The Planet and I

The Anthropocene is this new epoch in which no earthly entity, process, or systems escape the reach and influence of human activity[1]. It is not yet officially in geology textbooks, but one day it might be. Cooked up by the steam engine, the Anthropocene has the face of worldwide industrialization, globalization of contacts, infrastructures and institutions, exponential techno-scientific development, population explosion, and absolutely unprecedented levels of production and consumption. This still ongoing “Great Acceleration”[2] has issued into global ecological changes, the most flamboyant of which is global anthropogenic climate change.

I live at a time when humanity is actively remaking the planet through basic Earth-systems disruption. The humanity that has preceded me would have thought this impossible. Climate change, in particular, has ushered me grandly into the Anthropocene, exposing some weaknesses of the resource- intensive, globalized, production- and consumption-driven form of life that Homo sapiens has come to live. Exposing, in particular, the technological failure that has so far made that form of life unsustainable, unjust to many humans and oblivious to the fate of virtually all non-humans: its dependency on fossil energy sources.

Climate change reminds me that the Anthropocene is very far from being the age of perfect human mastery of nature. We are changing climate as an inadvertent by-product of other activities, and this unforeseen consequence of our present form of life may have cascading progenies of unforeseen consequences, many of which may be damaging both to non-human nature and to the very species that is bringing them about.

What is true of climate change is true of other anthropogenic processes now under way that involve the disruption of the hydrological cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and other fundamental earth systems, along with attendant losses and transformations of biodiversity. These processes enmesh us in vast collective action problems that have intra- as well as intergenerational dimensions and pose unprecedented threats: multiple, multi-scalar, probabilistic, indirect, often invisible, spatiotemporally unbound, potentially catastrophic and apparently beyond anyone’s control[3].

The irony is that after centuries of modernity and its contributions to human welfare and autonomy, we find ourselves at the portal of the Anthropocene with a strong and stinging sense of a loss of agency. Natural and human systems are being transformed not as a result of any rational plan, but rather because of the unintended effects of systemic, interlocking, technologically enabled and fossil fueled ways of doing things, forces, and structures that have congealed and stratified in such a way that they seem to dominate our lives, our economies and our politics[4].

Now consider my situation, which is most likely very similar to yours[5]. I just turned on this computer to write these words – while you have your computer on in order to read them. We are both using fossil fuels. This, in conjunction with billions of other fossil-fueled actions of other people, organizations, institutions, as well as various natural processes, systems and feedbacks operating at different levels and scales, contributes to climate change. Climate change remakes the planet and is very likely to impose significant harms and damages on both present and future people, as well as non-human nature.

None of that is my (nor your) goal at all. My goal is to write these words, but the actions that I perform in reaching that goal are enabled by, and further reinforce, the eco-altering, fossil-fuelled dynamics of global systems that exploit, deplete, pollute and emit. An apparently harmless act of mine, performed in the privacy of my personal space, in fact contributes, in a peculiarly indirect and wholly unintentionally way, to massive harms and damages. Most of these will actualize elsewhere around the globe, long after I turned off this computer for the last time and died. They will hit spatiotemporally people and genetically distant (i.e. non-human) nature.

In the Anthropocene, virtually all the actions that we perform as we go about our day - like turning on computers, eating this or that, flipping light switches, driving cars, heating homes, taking showers, and so on - seem to have two lives, as it were[6]. They have an episodic life, happening here and now, which we own because it is under our control and furthers our goals. Then they have a second, systemic life, of global import and much more significant temporal duration, which we own not because it is not under control and realizes no one’s goals. In fact, it realizes anti-goals, such as changing the world’s climate. This second, systemic life of our actions is as real as the first, but it escapes our agential jurisdiction entirely. Yet climate would not change at the current pace without all these computers being turned on and other relevantly similar actions being performed. To this extent, none of us is off the hook: the systemic life of our actions produces outcomes of which none of us is simply a passive victim.

This is so even if, in some important cases, there seem to be no real alternatives to the actions that we perform. Of course I can stop using electricity and cease all attendant emissions, but that would throw me out of step with the world around me, which is now thoroughly electrified and structured to work as such. In addition, my repudiation of electricity will do little to stop climate change or other planetary troubles involving basic Earth systems[7].

