History Without Humans: What's Next For Environmental History?

To start, let me admit up front that my title is a bit of a bait and switch—I’m not really going to talk about doing history without any humans whatsoever, though I think I can at least point the way towards something like that. Remember Eric Wolf’s book back in the 1980s, Europe and the People Without History? Great book, but I’m waiting for someone to write, Europe and Its History Without People. I’m not entirely sure yet what that would look like, but who wouldn’t want to read a book that doesn’t have any Europeans in it? It would almost be as good as a book that doesn’t have any Americans in it!

I jest, of course, and let me just hasten to put on the record here that, no matter what I am about to say, I myself hold humans in the highest regard. I can honestly say that some of my best friends are human. But when I propose to write history without humans, I really mean history without “humans” as they’ve usually been understood by “humanists” and a lot of other folks since at least the 19th century. Which is to say, humans as creatures above else of mind and culture, of self-invention, the ubermannian Nietzschean type of humans who have transcended the mere material world, the anthropocentric humans, the “what a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how like an angel” humans. Put simply, the itch I propose to scratch is this: Can we write more histories in which our human stars, whose Broadway run has now stretched into several thousand years, can step back to let their supporting cast take center stage? And even if we can, would it be wise or worthwhile to do so?

My answer to both of these questions is an emphatic . . . maybe.  I have a lot of reasons for answering that way—so many that I’ve done what humanists tend to do and wrote them down in a book. It’s called The Matter of History, and its hopefully coming soonish to a fabric-draped folding table near you. Please buy it.

Today I’m going to talk about two of those reasons in particular that offer some support for writing non-anthropocentric histories. There not necessarily the best reasons—you have to read the book to get those—but they are the ones I thought I could squeeze into a 20-minute talk. They are:

First: Does a New Human Demand a New Humanism?

Second: Have We Underestimated the Creativity of the Non-Human World?

I know—those are just very obviously leading questions, not “reasons,” but I’ll bet you can guess what my answers are going to be, so it’s close to the same thing.

Let’s start with:

Number One: Does a New Human Demand a New Humanism?

That being human is not everything it was once cracked up to be is pretty obvious. Seems like every time I turn around, which is quite often, folks in both the sciences and the humanities are saying that we have to rethink what we mean by the word “human.” When the very-big-science Human Microbiome Project revealed that 90% of the cells in our bodies are not human but bacterial, most of them living in our guts, the director of the National Institute of Health famously observed that, “We are more microbial than human.”[1] It turns out that the 90% figure was almost certainly off the mark. But let us not quibble: there are a disgustingly huge number of bacterial and viral cells living on and in us. Moreover, they don't just help us digest our food, but they shape how we feel and think. Most of your serotonin, roughly 95% of this wonderful “happy hormone,” is manufactured by your gut bacteria. No wonder, then, that one researcher concluded,  “much of what makes us human . . . depends on [the] metabolic activity of these microbes.”[2]

So, if your microbiome doesn’t like my paper today, that’s hardly my fault. We know who’s really to blame—and the funny thing is, that it may not be either “me” or “you.”

Or take the revolution in epigenetics. Now I was taught in college that my genome is impervious to most environmental influences during my lifetime—an immaculate conception, if you will, and there was no greater biological sin than Lamarckianism. But now the new epigenetic theory tells us that environmental factors can actually turn parts of our genetic code off and on, rather like a microscopic genetic light switch that influences both the biology and the behavior of living organisms in “real time.” More controversially, some evidence suggests these epigenetic influences might be heritable. One study in mice found that extreme environmental stress experienced by a parent, caused epigenetic changes that could be passed on to their children and even grandchildren, who ended up with unusually high levels of behaviors that looked very much like what we would call depression. I know I’m not supposed to call mice babies “children”—but, based on these mice studies, some researchers have made an admittedly big, but not unreasonable leap, to argue that similar epigenetic mechanisms may help explain the well-known observation that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors often suffer from unusually high levels of depression. Such trans-species speculations aside, one geneticist recently observed that we are now beginning to understand “how the environment gets under the skin to affect gene expression, and consequently, neural activity and behavior.”[3]

Or consider the recent shifts in cognitive theory and linguistic theory that have, once and hopefully for all, banished the old idea that an abstract human mind is clearly separated from its body and the environment. Increasingly, it seems apparent that our thought and language is much more closely tied to our embodied sensory experience of the material world than we had imagined—certainly WAY more than Saussure and Baudrillard had, or even could have, imagined—may they rest in peace. Humans certainly do “culturally construct” the world around them, but they do so first as embodied sensory creatures whose language and thinking is embedded in the very world that they construct. The consequences, in the words of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, are again profound: “As a society,” Lakoff argues, “we have to rethink what it fundamentally means to be human.”[4]

I could go on, but my point is there’s a whole lot rethinking going on these days about what it means to be human, from a whole lot of different fields. And the gist of it seems to be that humans, past and present, are much more embedded in our material environment than even environmental historians had previously realized. Not, just in terms of health and the physiological body—topics environmental historians have brilliantly developed—but also even in the ways we feel, think, and manipulate abstract ideas. If we take these insights seriously, we don’t think about the material world so much as we think with and through that world—in some cases, a world that is literally inside of us. Whomever or whatever is doing the thinking here, has already been so deeply shaped by their environment that it gets pretty hard to tell the difference.

