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  • Environmental Care Ethics:Notes Toward a New Materialist Critique
  • Adeline Johns-Putra (bio)

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

—The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987, 43)

To scan the now ubiquitous definition put forward by the Brundtland Commission is to realize that our construction of “sustainability” is driven by a notion of care—care for the nonhuman environment enfolded with a concern for our human descendants. The rhetoric around our ideal response to climate change structures it as an ethical response. This essay proposes that, while so much of the ontology of the global ecological crisis called climate change has been closely interrogated, the ethics of care demanded in the name of that crisis has not been scrutinized in the same way. By “care,” I mean a feeling of concern for the wellbeing and needs of others; by “care ethics,” I mean an ethical position that takes this affective concern as its basis for action.1 Given that environmental ethics—the question of human conduct and its effect on the human and nonhuman environment—is a profoundly ontological project, accounting as it must for the perceived ontological difference between the human and nonhuman, this lack of ontological scrutiny is conspicuous, to say the least.

This essay thus offers a theorization of the care ethics of climate change and sustainability. It considers this through the ontological project of new materialism, paying attention to the new materialist tendency to discuss ontology as agency, and being in terms of becoming. I propose that care [End Page 125] too has to be discerned as always becoming, that it is to be considered—to invoke Heidegger—not as ontic but as ontological. And yet, pace Heidegger, I suggest that, in an environmental ethics of care, care is more fruitfully thought of not as a condition for ontology (as in Heidegger’s Sorge) but as itself deserving of ontological query. Care is not the means by which agency occurs; it is itself agential.

New Materialism

The new materialism that has invigorated environmental criticism, and that has been particularly important for the project of critical climate change, is a reconsideration and re-acknowledgement of the material properties of human co-existence with the human and nonhuman. In other words, new materialists accept the fact (or what Heidegger would call the facticity) of being in order to interrogate it.2 Formulations such as the “agential realism” of Karen Barad and the “speculative materialism” of Quentin Meillassoux, both now identifiable with a “new materialism” (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012) or “new ontology” (Hekman 2008, 109), have challenged the linguistic or social constructivism that tended to dominate critical theory after post-structuralism. New materialists have borrowed much from Bruno Latour’s description (1993) of our modern habit of dividing the world into the realms of subjects, objects, language and history—when, really, we should be thinking of quasi-objects, quasi-subjects, and even discourses—and his identification of such units as actants, agents that constantly translate, mediate, and play roles. One should also note that new materialism’s re-considerations of human and nonhuman ontology as a question of agency are recognizably indebted to the theories of identity performativity of Donna Haraway and Judith Butler. But what has really invigorated new materialism is Latour’s famous pronouncement, a kind of volte face, in 2004, that his actor-network theory and the Science and Technology Studies (S&TS) inspired in large part by it had mistakenly rejected “matters of fact” outright, in its valiant attempt at simply redefining them. Latour called instead for a “second empiricism, [a] return to the realist attitude” (2004, 246). A need for a new empiricism is the emerging context for new materialism, a new concern with the fact or facticity of materiality and of being.

The key thinker in this regard is Barad, whose interest in ontological questions of agency stems from a refusal to accept entities as either static or ontic. She stringently critiques what she calls representationalism, the deeply entrenched assumption that there are “two distinct and independent kinds of entities—representations, and entities...