And yet the second I turn on my computer a whole infrastructure of provision that presides over the global procurement and distribution of energy is activated, whose workings require the exploitation of limited resources, cause habitat disruptions of various magnitudes, and pump greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. I am forced into a global network of eco-altering financial interests, political agreements, and avenues of cultural reinforcement whose solid yet ever-changing configuration is largely unknown to me, but which I am at no liberty to side-step and which I suddenly find myself sponsoring with my behavior[8].

Although my actions are episodically harmless and the harms and damages that they contribute to are not my goals, the fact that my actions have a systemic life that inevitably contributes to planetary harms and damages seems to corner me in a morally indecent position no matter the moral quality of the actions themselves. My moral agency is in this way hijacked, and thus undermined. First, my actions never realize my goals only, but always also systemic anti-goals; second, there is seemingly nothing I can do to keep my actions “on track”; third, in a sense I cannot tell right from wrong when I do anything: actions that seem morally fine are in fact implicated in massive harms and damages. None of this could ever had happened without the introduction of large-scale, fossil-fueled technologies and infrastructural connectivity. Call this the ethical problem of agency loss, which is distinctive of the Anthropocene.

[1] Jamieson, D., and M. Di Paola. 2016. “Political Theory for the Anthropocene” Global Political Theory, 254–80. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Hibbard, K. A., Crutzen, P. J., Lambin, E. F., et al. 2006. ‘Decadal Interactions of Humans and the Environment’, in R. Costanza, L. Graumlich and W. Steffen, eds., Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, 341–375. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

 

[3] Jamieson, D. 2014. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Jamieson and Di Paola. 2016. “Political Theory for the Anthropocene”.

[5] Di Paola, M. 2017. Ethics and Politics of the Built Environment: Gardens of the Anthropocene. New York: Springer.

[6] Di Paola. 2017. Ethics and Politics of the Built Environment: Gardens of the Anthropocene. For further discussion see Jamieson, D. and Di Paola, M. 2019 .“Climate Change, Liberalism, and the Public/Private Distinction”, with D.W. Jamieson, in Philosophy and Climate Change, eds. T. McPherson, M. Bodulfson, D. Plunkett – New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

[7] Jamieson and Di Paola. 2016. “Political Theory for the Anthropocene”.

[8] Di Paola, M. 2015. ‘Virtues for the Anthropocene’, Environmental Values 24: 183–207.

 

Urban Gardens

Broadly understood, the built environment is the man-made stage of human life and activity. In the Anthropocene, it envelopes the whole planet: continents are connected by infrastructures that enable global flows of people, information, resources, goods, services, waste and pollution. Cities are the sources and terminals of most of these flows. Cities themselves are extremely complex built environments, hosting the majority of the world’s population and the great diversity of its activities.

Within our cities are gardens, built environments in which human beings cultivate plants – privately or publicly, alone or in groups. Urban gardens are all those urban spaces where gardening is done, and gardeners are all those agents who engage in the practice of gardening. The practice of urban gardening is the practice of personally cultivating plants somewhere in a city. This includes pots, balconies, rooftops, walls, private backyards, community gardens, corporate gardens, school gardens, orchards, cloisters, public parks, indoor spaces, abandoned and reclaimed areas, green belts, and just about any other place in and around cities where plants can somehow be grown.

What distinguishes gardens from most other built environments, besides the unusual amount of plants that can be found in them, is their multi-functionality. Most places in our cities serve one defined function: shops sell, cinemas show, and business offices take care of business. Professional and productive specialization is inevitably mirrored into, and reinforced by, urban spatial compartmentalization. But in gardens many and very different things can be done. Designs can be realized, food can be grown, plants can be collected and observed, species can be conserved, people can cook and eat, talk and play, buy and sell, chill and nap, establish rules and keep or break them, declare poetry, do some sit-ups and yoga,  and talk politics.

