This manifesto is not to weep for what has been destroyed or to submit to the weight of melancholy: it is to CREATE, and to do it NOW.—“The Anthropocene in Chile: Toward a New Pact of Coexistence” (my emphasis)
Present challenges and potential futures; principles for a pact on coexistence; proposals for living and thinking the Anthropocene in Chile: the core sections of the Manifesto speak to the present with the hope of activating futures other than those that, on current course, are the inevitable destination. How not to get there? How “to invent new possible futures”?
The Manifesto offers a basis for a wider dialogue on what it means to address the meteorological crisis that has geological effects and results from “colonialism, capitalism, and a consumption-oriented society.” It is a provocation to a dialogue that has been overwhelmed by the field of earth sciences. What do the social sciences, humanities, and arts bring to the conversation?
The scholars who have composed this manifesto, from many disciplines, are agreed that “discourses on ‘sustainability’ and ‘ecology’ are not able to respond to the scale of the challenge.” This is a welcome starting point given that climate adaptation and mitigation discourses tend to be overwhelmed by faith in the arranged marriage of a social science of sustainability with a natural science of ecology.
The Manifesto offers an alternative to the marriage of social and natural science: “a treaty to redefine the way we live together, all of us, animals, vegetables, minerals, and microorganisms on Earth. . . . The Anthropocene invites us to problematize the epic narrative of autonomy, recognizing with humility that our existence is a precarious ecological achievement.” At the same time, multiple modes of living and thinking that precarious achievement generate a diversity of “knowledges, identities, and doings.” Therefore, actions and interventions need to be situated “in and with the communities, ecosystems, and specific institutions that live and suffer in the Anthropocene.” This requires creativities that move away from “the solutions (and the questions) that have often guided our political, cultural, and scientific practices. It is not about improving our analytical abilities but, instead, about reformulating the ways of knowing that we have naturalized in the West. It is about daring to explore, experiment, and speculate in a creative and collaborative manner. The Anthropocene pushes us to revise our demarcation between valid and illegitimate knowledge, experts and nonexperts. It invites us to cultivate a profound humility and a careful and constructive opening in the context of multiple sensibilities, practices, and knowledge that have been eclipsed by our technocratic logics.” Hence, “while a large number of the narratives about ecological crisis and climate change orbit around pessimism and catastrophes, we . . . wager on the ability of planetary changes to create new relations and possibilities, and to open more integral horizons of action, to bring together new political and social institutions, to redefine scientific practices and our way of everyday living.”
Having redefined the problem and proposed alternative routes to solutions, the Manifesto addresses the reorganization of collective life: creating spaces for inclusive deliberation, a politics of solidarity with “multiple beings and forces to which we are vitally connected.” It proposes that law should reestablish the commons as the basis of regulatory schemes, that law should not be anthropocentric, that the term “natural resources,” so beloved of extractivists, should not be the defining concept of humans’ relationship with land and ocean. Education, transdisciplinarity, and spirituality should be focal points in shifting ways of knowing—“breaking with the functionalism and utilitarianism that has guided our relationship with the Earth” and reclaiming care: “We must recover in Chile ways of coexistence that are more loving, attentive, and intertwined with the beings and things that surround us.” The Manifesto proposes buen vivir and ancestral knowledges as resources for reconceptualizing human-nature interdependencies. In sum, the Manifesto is (in my view) a good start for a South-to-North dialogue on the scale of the conceptual shifts necessary—and possible—in scholarship and activism that addresses the roots as well as the effects of climate disorder.
Entering Chilean colleagues’ discussion from the southern tip of a different continent, the question I ask is this: What would an equivalent manifesto look like in South Africa if it were to have traction in public and scholarly discussion on climate crisis?
My starting reference point is the drought crisis that confronted the city of Cape Town, my home, earlier in 2018 when a lack of rainfall over several years threatened the city with the prospect of dry taps. It was a moment when liberal democracy encountered its dependence on rainfall. Even the university was threatened with closure. Against a background of three successive years of intermittent campus closures in response to the calls for decolonization from #RhodesMustFall, the university executive now found itself addressing the Anthropocene head-on—in the words of one student, “#RainMustFall.”
Yet the link between the two potential campus closures is not just a hashtag and an “R.” It is in their collision, in one historical moment, on one university campus that experienced Earth systems in crisis and disorder in response to what has been done to them in the name of economic well-being and science, and students in uprising against coloniality imposed on this continent in the name of the claimed superior sciences and religion of modernist Europe two hundred years before. In 2017 and 2018, then, the university found itself at risk of closure from “nature” and “society,” both of which are crises brought on by the rise of capitalist extractivism and the sciences that have made extractivism possible, including race sciences that justified the unequal use of labor to enable extractivism. The moment exemplified the historical collision of the conditions of the Anthropocene with the conditions of decoloniality.
