Our planet has entered into an era of instability for the first time in about 11,500 years. Biologists warn that a “sixth extinction” is underway, while geologists confirm that we have long left the Holocene, a period in the earth’s history where humans and nonhumans were able to flourish alongside one another (holos). The geological epoch into which we have entered has been called an age of human beings or Anthropocene due to our species’ destabilizing effects on life itself. In such a time, we no longer imagine a safe or sublime refuge from “nature” like Kant or Shelley.1 We encounter intense storms and tides of algae like pendulums our species set into motion—ones that now swing back at us with a force of their own. Culturally and philosophically, we are trading in our confessions and lyrics for apocalyptic epics set in cosmic space and deep time. We think about where we’ll live according to the melting of glaciers. We measure critical thresholds of carbon in the air. And we talk casually about the end of the world.
In this era of ecological disaster, attempts at a new frontier are ubiquitous—flights and departures that, like Sputnik or medieval theology, promise to catapult us out of this world. An Instagram ad pops up with a single white man sitting padmāsana before the bare, amber plateaus of the American Southwest. A different ad on my way to work invites me to be a “pioneer” on “a new frontier.” Elon Musk. Richard Branson. The Fyre Festival. And, of course, governments that abandoned their constituents and the planet long ago. “From the 1980s on,” describes Bruno Latour, “the ruling classes” “concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else . . . [They] stopped purporting to lead and began instead to shelter themselves from the world. We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol . . . The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.”2
This absence of a common world or worldlessness—this iteration of capitalism in which the state is of and for financial markets and daily life is measured in terms of self-entrepreneurship3—has left many of us alone and seemingly unable to respond to every major looming challenge. A sense of climate despair4 and faithlessness in government5 is widespread around the globe, particularly among young people. From hurricanes to pandemics, from mutual aid projects to doomsday bunkers, a growing number of people feel that their governments will likely not prevent the next disaster or in some cases even try to save them from it. And yet, climate change is also intruding on these systems of governments from the outside, disrupting them and reconfiguring them. It is simultaneously bringing us together in unprecedented ways with a shared threat and a new sense of history.
Just when another world no longer seemed possible, it became inevitable. In truth, a new (climatic) regime will be forced onto our systems of government in this century whether we act or don’t, whether we want it to or not, and sadly, whether we are more or less responsible for climate change and more or less able to shelter ourselves from it. It seems likely that this new era will increase our disparities and make all of our problems far worse. But is it also possible to imagine, in the face of a common catastrophe, the creation of more just and equitable worlds? Could living at the door of this shared crisis compel us to change the way we treat one another and the earth? We need a different way to live, think, and assemble in this new era—nothing less than a philosophy for the end of the world will do. We need to consider this moment of transition in a way that sharpens our understanding of it, touches us, and introduces the possibility of a different future.
Not unlike the billionaires' space race of 2021, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt began The Human Condition (1958) by reflecting on the first artificial satellite in space. Arendt described the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite as a turning point: “an earth-born object made by man . . . [had been] launched into the universe.”6 Still, what shocked Arendt intellectually was that the common response to this moment of “human power and mastery” was not pride or awe, but “relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’”7 The sentiment, Arendt remarked, was “extraordinary.”8 For “although Christians [had] spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers [had] looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind [had] ever conceived of the earth as a prison . . . or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon.”9
The 2021 space race among billionaires Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos gave us a sense that the desire for similar departures will grow as the world gasps and roils in catastrophe.10 Still, the 2021 space race also clarified a significant mutation in our desire to flee Earth since the publication Arendt’s The Human Condition in 1958. After Sputnik, there was the declaration in Russia that “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.”11 Similarly, the American astronaut would famously announce, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Our era is different in an important respect: Today it is not humankind, but wealthy individuals who imagine taking flight from the earth or living in a colony on Mars. Only they, despite a pandemic that would seem to spare no one, can seclude themselves on private islands to avoid a virus,12 receive life-saving therapeutics that are otherwise unavailable to the public,13 or make considerable wealth in financial markets during a global shutdown.14 Or go to space, of course. In 1958, Hannah Arendt remarked that “mankind” itself was experiencing “world alienation”—a collective flight from the earth into the universe that signaled its very “repudiation” of its earthly “habitat.”15 This common or collective notion of humankind is, for the most part, absent in our own era. Except, of course, in the name and inherent within the geological epoch of the Anthropocene.
