlights precisely passive cooling systems (see chapter 6) as I’ve been discussing here. See also Parisa Izadpanahi et al., “Lessons from Sustainable and Vernacular Passive Cooling Strategies Used in Traditional Iranian Houses” or Rabani et al., “Numerical simulation of an innovated building cooling system with combination of solar chimney and water spraying system,” among many others. In addition to its ecological sustainability, as measured by Rabani et al., such methods—which as I discuss here can also involve more contemporary design elements—provide cooling comparable or greater than the common “high tech,” capitalist developed solution, at between 9-14 degrees Celsius. ↩
- 70. One of the most prominent “ecomodernists” who self-identifies as a leftist and Marxist is the technology enthusiast, Leigh Phillips, who writes, for example, “Likewise, why is the £59 hand-carved walnut locomotive from a Stoke Newington toy shop any less consumerist than the free plastic Elsa doll from Disney’s Frozen accompanying a Subway Fresh Fit Kids Meal? The difference is a poor-hating snobbery and nothing more” (Leigh Phillips, Austerity Ecology, 89). Phillips’s arguments are not only predicated on an active absence of solid scientific foundation but on lazy rhetorical strategies like the false choice presented here. He cannot seem to entertain that capitalism might produce commodities and technologies that are inimical to human well-being and that both the hand-carved locomotive and the Elsa doll might be crap and that Capital shapes desires in ways not always transparent to agents (which is, of course, Marx’s position pace Phillips). In the face of ecological challenges, Phillips argues, against vast climate science consensus, that magically, through democratic socialism, “there are in principle no limits. Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!” But, of course, “the machine” is itself shot through (in many cases, not all) with capitalist logics and relations. Even Phillips’s fellow travelers like geographer Matt Huber take pains to distance themselves from his impassioned defenses of simply “more stuff” as the definition of socialism: “Let me also be clear – the harnessing of renewable abundance is not an effort to replicate wasteful capitalist consumerism (e.g. cheap plastic crap),” (Huber, “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific”). In contrast, as Alfred Schmidt argued in the 1970 English preface to his 1962 The Concept of Nature in Marx, claims, including some of his own previous work, that “Marx was solely concerned to secure quantitative increase in the existing forms of mastery over nature,” were fundamentally flawed. “On the contrary,” Schmidt noted, “Marx wanted to achieve something qualitatively new: mastery by the whole of society of society’s mastery over nature” (11). Here, Schmidt openly restates Benjamin’s argument from One Way Street, that an emancipated technology “is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between man and nature” (OWS, 95; emphasis added). In both cases, the “realm of freedom” is correctly identified not as quantitative cornucopian and standard or endless economic growth (accumulation), but rather with the achievement of the possibility, withheld by Capital, that society might reconcile with the very nature of which it is but a unique extension and control its own technological and other powers. In contemporary ecological terms, that is coming to terms with what is often called a “safe operating space” for humanity and flourishing in ways that are far removed from capitalist ideals. Marx introduces the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to describe capitalist development in the Manifesto, one of his most mechanical and techno-optimistic texts. The realm of freedom is not in the continual upheaval of destruction but in breaking the spell. That said, it is of course not historical materialism of any kind to simply reproduce limited claims from the 19th century without contemporary knowledge but the continuing development of Marxism as a methodologically open science for social understanding. Phillips and left “ecomodernists” echo not Marx but Joseph Schumpeter and contemporary arguments for endless accumulation by Jeff Bezos and other capitalists-par-excellence. ↩
- 71. In the previous discussions of building materials and passive cooling systems, many of the cited studies and the IPCC chapters note the complementarity of quite contemporary design and planning ideas designed around low material and energy cost and which provide comfort and even ecological restoration. ↩
- 72. Arman Hashemi et al., “Environmental Impacts and Embodied Energy of Construction Methods and Materials in Low-Income Tropical Housing,” Sustainability 7, no. 6 (2015): 7866-7883. ↩
- 73. Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: Science and Politics (Bourton-on-Dunsmore: Practical Action Publishing Ltd, 2017), 79-81. ↩
- 74. Agnes Lee, “The American Dream Is Alive and Well,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/opinion/inequality-american-dream.html. It is worth looking at the whole report, “AEI Survey on Community and Society: SOCIAL CAPITAL, CIVIC HEALTH, AND QUALITY OF LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES,” which can be found on the AEI website. The authors loudly trumpet that Americans still believe in “the American Dream” but try to massage the fact that “the American dream” has moved significantly away from conservative (or liberal) principles. ↩
- 75. GSS 2020, https://gss.norc.org/get-documentation. ↩
- 76. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 239-40. ↩
- 77. Deleuze and Guattari, 239-40; this heighten-the-contradictions argument, often attributed to Lenin, is actually here derived from Nietzsche. ↩
- 78. See Chaudhary, “Sustaining What?…” and “Climate of Socialism.” ↩
- 79. Višnja Kukoč, “Towards a Low-Carbon Future? Construction of Dwellings and Its Immediate Infrastructure in City of Split” (paper presented at Places and Technologies Conference, Belgrade, Serbia, April 2016). ↩
- 80. See the moral utopianism of “Climate X” in Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (New York: Verso, 2017). ↩
- 81. Fanon, 2. ↩
- 82. Al-e Ahmad, 71. ↩