After a comparative lull in the 1990s, when free-market propagandists announced the imminent realization of the best of all possible worlds, dramatic ecological warnings have once again taken centre stage in the news media. Now that there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists, politicians and journalists that the rise in temperatures can no longer be regarded as one of the normal, periodic fluctuations in the earth’s climate, a new natural history seems to be in the making: from sandstorms sweeping through Beijing to constantly flooding rivers in Central Europe, from melting polar ice-caps to rising sea-levels, there is no shortage of natural events that seem disturbingly unnatural. Climate change, however, is merely the most dramatic of a number of developments—genetic technology being another—that change nature to an unprecedented degree.
In a situation in which nature is apparently being changed through human interventions while, conversely, human culture is increasingly dominated by this new nature, it is of crucial importance to reconsider the relationship between natural and human history, and to arrive at a more historicized conception of nature than occurs in popular science discourse—which naturalizes culture by focusing on the unchanging, animal side of the ‘naked ape’. There have been some attempts to do this—notably by Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 appropriated Kojève’s appropriation of Hegel to proclaim the end of history, but now observes that ‘there can be no end of history without an end of modern natural science and technology’.footnote1 History reasserts itself in the form of genetic research, which alters human nature itself, raising numerous questions about human rights and citizenship. While many either celebrate or fret about ‘our posthuman future’, to quote the title of Fukuyama’s 2002 book, others have sought to chart, as it were, our human non-future; examples include Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and Nicholas Stern’s report for the uk Treasury on climate change. For ecological collapse threatens the survival, if not of our species, then at least of the current social order.
Both attempts at historicization are, however, limited by their general adherence to a liberal conception of history, in which the ideal marriage of a democratic nation-state and a capitalist economy is still the ultimate goal, the only desirable future. While the Stern report emphasizes the need for forms of planning and regulation, for instance through carbon trading schemes, others maintain that the economic regime that caused the problem—or at least significantly contributed to it—will also provide the cure. If increased pollution is indeed a by-product of the incredible inventiveness set free by capitalism, capitalism will also create the means of fighting pollution, giving rise to cleaner and less wasteful forms of production and consumption. There are opportunities for growth even in the green sector. In this way, the new nature is reintegrated in the symbolic edifice, as capitalism once more proves its adaptability.
In his early essay on ‘The Idea of Natural History’, Theodor Adorno stated that ‘the question of the relationship between nature and history only stands a chance of being answered when one succeeds in understanding historical being, even in its utmost historical determinacy, as a natural [naturhaftes] being, or in grasping nature as historical being, even where it is apparently most resistant and static.’footnote2 Adorno notes that he uses ‘nature’ as more or less synonymous with ‘myth’, both terms standing for life in the grip of fate, subject to fear, before humanity asserted control over nature.footnote3 Current discourse, inflected by popularizers of Darwin, to some extent follows Adorno’s deconstruction of the identification of nature with dumb, mythical being: nature is itself already historical. But whereas Adorno also argued that human history results in another nature, in a return of myth, contemporary conceptualizations of the new, unnatural natural history often avoid probing the deadlocks of a culture still absorbing the shockwaves of the new nature. These omissions work to undermine possibilities for radical change, even while signalling imminent collapse. On the rare occasions when historical changes in nature are noted in today’s discourse, these are integrated into the ‘natural being’ of the current regime, rather than used to question its quasi-natural status.
The musings of liberal authors such as Jared Diamond are typical in this respect: comparing ‘ecocides’ in various historical and contemporary societies, Diamond tries to draw lessons that can be applied to the approaching global ecological disaster, but his comparative approach and focus on social, biological and psychological invariants robs the current situation of much of its specificity. In the end we are only left with consoling ‘examples of courageous leaders and courageous people’ who did the right thing.footnote4 For today’s liberals, the collapse of the existing order can solely be imagined in biological and ecological terms; social and political change can only take the form of minor adjustments. Even an author as concerned and informed as Diamond is unable to think beyond this limit. The free market or ‘liberal democracy’ appears as a second nature whose collapse would be more dramatic than that of the physical environment.
Within these constraints, however, dark scenarios can still emerge. In 2006, Oliver Curry, lse-based editor of Darwinism Today, predicted that 100,000 years into the future, the human race will be divided into two separate races—termed ‘gracile’ and ‘robust’. As the bbc reported, ‘the descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, creative, and a far cry from the “underclass” humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.’footnote5 While this breeding fantasy in the spirit of H. G. Wells’s Morlocks and Eloi makes no explicit reference to genetic engineering, it is clear that one of the elite’s advantages is having access to advanced technology in this and other fields. In spite—or because—of its delusional qualities, the ‘two races’ scenario shows the limits of well-meaning liberal narratives, in which the means of containing threats to the current order are seen to lie in that very order. Its bluntness at least has the advantage of making explicit what remains hidden in paeans to the problem-solving power of capitalism: in an age of collapse, the odds are far from even, both within Western societies and on a global scale.
Contemporary culture is often branded ahistorical, seen as marked by repetitious vogues and industrial nostalgia. This condition seems now to have dissipated, with history reasserting itself as natural history in a period of global political and economic turmoil. But despite the consensus that global warming cannot be ascribed to normal fluctuations in the earth’s temperature, the human and therefore social and political components of this process have been minimized; man-made nature is re-naturalized, the new (un)natural history presented as fate. The truly terrifying notion is not that it is irreversible, but that it actually might be reversible—at the cost of radically changing the economic and social order.