In the Historia Anglorum, written in the twelfth century by Henry of Huntingdon, the following story is recounted of King Canute the Great. At the height of his reign, the king orders a chair to be placed on the seashore as the tide is coming in. He declares to the rising tide, ‘you are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’1 Alas, this order does not work, and the ruler’s feet are promptly drenched by the insolently indifferent waters. Nature cares nothing for the all-too-human declaration of the king. Speech acts can only get us so far. This tale has been recounted on numerous occasions. The king’s action was intended as a demonstration of the limitations of human ability. Try as we might, we cannot halt the rising tide or give orders to the sea. Human ambition is absurdly limited, when confronted with the inscrutable complexity of nature’s laws.
But what of this day and age? Today we have technologies that were absent in Canute’s era. From dredging to artificial dams, the humans of today, on first appearances at least, are endowed with the capability to radically transform nature. Surely, the inalterability of nature has undergone a radical shift. Nature is not as natural as we formerly thought it was, or so the modern conceit goes. We supposedly live in a radically different social world as compared with medieval England. Or do we? Is King Canute’s lesson more relevant than it otherwise seems?
The challenge the Anthropocene poses for politics in particular lies in the way positive feedback processes enhance the general unpredictability of the Earth System
In this article, we propose to delineate what the Anthropocene era means for politics. Such a project necessarily extends far beyond the limitations of a brief article, hence at this juncture we must limit ourselves to outlining in broad strokes the contours of the problem. Descriptive and prescriptive elements will necessarily mingle in the context of this essay, and the use of parables is paramount. Firstly, we shall define the concept of the Anthropocene, as coined by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. In defining the importance and singularity of the Anthropocene concept, we will also have recourse to the work of the philosopher Clive Hamilton. The Australian philosopher defines Earth System Science as a closed discipline, for the Anthropocene itself forms an autonomously self-organizing reality. In our view, the phenomenon of operative closure is particularly acute in the legal and political systems. We ask how society can be made open once more. The challenge the Anthropocene poses for politics in particular lies in the way positive feedback processes enhance the general unpredictability of the Earth System. Although these forces have been unleashed as the unintended result of human actions, there is absolutely no guarantee that we are in a position to rectify them, and especially not through political action. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa has recently argued that the way we conceptualize global society ought to be re-evaluated in light of the inescapable uncontrollability of social reality. Certain decisionist political ideologies that overemphasize human willpower, as well as technocratic ideals, are singularly unfit for use in the Anthropocene era and should be abandoned.
In our age of ecological anxiety, driven by the realization that nature is indeed in crisis, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ looms large on the horizon. Much of the current ‘green’ discourse orbits around this question. The scientific ‘facts’ are supposedly known, having been widely communicated, and all that remains is for collective, global political action to take centre stage. As the United Nations Sustainable Development agenda declares, ‘We can limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees if we take action now. We need all countries and all sectors of society to act now.’2 But are we asking the right question? Is this overarching emphasis on immediate collective political and social ‘action’ correct at all?
To understand our current political predicament, it is worth reflecting upon the concept of the Anthropocene. This neologism was first coined by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer in a 2000 article. As Crutzen and Stoermer explain, the effect of human action upon Earth has rendered homo sapiens a geological force of nature in its own right. The vast scale of these effects, from the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to the artificial transformation of over 50 per cent of Earth’s surface, all necessitate the introduction of a new geological epoch. The authors propose ‘the latter part of the 18th century’ as the starting date of the Anthropocene era, which roughly coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine, an innovation that heralded the advent of the first Industrial Revolution.3 On this view, the human species as a whole affects the planet globally, particularly through anthropogenically driven climate change. Since 2000, the Anthropocene has gained exceptionally wide currency, in both the natural and social sciences, even though it is not yet officially accepted by most international geological bodies as a relevant geological term.4 The Anthropocene presents unheard-of demands upon human society. But to understand these challenges, we need to fully grasp the singularity of this epoch.
