The Anthropocene heralds a rupture within the modern imaginary, calling for modes of thinking in obligations beyond the co-ordinates that have hitherto defined that worldview.
Mass extinctions, the melting of ice caps, the acidification of the oceans, and extreme weather events all signal the gravity of the contemporary ecological crisis. Many now think we have entered a new climatic regime (the Anthropocene), quite distinct from the previous geological epoch (the Holocene) in which human civilisation developed.
Three approaches dominate discussions about the Anthropocene. First, an ‘official’ geological Anthropocene, debated within the relevant sub-committees of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and in the pages of specialist books and journals. The Anthropocene, in this context, is understood through the presence (or not) of a globally significant marker in the earth’s strata, readable many thousands of years into the future, that signifies a shift away from the prevailing conditions of the Holocene.
Second, an account of the Anthropocene that takes a more holistic view, pioneered by those working within the cross-disciplinary field of Earth System Science (ESS). Emerging in the 1980s, ESS understands all components of the earth as forming an integrated dynamic system and takes as its object of study the interactions between all of the earth’s elements: water; ice; atmosphere; organic life; the earth’s crust, its tectonic plates, and core; the moon’s gravitational pull; and the flow of energy from the sun. Within this grand scenography, the Anthropocene is understood by reference to transformations within a number of the Earth’s systems and cycles, beyond the conditions of Holocene variability.
A third approach entails a more expansive reading of the Anthropocene problematic, which understands the term to refer to the near-dominant role that human societies now have in shaping planetary life. This broader understanding of the Anthropocene as a new ‘human age’, propelled into being through the forces of modern industrial capitalism, has largely been deployed and debated within the humanities and social sciences. In this context, a splurge of neologisms have emerged that seek to counter the various limitations associated with the ‘Anthropocene’ nomenclature. The ‘Capitalocene’, ‘Eurocene’ and ‘Technocene’ have all been offered as correctives to the supposed scientism of the Anthropocene thesis, which is often accused of ignoring the historically contingent social relations that have pushed the planet into its newly warmed, and significantly destabilised, state.
Whatever terminology or disciplinary approach we privilege, the emerging contours of the ‘new climatic regime’ have become a defining feature of the contemporary political scene, bringing into relief, and giving new meaning to, the ecological entanglements that define the human condition. Whilst the capacity for human action to reform landscapes, disrupt ecosystems or otherwise shape the environment to our ends has a long history, the powers unleashed through the forces of modern economies, particularly through the widespread burning of fossil fuels, has shown that human agency has today taken on planetary dimensions.
In a striking example of this potency, Clive Hamilton points to the fact human induced alterations to the chemical composition of the atmosphere are so profound that the onset of future ice ages — predicable through the study of patterned eccentricities in the earth’s orbit of the sun — will not come to pass. Modern practices of production, consumption and habitation, set in motion over a remarkably brief two hundred years or so, have irredeemably diverted the course of planetary history.1Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), ix; see also: Curt Stager, Deep Future: The Next 10,000 Years of Life on Earth (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011), 34-42.
Throughout modernity we have defined our social and political forms as transcending any connection to the inorganic, the non-human or the environmental. In political thought, the aspirations of human civilisation are understood to depend on the postulation of an anthropogenic superiority in which a ‘natural condition’ (‘the state of nature’, as Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and so many others have evoked) is overcome in the pursuit of a truly ‘political’ life. And in legal theory, the triumph of positivism — the view that rights are made and so can be re-made by human agency — is symptomatic of the Enlightenment belief in the human capacity to transcend the bonds and burdens imposed by ‘Nature’.
The moderns’ flight from the ‘old attachments’ to place, custom, tradition, and the supposed necessities of a natural order is deeply embedded in prevailing accounts of human freedom and the aspirations of political ‘progress’. That humans are autonomous from Nature and therefore able, as the etymology infers, to grant to the self (autos) its own law (nomos) is a central plank in the modern imaginary. But the new climatic condition augurs a new age of attachments and entanglements as we become increasingly enmeshed within a set of natural forces from which our forebears so doggedly sought escape.
Viewed through the optics in the Anthropocene, we find ourselves within rather than set against the ‘natural environment’, traversing the various bifurcations so cherished by the orthodoxies of modernity: Nature/Society, human/nonhuman, animate/inanimate. The prospect of human survival in this new epoch is bound up with a range of nonhuman forces that our legal and political thinking has approached as a largely uninteresting backdrop against which human political dramas are played out. In the relatively stable conditions of the Holocene this ‘backdrop ontology’ was perhaps understandable. But the Anthropocene tells us that the backdrop is beginning to move, the scenery and props have come to life.
