My latest paper – The Moral Geography of the Earth System

My latest paper is now out entitled, The Moral Geography of the Earth System. It is currently free access here (thanks Wiley!). And it is permanently open-access here, though only in read-only. If there is a problem with the second link try pasting this in your browser: (or click the link in the header to my publications page and go from there).

I’m especially keen on reactions to this article, which tries to do a couple of things to set up a concluding argument: that the form of integration achieved under neoliberal forms of sustainable development is now giving way to new forms of neoliberalism without nature.

The first half argues that one of the key things the Anthropocene is often taken to imply is the loss of ‘other’ spaces, places, and landscapes since one set of (cumulative) social actions now affect how the Earth system functions. The Capitalocene, for instance, is a way to describle those social actions as being primarily compelled and constrained by capitalist forms of accumulation or extraction. As interesting as those debates are, I’m interested here in how response to this loss of others has generated new attempts to describe how we might understand belonging in a new geological era. New debates around the (1) novelty of the Anthropocene, (2) temporal mis-matches between history and geology, (3) new ontological ideas about what is or may exist (or what is or may become), and (4) what sorts of agents need to be accounted for all shape this new arena. I try to think through the accounts of some of the most cited proponents of each. These aren’t necessarily the best accounts of each, and I didn’t pick them with a view to adjudicate. Rather, I chose them because even some of the most widely circulating accounts both have some residual problems (which I point out) and also tend to have targets to the side of new practices now shaping notions of belonging in the Anthropocene–perhaps most notably because they focus on macro, or meta-ethical claims about the proposed epoch as a whole, which is partly why I highlight the Earth system (which is changing in many different ways) rather than the Anthropocene.

So, the second part of the paper looks at two of these new practices as they are circulating in international law and, to some extent, among members of the Anthropocene Working Group. The first of these practices is the idea that we should use the planetary boundaries framework as a kind of grundnorm (a norm basic to all others) in global governance.  The second practice is the idea that humans are part of a geological sphere known as the technosphere that includes buildings, internet cables, and all of the materials and energy that are now organized to support humans. Both of these concepts are gaining steam, albeit in their own ways, as they circulate in the interdisciplinary conversations about how to make sense and semblance of different normative concerns that arise in the context of human impacts on the Earth system.

The final section of the paper names a phenomenon I term neoliberalism without nature. In part, this is a side-long response to arguments that neoliberalism has been rearranging nature for some time through new commodity chains, privatization, and so on. What I am more keen to point out, however, is that nature isn’t needed for any of this. That is, the economy doesn’t need some sort of ‘frontier’ or new space for accumulation in the classic sense that some political economists promote. In fact, I think the idea of neoliberalism without nature helps to focus a set of familial critiques developed by people like Eve Chiapello and Melinda Cooper, who have been pointing out how different financial technologies and practices increasingly shape understandings of how the environment and the economy are entangled with one another. I think that there is some room to expand on these kinds of critiques. I don’t do that in this article, but have plans to do so in the works.




The hydrosocial cycle & why to rethink some versions of it

I’ve mentioned my comings and goings with the concept of the hydrosocial cycle before. And I mentioned last week that a new paper of mine would be out soon. It’s here. Well, technically it is here [pdf]. It is an open-access article from Water Alternatives (which is currently transitioning its website to a new server so if it isn’t a smooth link, it should be soon). The special selection of papers on informal water spaces also looks really interesting in this issue of the journal.

My essay makes an argument about some of the current ideas popular in the literature that suggest a key feature of modernity was that water (and nature in general) was understood as a passive and inactive thing. From this premise, there is often an attempt to re-read history with contemporary understandings of water (and nature in general) as a more active player. In this paper I suggest the former view is wrong. Water was understood as an active planetary agent in precisely some of the cases theorized as exhibiting the modern society/nature divide. Because of this, the attempt to re-read history needs to be rethought with these earlier understandings of water in mind. All comments welcome. Here is the abstract:

Historicising the hydrosocial cycle

This paper examines the historical claims made in support of the hydrosocial cycle. In particular, it considers how arguments advancing the hydrosocial cycle make historical claims regarding modernist conceptions of what water is (i.e. H2O) and its fit with society. The paper gives special emphasis to the society/nature dualism and to the notion of agency as key sites of contest in arguments regarding the hydrosocial cycle. It finds that, while several versions of the hydrosocial cycle seek to advance a political ecology more sensitive to non-human actions, these same accounts often do not address the robust account of non-human agency in the historical record. Evidence is presented regarding water’s agency amongst late 19th and early 20th century architects of key water management norms in the United States. This evidence troubles accounts of the hydrosocial cycle that critique the US experience and suggests new directions for rethinking the role of historical and institutional norms in water policy.