So—it seems fair to ask, what are we humanists to make of all this rethinking of our central subject of study?

But wait, there’s more. At roughly the same time we’ve been realizing how deeply entangled we are in our environments, we've also been discovering that the environment in which we’re entangled, is much more dynamic and creative than we knew.

Which brings me to my second question/reason:

2) Have We Underestimated the Creativity of the Non-Human World?

Now, obviously we’ve known that the earth is creative for a long time: after all, it did, belatedly, create humans, even if it may now be having second thoughts. But what’s new here, what we’re finally starting to figure out, is how this creative process works. One of the great unanswered questions of Darwinian evolutionary theory was the source of biological innovation: Darwin explained the survival of the fittest, but he couldn’t account for the arrival of the fittest. How did life manage to create novel proteins, enzymes, and other stunningly improbable molecular forms that helped species to survive and evolve? Consider this: there are more potential ways to put together the twenty key amino acids that make up living things than there are hydrogen atoms in the entire universe—that number is not just astronomical, it is hyperastronomical. Even over the course of millions of years, the odds that useful proteins would emerge randomly would be vanishingly small. For a long time, evolutionary biologists largely ignored this problem. But now a new breed of evolutionary developmental biologists—who get to go by the cool seventies-sounding name Evo-Devo—are starting to reveal the ways in which life can invent biological breakthroughs much more quickly and efficiently than we knew. Making an analogy to the American television show Star Trek, the Evo-Devo biologist Andreas Wagner explains that life has a sort-of “warp drive,” mechanisms for accelerating the speed at which organisms can create and try out new proteins and other biological molecules and metabolisms.[5] In his recent book, The Arrival of the Fittest, Wagner refers to this as nature’s “innovability”—it’s innovative powers. His words, not mine.

Now, the point of this is not that humans are suddenly going to start evolving more rapidly—as much as it looks like we may need too, humans are evolutionary dawdlers, back benchers who rarely can play with the big kids. But, thank our lucky stars, evolutionary innovation can and does occur with astonishing speed in many of the simpler organisms with which humans have formed close partnerships. On a historical time scale, the sheer inventive power of the organic world affects humans most directly through legions of other more creative organisms, like the bacteria in our guts, the weevils that eat our crops, and the little white worms that make our silk, to mention only a few. Bacteria reproduce so quickly and have such efficient means of mixing genetic information that they can evolve useful new traits in mere days or even hours.[6] Given this, we might think of humans as surrounded by—and colonized by—other simpler, but arguably far more biologically innovative creatures, the speedy architects of a sort of “alien technology” which has both benefited and harmed us. Either way, as Ed Russell has convincingly argued, this is often a process of historical co-evolution, in which both sides play a role in creating a novel outcome.

Nor is creativity solely a property of living things. Even relatively well-understood and seemingly predictable molecules can do surprising things when they interact with a big dynamic world—let’s take, just for the heck of it, molecules of a gas like carbon dioxide. Humanists and scientists alike tend to understand phenomena like global climate change as the unanticipated consequence of human actions—eco-system accidents, if you will. But what we call accidents, can just as well be understood as evidence of a creative world that humans understand only vaguely and guide only imperfectly.

Technology, which we should of course understand as nothing more than repurposed nature, demonstrates similar innovative powers. As the historian of technology W. Brian Arthur puts it, “Technology builds itself organically from itself” as “it is a fluid thing, dynamic, alive, highly configurable, and highly changeable over time.”[7] Humans are certainly the keystone species in the evolution of these technological ecosystems, yet our contribution often consists of combining existing technologies and things in novel ways. Light bulbs popping in our heads notwithstanding, neither Edison nor anyone else conjured up new inventions solely out of their own febrile imaginations. Because our inventions are never truly just “ours,” because they remain more wild than tame, they always have a creative potential that we exploit more than make.

Again, I could go on, but I’m running out of time. Given all this, I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that we live in world not of passive raw materials, compliant technologies, domesticated organisms, or even “eco-system services,” to use that most appalling of modernist scientific phrases—but rather in a dynamic world full of innovative, creative, and even dangerous non-human things, both biotic and abiotic, natural and anthropogenic.

To move towards some sort of conclusion, maybe you find some of these points convincing, maybe you don’t—it’s a bit much to cover in 15 minutes. But just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that both of these ideas are to at least some degree correct: In other words, that humans are more deeply embedded in their environments than we knew, and, that these environments are far more creative than we knew. So what kind of history would we end up writing if we put those two insights together?

It would, I suspect, be first of all a far less anthropocentric history, a history where we begin by looking for the historical signs of a creative and powerful material world of organisms, chemicals, technologies, buildings, and other things that also have a history, even if that history emerges most clearly only in their relationships with humans. Second, it would be a history in which we would frame human creativity, intelligence, power, and culture, as emerging from our interactions with a creative world, including interactions that extend all the way inside the bodies, brains, and minds of past peoples. We are creative because our world is creative.