Modern political life ensures that the normative forces that bind a community are mediated through a set of institutions — courts, tribunals, legislatures — that Simone Weil described as a ‘middle region’: neither sacred nor profane and marked by a studied ‘mediocrity’. These institutions, for Weil, are implicated in a generalised ‘uprootedness’ within the human condition, something Weil felt most acutely in the proliferation of ‘rights’ which, she says, ‘hang in the middle air, and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in the earth’.2Simone Weil, ‘Human Personality’ in Sian Miles (ed.), Simone Weil: An Anthology (London: Penguin, 2005), 69-98, 86. Rights are tied to questions of measurement and exchange, the judicial economy of claim and counter-claim that distorts the demands for justice made by the afflicted and oppressed.
Weil found in obligation an antidote to the prevailing conditions of modern uprootedness.3Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001); see also: Simone Weil, ‘Draft Statement for a Statement of Human Obligations’ in Sian Miles (ed.), Simone Weil: An Anthology (London: Penguin, 2005), 221-230. Obligation — with its etymological root in ligare, to bind — is connected to the ‘rootedness’ of place, community and environment. Weil’s privileging of obligation ahead of right, and the ‘taking root’ (enracinement) that obligations express and facilitate, offers provocations for legal and political thought in the context of our new climatic regime that I want to briefly explore here.
At the very least, obligations must be understood as necessary correlates to rights: to have a right means that someone else has a reciprocal obligation. But Weil understood that obligations exceed this simple correlativity. Obligations do discrete normative work, describing a set of relational and existential elements that are immanent to the social practices that constitute collective life. Understood in this way, obligations refer to the primordial bonds that constitute community, prior to any articulation of right, and attest to a form of normativity that subsists beneath or alongside the work done in the institutions of the ‘middle region’.
Attending to obligations, in the manner suggested by Weil, engages a form of analysis that takes as its primary object of study a set of existential concerns that precede any account of law’s institutionalised practices. What is at stake in Weil’s reading of obligation, then, is the normative force that inheres the vital processes that sustain the human habitation of the earth. In this way, an attention to obligation foregrounds the conditions of possibility for rights, calling to mind a network of duties, dispersed within a bare and nebulous sociality, that is logically prior to the modern institutions in which contemporary rights claims are articulated.
Weil associates obligations with three interrelated terms: attention, fragility and the impersonal, each of which indicates areas of concern for legal and political theorising in the context of the new climatic situation. Let me unpack each in turn.
The nature of our obligations, for Weil, is born out of our ability to dedicate our attention to human needs. Attention is not a matter of careful scrutiny or concentration but instead a kind of suspension or hesitation; something more readily discerned in the French where the resonance between l’attention (‘attention’) and attendre (‘waiting’) is clear. Attention involves ‘stepping back from all roles, including that of the observer’4Sian Miles, ‘Introduction’ in Sian Miles (ed.), Simone Weil: An Anthology (London: Penguin, 2005), 1-68, 8. in order to open oneself to a given object in a way that is not determined in advance. Attention, in this sense, entails a particular kind of attunement and sensitivity in which thought is simultaneously opened up and emptied out, where a kind of ‘void’ is created which allows an object to penetrate the subject. As an ethical orientation, attention wards against premature or ready-made solutions to ethical challenges; as Emilios Christodoulidis suggests, ‘the most incisive way to capture the function of attention is as a resistance to (what Heidegger would call) the readiness to hand (Zuhandenheit) of the meaning construction afforded by the [institutions of the] middle range.’5Emilios Christodoulidis, ‘Dogma, Or The Deep Rootedness of Obligation’ in Daniel Matthews and Scott Veitch eds., Law, Obligation Community (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 4-16, 9-10
To approach the new climatic regime with a spirit of attention entails a much needed corrective to those that assume that this urgent problematic can simply be addressed through existing mechanisms and institutions, as if there was nothing radically new in a shift away from the planetary climatic conditions that have prevailed for the last 12,000 years, as if appropriate responses lie in one of many ‘back to the future’ solutions: more technology (geoengineering), more growth (green capitalism), more globalism (global environmental governance), more rights (Earth Jurisprudence).
Attention urges forms of creativity in the face of our emerging climatic condition, particularly by holding in suspense many of the deep seated assumptions that structure the modern ethos and worldview. If obligations point to a thick web of relations that precede rights, the obligations that might structure social life in our new climatic regime must surely transcend the exclusively human realm and embrace a far broader network of biotic and abiotic forces.
Given that human action has shown itself to be so thoroughly bound up with geological, atmospheric and oceanic systems, cycles and forces, obligations are owing by virtue of this entanglement. It is only through an attention to these networks that traverse presumed divisions between the social and natural, political and climatic, that the nature of our obligations in this context will ever be discerned.