In this particular regard, what the Anthropocene narrative offers is extremely tempting. For those of us who are not wealthy enough to start a colony on Mars or “shelter [ourselves] from the world,” as Latour put it, the Anthropocene puts an end to the fantasy of sheer individualism, worldlessness, and human exceptionalism once and for all.16 The Anthropocene epic tells us that human beings were never separate from nature, nor do we live as individuals. It describes human beings as a collective force and situates us in a web of life. The Anthropocene also introduces a shared sense of time and events after the so-called “end of history.” This includes an eschatology that collectivizes, historicizes, and politicizes the public before the growing threat of climate change, offering what some believe is a new approach to solidarity at a time when solidarity has been difficult to find or produce. This new sense of time (chapter 1) and narrative (chapter 2) begs for a specific form of politics to address it (chapter 3). And so, while many have taken issue with the name Anthropocene for good reasons,17 there is also a wonder, a sense, a desperation, perhaps, among some about whether this awful Anthropocene, or whatever we call this new period in our planet’s history, might also hold unprecedent possibilities for a different way of life or philosophy for the end of the world.18
A philosophy for the end of the world could mean many different things at once. It could mean learning how to think beyond our own experience of the “world” in order to think about deep, planetary history. It could mean a responsibility to narrate the end of the Holocene and the birth of the Anthropocene, or whatever one chooses to call it. It could mean a form of politics—a state that redirects public funds away from fossil fuel subsidies, for instance—or a call to “begin the end of the world,” as Aimé Césaire once wrote. One hopes, ultimately, it could come to mean a posthuman condition where forms of life that were thought to be beneath us or “worldless” could appear alongside us in the public sphere.19
In this book, the phrase “the end of the world” will be understood in an open or polyvalent sense in the three chapters on time, art, and politics. These three essays are bound by a common theme: they are all a response to the end of the world as we know it against the specter of catastrophic climate change. Folding the history of gender, race, colonialism, and capital into geological time, it uses the philosophical method of genealogy to retell the story of human beings in the Anthropocene and direct us towards ways of life that are outside of it. Examining contemporary art, it considers how today’s reinvention of epic marks a transition out of postmodernity and challenges us to face climate change collectively. The final section on politics proposes a form of democracy that will have to be won and yet transformed into a zōocracy (from zōē and kratos), a rule of all of the living that includes posthuman delegations. This book is not intended to be a comprehensive study of the Anthropocene, or philosophy, for that matter. Nevertheless, it considers how we might reclaim the geological term “Anthropocene” and revise our way of life in view of it. But why take up a controversial and obscure term like the Anthropocene at all?
The philosopher Jacques Derrida once remarked that our responsibility at “the end of the world” will be “to change all [the] names . . . that will come upon us,” “beginning with ‘ours’”—these “names . . . will come upon us more than we . . . choose them,” he added.20 As Donna Haraway put it differently in Storytelling for Earthly Survival, “[The word] Anthropocene is in play. It’s a good enough word . . . So I would have done it differently . . . We work with what we’ve got.”21 When one commits to changing the meaning of words like “Anthropocene” or “democracy,” as Jacques Derrida wrote in another context, we are choosing to become “delegates of [a] word” or inheritors of a word, even as “[w]e do not yet know what we have inherited.”22 This sense of inheritance or commitment is akin to the art practice of détournement.: to appropriate words like Anthropocene or democracy and reclaim them, renarrate them, reroute or even hijack them. Taking up the word Anthropocene in this way would require a certain rethinking of anthrōpos and its history, as well as wrestling with a way of thinking in philosophy, history, and politics that has limited the “world” to a “specifically human” or “man-made world.”23 What I argue in the conclusion, based on the work of Michel Serres and others, is that philosophers, historians, and political theorists have not yet “spoken of the world: instead they [have only] endlessly discussed men.”24
A solution to this problem, to matter at all whatsoever, cannot take the form of a flight or escape from our world (either in thought or in practice) into outer space, a distant time, or the universe. We must find a way to think that does not “confine [itself] to . . . an analysis . . . of the human condition,” as Hannah Arendt wrote of her project in The Human Condition, but one that, on the other hand, does not make the mistake Arendt warned us about after Sputnik: withdrawing entirely from “the frailty of human affairs” on Earth.25 As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it brilliantly in Stone, we require a way of thinking that knows that “the world is not for us. [That the] play has been long, and we are latecomers. Yet it is easy to go too far, to lovely only unpeopled ecologies . . . That perspective is just as partial, and repeats in a secular mode a medieval theology that enjoys disdain of the sublunary world, that takes pleasure in declaring human lives insignificant.”26 On the one hand, we need an approach that stays in the fray of things with nonhumans—what Donna Haraway calls staying with the trouble with fellow critters or oddkin on Earth.27 On the other hand, we need to know how to be human at the end of this “world.” We need to know how to live, think, assemble, love, repair, eat, enjoy, mourn, and die in the Anthropocene.
