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That both the planet and democracy are in peril seems obvious. Indeed, though their crises operate at different scales and tempos, they are nonetheless increasingly linked—as John Keane argues in his essay on how democracies die, the destruction of planetary life is not only the slowest form of democide, but also the most worrying.
Particularly when the effects—say, of climate change—are catastrophic, they open doors for normalized emergency rule, unraveled democratic subjects, fearful populations, and persistently unequal distributions of harm.
What was once posited by philosophers like Hannah Arendt as the relatively autonomous space of the political—the space within which democratic actors and institutions appear—has been well and truly breached by the ecological.
Less obvious perhaps is how each crisis is connected to a deeply rooted, hydra-headed anthropocentrism.
Neither as simple as a presumed human moral superiority above all other living things, nor as straightforward as a master narrative that explains them both, anthropocentric ideas and practices nonetheless matter greatly in both crises.
I nevertheless believe that the way forward lies not in a collapse of the two crises into a democracy in which greater representation and rights are extended to nonhuman nature, even though, as Keane documents in his essay, such experiments are well underway around the world.
Rather, we need to develop a wider conception and practice of politics as a process engaged with the nonhuman world, which in turn intersects human aspirations to create more just political institutions.
What the twentieth-century democracies pursued as technical and extractive in relation to nature and to humans cast in with nature, needs to be pursued in the twenty-first century as a proper political relation—that is, an involved form of interaction over the conditions of shared life.
Anthropocentrism is mostly commonly employed around arguments about who or what is a morally considerable subject. For many environmental ethicists, such as Val Plumwood, Eric Katz, and Katie McShane, it is a critique of drawing this line at the species boundary of the human, and opens up possibilities for ecocentric, biocentric, or assemblage-driven forms of moral consideration. For others, such as Luc Ferry, it is marshaled as a humanistic defense of that boundary, paradoxically also signaling the incompleteness of humanism as a political project. But more than a question of moral consideration, which in turn might affect democratic decision-making or other related practices, anthropocentrism has constituted the political in at least two further ways. Both of them matter for thinking about the future of democracy in planetary context.
The first is captured in contemporary territorial state sovereignty (a vision that became fully global by perhaps the mid-twentieth century), which presumes nature solely in instrumental terms as a resource for human use, never an end in itself. This reduction of nature to a “standing reserve” is not just a matter of extractive corporate power overrunning more respectful, sustainable, and local relations with nature; it is enshrined in the international state system—often, in fact, even in contemporary international environmental law, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, which guarantees states the sovereign right to own and use nature on their sovereign territories.
Bound up with distributional justice questions between Global North and South countries over who gets to benefit from nature’s use in relation to which histories, and itself a formal equality between states that belies a deep inequality in informal practice, the Convention nonetheless captures an essential anthropocentric quality of state-led extractivism and geopolitics—one shared by democratic, autocratic, socialist, and postcolonial regimes alike over the past two centuries. This instrumental, practical anthropocentrism has been a condition of growing human freedom and prosperity globally in the twentieth century, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out; but also, and conversely, as Jairus Victor Grove has noted, was a significant component of a Euro-American global war machine of the past few centuries (and in more recent decades, Asia and other centers of global power too), with planetary repercussions.
In a second sense, anthropocentrism has mattered to politics because, paradoxically, it has told a story about the human—a story that is putatively universal but in practice deeply partial and connected to exclusions along raced, gendered, and colonial lines, among others. In this guise, as I’ve argued previously:
What anthropocentrism takes most for granted is not the superiority of the human over the nonhuman, but rather that we know what the anthropo is and that human is a fixed, unchanging category of reference. For those who are not quite human at any given moment—such as animalized prisoners at Guantanamo, those in concentration camps in Auschwitz who were rendered as “bare life,” or the state-of-nature natives who appeared in the conquering of the New World— it has been abundantly clear that humanity is not simply a biological species reference, but a political category, and one that need not pay heed to species itself.
These two kinds of anthropocentrism have mattered, in variable ways, for what democracy is in its many variations, including in its current state of turbulence around the world.
The dual force of an exclusionary conception of humanism and the human, combined with an arrogant assumption of the human species presumed superiority over nature, has been quite devastating. As a result, Keane is quite right to point out that not only is the planetary crisis causing problems for democracy, but also that there are important experiments afoot in all sorts of domains extending democratic formations across the human-nonhuman divide.
Rights for nature are cropping up in New Zealand, Ecuador, India, and elsewhere—though rights of nature are perhaps better understood as one half of a political settlement with indigenous collective personhood and/or sacred deities of major religions, and with mixed effects; animal rights have been around as a category of protection for decades, and are growing; indigenous guardianship relations as joint sovereignty experiments—-enshrined everywhere from UNESCO World Heritage to national law—bring a new politics of place, stewardship, and care into play.
