Intervention of Another Nature: Resources for Thinking in (and out of) the Anthropocene

Citation: Taddei, Renzo. Intervention of Another Nature: Resources for Thinking in (and out of) the Anthropocene. In: Vanessa Grossman and Ciro Miguel, editors, Everyday Matters: Contemporary Approaches to Architecture. Berlin: Ruby Press, 2022, pp. 124-141. [Unrevised version]

Image – Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), Végétaux qui servent a faire des lien: imbire, cipò imbé, sapoucaÿa, cotonnier.

Humans are hardwired to operate through narratives and fabulations, not to think about things or facts. Narratives are not only ideational; they are performative, entangled with materials, systems, mechanisms, algorithms, and affects. Every narrative entails diverse forms of intervention. One has to only consider narratives like liberalism or communism and think of the scale and complexity of the interventions they have generated.

Nature, resource, and the Anthropocene are three critical fabulations of our time. They are deeply interconnected in ways that are multiple and not easy to understand—the most elementary, perhaps, being the idea that the Anthropocene is the negative result of treating nature as an economic resource.

Anthropocene is the name that was suggested by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen in 2000 to describe the current geological epoch of the planet.[i] In 2019, the name was approved by the International Commission on Stratigraphy of the International Union of Geological Sciences. As of 2020 the concept has not yet been incorporated into the geological canon, but it has been part of debates in the environmental sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities for years. The epoch’s designation comes from the scientific evidence that there are traces of human interference in all planetary ecosystems and organisms. These traces are multiple and diverse—for example, all life-forms with bones and teeth have radioactive levels in their organisms reflecting the military nuclear activity of the twentieth century. Furthermore, all ecosystems are polluted with plastics and microplastics, which are carried by the wind and have become part of the chemical composition of rain and water (and therefore of organisms that ingest this water) throughout the globe, even in the most remote and isolated areas. Human activity moves more sediment globally than all river basins altogether. All these indicators and many others will be part of the geological strata identified as having formed during the twentieth century or later.

When Nature Becomes a Resource

According to the proposition of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the Anthropocene follows the Holocene, the epoch that began around twelve thousand years ago with the end of the last glaciation and ended with the atomic-weapons experiments of the mid-twentieth century. The Holocene’s most distinctive quality is that the variation in climatic patterns was more stable than in previous epochs. This exceptional level of stability greatly affected human production. Everything that we call civilization, philosophy, politics, and religion was created during the Holocene. The environmental stability led some peoples to the perception that nature was nothing more than the background or stage for human action.

The idea that nature is a pool of resources, readily available for human exploitation, originates in the transitional moment when humans shifted from nomadic hunting and gathering to agriculture, particularly in the Middle East. In a period of some four thousand years, this idea traveled from the mythologies of the populations of the Fertile Crescent to the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity to reach the ideological paradigms of the Enlightenment and, finally, modern developmentalism.

An essential moment in the history of the idea of nature as a resource is tied to the expansion of Roman Catholicism across Europe, especially its aspect of imperialistic Platonism. It expelled spirits and deities from forests, rivers, mountains, and seas. Despiritualized, all these things became “empty spaces” first, and then “materials” conveniently used by the Industrial Revolution many centuries later.

The End of the Illusion of Absolute Knowledge

The Anthropocene is the epoch in which the aggregate human intervention in the Earth system knocks it out of thermodynamic balance, disturbing the environmental stability that marked the Holocene. Among its most visible manifestations are the accelerated melting of the polar caps and glaciers, the rise in average global temperature, the change in historical weather patterns, the rise of sea levels, the transformation of ecosystems at so dramatic a pace as to cause massive extinction of plants and animals, and the disruption of patterns of relations between humans and other forms of life, generating, among many other things, cyclical pandemics. Nature moved from the background to center stage.[ii]

Image – Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), Forêt vierge: les bords du Parahïba

The most important dimension of the Anthropocene, nevertheless, is not what is clearly available to human reason. The easiest and perhaps most psychologically comfortable way to think about the Anthropocene is to focus on its dimension of mechanical intervention: man becoming a geological power. There is a speck of hidden vanity in this fixation on human material pervasiveness. It is, perhaps, the survival of the feeling of human superiority, which now expresses itself in the form of melancholy.