This book uses this approach to rethink three perennial questions for the humanities—time, art, and politics—for a new geological and political moment. The first chapter on history recounts and reperiodizes the new grand narrative of our time: the birth of the so-called Anthropocene. One reason for doing this is to correct the story of the Anthropocene—to clarify who and what is responsible for it. Another, less obvious reason is to think about why it seems important today to tell this type of story—a geological epic—and to engage with the question of how we should tell it. In contrast with a neoliberal culture of confessional and entrepreneurial narratives, and well beyond the so-called petits récits or little narratives of postmodern society, the Anthropocene epic narrates a history of our entire species and folds this story into geological time.28 I propose retelling this epic with tools from philosophy’s counterpart to geological dating, the genealogical method, which periodizes segments of time and events in a more differentiated way and in terms of power and resistance. Using these tools, I critique a universalizing, colonialist account of the Anthropocene that Kathyrn Yusoff has called “White Geology,”29 and offer a contrasting historical narrative, a counterhistory, for human beings in the Anthropocene. To tell this story differently, I engage closely with the fields of postcolonial theory, Black studies, and feminist theory, and I utilize certain resources for historical modes of thinking in contemporary Continental philosophy. The aim of this chapter is not merely a critique or a new understanding of the Anthropocene. It is a map or cartography that directs us towards ways of life that are outside of it.
In the second chapter on art, I consider an emerging mode of art in which human beings are exposed to the elements in a new way. I focus specifically on new works of art and narrative about strange weather. Odd weather is one of the growing ways human beings experience climate change phenomenologically or beyond abstract scientific data.30 Even those who do not “believe” in climate change experience it. The weather is also one of first things human beings talk about with one another or share narratively, today and at least since the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
I open the second chapter on art by considering a contemporary play about the reinvention of epic in which human survival depends on the weather. I then examine a series of contemporary works of art about strange weather as a microcosm of a certain reinvention of epic in our time. I argue that a new kind of epic is being written by contemporary artists like Octavio Abúndez, Sarah Anne Johnson, or Anne Washburn, one that displaces the primacy of the personal lyric once more. I attempt to situate this art in a unique historical context in order to better understand the kinds of stories we are telling each other in this new era. A new body of art seems to differ from the threat of nature imagined by those before us. Immanuel Kant, for example, once described the experience of thunderstorms as sublime due to the human ability to find safe harbor from nature in the mind. By contrast, contemporary works of art often leave us vulnerable and suspended in the moment before we can be “marked safe.” The elements no longer confront us as individuals, but as a species. They do not turn us inward, but leave us exposed. They do not suggest an individual’s triumph over nature, but a coming blow to any or all of us. I outline five practices that appear to describe the emerging traits of an art beyond postmodern art—works of art that mark the resurgence of metanarrative after postmodernism, on the one hand, and also extend postmodern creative practices like appropriations and constraints into what I will call, with an asterisk, postromantic practices. As Isabelle Stengers describes in In Catastrophic Times, “We are no longer dealing (only) with a wild and threatening nature, nor with a fragile nature to be protected, nor a nature to be mercilessly exploited. The case is new.”31 I conclude by considering different ways of looking at clouds.
