Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

Below is a link to the audio of a brief talk I gave at the Environment and Susatinability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in November 2014. It covers the topics of history, environmental catastrophe, everyday life, and most importantly, the democratic deficit in decisions regarding the fate of the world around us. The original text of the talk is also included below.

Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall


 

Sustainable Cornwall

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

I wish to start with some questions, and to emphasize, as a whole, the idea of sustainability as a question, rather than as an answer to a question:

1. What does it mean to say Cornwall should be sustainable?

2. Whose sustainability are we talking about?

3. Should we be seeking to sustain what we have? (Is it really the best we can imagine?)

Why such queries? Because, I have real problems with the idea of sustainability as something we are searching for in the here and now. Something we should be producing by influencing behaviour or attitudes. I think this ‘project’, if it deserves the name, hides as much as it reveals.

From a critical perspective sustainability can be argued to be a conservative ideology. Keeping things as they are (sustaining the natural or the social world) is very much the project of the rich and powerful. From their perspective things are just fine, and we should keep them going very much as they are. Sustainability promises to stave off change, to do just enough to ameliorate social and environmental catastrophe such that our society’s power relations (especially the class relation) remain the same.

For those of us who desire change, who really want a fundamentally different and more just form of society, sustainability is the enemy. For us any demand for sustainability always comes too late, for the catastrophe is already upon us. Whether it is the global catastrophe of climate change, or the personal catastrophe of foodbank poverty, we already inhabit an apocalypse. Future risks and disasters hold no fear; we are already living with disaster.

Indeed, it is this idea that we already inhabit a catastrophe that I would like to explore now by looking at some of our evidence from an oral history of the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in Cornwall, which took place in 1967. This incident (which is both carefully remembered and carefully forgotten) is of interest not simply as an example of an environmental and social disaster close to ‘home’, but also for the way in which those interviewed about it consistently critiqued and undermined common academic and governmental notions of what sustainability is all about. They point to the reality of modern ‘resilience’, that life under capitalism was, and continues to be, a life of uncertainty, insecurity and risk, in which there is no choice but to be ‘resilient’. More than this, they suggest what is really missing in terms of most discussions of sustainability – radical democracy and revolutionary change.

Fear
One of the most striking things about people’s memories of the Torrey Canyon going aground was the importance of fear in the experience. Apart from the smell of the oil, fear was a profound and common memory of the disaster. Unsurprising you might think, but this fear was not, in general, grounded in concerns about damage to the natural environment or risks to human health, as would have been perfectly reasonable. Rather it was grounded in economic insecurity, and the fear that the destruction of Cornwall’s beaches might spell the end of the tourist industry on which many families in Cornwall were increasingly reliant by the 1960s. One interviewee, from St Ives remembered going to the shops for a newspaper and the owner shouting that “we’re finished, we’re finished, the summer is gone”. Others recalled ‘panic’, and ‘overwhelming fear’ that the economic basis of local society was about to collapse.

Such fears partly (but only partly) explain the nature of the response to the incident, the large scale (and excessive) use of toxic detergents to disperse the oil. The use of detergents, as anyone who has followed the results of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or elsewhere, will know was an ecological catastrophe, destroying much of the inshore marine ecology of Cornwall. As there was no extensive baseline ecological research of the shoreline undertaken before 1967, we are still unsure exactly how disastrous this was, or how long-lasting. But many of our interviewees felt the results were profound and permanent.
In short, to save the local tourist economy Cornwall’s coastal ecology was sacrificed on a vast scale. Yet, this deliberate sacrifice was a kind of ‘sustainability’ in action. The key emergency was a social and economic one, and this took priority in terms of the state’s response to the disaster.

Whose sustainability was reproduced in the context of this disaster? That of the local tourist industry for one, but also that of a global oil production and distribution complex. The catastrophic loss of one of the world’s first supertankers led to an international legal effort by the Labour government to recover some of the cost of the clean-up, but the fundamental right of giant corporations such as Barracuda Oil and BP to transport such cargoes at such risk to maritime populations was not, and never has, been challenged.

As such the Torrey Canyon remains a warning of the contradictory consequences of following the dictates of sustainability, without recourse to the democratic question of what one is choosing to sustain. In the end the Cornwall of tourism and large-scale marine transportation was sustained at the expense of local nature, the fishing industry and possibly the health of the local population. This choice was never subject to any democratic right of decision.