To conclude, there surely is some cosmic irony in that at precisely the same moment we are learning so much that argues against an anthropocentric view of human history, the suggestion has been made that we should name the modern geological epoch after those very same humans—the Anthropocene. I understand the utility of the term, and I don’t question the good motives of those who advocate it. But if even only a fraction of what I have suggested here today is correct, it seems evident that the term conveys precisely the wrong message at precisely the wrong time, reinforcing the almost reflexive human tendency to anthropocentrism, just when we most desperately need to move away from it. Because I would submit we have not, cannot, and will not, ever live in an Age of Humans. Rather, we live in an age of coal and steel, of oil, we live in an age of cows, cotton and copper, an age of corn and rice, we live in an age of sulfur, of arsenic and asbestos, an age of diethylstilbestrol and bis-phenols, we live in an age of hard concretes and soft plastics and sharp shiny aluminum, and an age of bright electric lights that erase the infinite stars from our eyes. This, the supposed age of humans, is all of these things and many more, but never just human, because these are the very things that have made us human, the “quintessence of dust” from which we emerged only too quickly turn inward to seek divinity in ourselves. No, if we want to see the true human, we must tear our gaze away from ourselves and look instead at the things that have made us. Because like a faint evening star that you see only out of the corner of your eye, we see the human star most clearly only when we look away.

 

[1] Peter Andrey Smith, “Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?” New York Times (June 23, 2015).

[2] Quoted in Smith, “Is your body mostly Microbes?”

[3] Quoted in Elizabeth Pennisis, “Bipolar drug turns foraging ants into scouts,” Science Magazine (31 December 2015). The original article is, Daniel F. Simola, Riley J. Graham, et al., “Epigenetic (re)programming of caste-specific behavior in the ant Camponotus floridanus,” Science 351 (January 2016).

[4] Bergen, Louder Than Words.

[5] Wagner, Arrival of the Fittest, loc. 2836.

[6] Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses (Chicago, 2012).

[7] Arthur, The Nature of Technology, 24, 88.

The Matter of Creativity

The following is a comment I offered on a panel of excellent papers titled, "Knowing, Shaping, and Making Environments: Material Histories," at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Chicago, 29 March-1 April, 2017.

I thought it might be most useful for me to take a few minutes to provide a bit of context on and critique of this new materialism and raise what I hope is a provocative question. I’m very interested these days in the question of “creativity,” a province that humans have long thought of as uniquely their own. But in reading these four insightful papers, I wanted to ask our authors: To what degree might it be intellectually and analytically useful to think of environmental objects like sand, wetlands, fossils, and even environmental carcinogens, as creative entities?

To better understand this somewhat odd question, a quick overview of the new materialism might be useful. One of the heavy weights thus far has come from the merging of environmental history with science and technology studies, particularly with Latourian Actor Network Theory, and I suspect that influence is the most central one in the papers today. But there are many other veins in a wide variety of disciplines. In political ecology we have Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter”; in critical feminist theory there is Karen Barad’s influential “speculative realism”; in philosophy Graham Harman proposes his “Object Oriented Ontology” and Timothy Morton has his “hyperobjects”; among the archaeologists, Bjørnar Olsen mounts a “defense of things,” with which Ian Hodder says we are inextricably “entangled”; and then the anthropologist Daniel Miller simply tells us to pay more attention to our “Stuff.” Meanwhile, ships flying under other flags converge on similar waters, as post-humanism, the new fascination with “affect theory,” and most obviously the so-called “turn to the non-human,” all seem to betoken a more material and less anthropocentric view of the world and its history.

I could go on. But it is surely some measure of the constrictions imposed by the earlier post-modern cultural turn that it has today been met with such an explosion of scholars who now argue that we lost sight of some very important things along the way, which is to say, the multitude of biotic and abiotic things with which we humans share the planet. Non-human things matter.

Or do they? Because if you were to survey this efflorescence of recent materialist thinking, you’d discover that, despite all the talk about things, objects, and matter, sometimes there are surpassingly few if any actual animals, vegetables, or minerals to be found. As the philosopher Graham Harman recently put it, today “materialism has become a terme d’art which has little to do with anything material. Materialism has come to mean simply that something is historical, socially constructed, involves cultural practices, and is contingent.”

Now why should this be? In part it surely suggests just how difficult it is to escape the powerful pull of anthropocentrism. Even when we deliberately set out to talk about other things, it is all too easy to lapse back into a more familiar and comfortable space where we talk mostly about ourselves. But Harman also blames the tendency of many new materialist thinkers to focus solely on the ways in which objects act, particularly in relation to humans—it is, for example, Actor Network Theory—rather than on the equally rich and enduring properties of the thing or object in and of itself. “An object must exist in order to act,” Harman not unreasonably asserts—it does not “act in order to exist.” Instead, Harman asks us to consider the possibility that the things around us contain hidden multitudes, and their potential is never fully expressed nor exhausted by its inter-actions with humans. That things are—and this is my word not Harman’s—fundamentally and irrepressibly creative, in ways that are both good and bad for humans.