The final question of this book is whether the specter of climate change, and the collectivization and politicization it creates against the prospect of impending catastrophe, has the potential to bring us together and motivate political reforms in ways that were unthinkable or impossible in prior decades. In the third and final chapter on politics, then, I consider the political possibilities for a new era or epic of “human beings” in the Anthropocene. This chapter begins with W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Comet,” a short story about the end of the world that was written in the midst of a flu pandemic and the White supremacist violence of the Red Summer. Du Bois’s desire for an end to the White world launches a new and very different kind of worldmaking that does not depend on human exceptionalism and its exclusions. I consider the worlds that must be ended—the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, and others. I discuss the ways in which forty years of neoliberal capitalism has left many of us worldless, on the one hand, and yet actively subsidizing fossil capitalism with public funds, on the other. Still, I argue that the Anthropocene hastens an exit from neoliberal life that might not have been thinkable or achievable before, and that a philosophy for end of the world requires directing a new sense of collectivity and history towards a radical form of democracy on the part of human beings.
By democracy, to be clear, I mean a form of politics that would contest or detourn a failed, forty-plus-year experiment in privatization and technocratic government, or rule by market experts. I mean a form of politics that was described by Plato as “oligarchy’s enemy” and one that “comes into being when the poor win”32; a political system where “the rich put up the money”33 to “build a great and beautiful city”;34 and which Plato very curiously says amounted to a certain freedom from human sovereignty “being planted in the very beasts.”35 I also mean a form of politics that resists ethnic notions of a “people” because it “throws open [its] city to the world,” as Thucydides put it;36 it “[has] put slaves on equal terms with free men and metics with citizens,” cried the “Old Oligarch,” and it has applied “the law of equality…in the relations of women with men,” lamented Plato.37 Still, in the end, I argue that a rule of the “people” or dēmos is not sufficient by itself for an Anthropocene. Humans must somehow learn how to appear en masse in a public space that was never divorced from its environs; we must cultivate forms of association that are not based upon a separation between the human species and its others.38
In sum, I argue that a radical form of democracy must not only be conceived of and won, but transformed into a zoocracy, a rule or assembly of all of the living. What I mean by zoocracy is a rule of zōē or life itself that gives and sustains life. It would be more than a rule of a people or dēmos, even more than a rule of human beings or anthrōpoi, that is, more than the rule of a specific and superior form of life (zōon politikon; zōon logon echon), as Aristotle described human beings in his Politics. This would require organizing towards a form of power that would be possible only if millions of humans begin to appear with the full and monstrous force of their environments. An array of time-honored cosmologies, hierarchies, and histories narrate a different story, of course: that other forms of life are somehow separate from us, outside of our political realm, or beneath the dignity and rank of human beings. But today it is simply no longer possible to write other forms of life or the planet outside of our public sphere. In fact, we don’t even have to envision a “democracy…extended to things” or a “parliament of [nonhuman] things,” as Bruno Latour put it in 1993,39 because the climate change we’ve been hearing about for decades is now here, getting worse, and announcing a new political forum that humans have yet to join seriously. We will have to invent the names, practices, and institutions for such a politics—zoocracy, geocracy, posthuman delegation, “parliament of the living.”40 This is the difficult work that remains to be done, but all of the elements are already here for it.
Thank you for reading and for this opportunity to think about the end of the world together.
1. In explaining the experience of the sublime in nature in Section 28 of the Critique of Judgment, Kant writes: “[W]e found in our mind a superiority over nature itself in its immensity. . . . [Nature’s might] reveals in us . . . an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature,” in Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 120–1; see also, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” (1817 version), in which he writes: “Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee / I seem as in a trance sublime and strange / To muse on my own separate fantasy, / My own, my human mind,” in The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume Three, eds. Neil Fraistat and Nora Crook (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 79–88.
2. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018), 2.
3. For a description of neoliberalism as a specific historical mutation of capitalism in the twentieth century that is distinct from so-called liberalism, see my article “Neoliberalism and the Future of Democracy,” in Philosophy Today 62, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 627–650.
4. Elizabeth Marks, Caroline Hickman, Panu Pihkala, Susan Clayton, Eric R. Lewandowski, Elouise E. Mayall et al., “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon,” available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955.
5. Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1, 28. France’s political chair at the Collège de France, Pierre Rosanvallon, argues that representative governments around the world have witnessed the statistical “erosion of citizens’ confidence in political leaders and institutions” over the past twenty-five years. Rosanvallon cites rates of trust and voting abstentions in multiple studies, including: Dogan, Political Mistrust and the Discrediting of Politicians; Capdevielle, Démocratie; and Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945.