The Chilean manifesto rightly refuses to adopt a world-weary historicism, and offers a futurist orientation as a new defining question for scholarship that has too long been preoccupied with the past at the expense of the present and the future. However, in southern Africa the likelihood that futurism without history would gain traction is small. For most especially in the arena of environmental matters, both science and governance have proceeded with a determined ignorance of history. The result is that South Africa in particular has become a terrain of ghosts and ancestors whose presence in the present and the future has been ignored. The inheritance of the past cannot be ignored if we are to work toward justice-based ecological living. The alternative is that the country tries to solve the collision of cries for land justice and the screams of Earth systems without understanding the sources of our inherited categories. Rather than replacing historicism with a new futurism, as proposed by the Chilean manifesto, a different approach to temporality is warranted in a South Africa context: one that does not split them into the three conceptual categories of past, present, and future, but perhaps a PastPresentFuture, to borrow from the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. South Africa desperately needs, in its Anthropocene responsiveness, to grasp what Cape Town has witnessed: a collision of past and future in the recent present, which is the collision of decoloniality with the Anthropocene.
Working with “PastPresentFuture” would make it possible to address inequality and racism inherited by environmental sciences and infrastructures.
The social fault lines that opened in Cape Town’s portending water crisis required an understanding of settler colonialism as a history of control over water in order to begin to understand how water, once free in a stream, had turned into a commodity that was quantified in kiloliters and megaliters and salable to customers. Mandela’s government had changed the law of water from one owned in relation to territory (in the colonial and Apartheid versions of water) to something to which all citizens have rights of access. But by stealth neoliberalism had turned water magically into a commodity, available to “customers,” in Cape Town’s own goals for its water managers. As a commodity for customers, water takes on a very different nature, assembled in a discourse of environmental economics that situates it as “science” in the workings of “environmental management” with its constantly shifting political claims to political neutrality.
Working with the failure of modernist versions of nature as they have serially shifted in science and governance enables one to avoid the error of setting “present science” in opposition to “ancestral spirituality.” Instead, understanding how moderns have built a global society that takes without reciprocating lays a foundation for recovering reciprocity with the cycles of life, which is what will return modernists to living as part of the planet, not as takers from it. Yet much of modernity-coloniality has represented that reverence as a matter of “spirit” that is opposite to science. In other words, the very idea of “the sacred,” “animism,” “witchcraft,” “superstition,” and “spirituality” are situated in a discourse that places them on the opposite side of the divide from “science.” Understanding the history of the rise of the opposition of science and the sacred makes it possible to rework the deployment of concepts like science and the sacred. It is crucial to not make the mistake of assuming that all societies share the notion of “the sacred”—which I see as a matter of translation, an effect of the ideas of modernity borne southward by colonials. Similarly, it is crucial to recognize that what is claimed to be “neutral science,” most especially in environmental matters, shifts and changes. That does not require rejecting science—far from it—but it does require situating science and its borderlines.
Histories of translation also assist in reclaiming an ecological economics in a discipline that has been hijacked by finance. This is important because it would be valuable to add to the Manifesto a recognition that the global form of economics in terms of which the Anthropocene, in its many guises, is ruled is like a feeble machine copy of what is understood to be economy in contemporary field-based sciences like anthropology. Absent too, therefore, is the question of how to strategize for the struggle that is necessary in order to persuade the powers that be of a way of thinking and knowing that contests the fossil fuel lobby and its conservative politicians. Addressing the history of financialized economics makes that dialogue possible. To point out that the “ekos” (oikos) of economics is the same “ekos” (oikos) of “ecology” and “ecumene,” and that the word ekos meant “household,” is to demonstrate the narrowing of the discipline of economics over time to exclude life and well-being. Integrative responses are needed to the world making conjured by neoliberals who argue for economic development über alles, including as the golden thread for addressing climate change—in the process, rendering climate debates in Africa as “Development Mark II.” Yet multiple empirical studies published in the annals of social science have demonstrated that “development” à la World Bank has been catastrophic. How can so many climate scientists planning mitigation and adaptation be ignorant of those critiques?
Discussion on multiple versions of desired futures activates the question of how different disciplines “do” the future. Modeling climate is one example. In governance, dialogue on conceiving and enacting futures is crucial at a time in which very quickly an extreme and dangerous reductionism has emerged in political life via big data and algorithms that very few fully understand. What kinds of societal futures are brought into being by data infrastructures and their sealed-in interpretations? What kinds of ecological futures are actioned by the digital economy? There has been a campaign against “blood diamonds”—what of “blood tech” when the digital economy depends on rare earth extraction made possible by militias and/or multinationals involved in the destruction of villages and their ecologies?
To sum up, I offer one question that I think the Manifesto ought to engage in order to have the necessary traction in the global South beyond Latin America. It is this: What approaches would enable decolonizing in, and of, the “Anthropocene”?