And it is important to remember that there was a choice. In France the spill was met with a the use of far less detergent and far more labour to clean oiled oyster beds, which were deliberately protected by the decision to avoid use of dispersants.

Resilience
Since the Torrey Canyon went aground, we have lived with its consequences. In the short-term much of the oil was dispersed by a combination of the huge human effort to clear the beaches, and natural action. But the material evidences of the disaster remained and were permanent. Our interviewees consistently recalled the way that beaches continued to show the evidence of the disaster through small balls of tar stuck to the bottom of children’s feet. The gutted marine life returned, but slowly, with new and unfamiliar crowds of strangely coloured red seawracks and seaweeds colonising the shoreline.

For others, marine coastal users of various sorts, surf-lifesavers, fishermen and others, there was the memory of all the toxic detergent used to control the impact of the spill and the unknown long-term risks it posed to human and animal well-being. But for many the only available response was to endure. People learned to live with disaster, to forget, even where they remembered, that they lived in an environment permanent transformed by a catastrophe. They were, as they always have to be, resilient, in the face of disaster.

Resilience is the normal, everyday response to catastrophe, the aim to get things back and running as they were. It is a necessary and hopeful response, particularly to those of us who fear for the future of a world that is apparently politically incapable of responding realistically to climate change. Yet, at the same time this resilience poses a political problem. It stood in the way of critical questions being asked about the incident. Why it had taken place? What were its long-term effects?

Most of our interviewees did not respond to the Torrey Canyon by becoming environmental activists or anything like that, though a few did. For many Torrey Canyon was just another, if bigger, marine disaster on Cornwall’s shores, as easily forgotten as it was remembered. One might contrast this to other incidents such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, where local communities in the wake of the catastrophe organised (and continue to organise) for restitution and demanded recognition of the environmental and health impacts of the spill. In Cornwall people were perhaps too resilient, if anything, too willing to go on with life once the immediate fear of economic ruin was past.

Asking Critical Questions
This point is not meant as a criticism of the people of Cornwall. Rather it is a pointer to the ways in which sustainability is as much a political problem as an environmental or social one. Ironically, the Torrey Canyon disaster showed Cornwall to have a very ‘sustainable’ social system. Despite poverty and insecurity, despite an environmental catastrophe of long-lasting consequence, the people of Cornwall got on with living life. Today there are no local movements for environmental justice built around the experience. Some local people found their way into environmental movements, but often cited the later role of organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, rather than the direct effects of the Torrey Canyon as part of this trajectory.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that, hidden deep within our interviews, there were and are still critical questions asked about what sustainability might mean in the context of the Torrey Canyon disaster, but that they are questions that await a proper democratic space in which they might be addressed, or even, for that matter, heard. Take this memory from one of our interviewees.

“To be honest we had never thought about a 100,000 ton tanker running aground. The same with nuclear waste being distributed around the country. It’s just accepted and nothing’s made of it, and you just accept it. We now think, well, moving that amount of oil, is it really a good thing? It’s got to be done, because people need energy, people need heating, warmth, and so on. But there have been a number of ships run aground, oil tankers especially, up in the Orkneys there’s one… Everything’s got to be moved, it’s nice to consider the environment, or you’ve got to consider the environment, but people need heating, people need lighting. But would you prefer to have tankers running around the coast? Or would you prefer wind turbines? Or would you prefer solar panels? I think I’d prefer solar panels to the wind- turbines (laughter)”.

What I love about this response is its intellectual honesty. Its willingness to ask the question that is staring us in the face. What do we want? How do we want to reproduce (or sustain?) our daily lives? Do we want a global oil industry? Or nuclear power? Or windfarms? When you need to consider both the environment and people’s lives what is the right way to go about it?

Yet in the end, as the laughter indicates, we know these questions are a joke. A joke because though we recognise the question, and the problem to be solved, we also recognise that no-one is really going to ask us how to solve it (leave alone allow us the power to decide whether supertankers should be allowed to ply the highseas). That power of decision rests in the hands of transnational global corporations. We know that we have to be resilient, to endure the potentially catastrophic consequences of this condition of things, because we are not offered another choice. We know that there is no democratic mechanism at present capable of allowing people to determine how we make and sustain both people and environment.

Merely asking the right questions doesn’t change these facts, but at least it is a place to start.