However, it would be more instructive, and even more responsible, to focus on the Anthropocene as the moment of realization that the dominant narratives about reality— “modern” or “Western”—were wrong about their powers of knowledge. Humans, as all other living beings, can only perceive fragments of reality. They then glue these pieces together with the sticky power of paradigms and ideologies. But paradigms and ideologies, despite often presenting themselves as universal and atemporal, have the sole function of enabling agendas to move forward, and are therefore limited in scope, time, and space. The Anthropocene is the moment when the global elites (cultural and scientific ones included) realize that their paradigms and ideologies were efficacious in helping them accomplish their short-term desires but at the price of destroying everyone’s capacity for long-term survival.

It is terribly difficult to dissuade those identified with the West (those who fell prey to the illusion of absolute Knowledge) from the idea that Nature, in its most transcendental interpretation, would open up to them and give them divine powers over reality. The pain brought about by the Anthropocene is related to the fact that the current crises force Westerners to face their incapacity to perceive and make sense of the aggregate effects of their actions outside of the microscopic scale the human mind can effectively handle.

Modern civilization will not be able to rise to the challenge if it fails to question its own conceptual paradigms. We know from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are often considered conservative, that if the Earth system reaches certain tipping points, chains of events may happen abruptly, and the impacts on ecosystems may be so intense that tropical forests transform into savannahs, savannahs into semiarid areas, and semiarid areas into deserts. One likely planetary impact of such a transformation is the creation of unimaginably large waves of migration from the globe’s equatorial belt to higher latitudes. This would probably be exponentially larger than what caused the immigration crisis of the last decade in Europe—and it may also make the nation-state system, based as it is on the control of sovereign borders, collapse.

New Conceptual Tools, from the Planet’s Fringes

The fact is that we might not have the conceptual tools to make sense of this crisis.[iii] If the sciences fail to easily recognize the problem, the arts, as a form of contemporary mythology, clearly acknowledge it. The end of the world became a dominant theme in the fabulations of the West. Utopian fantasies for the future disappeared from stages and movie theaters. Under these circumstances, Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase “It is more difficult to think about the end of capitalism than about the end of the world” gains a new, more interesting meaning.[iv] Most people understand the end of Western models of social order and governance as the end of what is meaningful. This is the negative side effect of having made the subjectivity of the Enlightenment the model for what it is to be human. What does not reflect the self is perceived as chaos.

This is the moment in which we perceive noise coming from the fringes of reality. From the struggles of the excluded minorities a message is delivered: what the West calls “the end of the world” is, perhaps, a lack of imagination more than anything else. Our capacity for imagining alternative realities may in fact have been severely damaged by the Enlightenment. For the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, for instance, the end of the world began in 1492,[v] and survival outside of capitalism has been an everyday ongoing project ever since. 

If the knowledge regimes of the West fail to make sense of the current challenges, we should pay attention to other forms of knowing and thinking, for we may learn from people whose lives are affected by disasters of our own making. In this current panorama, Indigenous ways of being may become radical and interesting forms of intervention. In fact, interest in the modes of existence of Indigenous populations is on the rise. Some of these populations thrived in the heart of the planet’s most abundant sources of material resources—tropical forests such as the Amazon—while promoting biodiversity and keeping a low carbon footprint. That is precisely where we want to be in the future.

Most people compare themselves to others using the dimensions of life in which they are successful, in their own view—Westerners and Westernized individuals measure their accomplishments through material accumulation (even if expressed indirectly, through things like amount of concrete or amount of bytes) and feel appalled when they are compared to Indigenous populations. This is a symptom of the problem, naturally; this kind of association of ideas often produces nonsense in contexts of intercultural contact. A more relevant comparison, I would argue, is related to how forms of knowing precipitate and reflect forms of being and forms of relating to others—and the implications they have for what we call “the environment.”

