In this blog, I am reflecting on some chapters of the book Ecocene Politics (Tănăsescu, 2022), as well as a lecture by Tănăsescu on parts of the book and a book club that I attended in which we discussed some aspects of the book. I need to highlight that I have only read Chapters 1, 3, and 5, the chapters required to follow the book club. The blog will not summarize these chapters, but I will rather pick some parts of those chapters and reflect on them.
At the beginning of the book club, we discussed the multiplicity of ontologies. Thus, we discussed if there are multiple ways to understand and perceive the world. Along those lines, I am applying my lens to the text and discussions. Someone else would highlight other aspects and interpret them differently. The chapters I read, and the conversations we had were rich. Accordingly, I can only present some aspects.
When I got the e-mail invitation to the lecture and book club, I was not even sure, if I should attend. Though, a short video clip about the book (Crosstalks, 2022) convinced me to attend. It might also convince you to read the book and draw your own conclusions.
The book appears like a philosophical text, and as it is often the case for such texts, the language is sophisticated. I think such linguistic sophistication is, to some extent, necessary for philosophical texts. The precise use of language allows to (more) exactly explain certain things. Though, this comes with a drawback. The reader, with a smaller vocabulary, might struggle to understand the text. This is to say that I struggled a bit. Nevertheless, I could gain quite some interesting insights from the book. Hence, it was worth the struggle. Apart from many arguments I agreed with, there were two main things, I do not agree with. These are the use of the word vulnerability and the negation of hope. To keep the blog post within reasonable limits, I will not expand on these points. Instead, I will focus on the usage of the term Ecocene, the relevance of relationships and knowledge, as well as, redundancies.
The book starts with an explanation and justification for introducing a new term, the Ecocene. As a proponent of socio-ecology, I like the concept of the Ecocene, because it places the ecosystem, which humans are part of, in the center of attention. The term Anthropocene may lead one to focus on humans and human needs. The Ecocene focuses on nature and the needs of nature. Using the term Ecocene sets the stage for other arguments within the book. For example, that we need to (re)establish a respectful, intimate, reciprocal relationship with nature. The Anthropocene also includes a relational component. By focusing on the human, nature might, though, only be seen as a resource, a sink, a thing humans have changed. It puts humans in a powerful position. Humans as a geological force. The book does not doubt the impact and the magnitude of the impact of humans. But using the term Ecocene shifts the perspective. While one does not have to exclusively use this perspective, I would argue that it is a worthwhile (temporary) perspective shift.
I cannot escape my worldview. So, I applied my insights about sustainability and sustainability transitions to the text. I could identify with the text, because it questions modernity. It questions our thinking about change and the planning and management of change. Those, who are familiar with my work, know that I am not the biggest fan of socio-technical-transition theory. Not because it may not have its use, but because its application has become generalized. Socio-technical-transition theory is not a general theory of change. As Kuhn (2012) describes, when we expand the specific over the general, we encounter errors. To my taste, there are not enough scientists pointing out the error of generalizing something that has been developed for some very specific purpose. But as Kuhn (2012) also describes pointing out errors is not easy due to psychological and political factors. But I won’t expand on this. Anyway, socio-technical-transition theory is a very specific theory of change. A mechanistic one, a linear one. Even if it uses a sigmoid curve for the transition path, it is still mechanistic, simplistic, and linear. I think the theory is so widely used, because it fits our modern way of thinking. A way of thinking where the human is the center. Where the human has the power to make changes happen just as planned. That humans now have geological power might further support this point of view. We are the ones who can create and destroy the universe.
Tănăsescu (2022) writes about humans' need for stability but assures that stability is an illusion. Stability and predictability go hand in hand. From a historical perspective, I very much understand humans' need for stability and predictability. The ability to predict fluctuations made us create stocks (which I think is where our need for continuous accumulation comes from. I do not think, as others do, that accumulation is a phenomenon of capitalism). The other day I saw a documentation of increasing poverty in Europe. The protagonists of the documentary were asked what is worse: poverty or insecurity. All stated that the insecurity is worse. I have dealt with insecurity in my life (as academic insecurity is a constant companion). I cannot say that I enjoy insecurity that much… Socio-technical transition theory plays into our need to predict, plan and manage change. You invent something, you protect it in its niche, build networks, study the regime, and when the time is right, you upscale it. Voila. And we can even maintain the role of the genuine human who masters the universe.
Humans don’t like it when they cannot control, plan, predict. Again, I think that from a historical perspective, this is a logical consequence of being confronted with natural fluctuations and insecurities. Although I have not read the specific parts on politics in the book, I want to say, that it is clear why politicians want to have models that suggest the predictability of the future. Since the voters want stability, politicians must offer narratives that evoke the impression that stability can be created or maintained and that any change will unfold according to a plan. I think this is why socio-technical transition theory is appealing and why socio-ecological transition theory (Panarchy) is not.
