Book Recommendation

… by John W. Head (posted 12 Feb 2021)

Simon Dalby, Anthropocene Geopolitics: Globalization, Security, Sustainability (University of Ottawa Press, 2020)

In this thoughtful and extraordinarily clear explanation of key environment-related issues of our day – including, climate change, the Anthropocene, Earth Systems Science, and geopolitics – my colleague Simon Dalby has made a signal contribution to what I call “the literature of how”. How should we view the current role of humans in shaping the processes and relationships that make our Earth a living planet? How can we characterize the options open for the future, given new understandings of the rise of cities, of agriculture, of political borders … and even of nationalist ideologies so virulently emerging in the past couple of decades? How might we design a future in which our species will discharge its responsibilities toward other species whose survival we hold at least partly in our hands?

Dalby draws expertly on other experts. He explains what various observers have called “the ecological shake-up wrought by climate change” (Schapiro), the “tele-connections” between human action and distant consequences (Benzie et al)., the “expanding technosphere” (Zalasiewicz et al), and an “eco-modernist” perspective on the Anthropocene (Nordhaus and Shellenberger) … all to set the stage for Dalby’s own analysis of the “how” questions I summarized above. For instance, as for the question of how we should view humanity’s effect on the Earth, Dalby insists that we “live in an increasingly artificial world” in which “the invocation of sovereignty as a rationale for evading responsibilities across borders [is] untenable” [p.8]. In this same vein, he denounces our current “politics of separation”:

A politics of separation, of sovereign states with fixed boundaries and exclusive jurisdiction, insisting on their individual prerogatives regardless of the cross-boundary consequences, is anathema to both policies of mitigating, as in avoiding future climate change, and adaptation, as in dealing with what changes are already in the system. [p.12]

Indeed, Dalby devotes an entire chapter to the proposition that “while environmental matters rarely respect political boundaries, efforts to govern resource, pollution, wildlife, and numerous other matters are often profoundly shaped by territorial jurisdiction” [p.14].

One aspect of Dalby’s point of view troubles me. By my reading, he sees our species’ impact on “natural systems” as already so thorough in its impact as to be entirely beyond reversal, or beyond what I see as “restoration” (which is the overall theme of the Global RESTORATION Project). By contrast, I believe that with a cluster of deeply radical policy changes – in energy use and generation (a post-carbon future, starting soon), in technology (using only those innovations directly aligned with natural systems), in agroecology (a new Agricultural Revolution dramatically different from the one of ten thousand years ago) – we can in fact give “breathing space” for a “righting” of many natural systems.

Granted, this process of restoration will never yield a balance or a “steady state” system; no such thing has ever existed. In this respect, I fully accept, and even rejoice in, Dalby’s assertion that “the biosphere is a much more dynamic entity than most environmentalists assume” [p.26]. Still, I do find promise – the promise of reducing the extremity of climate disruption and reducing the severity of extinctions – in a campaign revolving around a sharp, painful reduction in human planet-scaping, starting now.

I hope this is not entirely unrealistic, and if it isn’t, I hope what depresses Dalby as the idiocy of present-day mechanisms of global environmental governance can be addressed by the fourth element of the Global RESTORATION Project: territorially integrated operational networks that will supplant traditional nation-states as assuming the responsibility and authority for ecological management.

I do not know whether Dalby would agree with my views on this. He surely sees the problem in a way similar to how I see it, as is clear from this statement he makes late in his book: “It isn’t obvious that the state system … is able or willing to move quickly to build a new global economy that doesn’t rely on combustion to power human activities” [p.182]. I would go further: I think the state system has already demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to do what needs to be done.

Hence my proposals for fundamental global legal and institutional change: I suggest stripping “nation-states” (what I call “anthro-states”) of their monopoly of power over matters that affect non-human species and assigning such power to a new entity (ecological states, or “eco-states”). This would disrupt the global legal order that has prevailed for nearly four hundred years, since the Peace of Westphalia (1648). I would like to hope that I am thus heeding Dalby’s call for “all scholars, academics, and researchers to support innovations that move rapidly towards less resource-consumptive modes of political economy, [through] challenging modern geopolitical formulations based on notions of autonomy, domination, and the inevitability of global state rivalries“ [p.187]. This is a plea Dalby makes in the very last paragraph of his excellent book. At the Global RESTORATION Project , we take that plea very seriously and are trying to respond to it.