On the ‘ridiculous’

There are moments in teaching when students elucidate a point more clearly and precisely than the teacher can. There are moments of self-discovery when everyone in the room is not merely learning, but reorienting their very perspective on the world, asking new questions in new ways. One such moment happened yesterday in my lecture on ‘Capitalism and Climate Change’. The class were discussing Timothy Mitchell’s outstanding political critique of our fossil fuel-based social order, Carbon Democracy. We were working in groups and interrogating our understanding of what Mitchell is trying to say about what is at stake politically in oil-fuelled societies. In effect Mitchell is arguing (I believe) that oil dependent societies came about as a means of undercutting the power of organised labour and of exercising monopoly power in the global market, and that the particular materiality of oil was critical to this project. It is an important argument, if one that I am not wholly convinced by, tainted, as I feel it is, by a certain vulgar materialism.

Nonetheless, there was clearly great interest amongst the group in Mitchell’s perspective. During the discussion three different groups, without prompting, used the same word to describe their understanding of what Mitchell was getting at: ‘ridiculous.’ It is an intriguing word, and the fact that they all used the same term was equally compelling. Something had struck a chord. Something was being seen here for the first time, simultaneously, by a number of people in the group. It was such a curious ‘teachable moment’ that I immediately chose to pursue the theme. Why had they used that word? What did they mean ridiculous? For one group, the notion Mitchell explores that oil companies might undermine their own production in order to push up market prices for their product just made no sense. It was clearly irrational economically and socially; for another, looking at Jevons’ Paradox, the fact that supply and demand might act to turn energy efficiency into the perfect system for the exhaustion of fossil fuels, yet without some kind of conservationist response, was just as perplexing. For others the political effects of using oil to undermine democratic power was disturbing and even counter-intuitive.

It was one of those moments when the assumptions that we have about how the world should be come into open conflict with how it actually is. It was a point where competing rationalities, common sense versus good sense, became apparent. It appeared in a feeling shared by the group in a common point of confusion. I offered some comments on what it might mean to even state that such phenomena were ridiculous when, from the capitalist perspective, they might be perfectly rational, and even beneficial. One student commented that they felt they were being ‘pushed to the left’ by it all, but, as I pointed out, no-one had actually done any pushing at all. The experience was valuable precisely because it was so spontaneous. There was no question of it coming from some pre-existing political agenda of my own; it came from the sense or feeling of my students, who no doubt have a diverse range of political perspectives of their own. Yet this situation had created some kind of a feeling in common. Something can’t be right with a society organised on such irrational lines, can it?

We left the matter there, unreconciled. I felt that we had made such a common leap of self-understanding it was important to leave any question of the conclusions to be drawn for another moment. We had all shared an insight into ourselves, and for the moment that was enough.

Huhne versus History

The great social question of our time, how to respond to climate change, poses us crucial historical questions. Indeed, it might be said that the cisis engendered by anthropogenic climate change is nothing but an historical question. Take Chris Huhne’s recent intervention in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (25 August 2014), for example. His second sentence invokes history (with an absent capital ‘H’). “For the first-time in history”, he claims, “we are growing richer while using less energy”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this claim is probably incorrect, and in any case unlikely to be verifiable, Huhne’s instant resort to historical argument and (lack of) historical evidence tells us something important about the terms of the climate change argument; something that should be taken on board by both historians and public alike.

The second paragraph of Huhne’s article really gets to grips with the historical. From the middle-ages, he argues, “living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage because forest absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small”. Again, leave aside the arguable historical claims here, though it is interesting that Huhne touches on an old socialist-inspired historical debate, now partly forgotten, on the fate of living standards in pre-industrial and industrial Europe. It is intriguing that Huhne commits perhaps one of the more disreputable sins (in the eyes of mainstream historical scholarship at least) of anachronism. Was your average feudal overlord concerned with ‘living standards’? To apply the term to the middle ages sounds bizarre, and its uncanny effect is a warning.

The key lesson of history, is one of constant surprise. Surprise at encountering the strange. Huhne take it as read that the middle ages were concerned with ‘living standards’, but the lesson of the unfamiliar is crucial here. For Huhne’s overall argument, that endless growth of energy usage is now technologically feasible, and with it ever expanding capitalist development and ‘prosperity’, is founded upon precisely leaving out the historical contingency of this mode of thinking about what constitutes wealth. For Huhne, a world in which living standards were of secondary concern, can barely enter into history proper .

