Yesterday in Part 1 I argued that the most enduring of the great crimes of the 20th century will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. Its effects are already locked in for thousands of years. With modern technology humans have become so powerful that we now rival the great forces of nature, so much so that we have diverted the planet from its natural course, taking it out of the Holocene’s 10,000 years of climatic stability and clemency into a new, unstable and dangerous geological epoch, the Anthropocene. If this feat is a crime then before the enormity of what humankind has now done, the grand constructions of international law and all modern ethical systems appear frail and almost pathetic.
Penal codes proscribe offences against property and the person. Some codify crimes against humanity. But where in a statute book would we look for the crime of subverting the laws of nature? What penalty would a court impose for killing off a geological epoch?
If not unlawful then these monstrous acts are surely unethical. Yet to see them as the result of a miscalculation about how to maximise human welfare, or a failure to act according to a Kantian universal maxim, as the dominant ethical theories would have it, somehow trivialises the magnitude of what has been done and which now looms before us. An ethical framework that can tell us whether it is wrong to overstate our travel expenses cannot tell us whether it is wrong to change the Earth’s geological history.
The feebleness of ethics may be conceded in the case of consequentialist and duty ethics, but what about virtue ethics? Are we not in this predicament because hubris has defeated humility, because self-interest has trumped concern for others? Perhaps, but the virtues that guide us in daily life tell us nothing about the place of humans on the planet, and that is now what is at stake.
The attempt to frame a transformed climate by mere ethics risks normalising an event without parallel, of rendering prosaic a transition that is in fact Earth-shattering. If the imprint of humans on the functioning of the Earth system has become so large that we have initiated a new geological epoch, the recourse to law and ethics leaps over a more foundational question: What is man? What kind of being made these laws and ethical codes, and what kind of being changed the course of Earth history?
Philosophy since Descartes had answered the former question definitively, and since then it has exercised only a few in the shadows. But unless we open it up again we will flounder around attempting to understand the dilemmas of an ontologically new epoch with the categories of the old one. It is an approach as anachronistic as an animal trial would be today. When human history and natural history become entangled it is no longer credible to argue that the future of the Earth depends only on the moral struggle of modern men and women.
The Earth scientists tell us that the giant beneath our feet is stirring. No longer do we face the sullen resistance of nature to our demands, resistance that in the past has been progressively overcome with more powerful technologies. Now we see a force awakening to its own power.
Against the foundation of modern law and ethics in the moral autonomy of the subject we find ourselves in an increasingly heteronomous world. We no longer have a monopoly on agency. We have assumed that the only kind of willing in the world lies in the consciousness of human beings; yet in the Anthropocene we must confront the possibility of a “will” beyond our own, that which we can only gesture at with metaphors like “the awakened beast”.
Press link for more: theconversation.com