Reflections on the Planetary
Anna Tsing said, “we are mixed up in the projects that do us the most harm,” (p.29) an idea taken up by Chakrabarty in his account of the role of humans in climate crisis and his proposed reframing of ‘the planetary’. This week’s readings presented a challenge for me, tying in concepts I have little experience with — I only heard the word Anthropocene for the first time this semester. Accordingly, my understanding of Chakrabarty and the critiques of Pasha are coloured by different areas of study, particularly the post-colonial from an indigenous perspective, which is largely excluded from this discussion despite the obvious and direct connection between global indigenous populations, climate change, and climate justice. My response to these readings will draw from my own research to critique the foundations of Chakrabarty, rather than providing an overall assessment of his article — as I am finding it difficult to do that while disagreeing with his foundations so firmly.
Chakrabarty engages in a methodologically detailed exploration of ‘the globe’ and ‘the planetary’, where the former is a humanocentric construction, and the latter is a strategic universalism in which ‘we’ as a species are decentred as the main character, relegated to actors that both damage and are victims of the environment and climate crisis. This is a productive project, as it encourages us to step back from micro- or meso-political issues to recognize a wider political issue that desperately requires attention. However, Chakrabarty’s work is premised on generalizations and assumptions that I find difficult to reconcile with his sustained effort to productively universalize without falling into the traditional trap of homogenizing experiences and devaluing the strife of marginalized populations — which he recognizes is a fine line to walk, and addresses this potential at multiple points throughout the book.
In his theory-building process, Chakrabarty lays out his schema of ‘the political’ based on Arendtian and Schmittian relationships between politics and the realm of men. While this might be an acceptable schema for a wide variety of other political studies, I find it insufficient here. Chakrabarty argues that “planetary environmental crisis calls on us to extend ideas of politics and justice to the nonhuman, including both the living and the nonliving” (p.13), and that this contrast demonstrates how humanocentric our political institutions and concepts are. This critique is largely correct and acts as the foundation for Chakrabarty’s emphasis on the necessity of reinterpreting political modernity. He goes so far as to argue that “the ‘local’ would never have given us understanding of the roles that parts of the world sparsely or not at all inhabited by humans…. play in processes that determine cooling or warming of the whole planet” (p.13). Considering his earlier writings and consideration for post-colonial thought, I find these foundations exceedingly colonial, embodying the neo-colonial exclusion of Indigenous perspectives.
Even with explicit recognition that Indigenous populations are themselves heterogeneous and had no global recognition of the term ‘climate change’ or ‘climate crisis’, the long tradition of Indigenous rights tied to environmental sustainability and health is in obvious contention to Chakrabarty’s analyses. To many populations around the world, planetary environmental crisis did not invite politics to the non-human — this has been a vital part of indigenous legal and justice systems worldwide for centuries, central to cultural practice, environmental sustainability, and therefore community health. The reciprocal relationships between human, animal, and land have been a tenant for Indigenous peoples, without the imposed hierarchy that Chakrabarty assumes applies to all human political thought. These mutual relationships are known to be particularly important to those living in the sparsely populated parts of the world that Chakrabarty claims could teach us nothing of climate crisis. Chakrabarty’s universalism, while careful not to overly homogenize the internal, does engage in a crude process of homogenization through his rough brush of humans as a species that have uniformly caused environmental disaster and have been entirely unable to decentralize themselves from the global. It is itself a colonial perspective to say that humans have viewed the world as humanocentric; it is homogenizing to suggest that humans have equally contributed to climate crisis, that they have never seen the political as anything but human.
In this respect, I found Pasha’s criticism of Chakrabarty’s elimination of difference affirming. On page 361, Pasha argues that “the departure from a perspective that recognises humanity’s differentiated character to species-being also produces an amnesiac zone in which the ruination of nature appears as a unified, not differentiated, human effect.” I completely agree. Chakrabarty’s universalism does not account for the reality that environmental and climate disaster will be unevenly experienced, and dominant reports (including major climate migration reports that stem from the IPCC) show that the most affected will be the scarcely populated, the groups who rely on their careful, mutual environmental relationship. Climate change will disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples worldwide, despite their significant — and in the face of the damaging ‘we’, herculean — efforts to communicate knowledge on environmental health and protection.
However, I do not think, as Pasha critiques, that the “principal effect of abstracting humanity is the repudiation of any postcolonial claims on History” (p. 360). To universalize and transform the human into a species approach is not done with the goal of letting colonial powers off the hook for their wrongdoings. I understand that the effort to diminish colonial histories and unite humanity through our recognition of our own impact on climate is the primary goal — not to mitigate colonial history, but to refocus on a different issue that endangers us all. However, I still find Pasha’s critique that Chakrabarty is abstracting humanity productive, as it poses questions about the usefulness of ‘species-being’ in our ability to interpret and engage our impact on climate. I pose the following questions to Chakrabarty’s work: what decentralization and productive reflection can ‘we as a species’ learn from Indigenous populations? What is the benefit of conceptualizing the global perhaps from other worldviews, other views of environmental impact? How can reflections on mutuality and reciprocity with the environment, including interactions with plants, animals, and our own dead, shape our treatment of environmental impact? Is there anything to learn from those scarce populations who live at the forefront of climate change?
Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2021. The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. University of Chicago Press. Introduction and chapters 1, 3, 7 and Postscript, pp. 1–48, 68–92, 155–181, 205–217.
Mutapha Kamal Pasha, 2020. “After the Deluge: new universalism and postcolonial difference.” International Relations, 34(3).