- Utopia and the Anthropocene
What might a politics of the Anthropocene look like? This question is distinct from asking what policy responses to climate change should be. Rather than asking what we should do moving forward, in response to environmental change, a politics of the Anthropocene imagines what a workable relationship between politics and the environment might be in an era when anthropogenic forces undermine visions of a sustainable future. The three thoughtful and well-written books reviewed in this essay do this in different ways, with very different conclusions. Two of them, one by Ethan Miller, the other by Jonathan Symons, address this question by imagining a new politics. The third, by Lisa Garforth, addresses it by surveying what other thinkers, from political theorists to writers of speculative fiction, have imagined.
The Anthropocene here is understood less as a geological era, in which human activity leaves an indelible mark on the planet, than as a historical moment, in which we come to see the environment writ large as changed by our activity. Anthropocenic thinking undermines the idea of a nature that is distinct from human activity and that has a steady state that we can, in an ideal world, reclaim. Big-picture thinking about the politics of the Anthropocene is therefore fundamentally different from prior environmental political philosophy. It is no longer about new political forms that will allow us to live in harmony with some static idea of nature. It is about political forms that will allow us to cope (or to cope better) with environmental change, in a world in which the politics and the environmental change are recursive.
This sort of thinking is necessarily utopian; the future that we imagine is inevitably a stylized version of what could be rather than an accurate guess [End Page 122] about what will be. In Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature, Lisa Garforth studies environmentalist visions of utopia over the past half century as a way of getting at the question of how our vision of the future has changed over that time. The book "explores some of the ways in which Western cultures have imagined better futures for nature since the emergence of the idea of environmental crisis in the 1960s" (2). She draws on a variety of forms of expression of utopias, ranging from those sketched out in political philosophy to those implied in policy discourses to those constructed in speculative fiction, both in print and on film.
Garforth presents the "green" in Green Utopias as a fraught concept. Nature is contested, claimed in different utopias for different political purposes. But until quite recently, nature was seen in most utopias (whether green or otherwise) as a fixed, static thing. It might be seen as something to which we wish to return, or something to be overcome with technology, but either way, it is a thing apart from, and ontologically prior to, us. What, then, happens to green utopias in the Anthropocene, when we come to realize that there is no longer a nature that is ontologically prior to our relationship with it? How does a green utopia cope with "green" as a moving target? Phrased differently, what happens when environmental crisis is no longer avoidable, meaning that utopia becomes a vision of the post-crisis world rather than of a world in which environmental crisis has been avoided? This question is at the core of Green Utopias, which is divided into preand post-Anthropocene chapters (the Anthropocene understood here as a way of understanding our relationship with nature rather than as a claim about the natural world).
The difference between the two eras is stark. Garforth identifies a range of utopian types in the environmentalist phase from the 1970s to the 1990s. She looks at the transition from a discourse of limits to a discourse of growth in the 1970s, with its implication of a steady...