- Another Poetry Is PossibleWill Alexander, Planetary Futures, and Exopoetics
Humans are the primary contributors to a series of overwhelming changes to the earth, diminishing its biodiversity, digging up huge swaths of the ground for resources, damming and moving rivers, saturating soils and waters with chemicals and plastics, and pouring greenhouse-creating gases into the air. The accumulation of all this earth-shaping human activity has changed the geological conditions of the planet, launching the Anthropocene. Not only will these changes still be apparent thousands of years from now, but also they have been indelibly embedded into the earth’s geological record, leaving an indexical mark of human business in the rock strata that will be legible to future observers millions of years from now. Thinking about the Anthropocene, then, involves overlaying issues of Earth’s ecological future with questions concerning the longevity of human activities over vast time scales and at planetary-wide levels. Changing the geological constituents of Earth raises existential questions about what it means to be a species, to be involved in increasing the rate of species extinction, and to leave traces embedded in the planet’s crust that could prove to be the most durable legacy of humanity.
Recently, a number of scholars across the humanities have made pressing calls for new ways to think of species-wide agencies and planetary-scale conceptualizations. Ursula Heise, in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, points to the “urgency of developing an ideal of ‘eco-cosmopolitanism,’ or environmental world citizenship, building on recuperations of the cosmopolitan project in other areas of cultural theory.”1 [End Page 147] Susan Stanford Friedman also has proposed a turn to modernist “planetarity” as a specific kind of globalist aesthetics that refuses to hierarchically evaluate cultures according to Western-centric models and instead opens onto a distributed sense of the modern across the globe.2 However, while Friedman and Heise tend to use planetarity and global modernity interchangeably, Dipesh Chakrabarty has claimed that there is a real rift between the global and the planetary and that the climate crisis exceeds the frame of the global. For Chakrabarty, contemporary earth science
drives a clear wedge between an emergent conception of the planetary and the existing ideas regarding the global. . . . The scientific problem of climate change thus emerges from what may be called comparative planetary studies and entails a degree of interplanetary research and thinking. The imagination at work here is not human centered. It speaks to a growing divergence in our consciousness between the global— a singularly human story— and the planetary, a perspective to which humans are incidental. The climate crisis is about waking up to the rude shock of the planet’s otherness.3
There is a desperate need right now to generate a plurality of planetary forms of thinking that do not idealize the planet but also do not assume that human and planetary perspectives are at odds. The humanities and sciences can both provide means by which to measure, navigate, and perhaps begin to remedy the “divergence” between the global and the planetary.
At this juncture, I want to propose a different path for thinking about Earth’s ecological futurity than is commonly taken in current environmental humanities discussions. Chakrabarty’s insistence on grappling with “the planet’s otherness” and including “interplanetary research and thinking” already forms the backbone of the study of astronomy, exoplanetary exploration, and exobiology (life beyond Earth). These fields have provided powerful scientific knowledge and imaginative conceptualizations of the pasts and futures of planets. These sciences consider Earth as one planet among others, and the current environmental status of Earth as one phase in a broader analysis of what planetary geological systems can do. They also make use of a potent conceptual twist by considering [End Page 148] how Earth’s environs might be observed from the perspective of another planet and another intelligent life form.
There is a subspecialization in astronomy that takes things further: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This field considers how a technologically capable extraterrestrial might come to know and understand Earth and its inhabitants, and how an Earthling might contact and interact with intelligent exobiological life...