Yesterday in this semester’s anthropology senior seminar, Anthropology at the End of Worlds, we had an interesting discussion about the popular predilection of humans to be concerned with “saving animals” as a response to being confronted with the complexities of the climate crisis. In fact, at one point we suggested that the concern with specific species might actually be a feel-good distraction from addressing the more challenging systemic issues that are the foundation of the climate crisis. After all, cute, charismatic species offer much more emotionally compelling narratives-of-value than fighting bureaucracy or dealing with dirty topics like oil, coal and pollution.
This morning, while preparing some followup comments for tomorrow’s class, I got to considering another aspect of our conversation that was there, but not overtly—the persistent idea that nature is fragile. The sense among some that somehow humans are damaging nature and can, therefore “save it.” If there is one thing that we have learned so far this semester, reading David Wallace-Wells’ book The Uninhabitable Earth and Peter Brannen’s deep history, The Ends of the World, is that the Earth’s biospheric processes are responding to human activity—often with tragic results—but that we are not “damaging the Earth.” In fact, life emerged in adaptive relationships with Earth processes for hundreds of millions of years—adapting, failing, trying again. Humans are simply making the Earth increasingly uncomfortable, or lethal, for some life. If life can survive the End-Permian extinction event, then it can certainly deal with a little bit of Anthropocene.
As I thought about the appealing trope of the “fragile Earth.” I considered the antidote of Isabelle Stengers’ “intrusion of Gaia” from her book, In Catastrophic Times (2015) as a different way of thinking about the Earth that can cure us of thoughts of its fragility. For Stengers “nature” has left behind its traditional role and now has the power to question us all” (2015, 4). As she describes, “In this new era, we are no longer only dealing with a nature to be “protected” from the damage caused by humans, but also with a nature capable of threatening our modes of thinking and of living for good” (20).
Of course, “Gaia’s intrusion” suggests a return to an Earth that has always been there but that many, comfortable in their petroleum-supported modernity have forgotten. Many on the planet have always experienced the environment as harsh, without the air conditioning of affluence. Others just haven’t directly experienced its harshness for some generations, their lives made easy by the use of fossil fuel tools.
So maybe when we see the sea turtles and talk of a “fragile Earth,” it is just a symptom of the fragility of our own human cultures as adaptive responses to living on the planet? Couldn’t our melancholy (fear?) at the possible disappearance of a species nothing more than the realization that if it can happen to them it can happen to us, and conversely if “we can save them” then we can save ourselves. If we can keep the rhinos and the giraffes and orangutans and sea turtles alive in elaborate zoos—artificial environments that technically mimic the world in which the animals evolved—we might be able to use the same elaborate human techne to rebuild the life-support systems of spaceship Earth.
In writing of the intrusion of Gaia back into human affairs, Stengers alerts us to the ways that it “upsets the order of temporalities. The pharmacological art is required because the time of struggle cannot postpose the time of creation” (2015, 104). There will, in other words, be no “after” in which we can rest and rebuild, she observes. We will need to make do as the Earth some consider “fragile” heads right for us.