Nature as Kinship, Knowledge as Care

Because of the work of Indigenous thinkers like Davi Kopenawa and Amazonian ethnologists, we know that the Amerindian world is composed of different perspectives about reality, of which the human is just one. Among these considerations is the belief that no one is superior to others, and that in normal conditions, one type of being (humans, for instance) cannot access the perspective of another (such as jaguars or tapirs). Reality is defined by perspective: what is blood for humans is manioc beer for jaguars, and one alternative is not truer or more real than the other.[vi] Animals have intentionality—that is, they are subjects—in ways that are akin to humans; their different bodies, which define different perspectives, prevent these subjectivities from interacting directly with each other. This means that the human by definition cannot know the world of the jaguar. Shamans play a special role here: in certain circumstances, they may cross the border of species and catch a glimpse of the world of jaguars. Since jaguars are subjects, the shaman does not connect to the world of jaguars, or of tapirs, out of curiosity or to catalogue the existing worlds. He does it as a strategy to try to manage the coexistence of beings that are epistemologically disconnected while ontologically linked through the bondage of prey-predator relations. In short, shamans have the critical task of administering matters of life and death that they, by definition, cannot fully understand. Under these circumstances, every act of knowing is, first and foremost, an act of care.

Image – Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), Cocotier Barrigudo (Ventrû)

It is important to understand that, in a place where everything is potentially a subject, nature does not exist. In the most important aspects of life, humans do not interact with matter but with beings with (or linked to some form of) intentionality. This applies to animals but also to rivers, mountains, forests, and the atmosphere. Relations with these beings are, therefore, social, and as such they are guided by strict moral codes.

All this is schematic and oversimplified, of course. But some of these things are at the core of what the Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been telling settlers for five centuries.[vii] From the perspective of these peoples, the European settlers and their (epistemological) descendants have behaved, all this time, as irresponsible, arrogant wealthy youngsters who believe anything can be done without fear of consequences because of the powerful father who always will fix the situation. The powerful father sometimes is evoked as the God who created all creatures for human exploitation; sometimes as a Nature that has infinite capacity for absorbing blows; and sometimes as a metaphysical Progress that will solve in the future the problems caused by humans in the past and the present. The Anthropocene is the painful realization that there is no father. Perhaps a more productive understanding of what the Anthropocene is portrays it as an immense rite of passage. One that is inevitably painful, with Dantesque amounts of suffering and no justice, but that will produce mature adults responsible for their actions.

In societal terms, one important message of the Indigenous philosophies is that care has precedence over knowing, or that knowing is only legitimate if it is a dimension of care, in the most pragmatic of senses. Leaders like Kopenawa are tired of seeing armies of scientists studying the Amazon with ever increasing intensity, but which in practical terms rarely produces real protection of the forest.[viii] Never before has science known so much about the forest, and never before has the forest been attacked and destroyed with the intensity it is now. If knowing is not an integral part of caring, it is hubris and foolishness.

Geo-biological Equity

Hope comes from the noise emanating from another, unexpected source: the fringes of science itself. A silent revolution seems to be taking place inside of the walls of academia. From neuroscience, we know that mammals, birds, and other creatures like octopuses have the physiological features required to produce consciousness. Animal studies have shown us that mammals understand and react to unfairness, demonstrating a capacity for moral reasoning we did not know existed. Monkeys, dolphins, and whales can invent creative solutions to problems and teach them to their offspring—which qualifies as “culture” as we understand it. Dolphins and whales use proper names in their communication. Some monkeys can purposefully change the “system of government” of their band. Trees communicate with each other through networks of fungi that have been called “the Internet of plants”; senior trees seem to take care, chemically, of youngsters.[ix] From biology, we now understand that cooperation between organisms and species are much more prevalent and important than what the Darwinian paradigm suggested, and symbiosis goes way beyond what we might understand as “cooperation.” In many cases, what we call an “organism” is rather a dynamic composite in which life itself is dependent on the coexistence of individuals of different species.[x] Humans are the most distinctive case in point: no life is possible without a healthy gut microbiome formed by organisms that do not share DNA with the rest of the body. This same microbiome has important roles in the production of chemicals in the human body that regulate the functioning of the nervous system, affecting patterns of thinking and emotions. Other varieties of microbiome are crucial for the proper functioning of the human immune system.