Clive Hamilton, a proponent of Earth System science, outlines the importance of the Anthropocene and what it means for society in a 2017 article. As the philosopher writes, the Earth System approach ‘is the integrative meta-science of the whole planet as a unified, complex, evolving system beyond the sum of its parts’, a ‘transdisciplinary and holistic’ approach informed by systems thinking.5 Against the grain of the traditional ‘ecological’ approach, Hamilton rejects the idea that the Earth System is an ‘environment’, properly speaking. The word ‘environment’ implies some kind of ‘outside’ compared to an ‘inside’, but in this context, there is no outside/inside barrier. It is currently impossible to place oneself outside this all-encompassing system. Earth is not yet an ecology, and will not be for the foreseeable future, until humans one day inhabit another planet. We are internal to Earth. Of special importance to our particular train of thought is the emphasis on non-linearity and chaos. As Hamilton points out, arguing against outdated views such as James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, which portrays Earth as a harmonious whole, ‘there is no built-in stabiliser; life does not bring the planet back into equilibrium […] the idea that the Earth self-regulates is contrary to the observed fact that the Anthropocene represents a rupturein the evolution of the Earth System.’6 The phrase rupture denotes a breakage, but in its old Latin form (rumpo) it can also mean an interruption or, better yet, annulment. It is no exaggeration to say that the Anthropocene represents an annulment of previous ways of thinking and doing.
To dispel a possible misunderstanding, Hamilton states in no uncertain terms that not only does the Anthropocene concept say ‘nothing about the ability of humans to control the system’, but also that this era ‘makes the Earth less predictable and controllable’.7 Because Earth is a non-linear dynamic whole that has become radically destabilized, predicting the effects of a particular action or act of legislation presents us with almost insurmountable difficulties. Earth System science is ‘a break, a new start with a new object’, namely the whole of Earth.8 Such an emphasis on novelty is a recurring theme in the relevant literature on the Anthropocene. As Ayşem Mert writes, ‘humans have transformed the geo-bio-chemical systems of the planet to such a degree that these are no longer stable cycles, and it is no longer possible to find a steady state to return to, or objective reference points to guide collective action’.9 The Anthropocene confronts contemporary structures of governance with unprecedented uncertainty. It is not just a question of scale. A deeper problem is related to the underlying structures of society. As Mert correctly emphasizes, the very concept of a political and social ‘subjectivity’ must be expanded to take account of the interests of nonhuman agents:
Because Earth is a non-linear dynamic whole that has become radically destabilized, predicting the effects of a particular action or act of legislation presents us with almost insurmountable difficulties
‘Neither elections and representations, nor global level principles of accountability, transparency, and inclusion can be the solution to the challenges of a more-than-human demos.’10 Such posthumanist utopian political proposals for an expanded demos range from Bruno Latour’s idea of a ‘Parliament of Things’—that would bestow legislative representation upon nonhuman entities—to Michel Serres’s idea of a ‘natural contract’.11 What such ideas have in common, aside from their speculative nature, is their forceful rejection of current forms of representative political democracy. But why is the modern political system so singularly incapable of handling the Anthropocene?
One could suggest, as Mert does, that the problem is one of both novelty and scale. The sheer enormity of the uncontrollable forces unleashed by anthropogenic climate change would, on such a reading, simply be too big for human societies or nations to effectively cope with. In this regard, both Hamilton and Mert share an emphasis on the radical divergence between the pre-Anthropocene and Anthropocene. The Anthropocene rupture would supposedly invalidate previous ways of thinking about society. A rupture is an annulment, after all, and there is no going back to an unruptured, unpunctuated, harmonious state. We must ask a more profound question, though: what if the very way we were thinking about society was erroneous all along, even prior to the formulation of the Anthropocene concept?
We refer here to an idea which is a great deal older than the Anthropocene, namely the view, originating from the Scottish Enlightenment, that even society is primarily not the product of design, but rather the complex result of unintended consequences. Friedrich Hayek— an admittedly unlikely source—can be of help in this regard. For Hayek, human society as a whole, including, surprisingly, law, is ‘never wholly the product of design but is judged and tested within a framework’ of implicit rules ‘which nobody has invented and which guided people’s thinking and actions even before those rules were expressed in words’.12 Now Hayek is speaking here of common law, embodied within a broad legal tradition that is composed of rules, some of which are only implicit and unwritten, but this lesson can be, and indeed is, applied by Hayek to the entirety of human society. The erroneous idea that society is the product of human design is all but synonymous with what Hayek elsewhere calls the fallacy of ‘rationalist constructivism’.13 Most of modern politics is predicated upon precisely such an error, namely the conceit that we are collectively capable of transforming society along the lines of a plan, while social transformation would consist in making decisions.