Using the term Ecocene rather than Anthropocene, indicates that we cannot plan. It is not humans who have dominion over nature, but nature who has dominion over us. We destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Nature destroys us, and nature will continue to exist. The book takes many insights from ecological thinking. In ecology, unpredictable change is a given. To survive as a species, we have to deal with the unpredictable reality. We have attempted to press nature into predictable forms. But we are learning more and more that this leads to problems. Bit by bit we renaturalize what we tried to strangle. We tried (well, we still do) to prove that we are the rulers over nature rather than the other way around. We try to decouple human action from the environment. But it is foolish to think that we could exist independently from nature.
Tănăsescu (2022) argues to (re)establish intimate, mutual, respectful relationships with our natural environment. This relationship is built through observation. Bonding through observation and experiencing. To me, it makes sense to respond to the increasing lack of connectivity to nature by reintroducing connectivity. As he pointed out in the lecture, it is not just about some global, abstract connection to nature, but about intimate relationships with the local environment. Tănăsescu (2022) also talks about knowledge that is expanded through observation. At some point, he refers to soil science and how the expanded knowledge opens up new ways to relate to soil. While I think that scientific observation and knowledge have their use, they are not the same as subjective, non-scientific observation. I am not getting a deep connection to the soil in my garden because I read some scientific articles about soil. I get the connection through feeling it. Granted, I got more fascinated by soil when attending the soil science lecture during my master's. But the bonding happens when I directly experience soil.
The aspect of different knowledges that contribute to (re)establishing a connection to nature relates to the discussion about different ontologies. In the lecture, I have posed the question of whether we are, as society that cherishes modern, scientific knowledge, ready to equally value informal knowledge? I don’t think we are. And there is still a big difference between intuitive knowledge and scientific knowledge. There is even a substantial difference between different kinds of scientific knowledge. People knew that going for a walk in the forest feels good, that hugging a tree feels good, etc. But we needed science to tell us that there is indeed a measurable effect on human wellbeing. Why do I need science to validate what I know? One encounters this phenomenon rather frequently. Science tells us something that is obvious. Something only becomes true when science puts its stamp of approval on it. For sure, in times of fake news, scientific approval is relevant, but we still have to question the supremacy of certain types of knowledge. That is as well very much related to colonialism, and the supremacy of the global north (usually represented by the white, old, neurotypical man). Though as stated, even within science, there is a hierarchy of knowledges. This has very much to do with Enlightenment, where humans declared their independence from nature by means of models and equations. Every science that wanted to keep pace with this development had to adopt quantitative methods. Since then, the number is having a higher credibility than the word. But even among the numbers, not all numbers are the same. The IPCC reports tell us with many numbers that we have to act. But these numbers are not enough, we need to express it in monetary terms. How much do we lose or win monetarily when we destroy or preserve nature? I always cringe when I get my McKinsey newsletter with headlines such as “why it pays off to protect nature.” We do not need numbers for that. To make a radical statement, Enlightenment has driven science ad absurdum. Because it is absurd. We base decisions about life and death on fiction. That is what money is, it is fiction. Sure, by basing our decisions on fiction, the fiction becomes real. Nevertheless, it is fiction. The monetary system only functions because we believe in it. If everyone (or a majority) stopped accepting the value that we imagine into money, the system would collapse. The monetary system is itself a reflection of how humans try to detach themselves from reality. Ecological economics (for example: Daly, 1996) tells us much about this fictitious system. And although it is fiction, it is what we have most relation with. Like we have deeper relationships with some fictitious avatar and its fictitious avatar friends (e.g. on social media) than we have with ourselves and our real friends. The monetary system is the ontology we apply to the world. We relate to money, not to soil. Yet, what feeds us is the soil, not the money.
A part of the book that I specifically liked was the discussion of redundancies. Redundancies are another a-modern thing. It is the enemy of modernity that strivers towards maximum efficiency. I may mention here that the book from Tănăsescu (2022), would greatly profit from insights from the book Panarchy (Gunderson & Holling, 2002), in which these ecological concepts are discussed as well but with more depth (but I might judge wrong, because I have only read parts of Ecocene Politics). In Panarchy the connection between redundancy, diversity, and resilience is explored a bit more. Just as Tănăsescu (2022) suggests focusing more on the ecosystem, I am also suggesting that we could gain many insights about how to build resilient (social) systems using the ecosystem as a blueprint. I also argue that we need to overcome the ultimate strive for efficiency maximization, as this is what reduces buffer capacities and thus erodes resilience. It also reduces adaptability and creates lock-ins. Much more can be stated about this, but I hope to write about this at a later point. So, we need to switch our worldviews. We need to realize that nature is our ally and that we can learn much about how to build healthy systems when learning from (and thus getting to knowand relating to) nature.
Recently I analyzed the future dreams of fellow researchers. They had to describe what a future in which the materials transition had already taken place would look like. One conclusion was that the dreams describe a shift from EGO to ECO. Thus, people seem to be aware that we need to shift our worldview. How to do this is yet another question. However, I think it is a start if especially those institutes that are close to environmental matters, such as agricultural and life science institutes, applied more socio-ecological and less socio-technical thinking.
Crosstalks (Producer). (2022). Mihnea Tanasescu on Ecocene Politics. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/YA9291yHo6s
Daly, H. E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.
Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press.
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th edition ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Tănăsescu, M. (2022). Ecocene Politics: Open Book Publishers.