And so that is a rather long way around to actually having something of a comment on the fine papers in this session today. In all four, I’m happy to see that the things at hand are genuinely and empirically there—their matter really does matter. But still, I wondered if our authors might at times overestimate human creativity at the price of underestimating the creativity of the things or objects that they analyze. Because if Harman is right—as I suspect much recent scientific evidence suggests he is—then environmental objects hold creative potentials that humans tap into and marshal more than they create. Which leads to an interesting thought: might it be that humans are creative not in themselves, but because their material environment is creative? That perhaps shifting sand dunes and rivers can create both process and historical geomorphologists, and more variations yet, because none of these merely human concepts or theories will every fully capture the rich creativity of sands and rivers themselves; or that the patent inadequacies of the term “environmental carcinogen” might have stemmed in part from the modernist human refusal to accept that the environment they wished to see as fixed and static, was in truth dynamic and inventive; or that in revealing the mutability of the American attitudes towards wetlands, perhaps we need also to recognize the mutability and adaptability of the wetland organisms themselves, that can spark different actions and imaginaries that are never wholly human; and finally, that while the dinosaur in the natural history museum is certainly a chimerical product of human ingenuity, might some of that ingenuity also literally reside in the pregnant potential of the fossil itself as its emerges from its matrix in the hands of the expectant preparer? You see where I’m going with this. The question I’m suggesting then is this: Where does the spark of creativity and historical change really dwell? In the human mind, or in the rich fecundity of the things around us which had, after all, created that human mind in the first place?

 

Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Things

The following is a comment I offered on a roundtable where the speakers addressed the theme of, "Histories of Mining and Grassroots Resistance in Native American Communities, at the Western History Association conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

About 15 years ago the anthropologist Shepard Krech sparked a controversy with his book, The Ecological Indian, which basically argued that the North American Indians were not the proto-environmental saints that some had previously made them out to be. To his credit, Krech wanted to put indigenous peoples who had often been seen as “natural”—in other words, static and unchanging—back into history, arguing that regardless of whether the contemporary world judged their practices ecological or not, these were a product of culture and ideas, not of some prelapsarian harmony with nature.

Krech was right about this, of course—at least to a point. We should resist any essentializing argument that suggests indigenous peoples are somehow automatically and inevitably more “in-tune” with nature. Yet in considering the stories recounted here today by our five insightful panelists, it also seems readily evident that there is something uniquely powerful in the ways that so many indigenous peoples—the Ojibwe, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, the Blackfoot, the Sami—from so many places around the globe, have become contemporary champions of the non-human world. To add an example from my own work, I'd mention the Achuar, a native people of the Amazonian jungles of Peru and Ecudaor, many of whom are now battling international corporations seeking to exploit the rich timber, oil, and mineral of their homelands. There are many others like them.

How can we account for this powerful grassroots—or jungle-roots, or tundra-roots—indigenous resistance to modernity’s insatiable drive to mine what it dismissively terms “natural resources” from every last square meter of the planet? In challenging the idea of the “ecological Indian,” Krech sought to remind us that native peoples were just as much a product of a malleable culture and history as Europeans. Yet in so doing he also tended to replicate the modernist analytical assumption that we can draw a clear sharp line between culture and nature, an analytical stance that tends to minimize the active agency of the non-human world in creating and shaping humans and their cultures. In his recent book, Beyond Nature and Culture, the French anthropologist Philippe Descola notes that the Achuar people do not recognize any categorical division between creative humans and a passive fixed nature of “natural resources”—in part, because the Achuar’s nature is itself dynamic and creative, a place teeming with other sentient plants and animals. In the Achuar ontology, their culture and ideas comes from a lively nature, not in distinction to it—an animist worldview that was long dismissed by the West, yet which is now increasingly supported by a growing body of new scientific and humanistic insights.

Of course, the modern environmentalist activism of the Achuar, Ojibwe, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, and Sami, also surely owes much to contemporary ideas about the environment and historic traditions. Yet can ideas alone, or a solely immaterial concept of culture, really explain the full nature of their passionate activism? I suspect not. Rather, I find it telling that when indigenous peoples speak out against the mass destruction wrought by a cyanide heap-leach gold mine or a colossal open-pit iron ore mine, it seems they often speak not just about themselves, but about their intimate relationship with the non-human organisms that these mines threaten. For the Ojibwe, it is their centuries-long connection to wild rice, a graceful shallow water-loving plant that had helped to pull them into a fertile bond with the wetlands of the Bad River. For the Sami, it is the reindeer, the intelligent social animals whose cooperation the Sami surely cultivated as much as created. For the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, and the Blackfoot, it is perhaps a broader landscape itself, but within that, always their close relationship to the particular plants, animals, and mountains whose vibrant nature had given them so much.

To conclude, then, I wondered what our speakers might think of reviving the concept of the ecological Indian—but this time, when we say ecological, we would mean not just a relationship as defined by contemporary ecological science, but also the dynamic human partnerships that indigenous peoples have frequently formed with a world of extraordinary organisms and things—partnerships that endure today and that transcend conventional boundaries between culture and nature to suggest a much broader concept of the “ecological.” In this Anthropocene Epoch, the supposed “Age of Humans,” might this new understanding of the “ecological Indian” point us towards a less anthropocentric and more humble understanding of the human place on a creative planet?

World On Fire

I made the following comments on a panel at the World Congress of Environmental History, Guimaraes, Portugal, 8 July 2014, on the theme "Unmaking Modernity: Ecologies of Terrorism, Total War, Deconstruction and Disaster." The panelists were Janet Ore, Brett Walker, and Ian Miller.

