Wide Angle

Humans are a geological force

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Photo de gauche : Francisca Chagas dos Santos à Rio Branco, Brésil. Photo de droite : Joseph et Endurance Edem avec leurs enfants, État de Bayelsa, Nigeria.

While modern technological advances have  allowed us to flourish as a species, we may have catapulted ourselves out of the Darwinian evolutionary scene. Human beings have acquired the role of a geological force, capable of stalling an Ice Age –   and possibly driving another Great Extinction of life in the next 300 to 600 years. It may not be easy, but, argues historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, it is not too late to change course.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, interviewed by Shiraz Sidhva

You have said that anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanistic distinction between human history and natural history. Could you elaborate?

Until recently, we have thought of human history purely in terms of recorded history, which goes back a few thousand years. A pre-history adds a few more thousand years. But climate change science has required us to think about the place of humans in the history of the planet since they appeared. Because you had to understand what the planetary processes were and how the planet has managed to keep in place, not just the climate, which is friendly to us, but also oxygen at twenty-one per cent of the atmosphere for almost six hundred million years.

The more I read into climate change science and eventually, into geology and biology, the more I realized that how late we have come in the history of evolution. And that, not accidentally, because complex creatures like humans can only come very late in the story of evolution. The planet developed life and its conditions changed to eventually help sustain complex multicellular forms of life. This realization jolted me out of my habit as a modern historian − mainly of modern South Asia and the colonial period. Normally I used to deal with a world that was not more than 500 years old – the news of climate change altered that.  

Like many historians, I used to think of the natural world as a backdrop, where the main actors were human. The assumption within which many of us worked − that what matters in human history is what humans do to one another − didn’t seem untrue, but it seemed limited.

A lot of history told two stories − how humans eventually came to free themselves from the constraints placed on them by nature and natural causes; and how humans came to think of freeing themselves from the oppression of other humans.

As I have become aware now, the history of our evolution plays a very significant role, even in our short-term histories. For instance, humans cannot ever make any objects that we handle without the assumption that we have opposable thumbs. This is a matter of a very slow evolutionary history, which we usually take for granted. So we would talk of what kind of swords the Mughals produced, or what kinds of knives were used in Baghdad – assuming that there’s always a human hand capable of holding or wielding these. That hand also has a slow history, which is the history of evolution.

What do you mean when you say humans exert a geological force today?

Human actions are now changing the climate of the whole planet. Taken together, we wield a kind of force that is so great that it can change the usual cycle of Ice Ages followed by interglacial periods – a cycle of, let us say, 130,000 years. We have somehow acquired the role of a geological force − thanks to our pursuit of technology, population growth, and our capacity to spread ourselves all over the planet.  

So far we have thought of human beings as biological agents, because we do things to our environment and to ourselves, we carry diseases, etc. We now have to scale up our imagination of the human − we are actually changing the face of the planet. It’s not just its face we’re changing − one of the places of the planet that human beings have transformed, and where our transformation will remain for the very long term, are the coastal sea beds − through deep-sea fishing, mining, etc. We can no longer separate the biological agency of humans from their geological agency.

Several historians of the long term have suggested that, as we developed a big brain and developed technology, we began to grow at a pace much faster than the evolutionary pace. The argument is that if we acquired deep-sea fishing technology at the pace at which evolutionary changes usually happened, then the fish would also have had time to learn how to avoid our dragnets. But we developed so much faster, that our ecosystem didn’t have time to readjust. It’s a fascinating idea that this one species has kind of catapulted itself out of the Darwinian evolutionary scene. And it is having such an impact on the history of life that many biologists say that we might be driving the Sixth Great Extinction of life in the next 300 to 600 years.

Could you explain your thesis that the history of capital must be crossed with the history of the human species?

People who study capitalism don’t study evolutionary biology. But if they did, they might find a species called Homo sapiens that was once able to invent a modern industrial society or capitalism, or whatever you want to call it − that became its strategy for taking over the whole planet, and dominating life on it.

The spread of human beings all over the planet has only been possible in the last few thousand years. Capitalism is not as old as us, but if you look at what happened with the coming of big sailing ships, and then steamships, you can see that the continent of Europe itself distributed its population all over the world. So couldn’t one argue that capitalism was the strategy for the species to take over the whole planet? Now that does mean the differentiation between rich and poor people, I agree, but both the rich and the poor are members of the species.

Your remark that “the poor participate in that shared history of human evolution just as much as the rich do” has been critiqued by some of your colleagues. Could you explain?

I am as perplexed by Andreas Malm's response to some of my propositions that I thought were pretty much unexceptionable, as he is by my statements. I think the way he interprets my quote in his article is a little misleading. It gives the impression that I had suggested that the poor are immediately as responsible for carbon emissions as the rich.