Obligations, for Weil, are attuned to the fragility of the human subject. Fragility lies at the heart of the human condition: it is a sense of the fragile that is exposed in the ‘infallible cry of injustice’ made by the oppressed but also the very thing that the institutions of ‘middle range’ obscure. As Christodoulidis suggests, ‘obligations [have] the fragile as [their] specific vis-à-vis’6Christodoulidis, ‘Dogma, Or The Deep Rootedness of Obligation’, 10. as they attend to singular and deeply felt afflictions and articulated a force that subtends the functionality and generalizability of rights. We are obliged to act in response to the suffering of our neighbour, for instance, not because competing rights claims have been weighed in the balance or because some or other institution compels us to act but simply because such suffering itself demands a response, it engages our very being and our material imbrication of a life lived in community.
Rights, in contrast, remain bound to an institutional setting where human fragility is subsumed within an economy of competition and contestation, and where normativity is ultimately derived from the institutions of the ‘middle region’ themselves. In a context in which the earth system has revealed itself to be so fragile, so sensitive, so ‘ticklish’ — as Isabelle Stengers, says7Isabelle Stengers, Au Temps des Catastrophes. Résister à la Barbarie qui Vient (Paris: Editions La Decouverte, 2009), 55. — because of human consumption and production practices, this connection between obligation and fragility is particularly apposite.
Where Weil assigns fragility exclusively to the human, the new climatic regime forces us to recognise a far broader scope to the term. Contemporary climate science presents the earth as an intricate and complex system of loops and interrelations between numerous biotic and abiotic forces that can react with extraordinary swiftness to disturbance. Far from a static and largely unchanging ‘Nature’, the habitable spaces of the earth constitute a thin pellicle on the surface of the planet, a fragile envelop in which all living things are found. It is precisely a sensitivity to our fragile earth that our legal and political theorising would do well to embrace.
A quick flick through the latest IPCC reports will confirm what this fragility heralds in the coming decades: shifting ranges of habitability for basic food stuffs; the potential collapse of phosphorous and nitrogen cycles — essential for the production of fertilizers; ocean acidification coupled with persistent and widespread overfishing; not to mention the prospect of precipitous climatic change as predetermined ‘tipping points’ within the earth’s system are breached. Such a widespread and ominous fragility obliges us at an existential register: it is the nature of our very being and the parameters of a common world that are at stake.
If rights attach to human personality, obligations evoke the impersonal. Weil uses this term to refer to a kind of anonymity in which individual interest is transcended: truth, beauty, mathematics and the sacred are all ‘impersonal’ matters because their force does not depend on the capacities found in specific individuals. Obligations are impersonal because they are tied to human need and therefore to a confrontation with necessity that transcends any personal trait, preference or predilection. To be truly obligated, at the existential register which Weil explores, is be animated by a normative force that pays no heed to one’s singularity, one’s class or subject position; it engages everyone, equally.
In lieu of a personalising and moralising discourse that transforms the political challenges associated with climate change to a set of individual consumer and lifestyle choices — recycling, staycations, cycling to work — the meaning of the impersonal can be helpfully expanded here to refer to the newly de-centred position in which the human finds itself in the new climatic regime. Where diehard modernists find in the Anthropocene the ultimate confirmation of a human superiority over nature, beckoning a new age of human-led control of the Earth through geo-engineering and planetary climatic management, most of us realise that the new climatic regime means that today we can only proceed as co-authors of our fate, writing our collective futures alongside a range of newly mobile and increasingly vociferous ‘natural’ forces. To attend to the impersonality of our obligations, in this context, would involve an examination of the ways in which anthropic matters of concern are increasingly enfolded within a set of planetary forces that limit the range of possibilities for human action.
I have deliberately avoided any discussion of the content of our obligations in this context. Instead, this brief note is intended to point to the terrain that is opened up when we begin to think through the legal and political challenges of the Anthropocene, not with a focus on rights, but instead on obligations, a register that both precedes and exceeds rights and provides the conditions of possibility for the their articulation and institutionalisation.
Obligations have a longer history and a far deeper resonance with the demands of collective life than rights do. As Weil makes clear, attending to our obligations takes us to the heart of an existential and material rootedness within the conditions that determine the habitability of a given place. If the Anthropocene thesis, in its various incarnations, heralds a rupture within the modern imaginary, it calls for modes of thinking that do not remain bound to the co-ordinates that have defined that worldview. The mundane, earthly, rooted, and distinctly nonmodern realm of obligation to which Weil points, suggests one route away from these co-ordinates and offers resources from which legal and political experimentation might proceed in the context of the new climatic regime in which we find ourselves.
Daniel Matthews is Assistant Professor of Law and Deputy Director of the Law and Literary Studies BA/LLB programme at the University of Hong Kong. He is, with Tara Mulqueen, editor of Being Social: Ontology, Law, Politics.