 

Environmental history conferences by their very nature probably invite bleak, even apocalyptic sounding, session titles. But even by that standard our panel today surely stands out, what with ecologies of terrorism, poisonous family homes, and melting nuclear reactors. Had a fourth presenter not had to drop out, we’d also have been treated to a discussion of the environmental dimensions of total war. Rumor has it that declensionist narratives have become a bit unfashionable in environmental history circles these days—but if so, one would surely not suspect it from the titles of our papers today. Which, as it turns out, is all to the good, because while all these papers obviously offer some rather sobering if not down-right depressing stories, I think all three do so in pursuit of a worthy if still rather distant goal. In my view, these papers not only deftly illuminate the dangerous consequences inherent in the literal “unmaking” of the toxic homes, skyscrapers, and reactors of our modern era. But in doing so, they also contribute to the important conceptual work of “unmaking” the very modernist ideas and behaviors that helped to create these tragedies in the first place. Indeed, the papers offer ample proof that the difficult task of unmaking the modernist worldview cannot begin soon enough, even as they also warn us that doing so is fraught with perils.

Modernity is, of course, a creature of magical divisions. Its power, or rather that of its disciples, emerges from the lines they draw between things. As Janet Ore’s paper makes evident, the post-war American housing boom and the vast profits it generated for some was built on the promise that the cheap gypsum sheet rock, formaldehyde plywoods, and polyvinyl plastics in our homes were distinct from the reeking chemical plants from whence they emerged, as well as the vast “sanitary” waste dumps which were supposed to be their eternal resting places. Likewise, when workers strolled into the gleaming magnificence of the World Trade Center towers, they thought they saw an entirely human-made and thus human-controlled world, one in which the dusty chaos of the distant Montana vermiculite mines Brett Walker brings to life for us could scarcely have seemed more irrelevant. Likewise, Ian Miller takes us to a brightly illuminated shrine to Japanese electrical progress and prowess, perhaps the archetypal modern technology as its ineffable and even vaguely occult functions seemed so distant from the messy coal, oil, and nuclear plants that charged its circuits.

And so it was that humans gambled their lives and their fortunes on powerful things put potentially dangerous things, confident that the divisions they had erected would hold, until, often suddenly, they didn’t. Buried slabs sheetrock refused to stay properly dead, mixing with water to rise from their graves like legions of pasty-white zombies, reeking of rotten eggs. It took two jetliners loaded with hydrocarbons, painstakingly refined to maximize their volatility, to bring down New York’s twin towers, but from the almost tectonic heat and pressure generated in those horrific seconds emerged something wholly new in this world, a swirling pinkish white dust that carried mutagenic asbestos fibers and other toxins deep into the lungs of Michael Valentin and as yet unfathomed legions of others. The Japanese, of course, have known and lived with Tsunamis for millennia, yet who had imagined that a wall of sea water could so effortlessly breach the divide between bright lights and slugs of decaying plutonium, plunging the optimistic promises of the Tokyo Power museum into a darkness from which it has yet to emerge?

I find these powerful stories disturbing in two somewhat contradictory ways. At first I am, like most people I suspect, shocked by the rapidity with which our things fall apart, the ease with which the dividing lines are erased by nothing more than mixtures of water and gypsum, jet fuel and asbestos, sea water and electric pumps. But then comes a slower and perhaps more profound sense of surprise in realizing that we—and I include myself here—still continue to be so surprised by this reality. That our best efforts notwithstanding, the modernist worldview still stands largely intact, even though many of us have long since concluded that it is fatally flawed. Why, in the face of such overwhelming contrary evidence, do we still cling so tightly to these dysfunctional ways of understanding the world?

In part, it’s that the more accurate ways of understanding the world that these three papers so beautifully demonstrate are inherently complex and difficult to grasp. In rejecting the old modernist idea of bounded human body that was clearly distinct from its environment, Janet and Brett present us instead with a porous body, one which exists not so much as a discrete entity, but more as one node in a web of biogeochemical flows. In rejecting the old modernist idea that human-made technologies are clearly distinct from natural systems, Miller presents us with an electrical network in which unpredictable Tsunamis and seawater are as much a part of the system as reactors and generators. Yet, as useful as these insights are, my hunch is that we’re still circling around the real heart of the matter, that concepts like ecological bodies and organic machines are just the camel’s nose in the tent. That having opened the flap, we now have to let the whole beast inside and have a proper look at him.

If we do, my suspicion is that at the heart of the modernist worldview—particularly in its western incarnations—lurks a decidedly pre-modern and religiously rooted article of faith that we have yet to fully grapple with: the belief that humans are fundamentally special creatures because their abstract cultures are largely or entirely distinct from the material world around them. That unlike almost every other creature on the planet, humans are the shapers of the material world, not its products. Yet what do these three papers tell us but that the things we’ve long counted as most uniquely and essentially human—our buildings, our technologies, ever our own bodies—are anything but fully ours? To the contrary, I’d suggest that these papers give us a glimpse of a different reality, a sort of scientifically grounded animism in which the powerful things we so arrogantly dismiss as mere raw materials and passive tools are revealed in the moment of creating us. Human power, as the political ecologist Jane Bennett suggests, is really just a type of thing power. Or, to quote the Stanford archaeological theorist Ian Hodder, “[humans] depend on things . . . in order to build, maintain and justify power. They depend on things to control others.” The French anthropologist Philippe Descola perhaps puts it most boldly when he exhorts scholars to move beyond the old modernist divisions that placed nature and culture in opposition, and to recognize instead how the material world around us makes—or perhaps more accurately, constitutes—human culture.

