To my mind, climate is our great story. No other narrative envelopes all of humanity in quite the same way, forcing answers about the ethics of food, of oil, of technology, of economic security, of democratic republics and command capitalism, of colonialism and indigenous peoples, of who in the world is rich and who in the world is poor.
Robinson Meyer details the outcomes of the Paris agreement at COP21 for The Atlantic, concluding with the argument about the climate change narrative, specifically that it is globally paramount. Climate change, or Nature’s inevitable karmic return-to-sender, is the ultimate anti-hierarchical force, and perhaps the only one powerful enough to dismantle all current social hierarchy, which ironically, is the very thing enabling the imminent onset of climate change’s devastating fallout. Nature has no human agenda, and no discernible telos period.
I’m reminded of Zora Neale Hurston’s poetic use of a hurricane (which has an historical foundation) in Their Eyes Were Watching God to underscore humanity’s true rank in the grand scheme of things. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s low, and this is being generous in presupposing that there is a grand scheme of things.) In that narrative, Janie, the oppressed African American protagonist, endures multiple trials (mostly with relationships) in her hero’s journey quest toward self-revelation; what might get lost in the poignancy of her personal resilience is the overwhelming power of Nature to give and take without discrimination.
It’s great that Janie comes to terms with herself, but in reality, she could’ve been lost to the hurricane or some other cosmic force. What would then happen to all our meaning-making impulses? Do we lament Janie or turn toward the species that she was once part of and wonder about what might come next? What of the racism and sexism that still pervade Janie’s world? What of all the hierarchy that endures in the wake of natural disaster? What of the manmade disasters we conveniently ignore every second we’re alive? In a similar vein, do we worry solely about our own narratives, our self-centered quests toward actualization (if we’re so ambitious)? Or do we reckon with Nature and recognize our larger humanity?
Ross Andersen, also for The Atlantic, takes a step back and questions what Nature even is at this point for us. He interviews After Nature author Jedediah Purdy to get closer to an understanding of how America’s conception of Nature has evolved over time and how it continues to adapt today. Part of the conversation takes readers into the depths of intersectional social justice. In explaining objections to the use of “Anthropocene” as a way to classify our current time period, Purdy notes, “let’s not talk about human responsibility when this world order was made by and for some people, and others were drawn into it without much choice in its design, and often enough against their will and violently.”
Conceptions of “Nature” are no different in their political aims and consequences. While we might typically expect any definition of Nature to be fairly objective, Purdy highlights the ideological implications of any perspective on the natural world. It’s just as artificial and self-interested as social constructs like race and gender. “Nature” is just another hegemonic weapon that the powerful enlist in order to secure and serve their own power. For instance, as Purdy explains, there are “the ‘natural capitalism’ types who see an ecologically complex, interdependent world as a template for a fully marketized society, where everything has a price.” Purdy adds later, “no part of the natural world tells us how to value it, let alone how to live and relate to one another.” Whatever meaning we extract from Nature, whatever value we impose it, we are always engaged in human-centered activity; we pretend that we’re decentralizing ourselves in order to marvel at this great Other that exists somehow apart from us, or for us, or perhaps worse still, that it is us. In a grand display of narcissism, this is when we’re finally able to care about it.
Regardless of how America has approached Nature, it’s always been teeming with injustice and inequality. Purdy clarifies: “the romantic landscape also has a history of deep inequality written into it…the whole habit of seeing nature as God’s inspiring canvas appealed to a white, upper-middle class constituency, people who…set themselves up as Nature’s spokespersons.” A moment of self-examination at Putney will reflect this skewed audience; everyone here who loves the outdoors fits this depiction. For everyone else, it’s a foreign idea, a thing not for them.
So what am I saying? To quote Roger, a character in the farce, Noises Off, I just performed in, “I’m saying…let’s say no more about it.” I don’t have to have a point. Naturally.