After a brief bit of Hobbes on the social condition of England, we enter into history proper with industrialisation and the rise of real GDP, another age-old scene of historical argument among economic historians. We are assured that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw ‘real progress’ with the rise of male life expectancy. The ‘male’ here stands in for the seething undifferentiated mass of humanity as a whole. Reaching back into the dark depths of my undergraduate years, I recall enormous dispute among historians of medicine regarding the relative importance of nutrition versus public medical provision on the fall in mortality in this period.

All this leads finally to Huhne’s conclusion that prosperity and welfare are directly connected to the scale of energy consumption, and, in the recent past, to fossil fuel consumption.

In order to establish his key foundational claim, that energy use is the base of modern wealth and welfare, Huhne has had stumble through at least three major fields of historical debate. Yet at no time in his argument is history as a scholarly discipline even acknowledged.

As practitioners of a particular form of social critique, historians should be deeply worried by this. That historical claims can be made to found a political claim, in this case the necessity of intensive and extensive energy usage to modern well-being, is hardly a surprise. The fact that historical disciplines, arguments and, most importantly, uncertainties can be more or less excised from such an account is troubling. It points to a key component of modern ideology, the absence of a genuine sense of historical time and of historical ‘otherness’, the idea that things could have been, or will be different.

Yet, of course, Huhne’s article is written not to propose a particular response to climate change, or to debate the science. His argument, that the increasing rate of adoption of new ‘clean’ energy generating technologies is proceeding apace, is precisely intended to propose no change. That we can continue indefinitely with the structure of energy production and use that we have, and, more broadly, with the form of social reproduction with which we (in the global North) are familiar. It is history, of a kind, which allows him to pose and to structure this thought.

Immediate response to his argument from the left predictably, and quite correctly, pointed to the range of empirical mistakes and omissions Huhne made in his understanding of the potential impact of technological change. Andrew Dobson (Guardian, 28 August) provided a succinct demolition of Huhne’s failure to grasp that climate change demands the reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions in absolute, not relative, terms. Yet, Dobson does not acknowledge Huhne’s reliance on a very particular, and very uncertain, understanding of both concrete historical arguments about wealth and welfare, and a particular sense of historical time.

This latter is particularly concerning, and easily missed in focusing on empirical questions. For while Huhne relies on the past as a legitimation of the present, he fails to use it to think any alternative future. Huhne effectively deals in a non-past, he has no sense of the processes of historical change, just a binary opposition between some past, dimly remembered dark age, and our present age of light, wealth and universal well-being. But the difference between past and present is not of this nature, and in this case the nuances of historical thinking, even what we might call the ethics of the historical mindset, matter politically.

We are both more like, and more unlike, our ancestors than we care to admit. Huhne’s article effectively abandons any real sense of the historical as such. He has no conception of the causes of change, no notion of historical conflict or antagonism. He inhabits a mode of thought that truly believes in the progressive character of technology (historians of science take note!). Huhne ultimately inhabits a present without a past in any meaningful sense, without a history that could have been different. Huhne’s article stands as an exemplar of the fundamentally anti-historical mode of thinking that defines genuinely neo-liberal thought, the inability to tolerate any other way of being, in this case any historical ‘other’.

Here, I believe that we encounter the real political meaning of anthropogenic climate change. The discourse of climate change messes with our sense of historical time. It poses, in its most apocalyptic form, an ‘End of History’ scenario. Such an end, constitutes a traumatic encounter for neo-liberals, not simply because it poses the end of capitalism, but because it points to the inadequacy of the non-historical mode of thinking that founds their ideological claims.

History is riven with contingency, unintended consequence, bitter rivalries, the constant barrage of moments in which everything threatens to be radically different. Huhne’s ideas are not dangerous because they suggest to us that all will be well, that technology will rescue neo-liberal capitalism. They are dangerous because they falsely foreclose the contingency of historicity proper, the idea that we can make history beyond the impersonal forces of ‘progress’ and economics.

Anthropogenic climate change has reopened our sense of historical time as a key political battleground in the present.

Why we Still Need a Human History in the Anthropocene

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s engagement with the idea of the concept of the anthropocene has become a key starting point for rethinking the humanities in the era of anthropogenic climate change. His work raises some fundamental questions for the way in which we go about historical research in the present, and, even more profoundly, for the mode in which we think historically at all.