These new ways of thinking about human culture and the material world have appeared under a variety of banners, including the so-called “new materialism,” post-humanism, and thing theory. My own preference is for “neo-materialism,” but I won’t exploit this comment to push my own views on it any more than I already have. Plus I’ve also been told that academic theory is as passé these days as declensionist narratives, though I suppose I’m in good company in that regard. So let me instead conclude with a few more concrete suggestions for how these very good papers and their larger projects might benefit from a neo-materialist perspective. First, and most generally, I hope all three authors will make it clear in their work that they are not only trying to capture the physical unmaking of the modern world, but are also actively pursuing its conceptual unmaking. Now that we all know that Latour was right and we never really were modern, I think the more urgent question is: what then are we to become instead? I’d recommend Descola, scientific animism, and neo-materialist theory, had I not just promised to avoid mentioning it again. Second, to Brett and Janet, I would suggest that their skillful dissections of the nefarious ways in which in toxic houses and skyscrapers shape human health beg the even larger question of how these environments are shaping human minds and thus cultures. If, as I’ve suggested, culture is indeed often inseparable from the material world around us, we have to wonder what kind of human beings are emerging, and will still emerge, from worlds filled with plastics and asbestos. However, I’d also draw our attention to Ian’s apt observation that any such conceptual unmaking of this modern world will almost certainly spark a reactionary rage from some, and quite likely we will witness a redoubled insistence on the transcendent uniqueness and brilliance of the human species that could prove immensely dangerous.

But to end on perhaps a slightly more optimistic note, I’d suggest that the most obvious lesson we can draw from these three papers is that we should take much more care in selecting the things with which we surround ourselves than we heretofore have. Such a genuinely modest and cautious type of conservatism would, of course, be almost entirely contrary to the faux conservatism and neo-liberalism of the modern market-driven capitalist world, that worships and rewards nothing so much as what is new and disruptive. Yet what do these three papers tell us but that Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” is both a good deal less creative and a good deal more destructive than he realized? It is perhaps naïve to hope that humans might yet develop a more profound type of conservatism, one in which we deploy even a modest proportion of the immense energies and wealth we now use in creating what is new, to the careful assessment of what we already have and what we might, in fact, better do without. Yet I’m also encouraged, as these three papers suggests that the task of unmaking the modern world—and thus how we might make a better one in its place—is in many ways already well begun. To paraphrase the American politician Barry Goldwater, “declenision in the service of new visions is no vice.”

The Invention of Humans

             According to the ideas of the 13th century Franciscan monk, Roger Bacon, Adam in the Garden of Eden would have known all about how to test Eve for genetic mutations indicating a high risk for breast cancer. He could have also thrown together a steam engine or a nuclear reactor, had he any need of them. Since God had created man in his own image, Bacon reasoned that Adam (he mostly ignored Eve) shared God’s omniscient knowledge of the universe, including the knowledge of all conceivable technologies.

            Living in Paradise, the first couple had no need for either breast cancer tests or reactors. But after the fall and expulsion, Adam lost his innate technological know-how just when he needed it most. Thrust naked and shivering into a hostile untamed world, Adam and Eve and their descendants had to start over from nothing and invent the technologies needed to reconquer nature and build a New Eden.

            Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did not cite Bacon or any other medieval theologians in his recent unanimous opinion for the court in the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. Nonetheless, ancient Christian ideas about Adam, Eden, and the nature of technology lay just beneath the surface as Thomas and the other justices negotiated the often-contradictory western ideas about what qualifies as a human “invention.”

            At issue was whether a Utah corporation, Myriad Genetics, could maintain its patents on two human genes named BRCA1 and BRCA2. Mutations in these genes signal a dramatically higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Scientists at the University of Utah had isolated the genes and mapped their normal state. Myriad then stepped in to sell genetic testing to determine any individual woman’s risk. Challenged in court, Myriad argued it should be able to patent the two genes so it could enjoy a monopoly on providing the test.

            A Federal circuit court had previously upheld Myriad’s right to patent the two genes, as well as its patents on synthetically created versions of the genes known as composite DNA (cDNA). In its unanimous ruling Thursday, however, the Supreme Court partially reversed the lower court decision, denying Myriad’s patent on the two “naturally occurring” genes themselves but allowing those on the synthetic cDNA.

            At the heart of the court’s decision was the long-recognized principle that patents should not be permitted on “naturally occurring things.” The task of the court, Thomas thus argues, was to determine whether Myriad’s patent claims were based on “any new and useful . . . composition of matter” or merely on “naturally occurring phenomena.” On this basis, the justices concluded that the BRCA1 and 2 genes were natural and could not be patented, while Myriad’s synthetic cDNA genes were patentable because they were not a “product of nature” but “something new.”

            Given the current laws and precedents, the court’s decision was reasonable enough. But it was also based on a widely held but deeply flawed article of faith: that humans and their technologies are fundamentally unnatural. The flaw in such thinking is obvious, since every invention clearly depends on harnessing the material possibilities afforded by nature. Thomas Edison did not invent electricity or the ability of an electrically charged filament to glow, and he did not try to patent them. But while the carbon-filament light bulb that he did patent rearranged matter in a novel way, even this invention still depended on the attributes of glass, vacuum, carbon, and many other entirely natural materials and phenomena. Indeed, as Justice Thomas admits in his opinion, courts have long struggled with the fact that the line between products of nature and human inventions can be vanishingly thin. He quotes an earlier opinion recognizing that “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.”

