Collapse Is the Name for the Collision Between Economy and Ecology: A Response to Joshua Ramey (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Allow me, in the stumbling attempt to respond to Joshua’s difficult provocation to just for a moment put on my best Rust Cohle mask. To stay outside of Carcosa for just a moment, even though the World is already Carcosa, I want to push it off for a moment through a pessimistic fabulation. I was a child when green consciousness first took hold of me. The first Earth Day and shows like Captain Planet made very clear to me the precarity of living on this planet, to say nothing of the general anxiety I had about geopolitics after I first became aware of the massive violence being held back by even more violence. That anxiety was first fostered when I saw the word “coup” on TV and watched tanks rolling through Moscow. I understood that this country was like ours and yet it was radically transforming. I didn’t understand much more than that, but the very fact that such a radical transformation could take place frightened me. Then it cemented when my step-father was sent to Kuwait during the First Gulf War and I watched every night as the green light of night-vision cameras captured the reigning down of death upon Baghdad and as they trumped up the threat of Scud missiles killing “our boys”, that is, my step-father.

I was born, like everyone, into a violent and stupid World.

It amazes me to look out the café window I’m sitting in now and watch people just go about like the World hasn’t already ended. I can’t help but look at the couples bringing their infants and young children into the café and wonder, “how do you think you’re going to feed them in five or ten years?” In my times of pessimistic honesty, I can’t but look at the World and think that all of it, my fat belly, at the miracle of society that means I get to eat later today even though I don’t live on acres and I don’t grow wheat, I can’t look at all of that and not think that this is just the experience of the katechon. That violence and death lurk below the surface. I look at all those driving in Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the US, and think, “You’re driving us towards our own destruction and worse than that the very act of driving is our katechon!”

Our holding back of violence through our economic form of life is the very thing that has doomed us. And I do, when I read the reports on climate change, feel utterly fucked. I am gripped by despair. By a feeling of pointlessness. Of dread when facing the future. Unlike Derrida, I can’t look at it and say “viens! viens!” Instead, I think, “stay the fuck away!” But it is coming and it will be terrible. I don’t see any other way around it. And the fault of it all lies in the collision between ecology and economy. Between the law of the household and the discourse of our home. Between something that is utterly unitary in its demands (“make more money”) and something that requires an open exchange (I will try to retain this word in my response).

So we are clearly facing collapse and Joshua’s very powerful and probbing response to me seems to be oscillate between a kind of hope in resistance and a rejection of achievement as resistance. I am caught there too. Regarding the specifics of his response, I can only register my broad agreement. Yes, there is a problem in terms of the influence of economic reasoning on ecology (which Donald Worster has brought out better than anyone else, though uncritically, in his Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas) and yes I do think that a unified theory should mutate the scientific posture as well as the philosophical. In the third part of the book, where I provide a reading of ecological concepts as already doing philosophical and theological work, I do not often present those ideas in a negative fashion. That was intentional as rhetorically it seemed important to me to push back against the usual attempts to constrain science that you find in environmental ethics and eco-theology. But I tried to point to the dangers involved in Salt and Walker’s Resilience Thinking in so far as their work could be seen as infected by the neoliberal virus and the discussion of all the elements of ecology I pull out should, I hope, be read alongside of one another. So I am glad that the section on niches and Job is valued by Joshua and it does seem to be the part that folks are captured by. I admit that during the writing of that part I did feel like I was adding something truly unique to theoretical approaches to ecology. But I hope that those so enthralled by quantum physics and the beauty of its thought can see something of that as well in my philosophical/theological casting of ecosystems, biodiversity, matter and energy, and the others. There is something far more amazing to me in ecological science is the way it thinks complexity that physics cannot. As E.O. Wilson writes in The Diversity of Life, “Physicists can chart the behavior of a single particle; they can predict with confidence the interaction of two particles; they begin to lose it at three and above. Keep in mind that ecology is a far more complex subject than physics.”

But it is certainly true that the quote from Salt and Walker that  Joshua pulls out from my book is damning. They appear there to be very anthrocentric and focused most on the question of resources rather than any kind of respect for nature. This is a symptom of something that should trouble everyone. That is, science is subject to–really blackmailed by–economics. Scientific practice is far more expensive than philosophical or theological practice. In an age where the demands of capital increasingly overshadows civil society, scientists have to prostrate themselves more and more before the sociopaths who sit upon huge sums of money. I think Salt and Walker were intentionally downplaying their own environmental commitments in an attempt to reach out to those whose hearts are hardened to environmental thinking.

