Putting humanity in a kangaroo court
When Nobel laureates staged a mock eco-trial in Stockholm last week, they were really demanding to rule the world.
You may not have noticed, but last week you were a co-defendant in a court case. In Stockholm, the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability met at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The event website proclaimed that ‘hjumanity [sic] will be on trial as the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium brings together almost 20 Nobel Laureates, a number of leading policy makers and some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability.’
The charge against us, humanity, was that ‘our vast imprint on the planet’s environment has shifted the Earth into a new geological period labelled the “Anthropocene” – the Age of Man’. But this was a showtrial. The guilty verdict had been written before the court had even assembled. ‘The prosecution will therefore maintain that humanity must work towards global stewardship around the planet’s intrinsic boundaries, a scientifically defined space within which we can continue to develop’, claimed Professor Will Steffen, showtrial ‘prosecutor’ and executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. The website and literature accompanying the symposium made no mention of the defence’s argument. Indeed, why would a Symposium on Global Sustainability invite a defence that challenged the premises it intended to promote?
The ‘trial’ was merely a stunt, of course, designed to make a stuffy, pompous and self-serving enterprise such as this more appealing to the media and the hoi polloi it sought to prosecute. It was one of a number of sessions at the event, each intended to qualify the sustainability agenda with the expertise of its participants. But this circle-jerk, show-trial symposium revealed far more about its members and the hollowness of the sustainability agenda than it revealed about humanity.
A trial implies a question mark over the guilt of the accused. A showtrial on the other hand, is a performance designed to serve some agenda or purpose, to make political capital from the trumped-up crimes of the defendant, whose ‘guilt’ has already been established. And so it is with the litany of charges served against humanity: we are ‘influencing critical Earth system processes’, ‘pushing the planet out of the 10,000-year Holocene environment’, causing ‘irreversible and abrupt changes’. These are our transgressions. They were recited in the courtroom melodrama, not to encourage scrutiny of ourselves, of society, or even really our relationship with nature, but to elevate the judges and their agenda. After all, without criminals, there can be no judges.
There is a strange irony to the spectacle of the world’s best thinkers putting humanity on trial. At the same time as they sit in judgement of humanity, those who seemingly best represent its virtues distance themselves from it. This act reflects a disconnect between the world’s elite – the establishment, in other words – and the rest of humanity. It is a practical demonstration of the extent to which contempt for humanity has been absorbed into establishment thinking.
Environmentalists often find it hard to understand why their arguments and actions are taken as a reflection of deep anti-humanism. But the symposium epitomises the degradation of the concept of humanity. It’s not merely the symbolic act of the Great and Good sitting above the rest of us and passing judgement; anti-humanism runs through their discussion. The showtrial diminishes the defendant – humanity – by making the plaintiff the Earth. There are only two ways this can be made sensible: either the Earth has characteristics that qualify it as a ‘person’ deserving of legal status, or humanity does not have characteristics that make it exceptional, distinct from nature. Sure enough, across the bottom of the symposium’s brochure in large print are the words ‘The world is facing a tangle of entwined challenges. It is time to recognize that we are part of nature.’
More depth on this central message of the symposium is given in the outline of its themes: ‘A central challenge for the twenty-first century is to respect the dynamic environmental boundaries that define a safe planetary operating space for humanity and to guide the human enterprise onto trajectories that develop within these boundaries. Collective action, flexible institutions and active stewardship of our globally interconnected social-ecological system is required to ensure a prosperous future for humanity.’ The themes also declare: ‘It is time to fully realize that our societies and economies are integrated parts of the biosphere, and start accounting for and governing natural capital.’
The attack on humanity would not leave such a bad taste in the mouth, were it not so nebulous. What does it mean to ‘respect dynamic environmental boundaries’, let alone identify them? Sustainability advocates claim ground for their argument in science, but the imperative that we ‘respect’ environmental boundaries precedes any real understanding of what these boundaries are, or whether they even exist. ‘Dynamic boundaries’ are in fact goalposts that can shift according to the needs of the sustainability agenda and its advocates, not a fact about the material world. Anything, including a caveman lifestyle, could be deemed ‘unsustainable’. But most importantly, what is forgotten by the symposium’s concatenation of incoherent and pseudo-scientific eco-concepts is the dynamism of humanity.
Instead of seeing humans as creative, and able to respond to ‘a changing world’ without their guidance, the laureates presuppose that we exist within a tightly ‘entwined’ relationship with nature. Our unguided movement within this relationship unsettles the mythological balance that nature’s providence rests on; nature is dynamic, but we are not. Thus we bring disequilibrium into the world at our own peril, like Adam and Eve thrust out of Eden for bringing sin to paradise. Humanity has brought chaos into creation, and we are now burdened with the consequences. And it is from this idea of a perilous relationship with nature that the members of the symposium hope to create a basis for reorganising society, with themselves as its stewards.
The sentence handed to us by our judges is a series of emergency and longer-term measures that humanity must observe if we are to survive. Many of these demands are familiar noises about ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’, meeting Millennium Development Goals, and increasing the efficiency of productive activity. But more telling is the demand for the ‘strengthening of Earth system governance’, which calls for a range of institutions to be created or given greater power to ‘integrate the climate, biodiversity and development agendas’ and ‘address the legitimate interests of future generations’. There’s also the call to enact a ‘new contract between science and society’, which will launch a ‘research initiative on the Earth system and global sustainability’, and ‘increase scientific literacy’.
At face value, the symposium and the sustainability agenda are about saving the planet. However, the desire for a ‘sustainable’ relationship between society and nature looks much more like nervousness about the establishment’s relationship with the rest of society. The institutional apparatus and power sought by the Nobel laureates through the sustainability agenda is about a search for authority and legitimacy: to overcome the gap that exists between the establishment and the rest of humanity without actually closing it.
We don’t have to stretch our imaginations to get a glimpse of what these new institutions and powers – the object of the sustainability agenda’s ambition – will look like and what they are really about. The mock trial of humanity allowed the laureates to play out their fantasy in which humanity’s guilt is turned into political power. In this intertwined relationship, there is no need of democracy; political power is simply justified on the basis of humanity’s guilt and the inevitability of catastrophe. The laureates imagine themselves in a state administrated by Plato’s philosopher kings. Us mere plebs are deemed incapable of determining things for ourselves. They appoint themselves, in case our base ambitions, desires and needs get the better of us and we send the world into ruin.
It is no more meaningful to try humanity for crimes against nature than it is to try nature for crimes against humanity – disease, flood, famine and so on. In the Middle Ages, all kinds of animals were summoned to courts to be tried. The Enlightenment saw the formulation of a more sophisticated understanding of nature and humanity: we created our own future, and our own history; the antithesis to the idea that we are mystically ‘entwined’ with gods, monsters, and other personalities representing ‘nature’. Those ideas in which humanity was understood as exceptional and apart from nature are now being abandoned by the very group of people who ought to be carrying the legacy of the Enlightenment and the humanism that developed within it.
The idea of a closely intertwined, inflexible relationship with nature that the Laureates prefer creates a prison in which no expression of humanity can be seen as a worthwhile end in itself. Everything must be judged by the imperatives of sustainability and its institutions. ‘Our predicament can only be redressed by reconnecting human development and global sustainability, moving away from the false dichotomy that places them in opposition. […] In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice.’
Such is the extent of the anti-humanism of the sustainability agenda that meeting the most basic of human needs is not a ‘good’ unless it has been assessed for its environmental impact. It is not humanity in general, but these sustainability advocates that deserve to be in the dock.
Ben Pile blogs at Climate-Resistance.
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