Can world politics save planet earth?

Manan-Vastsyayana

In May 2017 I participated in a forum following on from the Planet Politics manifesto hosted on the website of Emeritus Professor Joseph Camilleri. It included contributions from the authors of the manifesto, along with other environmental politics scholars and activists including Cara Daggett, Margi Prideaux, Cameron Harrington and more. You can read all these posts throughout May here. My opening comment is below.


The history of international relations over the last century is replete with egregious examples of strategic shock and failure that have done grave damage to global security.

The Allies were warned in 1919 that imposing a harsh settlement on Germany could have dangerous political consequences; in the 1940s, atomic scientists warned that serious efforts to cooperate with the Soviet Union would be needed to forestall a nuclear arms race; and in the early 1960s, US leaders were warned that a war in Vietnam could not be won. More recently, in the late 1990s, neoliberal economic dogma blinded policymakers to warnings about the potential for economic collapse in Southeast Asia. The Bush administration ignored the warnings of its most senior US counterterrorism officials that an attack on the scale of 9/11 was likely; then it ignored warnings about the chaos that could ensue in Iraq after an invasion.

Now, in 2017, many of us worry that a similar ideological, conceptual and institutional myopia is laying the ground for a disaster as profound – and in many ways worse – than those of the 20th Century: unchecked climate change, and the devastation of planet’s Earth’s biodiversity and fundamental ecological systems. The evidence emerging from climate and earth system science is increasingly disturbing: the highest levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 1 million years; accelerating rates of polar icecap, permafrost and glacial melting; widespread coral bleaching events like that in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; unprecedented species extinctions and declines in wild animal populations; unsustainable rates of deforestation and habitat destruction; and ocean acidification and overfishing that will devastate marine biodiversity. And even after the signing of the Paris agreement, the world is still on track for 3°C of global warming which would see massive sea level rise and the loss of the Amazon as a tropical ecosystem.

We were motivated to write the Planet Politics manifesto by our alarm at this crisis and the manifest failure of our political institutions and leadership to see and act on it. While we have all been involved with environmental politics and thought in various ways, the Manifesto’s authors have all made significant critical contributions to thinking about international and environmental security. If we expand our concern beyond human and national security to ecological security on a planetary scale, it is clear that the looming ecological crisis is the greatest threat to global security in this coming century.

The manifesto is thus a demand for International Relations – understood both as a field of study and structure of institutions that includes states, the UN, corporations, and more – to reorganise their efforts around a global political project: to end human-caused extinctions, prevent dangerous climate change, repair the oceans, and support vulnerable multi-species populations, enfolded within a dual commitment to social and economic justice. We argue that this should be pursued as a multilevel “cosmopolitics” that combines governance and resistance, law and subversion, in a common project of human and ecological survival.

The current world order, we charge, is both too state-centric and too anthropocentric: the nonhuman world is seen merely as a strategic and economic resource for human purposes and corporate profit, and political attempts to address climate change and biodiversity protection have been hampered by a world order that enables states to weaken international agreements with power politics and lowest common denominator outcomes.

Instead, we demand an eco-centric politics that places the interests of the global ecology and nonhuman life first – this is the true meaning of sustainability, which can no longer be an anthropocentric process of bargaining human interests against ecosystem protection. The nature and dynamics of industrial capitalism – whether in fishing, agribusiness, mining, biotechnology or energy – are a major part of the problem; but so is the structure and commitments of the existing global order and international law.

Policymakers and international relations theorists often congratulate themselves on their “realism”; we charge that they are failing to understand the reality of the way in which industrialised humanity is affecting the course of planet Earth, and the manifold threats to human and nonhuman life that it will produce. We are thus in a very dangerous kind of “social nature” – nowhere can we say that the natural world is unaffected by human activity, and nowhere can we pretend that social and political life can carry on in ignorance of the dramatic responses and changes in the natural world.

This situation is often called the Anthropocene, a geological epoch that deserves the name of the “age of Man”. However, against some versions of the Anthropocene narrative, we caution that in this situation humanity is both remarkably powerful and dangerously weak, having set ecological changes in train that will turn back on human societies in dramatic and unpredictable ways. We are aware of the insights of post-structural and social constructivist thought, and also of the implicit biases of ecology and Earth system science, but we believe it important to argue that ecological change is occurring in ways that are both affected by and independent of human will; in ways that resist and trouble all of our constructs. Science will remain extraordinarily valuable, but it must abandon its modern project of making and domination for a project of ecological listening, response and repair.

The political, philosophical and institutional forms that the planet politics project could take have been left somewhat open, focused however by our fundamentally eco-centric (or “post-human”) worldview that makes the needs of ecosystems and nonhuman life a fundamental priority. This is a profound challenge to the political, economic and ontological systems of modern humanism. We suggest multiple lines of departure: an Earth-focused ethos of worldliness and entanglement; new kinds of animal and ecosystem rights and representation in international law and global governance; and more rapid and intensely-directed efforts to arrest ecologically damaging processes such as deforestation and the mining and burning of coal.

We are eager for further dialogue and research on how such a project of Planet Politics can and should be pursued: the ways that it is already being pursued; can challenge the ways in which environmental politics is currently pursued; or might itself be revised and challenged. We thank Professor Joseph Camilleri for the opportunity to pursue this dialogue here, and welcome all readers to pursue it in every place and community in which you are engaged: to take it as widely as you dare.

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