But still the question remains, are their ideas too infected by economism? First, I was attracted to thinking about resilience because of the ways in which it still offers resistance to climate change through more rational forms of attention. This goes under the name of “ecosystem management”, but I think, perhaps naively, that management does not require one submit to horrible forms of disciplinary logic. “Management”, in the sense we find it being enacted through ecological restoration, can be about attention. It can be about mindfulness. It can be about a kind of grace and custodial function. Resilience thinking moves us past facile discussions of the individual ethics of sustainability, to talking about systems. That, ultimately, is what it seems to me is ultimately common to economics and ecology. They are both forms of general systems theory (and those who read Resilience Thinking with any knowledge of GST will see that it is at base an application of it within the realm of ecosystem management and perhaps a more radical vision of it is hinted at in Panarchy). What has happened, it seems to me, is that “good names” like exchange have been taken over and mutated by economics. That they have been put in the service of a telos that is suicidal (perhaps every telos is?); they have hallucinated a kind of unilaterality of economy when the real nature of the general systems of exchange we live in is subject to the demands of ecology in-the-last-instance and not to economics. I’m not so worried about the grim world painted for us by accelerationists of the Left and the Right. I’ll never be a true cyborg because the entire World is built on oil and the collision between the finite ecology of oil and hallucinatory infinite economy of oil is coming.

So what is the point then of talking about anything at all if, as the best models suggest, collapse is coming? Collapse should perhaps be added among one of the 99 names of God or Nature. But if that is so collapse can at least be a form of fabulous gnosis. That gnosis is that there is nothing to achieve (the lesson that Daniel Colucciello Barber takes up from queer theorists and Afro-Pessimists and works out in the field of religion and metaphysics). I don’t think we can save the World and the good news that ecology preaches is that the earth doesn’t need our saving. What is required of us may be slightly different than Bergson’s machine for the making of gods and it seems very different to me than the #accelerate crowd’s grim and shortsighted valorization of geoengineering. To fabulate requires something new, but only new from the perspective of the World’s system of valuing. It does not require a return to origin. But, again to call upon Dan’s work, attention to our experience of already being in the middle, our diaspora. There is no origin to go back to and no future to achieve. There is only the now. And so, knife in my belly, hoisted before that seemingly uneconomic metaphor of the black hole, let me take off my mask. These breeders around me may not be able to feed their children in the coming decades. We may be on the road or at each others throats in the coming years. I don’t know that the answer is to put on a new mask and look up into the night sky at the light of stars that are reaching us millions of years after their death and think that the light is winning. That sort of fabulation is built on some anti-blackness that goes deep into our theological stories. But it is perhaps about rejecting the very process of covering over the trauma of being fucked (the Real) with a story about the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of that being fucked.

I am not using the term fucked to be vulgar. I am using the term because our situation is vulgar. We face not the beauty of a World whose reality will be consummated in being saved nor the beauty of it being destroyed. But the vulgar reality of a life lived in the everyday. Everyday indignities and unattended to deaths imposed upon those human and non-human creatures who are already bearing the worst effects of climate change. In their very act of living now they are repeating Job in crying out violence. They are showing that life and death are not in a dialectic, but that neither life (which does not live) nor death (which does not die) can circumscribe their radical immanence. So what are we to do in the face of being fucked? In the face of being fucked by our economics and the way it infects and drives everything around us? Well, think the fuckedness of that fucked thought. Attend to it. Don’t subsume it into narratives that would cover it over either as happy or grim, but instead actually look at it. In doing so I think we will exchange something. But it will be the lived experience of exchange where in that now we find some grace. We find that the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas and those of us whose mothers were put in the insane asylums by them. They are holy just as much as the unknown buggered and suffering beggars and the hideous human angels are. This is not, I hope, some romanticism, though I would rather risk a romanticism of the now built upon a pessimism of the World than risk the inverted optimism of future based upon a romanticism of a God to come or technology to save us.

So, I’m still looking out of this café window. Still struggling to find an adequate way to respond to collapse as the name of the collision between economy and ecology. Do we self-mutilate like Lars von Trier’s Her in Anti-Christ? Do we perform some useless ritual like the final scene of Melancholia? Do we keep having babies or stop being breeders? The answer, it seems to me, is to reject both these sorts of options. To realize that neither one of them will save us and that such salvation is not going to happen anyway. There is nothing to achieve and so we think and act–that is, we live and die–our being fucked in defiance of both a divine nothing and divine achievement. So perhaps our fabulation that moves us beyond the economic determination of all thought, including ecology, requires we rethink survival and life, what we could call compromise and rebellion. All of that at least requires we consider the violence that exists even as the katechon is in place. That, contra, Rust, we do not need bad men, but need to find a way to free our language and our thinking from the World. That may require its end.