In one sense, many of these political innovations do involve a procedural turn towards considering a broader range of interests within human democratic deliberative procedures —what Robyn Eckersley has called the “all-affected principle” (whereby those affected by a harm should be included in procedures to deal with them, with whatever accommodations are appropriate). Taken at their word, these might represent an important modulation of democratic practice into more ecological modes, via a greened and transnational form of state and geopolitics that remains yoked to, and doubles down on, democratic principles.
Yet at the same time, this general turn to an ecological demos could well be read as a peculiarly inverted anthropocentrism, which confuses the exclusion of nature from moral and political life, with an incorporative maneuver to bring nonhuman life further into human political circuits by incorporation into a demos.
As John Livingston wrote in the last century about the question of rights for redwood trees in the United States came up, “How bloody patronizing! How patriarchal for that matter. How imperialistic. To extend or bestow or recognize rights to nature would be, in effect, to domesticate all of nature—to subsume it into the human political apparatus.”
This resonates too with Miller’s critique that democracy is people-bound and thus should own its anthropocentrism, in whatever ways it evolves to meet planetary politics, rather than trying to elect representative for nature—even if Miller far too glibly imagines asking people to choose between savings ecosystems or serving human interests. (The point is that those questions are no longer fully separable ones, at least if Earth systems science around planetary boundaries and its relation to human flourishing is any guide.) Still, Miller, like Livingston, is right to point to the poverty of political imagination at work in extending current categories of liberal democratic practice—rights, representation, and interests—to nonhuman life.
Instead of extending the demos to nonhuman nature, as a presumed solution, the way forward for our planet and democracy are to acknowledge nature’s own, different political modalities, by recognizing what I’ve elsewhere called interspecies politics.
Some more specificity around the politics of the planetary might help. For example, climate change does not equal the totality of the planetary—not by a long shot. It is a peculiar, if not shocking, narcissistic effect of anthropocentrism that the planetary issue we seem most focused on (climate change) is precisely the one that (some) humans directly caused, and (some) can most directly fix. Its nonhuman impacts are vast, and yet little noticed by most.
The solution to this is not necessarily “broadened demos” or “expanded listening” (which “smart nature” devices might even claim to accentuate); these continue to presume a singular plane of politics that is coincidentally essentially human. Instead, we need a different route against anthropocentrism.
First, the anthro in anthropocentric democracy and politics needs to be rethought and differently institutionalized in democratic life—less as a bounded, solely rational liberal subject, more as an ecologically embedded human, interconnected with nature in ways both helpful and harmful. Recent events have made this case but need to be emphasized: we are entangled with viruses and microplastics, but also with microbial relations and relations with place.
We need a revised conception of “the human,” one that is ecologically situated, but also prepared to condone some instrumental uses of nonhuman nature—the thing that has carried global living standards forward, the thing that freedom has depended on, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted; but equally willing to explore how living well with others on Earth can become a shared political project that engages both humans and nonhumans.
We must recognize and refine the political quality of the relations that democratic states—and other states—can develop with nonhuman life, including its effects on other humans. The anthropocentrism of democracy rests in its blindness to the political qualities of most of the natural world—a relation more closely resembling the thin, opaque, unequal, and sometimes unshared frameworks of international relations, rather than those of domestic politics.
This is a Third Politics aimed neither at democracy within states, nor at global scales of greening great power struggle or projects for inclusive cosmopolitan tolerance. It is a politics about the conditions of shared life, in which instrumental interactions rest alongside qualified relations. It is a politics not devoid of force and violence, but also not devoid of stable relationships, mutuality, and accommodation.
It calls for seeing contemporary projects for human democracy as simultaneously encountering and confronting a world of other political formations. It is a new iteration of geopolitics, one taking the geo seriously and centrally; and one in which neither the territoriality nor the nature of states can be assumed.
Can democracy mutate successfully in this environment?
Central to actually existing democracies in recent centuries, for example, has been an assumption about a stable territory or ground and a relatively stable or at least slowly moving nature exists. Both these are, patently, changing. The mobility of nature is a challenge to democratic institutions premised on a stable, nonmobile nature (it is less of a challenge to extractivist capital, which is quite used to chasing around the next big thing); it is also a challenge to a humanity that, while mobile in many ways, tends to live life in relatively rooted paths and routes.
As much as experiments around the human-nonhuman divide, it is democracy’s capacity to deal with mobility—human, plant, animal, biological, geological—that is at issue.
If democracy is to survive and evolve—and there is no reason to think it cannot—it has to be both less anthropocentric and more open to its ecological embeddedness.
Rafi Youatt is Associate Professor of Global Politics and at The New School.