            Yet if it is apparent that all inventions are products of nature as much as of humans, why not revise the patent laws to better reflect reality? The obvious answer is money. Current patent law can generate huge profits, which (hopefully) spur investment in research and development. At a deeper level, though, many may be reluctant to accept that our inventions are natural because to do so would strongly imply that we ourselves are natural—that we never left Eden after all.

            Indeed, if among all the organisms on the planet it is humans alone whose touch has the power to transform natural things into artificial inventions, then we might well wish to know what made humans so utterly unnatural in the first place. Amazingly, on the eve of the 900th anniversary of his birth, I suspect many of us still believe that human’s are unnatural for basically the same reason Roger Bacon did: because Adam had an inventor too.

The Black Marble

Most are familiar with the iconic image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. One of the few to show the fully illuminated disk of the planet, it quickly became know as the Blue Marble for its masses of white clouds swirling over the vast blue of the Pacific. In his recently completed doctoral dissertation at Montana State University, Daniel ZIzzamia suggests a surprising counterweight to this brightly optimistic image: a composite of satellite photos of the earth at night which some have termed the Black Marble.

  The Black Marble (NASA composite satellite image)

The Black Marble (NASA composite satellite image)

Zizzamia (disclosure: I co-chaired his dissertation with the historian of science Michael Reidy) offers a new understanding of the Black Marble, pointing out that the webs of bright electric lights in these images are often generated by the burning of black coal. If the Blue Marble stands as a symbol of the dawning era of ecological awareness, the Black Marble may now become an apt symbol of the global climate change wrought by a few hundred years of burning hydrocarbons like coal and oil. We burn coal to light the night, conjuring a new Dark Age in the process.

In his dissertation--"Making the West Malleable"--Zizzamia finds the roots of both modern climate change and the Promethean faith in geoengineering solutions in the 19th Century American confrontation with geological deep time and coal. The fossilized remains of ancient life, many of them discovered in western coal seams, pushed Americans and others to abandon their faith in "sacred time" and contemplate the reality that humans might well be (to paraphrase Gould) mere baubles on an unimaginably old tree of life. For a moment, the vast reaches of geological deep time seemed poised to destroy the old faith in human exceptionalism, an existential crisis that might have led to a more modest estimation of the human place on the planet, and perhaps a very different history. Yet at the very moment that Cretaceous fossils counseled humility, Zizzamia suggests, Cretaceous coal promised a rebirth of Promethean hopes: the energy of coal would give Americans the power to become their own gods and recreate the arid West as a new Eden. Massive engineering projects like transcontinental railroads and giant concrete dams were the result.

Now, a century and a half later, Zizzamia suggests we have come full circle to again confront our essential weakness in the face of global warming. Yet just as coal offered a temporary escape from confronting the reality of deep time in the 19th Century, so do the chimerical promises of massive geoengineering programs promise to obviate any human need to fundamentally reconsider their place in the natural world today. Clinging ever more tightly to a frayed faith in our own exceptionalism, we anxiously scan the horizon for signs of new saviors to replace an affair with coal and oil gone bad. Yet as each day of denial gives way to night, the possibilities narrow, and the bright Blue Marble continues to spin slowly to Black. 

Natural Born Humans and the Neo-Materialist Flip

This first appeared in Perspectives 5(2013).

My interest in the environmental humanities began badly, as I came to the field for what I now think of as all the wrong reasons. I started off as a historian of technology, studying with the scholar of American industry and science, David Hounshell, at the University of Delaware. My move to the crowds and factories of northern Delaware—a state practically synonymous with the chemical artificiality of the giant DuPont corporation—did not come easily. Having grown up in the Big Sky country of the northern Rocky Mountains, much of the American northeast struck me as hopelessly ruined and divorced from the vibrant power of capital “N” Nature. As soon as the first summer break came, I boarded a plane and headed back to the wilder lands of my home state of Montana.

 Sitting in the cramped seat of a Northwest airlines jet, I looked out the window as the plane banked sharply for landing. For a brief moment, the ragged knife-edge of the Bridger Mountain Range lay beneath me, the snow-dusted peaks glowing pink in the light of a setting sun, vast tracts of dark pine forests stretching beyond the mountains with scarcely a single electric light to disturb their shadowed perfection. What a contrast this land was, I thought, to the unnatural human-created machine hurtling me through the cold thin air. My fellow passengers and I seemed more akin to astronauts than travelers. We were kept alive thanks to the roaring jet engines outside my Plexiglas™ window, a bizarre technology that burnt ancient hydrocarbons to pump warm pressurized air into a narrow tube of aluminum metal while spewing noxious wastes into the pristine sky. What we needed to better understand, it seemed clear to me then, was the history of how and why humans and their artificial technologies had left the natural world behind. We needed to find a path away from technology and towards Nature, to get humans out of their screaming jets and back in touch with those peaceful green forests below.