This versatility was never a lucky coincidence but always a planned objective and indeed a constitutive element of any good garden.  Vitruvius, a Roman author and engineer writing around 30 BC, theorized such versatility in the oldest surviving design manual, De architecture libri decem (The Ten Books on Architecture), asserting that the three very different features of firmitas (firmness, durability, strength), utilitas (commodity, convenience, utility) and venustas (suavity, loveliness, beauty) were to be the main design objectives for all gardens. Accordingly, gardens have also always been socially versatile: for the rich seeking repose and aesthetic delight, for the poor growing food for sustenance, for religious elites concocting mystical symbolisms or exercising manual discipline, for kids to play and the elderly to chat and work, and for scientists studying nature’s diversity and processes. In city gardens we breathe with the city, and our gaze can expand beyond walls. There we find the non-humans that we have otherwise evicted from most of our spaces – or at least some. We breathe in unison with them too. And although we do exhale greenhouse gases even when we breathe, in gardens we typically burn no fossil fuels.

In the Anthropocene, this versatility of gardens is to be further magnified. In the new epoch urban gardens and gardening ought to be seen as contexts and practices of agency retrieval that enable individuals and collectives to creatively take on some role in the face of important and apparently intractable global challenges - including food security, climate change, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss. Because urban gardens can be networked into city-level garden-systems, and individual urban gardening can be coordinated interpersonally to deliver collective arrangements, urban gardens and gardening are also to become contexts and practices of political participation. In this sense a networked, city-level garden system can be described as a public good, providing at least four important services: connecting citizens, promoting sustainability and justice objectives, catalyzing a search for meaning, and enabling self-determination.

Urban gardens and gardening are thus elements of a vastly fertile and still largely under-theorized and under-practiced “experiment of living” - as philosopher J.S. Mill would have called it:

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.’ (Mill, On Liberty)

Mill was a radical empiricist, and rejected the notion that we can learn about the good through a priori intuitions. Rather, our views on what is good must be tested by and through actual experience – by trying them out in the real world. In Mill´s perspective, experiments of living are among the engines of individual and social progress, and also among the best tools we have to decipher the strengths and weaknesses of received notions, practices, and political arrangements. They are sources of innovation and therefore, provided they impose no harms on others, they should be pursued by individuals and promoted by political systems. By trying out our views of the good through different ways of living than are typically common in our societies, we embrace the task of testing and possibly improving, through practice, both our individual perspectives and behaviors and our wider social and political arrangements.

Urban gardening in the Anthropocene is an experiment of living and it is far less innocuous than it may seem[1]. For example, growing food in gardens challenges global systems of food production and distribution and the unjust social and political relations that they engender while depleting, polluting, and emitting. Designing our cities to allow for networked gardening entails a blurring of two distinctions that have been guiding our imagination throughout modernity: the urban and the rural, and the private and the public – and, with that, a radical reconsideration will follow of what cities should look like and how they should function. In gardens we can protect botanical biodiversity, both local and global, threatened by local as well as global forces - including pollution, deforestation and climate change. In gardens we learn our urban environments and grow familiar with them; and we meet the non-human, particularly plants - the life-forms that live mostly unseen and unnoticed, radically other in ways that animal life-forms are not[2], this exorbitant residual of animated otherness that our planet still hosts even in the Anthropocene, even in cities. Urban gardening can also be a powerful expression of a new “operative democracy” that translates primarily into individual and collective practices, rather than in delegation to representative institutions or other structures of power. With practice we even go beyond direct forms of democracy that are still centered on preferences rather than behaviors. This is an actionable leap of political imagination[3].

Most fundamentally, urban gardening is and ought to be seen as one consequential way for individuals, and variously networked collectives of individuals, to resume agency by taking responsibility for the planetary, apparently intractable changes and challenges of the Anthropocene. These are ecological as much as they are cultural, ethical and political.

 

[1] See M. Di Paola, “Future-fitting the Past”, TEDxLUISS 2015 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uErAxrAff-8

[2] Kallhoff, A., Di Paola, M. and Schörgenhumer, M. 2018. Plant Ethics: Concepts and Applications. New York: Routledge.

[3] Di Paola. 2017. Ethics and Politics of the Built Environment: Gardens of the Anthropocene.