6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 1.
7. Arendt, The Human Condition, 1.
8. Arendt, 1.
9. Arendt, 2.
10. “To anyone I’ve offended,” said Elon Musk to applause on a May 2021 Saturday Night Live episode during the Covid-19 pandemic, “I just want to say I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship.” See “‘SNL’: Read Full Transcript of Elon Musk’s Opening Monologue on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/ snl-read-full-transcript-elon-musks-opening-monologue-saturday-night-live- 1589849, accessed August 17, 2021.
11. Arendt, 1. My italics.
12. David D. Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard, “Coronavirus Invades Saudi Inner Sanctum,” New York Times, April 8, 2020.
13. Peter Beaumont, Sarah Boseley, and Jessica Glenza, “Provider of Trump Covid Drug Is President’s Golf Friend,” The Guardian, October 8, 2020.
14. Ruchir Sharma, “The Billionaire Boom: How the Super-Rich Soaked Up Covid Cash,” Financial Times, May 14, 2021.
15. Arendt, The Human Condition, 1, 2, 6, 262. My italics.
16. Latour, Down to Earth, 2.
17. See, for example, Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 160; Phillip John Usher, “Untranslating the Anthropocene,” Diacritics 44, no. 3 (2016): 56–77; Christine Cuomo, “Against the Idea of an Anthropocene Epoch: Ethical, Political and Scientific Concerns,” Biogeosystem Technique 4.1 (2017): 4–8.
18. Jacques Derrida, Advances, trans. Philippe Lynes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 48.
19. Cf. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 184–185. Here Heidegger presents “three theses” describing the stone as worldless (weltlos), the animal as poor in world (weltarm), and man as world-forming (weltbildend). Likewise, in The Human Condition, “the world, the realm of human affairs,” is strictly an endeavor of “human beings” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 247). Arendt goes to explain: “[T]he world itself . . . is not identical with the earth or with nature . . . as the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together . . . . the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time” (Arendt, 52). The world is made up of acts or deeds that are “the exclusive prerogative of man” and have a “specifically human quality,” actions that “cannot even be imagined outside of the society of men”—“neither a beast nor a god is capable of it” (Arendt, 22–23).
20. Derrida, Advances, 48.
21. Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, directed by Fabrizio Terranova, 2016.
22. Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 9.
23. Arendt, The Human Condition, 22, 52.
24. Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 43.
25. Arendt, The Human Condition, 1, 6, 222, 248. See in particular Arendt’s notion of world alienation (chapter VI), Sputnik as an “‘escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’” (prologue, 1), and her discussion of the telescope and the development of a new science that “considers the nature of the earth from the viewpoint of the universe” (chapter VI, 248).
26. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 63.
27. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 4, 103.
28. On the question of epic or grand narrative, see in particular Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Lyotard writes: “We no longer have recourse to grand narratives” or epic in contemporary society (60); “The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses” (37), and “the little narrative [petit récit] remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention” (60) in our time.
29. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), xi.
30. For a conversation on the problem of a phenomenological experience of climate change, see “The Meaning of Climate Change: Dipesh Chakrabarty with Travis Holloway,” in Philosophy Today, forthcoming 2022. For an analysis of the relationship between scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge in “postmodern” society, see Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
31. Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Lüneburg: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 46.
32. Plato, Republic, 557a. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Plato’s Republic are of those of Allan Bloom in Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
33. “Old Oligarch,” Constitution of Athens, 1.13. All translations are those found in Pseudo-Xenophon, The Old Oligarch: Pseudo-Xenophon’s Constitution of Athens, trans. K. R. Hughes, M. Thorpe, and M. A. Thorpe (London: London Association of Classical Teachers, 1968).
34. “Old Oligarch,” Constitution of Athens, 2.9–10.
35. Plato, Republic, 562c; 563c.
36. Thucydides, 2.29. Translation modified from Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. C. F. Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919), 325.
37. “Old Oligarch,” 1.12. Translation modified. Plato, Republic, 563b
38. See, for example, Arendt, The Human Condition, 52. Cf. Serres, The Natural Contract, 38.
39. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 142.
40. David Wood proposes extending Derrida’s “democracy-to-come” to a “parliament of the living.” See David Wood, “On the Way to Econstruction,” Environmental Philosophy 3, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 35–46.