Almost twenty years later now, I look back at my younger self at that moment and think that, while my goals were admirable enough, my analytical approach was entirely wrongheaded. Indeed, today I would argue that my views then were more symptomatic of the problem rather than a solution to it. For this I can thank the many influential thinkers I’ve encountered in the years since: Latour, White, Cronon, Noble, Russell, and others. Slowly, even a bit painfully, I have come to believe that one of the root causes of our contemporary and historical environmental problems is not that humans and their artificial technologies have left nature, but rather that so many of us came to believe that we even could leave nature—that humans could ever be anything else but the entirely natural animals that we are.

 In my forthcoming book, The Matter of History, I try to make this point in a chapter called “We Never Left Eden.” The title suggests how ancient and pervasive I believe the problem is, going all the way back to the western idea of humanity’s fall from an earlier paradisiacal harmony with nature. This idea in turn, I argue, is close kin to the even more widespread belief that humans are somehow special, a point on which most of us agree even if we debate precisely why. Some emphasize the human use of tools to manipulate a distinctly separate and exterior natural environment, others, the development of language or complex urban societies. Regardless, all implicitly or explicitly insist that at some point the hominin animal left nature behind to become the master manipulator of the material world rather than its product. From there flowed, depending on one’s perspective, all the blessings or all the curses of the modern human-dominated world of the past few millennia.

 This deeply anthropocentric worldview has endured through the centuries, despite suffering what looked to be mortal blows from Copernicus, Darwin, Carson, and many others. Surprisingly, scientific thinking has done relatively little to undermine it. To the contrary, many scientists continued to embrace human exceptionalism in other forms, often believing that our extraordinary intelligence would permit us to transcend the limits of this material world and become akin to gods. Not too surprising given their name, humanists have been even more eager to proclaim the worth of their chosen subject of study, which is to say, themselves. Among historians, this long tradition of anthropocentrism reached something of an apotheosis in recent decades when social constructivist thinking kept many focused squarely on humans and a concept of culture that drew a clear line between the human sociocultural world and the material world around them. While only the most radical of constructivists ever questioned that a separate material reality existed outside of human ideas, for many years the possibility that this external world might construct humans as much as it was constructed by them was largely ignored. Human ideas about matter mattered a great deal more than matter itself.

 In the book I mentioned above, I call my chapter on this topic “The Denial of Matter,” and if that were all I had to say about the topic, it would be rather depressing. Fortunately, in more recent years a very different way of thinking about the material world has begun to take shape, one that has potentially radical implications for humanists, scientists, and people in general. Smitten by Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful 2012 book, Swerve, I’ve toyed with calling mine Flip, though that title may be too redolent of recent American real estate practices and charismatic sea mammals to really work. Regardless, the idea is that I and some other neo-materialist scholars are proposing that we need to flip the conventional view of the relationship between humans and matter on its head. Instead of understanding humans as the master manipulators of a separate and passive material world, we argue that humans and their cultures are, to a significant degree, products of matter: that the material world creates us and our diverse cultures every bit as much as we create it. Indeed, recent scientific and humanistic insights strongly suggest that it no longer makes sense to draw a clear conceptual line between humans and matter (or nature, as some prefer to call it), but that we should instead focus more attention on the many ways that humans and their cultures are made of and from matter and cannot logically exist in isolation from it.

 Lest I begin to sound vaguely misanthropic here, let me briefly assert for the record that I have the highest regard for human beings and their many accomplishments. Indeed, some of my best friends are humans, and I am particularly fond of the ones who are my wife and two children. My intent is not to revive the foolish anti-humanism of neo-Malthusian movements like Earth First!, nor to deny that humans have accomplished many wonderful things, at least by our own inherently provincial standards. Rather, I want to suggest that humans did not achieve these things on their own, that they were aided by countless powerful material partners, great and small, operating in complex biogeochemical ecologies that have created not only the human animal, but also many important aspects of human culture and society.

 Which brings me back at last to that younger version of myself in the cramped economy seat of a Northwest airlines jet. As I look back on it now, the problem with the jet was not that it was divorced from the real nature I thought I glimpsed in the mountains and dark forests below: on the contrary, I would insist today that engineers had merely shaped the natural material world to create the jet. They had not fundamentally altered or left it behind. More importantly, the real problem was that I, like most humans, failed to appreciate how the dynamic power of nature had created the jet too, that this odd machine was as much a product of the extraordinary chemical abilities of hydrocarbons and aluminum as of the much-vaunted mental capabilities of human brains. Because we fail to see that humans are best understood as partners with things rather than their masters, we also fail to appreciate the many complex ways in which we become deeply entangled with those things, some of which we might well have done better to avoid. There was nothing inherently unnatural or bad about the jet. But having thrown our lot in with oil, aluminum, and the other materials and properties that we call a jet, we humans have partnered with some very powerful things that now threatened to lead when we had meant for them to follow.

 The neo-materialist flip thus suggests that far from being akin to Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, we humans might do better to think of ourselves as a gang of occasionally charming but frequently foolish children who have stumbled upon an abandoned locomotive idling quietly on a siding. Eagerly climbing aboard, we carelessly push and pull at the controls of a machine whose powers we can only vaguely comprehend. By chance, we throw the machinery into gear and send the engine careening down a track towards a destination we can scarcely imagine, all the while praising ourselves for how very clever we are. I wonder: even if we somehow figured out how to stop the locomotive, would any of us get off?