I have never made such a claim, for everyone knows that the poor do not emit as much greenhouse gases as the rich, and that only a handful of nations are responsible for the major portion of anthropogenic emissions of these gases. So that is not the point. The point is that Indian and Chinese arguments in defence of the use of coal and other fossil fuels (though this is being somewhat mitigated by the falling price of renewable sources of energy) in the interest of moving people out of poverty, acquire their significance from the fact that these are extremely populous nations and the number of poor people concerned is very large indeed.

The history of population, I suggested, belongs to two histories at once: the history of modernization, public health programmes, modern medicines, including antibiotics (in the production of which fossil fuels play a role), the eradication of pandemics, epidemics, and famines, etc; and the history of the human species. How could one deny that even poor humans belong to the species Homo sapiens? Don't poor people have opposable thumbs? Are they not part of our evolutionary history?

Never in the history of biological life on this planet have we had a species that managed to spread itself all over the world (that happened thousands of years ago, long before there was mass poverty) as humans have, and that also rose to the top of the food web in so short (in terms of evolutionary time) a period. If we do manage to improve the lives of seven billion, or eventually, nine billion people, the pressure on the biosphere will only increase. However, this is not an argument in favour of not improving the lives of the poor.

What I have tried to show in my work is the implication of most human beings’ desire to industrialize and modernize. Take the examples of Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and other Third World leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. They all  wanted to modernize their countries − not as people who were just fascinated by technology, but because they thought it was the ethical thing to do. The reason Nehru wanted to build dams was mainly to grow more food (through irrigation) and save people from dying in famines.

The focus of political thinkers since the 1970s has been on human rights and on the flourishing of every individual human, irrespective of the numbers. Climate change and the attendant scientific propositions came at a time when we were enjoying precisely those things that climate scientists say may imperil our existence in the long run.


Lucas Williams at the hunting grounds of the Lawshe Plantation in South Carolina, United States, October 2015. Anchalee Koyama stands in food waters in the Taweewattana district of Bangkok, Thailand, November 2011.

How much is globalization responsible for this?

We have globalized in the last thirty or forty years, and this has been made possible by increasing the technologies of connectivity. We all like the fact that we can communicate with our loved ones across the globe on a daily basis, or that we can fly across the world in a matter of hours to explore other countries or do business there, or to visit friends and family.  

The globalization story means that we have actually come to love what could lead to  our geological end − the capacity to impact the planet on a massive scale. But in terms of our life experiences, we see it as a condition for human flourishing.

There’s a natural inertia in us, born out of historical attachments – to institutions, family structures, globalization – and all we are capable of thinking of is our immediate future. Humans think in terms of seventy to eighty years, of three or four  generations, at most. This makes it very hard for us to come together and act in a synchronized manner to fight climate change. We see how difficult climate change negotiations − under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC) − have been. Besides, every country is also invested in its own development agenda.

Now that we are aware that we are not the masters and owners of nature, what kind of stories do you suggest we tell?

I think we should no longer tell stories of human hubris. I think the older story, that we are controlling nature, was a wrong story. The story we should tell is that here is a planet, which luckily for us, developed complex forms of life. We came to be here, and now we know that there is a planet-wide climatic system, that planetary processes − the geobiological and chemical processes − are important to our survival and to the survival of complex life. For instance, if you destroy soil, it takes millions of years to regenerate.

So we should definitely be less profligate, we should somehow find a way of living where we live, rationally, intelligently, and not consume so much. We also need to find some rational, democratic, non-violent and poor-friendly ways of bringing the population down.

How we get there is the most difficult question today. It’s also very hard in today’s  world to tell people not to travel, or not to avail of the benefits of new technologies like smartphones, which we know deplete rare-earth materials. It is important to acknowledge our contradictions − between what we desire at the moment and the knowledge we have on climate change.

We need to have a different kind of society – we cannot sustain the current kind of capitalism for the next 100 or 200 years. It’s not wrong to delegitimize consumerism and re-educate our own desires. And it is our responsibility to keep up this message, at universities and schools.

You have said that a crisis is a good time for renewed creativity.

As the crisis deepens, so will the creative responses to it. I think there will be charismatic leaders who will break the shackles of consumerism and inspire us, as Mahatma Gandhi once did.

Photos:

Gideon Mendel

Dipesh Chakrabarty

A historian of Indian origin, Dipesh Chakrabarty (Australia and United States) is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago, in the United States.  He is the author of, among other publications, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000; 2008) and "The Climate of History: Four Theses," Critical Inquiry, 2009.