The politics of decisionism is alive and well. It manifests itself whenever we hear chatter about the ‘global action’ supposedly ‘needed’ to ‘tackle’ climate change. The global public expects action from its politicians to keep projected global warming below 2 ̊C by 2100. To name but one example among many, Extinction Rebellion UK has been campaigning for a so-called ‘Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill’.14 These green activists are barking up the wrong tree. Politics is not the suitable sphere for ecological and social change. All this communication about urgently needed action betrays a misplaced confidence in the adaptive capabilities of modern political systems. After all, as sociologist Niklas Luhmann emphasized long ago, modern social function systems are operatively closed units, which are only capable of functioning by artificially separating themselves from their ecologies. A function system selects information from its environment. At the opposite extreme from Hamilton, Luhmann radically expands the concept of ‘ecology’ by conceiving of modernity more or less as a collection of mutually segregated social function systems. Social functions, even human beings, are also ecologies for one another. In the framework of Luhmann’s sociology, far from constituting anything like a unitary whole, modern global society is a polycontextual set of mutually separated systems, each following its own ‘binary code’. Politics follows a binary logic of ‘government’ versus ‘opposition’, or the ownership of power vs the absence of power. The tools of the political system are profoundly limited: ‘a universally competent politics is restricted essentially to two measures that require intervention in the legal system and in the economic system. It can make laws under the condition of compatibility with the legal order and it can spend money under the condition that the incapacity of making further payments which results from this can be transferred.’15 Because politics can only communicate in political terms, the solution to environmental concerns will never be found in any such context. Bluntly put, and Luhmann minces no words in this regard, ‘there is little sense in attributing a special social position to the political system’.16 Where does the recognition of the impotence of modern political systems leave us?
Hartmut Rosa, a contemporary sociologist and follower of Luhmann, writes in a recently published book of great interest, entitled The Uncontrollability of the World, that the source of those feedback mechanisms which are now threatening the very existence of human civilization on planet Earth can be found precisely in the modern rationalist conceit of predictability and controllability: ‘In the end modernity’s program of making the world controllable threatens to produce a new, radical form of uncontrollability, one that is categorically different from and worse than the original, because we are incapable of experiencing self-efficacy or of establishing a responsive relationship of adaptive transformation when confronted with it.’17 The more we deny it, the more we struggle against it, the more violently the underlying truth makes itself repeatedly manifest: the gulf between our hubristic human intentions and reality in itself is vast, and cannot ever be surmounted, especially not through any type of collective political action. What these disparate considerations point towards is generally a radical, wholesale reduction in the scope of what human intention can achieve. This is bound to breed frustration among citizens in both democratic and undemocratic states, as they have been socialized by decades and sometimes even centuries of statist governance to await resolutions to problems from central government. Politicians promise the world, but there is no politician, especially not in a democratic context, who is in any kind of a position to promise less.
No political solution exists for the Anthropocene predicament, because, despite its name, the Anthropocene is a process of nonhuman scale
We are compelled by reality to relearn the lesson already known by King Canute. No political solution exists for the Anthropocene predicament, because, despite its name, the Anthropocene is a process of nonhuman scale. There are things outside of our purview, realities resistant to human action, processes that we cannot master. To the surprised courtiers, the Anglo-Saxon king explained the moral of the story in theological terms: ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth, and sea obey eternal laws.’18 Such a semantic can strike us as rather antiquated. Not all contemporary humans believe in concepts such as the divine, or providence. Ernesto Laclau expresses the same sentiment in profoundly different terms: ‘contingency’ is ‘found in all reality: it is the very definition of the state of nature’.19 Instead of eternal, unchanging laws, the contemporary cosmology, predicated upon chaos theory, views nature itself in terms of contingency. The absence of any fixed law, contingency is the stuff of things. The underlying moral is very much the same, differences in language notwithstanding. Both King Canute and Laclau are in agreement, insofar as both conceive of the world as being essentially beyond human control. Whether we believe in a divine eternal law or pure contingency, both lead in the final instance to the same conclusion: reality is resistant to—and autonomous from—human willpower. Political action must be utilized sparingly, if at all, and with great care. This in itself constitutes a definitively political statement.
In the early twenty-first century, there are ever more frequent calls for technological solutions to climate change phenomena. One such idea is geoengineering. Such plans would cool Earth, artificially dimming the sunlight that reaches Earth by spraying chemicals into the atmosphere. Such a radical move, while not explicitly political, nonetheless betrays all the hallmarks of rationalist constructivism. The danger of overeager action lies not only in politics.