Image – Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), Vallée da Serra do Mar (chaine de montagnes pres de la mer)

All these factors have resulted in nature gaining rights that are equivalent to those of humans in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia and rivers gaining equivalent rights in New Zealand. In India, dolphins were declared “nonhuman persons” and all aquariums with cetaceans were banned. A few years ago, animal-rights activists started a global campaign against cruelty to great apes, and in different countries a concerted effort called for habeas corpus for zoo chimpanzees, with some victories. In fact, a recent analysis of the DNA of humans and chimpanzees arrived at 98.8 percent similarity, which led some scientists to call for the reclassification of chimps inside of the genus Homo (that is, as another kind of human).[xi]  

All this could be an extraordinary—indeed, sensational—arch that bends Western knowledge about reality in directions that point to unequivocal similarities with Indigenous philosophies. However, we should be careful not to fall, once more, into the self-indulgent trap of the myth of absolute knowledge. The message from Indigenous philosophies must be repeated: if it does not lead to the construction of relations of care, knowledge is equivalent to nothing. New forms of intervention, then, are desperately needed. Interventions of another nature. We need to construct strategies and mechanisms for the scaling up of modes of existence in which knowledge and care are indistinguishable, no matter their origin.

Interventions of Another Nature

We need to nudge ourselves into collectivities in which any act of knowledge is also the promotion of what Kopenawa calls the “value of growth” (në rope, in the Yanomami language), which reproduces life in the forest. Architecture, urbanism, and design have a special role to play in this context in at least four particularly important dimensions. The first one refers to the work of mourning for the fabulations we need to abandon. It is difficult to leave behind such flattering (even if disastrous) images of ourselves. This must be done through new forms of experiencing reality.

The second is that we need to rethink how the many works of care are spatialized and temporalized into forms of experience in our societies. Care needs to break the disciplinary chains that associate it with a few restricted spaces (such as hospitals) and professions. We need to be ready to enact care in all and every social context. These social contexts may be designed, as much as possible, to facilitate care.

Third, issues associated with spatial organization at larger scales play a central role. If the nature-culture dichotomy is to be surpassed, how does that affect established forms of thinking about space, such as the urban/suburban/rural divide? New paradigms for spatial organization will not be based on presences and absences (of certain types of infrastructure, for instance), but on relations and their enactments.

Image – Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), Sauvages Goyanas (Ao Mar Pequeno)

And fourth, we need to realize that the construction of a planetary community will inevitably require humans to abandon specist tendencies. A global collectivity cannot be made solely of humans. The biosphere is infused with life and myriad forms of consciousness connected through symbiotic relations that are important for the planetary dynamic equilibrium, and some of these relations may be of predation. The idea that humans do not have predators is make-believe. Philosophically, it is crucial that humans deeply incorporate the idea that they have predators—the healthy functioning of the biosphere may require it. We take it as a blessing that we do not understand the environmental role played by viruses and the like so we can wage our total wars against them. We will eventually, perhaps with the help of artificial intelligence, detect and understand symbiotic relations across the biosphere in much deeper and richer detail and be able to comprehend that some things that kill us have important roles to play in the maintenance of the equilibrium of the whole. When that day arrives, we will need novel forms of understanding life and death, for the greater planetary good.  

All images from Jean-Baptiste Debret, Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil, ou Séjour d’un artiste français au Brésil depuis 1816 jusqu’en 1831 inclusivement (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1834-39). [Images added by the editors.]

[i] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000): 17–18.

[ii] Nature, the youngest actor in the political arena in 1970, when the environmental movement was born, became the very condition of possibility of politics. See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017).

[iii] Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Guimaraes Nunes (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017).

[iv] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books), 1.

[v] Danowski and Viveiros de Castro, Ends of the World: 104.

[vi] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipití 2, no. 1 (2004): 1–22.

[vii] The message is reiterated, once more, by Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa. See Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, trans. Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[viii] Renzo Taddei, “Kopenawa and Environmental Research in the Amazon,” in Philosophy on Fieldwork: Critical Introductions to Theory and Analysis in Anthropological Practice, ed. Nils Bubandt and Thomas Schwartz Wentzer (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[ix] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 139.

[x] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 60.

[xi] Derek E. Wildman, Monica Uddin, Guozhen Liu, Lawrence I. Grossman, Morris Goodman, “Implications of natural selection in shaping 99.4% nonsynonymous DNA identity between humans and chimpanzees: Enlarging genus Homo,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100 (12): 7181-7188.