An All-Encompassing Politics for a New World Altogether: On Jedediah Purdy’s "After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene"

An All-Encompassing Politics for a New World Altogether: On Jedediah Purdy’s "After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene"

Jedediah Purdy | After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene | Harvard University Press | September 1, 2015 | 336 Pages


What is humanity to make of its place, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, on this pale blue dot? Religion, philosophy, and science, three prominent branches of human custom and thought, are perennially bewitched by this question, a question to which the modern world’s forefathers furnished no final answer. In After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Jediah Purdy, the book’s author and a distinguished professor at Duke University School of Law, pulls from previous attempts to answer that persistent question to sketch a history of humanity’s place in nature, and nature’s place in human thought and society, and to suggest some revisions to our society’s understanding of that relationship.

Ranging from Rousseau’s Emile to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from schools of thought like Romanticism to American Progressivism, from figures like Francis Bacon to Abraham Lincoln, the texts and histories used in After Nature are adroitly selected and exceptionally integrated into a narrative that calls its readers to question their own thinking about the natural world and humanity’s relationship with it. One of the book’s great, if somewhat paradoxical, achievements is that it gradually paves—paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter—a path for readers to critique and reflect upon their understandings of the natural world without deploying the overwhelming, urgent, doomsday-is-coming rhetoric so common in contemporary commentary about climate change and environmental catastrophe.

Just as important as After Nature’s pace is its accessibility. The book’s subtitle, “a politics for the Anthropocene,” suggests academic technicality and turgidity, but After Nature generally avoids applying the assortments of dense jargon and clunky classifications all-too-common in academic today. Put differently, the author presents After Nature to readers with the clarity and precision of an experienced essayist rather than the cumbersome classifications of an Ivory Tower tome-writer.

The modern world, for Purdy and a growing group of academics at the intersection of economic, environmental, legal, and critical studies scholarship, is best defined as “The Anthropocene,” which simply means “the age of humans.” Humans are not the subjects of this age, but its principle actors—a geological and environmental force. “In every respect, the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made,” writes Purdy. This pale blue dot is play-doh for the human species; it is shaped by and for us.

Yet, our anthropocentric world is convulsed by three crises: one of ecology, one of economics, and one of politics, all of which converge at a point in time where the Earth’s environmental future is indeterminate. For Purdy, these crises manifest in a “dystopia” that he identifies as the “neoliberal Anthropocene,” which, at is core, is defined by “free contract[s] within a global market,” which constitute a system that “launders inequality to the point of invisibility” (48). This critique of what others have called ‘global capitalism’ is well-founded and, through engaging with ongoing debates in economics and political science, brings After Nature into conversation with other prominent thinkers and theorists on the communitarian left and localist right.

Returning to humanity’s collective crises, Purdy asserts that they cannot be overcome by nations and individuals acting alone but require of humanity a new politics: “an effort at active responsibility for the world we make and the for the ways of life that world fosters or destroys.” At the core of Purdy’s proposed politics is the notion of self-restraint; self-imposed limitations on human habits and consumption that will help to stabilize the Earth’s environmental future. “[I]ronically,” Purdy writes, “democratic self-restraint can come only from democratic self-assertion: a political community must be able to act effectively and decisively on hard questions in order to commit to accepting certain limitations” (268). Additionally, but not entirely separately, these crises require a new conceptualization of nature as something humanity exists within and is dependent upon.

As a perquisite to theorizing about a new concept of nature and its relationship to humanity, Purdy provides his readers with a history of the environment as it has been understood in the American context. Purdy breaks down the history of the environment in American thought into four ‘visions’. First a “providential vision,” through which nature is seen as serving a purpose. Second a “Romantic vision” that valued specific sects of nature as “aesthetic and spiritual.” Third, a utilitarian view that imagined nature as resources, requiring expert management of mankind. Fourth, and finally, an “ecological view,” in which the environment is an intricate matrix of overlapping subsystems that can be harmful or helpful to humanity.

Transcending these four visions, Purdy calls upon his readers to imagine a new, truer understanding of the environment as something humanity is a part of. Realizing this vision requires environmental action. Politics, meaning the realm of public affairs in which policy is made, is what Purdy identifies as the “fulcrum” for environmental action. Purdy argues that politics is a world-building tool, and it is because of this that politics is the primary tool with which individuals and organizations must fight for a sustainable future in which a different conceptualization of nature reigns. Indeed, for Purdy, politics can only be seen in light of the longue durée, the generations of life on Earth that have come and gone, and those that have yet to be born:

“[J]ust as we are products of past judgements, so our judgements today shape the experiences and values of the future. In making a world, we also contribute to making those who live in it. This may not be a welcome burden, but it is not optional. Environmental policy making is a choice among futures.”  

Yet, the problem of fighting for a different societal course—a new world—a course of sustainability and stewardship rather than environmental catastrophe, is summed up in the “irony” that opens Purdy’s last chapter: “the awkwardness of calling for more democracy when democracy seems a formula for failure.” A politics for the Anthropocene “must not be a pious test of faith in a failing system,” Purdy writes, but, if it is to be at all workable, “achieve strength and decisiveness of the most delicate kind: in favor of self-restraint.”.

Purdy’s call for a sustainable politics is imaginative and well-worth reading, and After Nature’s broad, interdisciplinary foundations give it a general appeal that is workable for academic and public readers both. The book fails, though, to provide the readers with a concrete sense of what needs to be done. Culminating with cri de cœur for ecological economics, Purdy’s prose is more poetic than it is policy-oriented, more aspirational than it is rooted in real-world solutions. In these ways, After Nature is a worthwhile read, but one that will leave its readers thinking that they have read 200-some pages of discussion, not a developed proposal for humanity’s way forward in an uncertain environmental future.

After Nature’s essential aspirational nature is not, however, a failure. Purdy’s book is neither a policy brief nor a blueprint, like Plato’s Republic, for an ideal polity. It is an imaginative, powerful critique of humanity’s self-centeredness that, ideally, leads readers to the realization that they, too, are implicated—they, too, dwell in the Anthropocene. Conceding this point, readers, like myself, just might make more of an effort to preserve and protect this pale blue dot.


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