If science is left to its own devices, it too can become just as destructive a force as the economic or political functional systems.20 Science cares only about obtaining empirical results, at any price. Engineers are prone to the following type of reasoning: if it can be done, let us do it! A politics, or rather, meta-politics of the Anthropocene, if it is to be effective, must take into account the constant factor of human hubris. The only thing worse than too little action is too much action. Urgency is in high supply at this moment of crisis, yet an overly hasty reaction can easily lead to the manufacture of new ruptures. In January 2022, a group of sixty scientists and decision-makers signed an open letter arguing for a global ban on solar geoengineering. As the open letter states, ‘we see the. deployment of solar engineering as impossible to govern fairly and effectively in the current international political system’.21 Furthermore, there is not any guarantee of solar dimming having any beneficial effect whatsoever, and some studies even warn of possible adverse effects, including later runaway warming in excess of 5 ̊C.22 Uncertainty pitted against urgency, these are the two polar opposites of the ongoing climate change debates.
The emphasis on the climate emergency is not only misguided, but downright dangerous. Any proposed global intervention in the context of the Earth System rests upon naive conclusions that do not reflect the underlying reality of a more-than-human planet. The best we can hope for are local actions within social function systems that open them up to ecological resonance. Increasing the awareness of otherwise closed social systems is a start, but the underlying change can only be driven by nonhuman forces of society. The very idea that society as a whole is a human construct directly amenable to deliberate pre-planned change must be forcefully challenged, discredited, and undone. Or, better yet, annulled. We are in no position to change society, especially not according to our desires. We would be well advised to remember King Canute’s lesson before it is too late.
1 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000–1154, trans. Diana Greenaway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 17.
2 www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/climate- change/.
3 Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’, International Geosphere-Biosphere Program Newsletter, 41 (2000), 17–18.
4 A more recent proposal by the Anthropocene Working Group suggested the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in 1945 as the ‘official’ start date of the Anthropocene era, see www.nature.com/articles/ d41586-019-01641-5.
5 Clive Hamilton, ‘The Anthropocene as Rupture’, The Anthropocene Review, 3.2 (2016), 93–106.
6 Hamilton, ‘The Anthropocene as Rupture’, 95.
7 Hamilton, ‘The Anthropocene as Rupture’, 101.
8 Hamilton, ‘The Anthropocene as Rupture’, 103.
9 Ayşem Mert, ‘Challenges to Democracy in the Anthropocene’, in David Chandler, Franziska Müller and Delf Rothe, eds, International Relations in the Anthropocene. New Agendas, New Agencies and New Approaches (Cham: Springer, 2021), 291–311, 299.
10 Mert, ‘Challenges to Democracy’, 300. See also Jedidiah Purdy, After Nature. A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).
11 These proposals have met criticism, especially from proponents of political democracy. The interest of both Latour’s and Serres’s ideas lies in their great distance from any recognizable existing political ideology. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (University of Michigan Press, 1995).
12 Friedrich A. Hayek, ‘The Results of Human Action but Not of Human Design’ (1967), in F. A. Hayek, Markets and Other Orders, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 293–304, 300.
13 F. A. Hayek, ‘The Errors of Constructivism’ (1970), in F. A. Hayek, Markets and Other Orders, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 338–357, 339.
14 https://extinctionrebellion.uk/go-beyond-politics/ cee-bill/.
15 Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication, trans. John Bednarz Jr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90.
16 Luhmann, Ecological Communication, 88.
17 Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World, trans. James C. Wagner (Cambridge and Medford: Polity, 2020), 115.
18 Henry of Huntingdon, History of the English People, 18.
19 Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution
of Our Time (London and New York: Verso, 1990), 70.
20 Günther Teubner has proposed far-reaching internal restrictions to the growth of social function systems. Even science, Teubner claims, should be regulated to a far greater degree than is currently the case, by internal quality controls and other legally mandated fail-safe mechanisms. See Günther Teubner, ‘The Anonymous Matrix. Human Rights Violations by “Private” Transnational Actors’, in: Günther Teubner, Critical Theory and Legal Autopoiesis, ed. Diana Göbel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 105–128.
21 https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/ full/10.1002/wcc.754.