At the heart of Chakrabarty’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, which has been translated into various languages and circulated widely, is the idea that the emergence of humanity as a geological agent (i.e. as a species with the capacity to transform, and even to destroy, its own conditions of existence) fundamentally undermines the constitutive distinction between human and natural histories. These two forms of historical consciousness (deep time understood through geological research and natural science, and historical time, comprehended through the interpretive textual work of the historian) are, Chakrabarty suggests, now collapsing into one another, with important intellectual and political consequences.

The anthropocene, then, marks the end of the binary distinction between humanist and scientific knowledge that underpinned the Enlightenment rationalist project. Chakrabarty also argues that this collapse queries the distinctive political project of Enlightenment, the pursuit of human freedom (exemplified in the form of historical consciousness that enabled both liberalism and Marxism to function as political projects). In the anthropocene, the natural parameters within which that project was pursued begin to collapse. Human freedom thus threatens to undermine its own conditions of possibility, perhaps suggesting the need to found a radically different kind of politics.

However, Chakrabarty’s anthropocene is not without its own problems, which arise in the course of the article the presumptions and omissions constitutive of his four theses. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Chakrabarty’s first thesis is that anthropogenic climate change spells the end of the “age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history”. It is interesting that he explicitly connects this thesis to anthropogenic climate change rather than the anthropocene in general, which might be argued to include other factors such as the transformation of landscape, growth of population, formation of urban centres and the extinction of species. This move immediately narrows the problem of the anthropocene from a wider historical/geological perspective to the immediate contemporary question of climate change.

This may seem trivial, but, arguably, by making this move Chakrabarty is not at this point addressing the anthropocene all. Each of the factors outlined above might be included in a strictly geological account of the anthropocene, but each also invokes a different temporality. Human intervention in the fate of other species through hunting, farming, genetic modification and/or deliberate extirpation obviously has a long and discontinuous history. By focussing on the immediacy of climate change as crisis, Chakrabarty structures his argument from the perspective of the anthropocene as a transformation occurring now. Obviously, if we have been living in the anthropocene for longer (three of four hundred years perhaps) his conclusions regarding the fate of Enlightenment reason would have to be somewhat different. Chakrabarty’s argument thus rests on a set of constitutive exclusions of certain elements of the totality of the anthropocene idea.

This presentism of Chakrabarty’s anthropocene in the first thesis does further work in his critique of the environment and geography in traditional history. By suggesting that the time of the anthropocene is the time of our present, it is possible for Chakrabarty to argue that environmental and geographical phenomena have generally been viewed as changing only slowly, and therefore operating in a different temporality to that of much human political and social history. Of course, if we were to give the anthropocene itself a deeper history, this would perhaps revise the extent of the challenge it presents to the humanities.

What are we to make of Chakrabarty’s second thesis, that the emergence of humans as a geological force “severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalization”?  Here Chakrabarty investigates the role of freedom in the Enlightenment historical imaginary, and the modern project more generally.  He claims that “most of our freedoms so far have been energy intensive”. Here we enter into a welter of ideas, including the debate over the dating of the anthropocene, none of which really end with any firm conclusions. It does seem however, that at this point in the argument a different temporality is at work that in the first thesis. The beginnings of the industrial epoch now emerge as the deeper history to the anthropocene. The anthropocene, at least in its genesis, no longer acts to disrupt normal historical temporality, but actually becomes commensurable with the history of industrialization and the history of ‘freedom’.

Obviously there is something suggestive about the temporal slippage between the first and second theses. From a radically present-oriented crisis of historicity, we have returned to a radically historicized account of origins, appended to a naturalized account of industrialization as development. It is not clear that the thesis that human freedom and energy intensive industrial development are at all linked by necessity, as opposed to pure contingency. The history of emancipatory struggles before 1750 disappears from this account, as does the history of the MANY defeats of human emancipatory desires in the modern era. Ultimately, it is unclear what kind of history of freedom, if any, Chakrabarty is offering us in this thesis. Did energy intensive industrial organisation really enable the realization of freedom? Or did the achievements of emancipatory struggles (for instance the defeats suffered by the western European feudal order in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) lay the basis of a social system that would then emerge as energy intensive?

The third thesis that the anthropocene hypothesis “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans” offers somewhat more clarity, but it is perhaps the least convincing of the four. For the first time we encounter the subject ‘capital’ as an agent in the process of social and ecological transformation. We might wonder why its appearance is so late. But its appearance is of passing kind, the critique of capital appears only to be dismissed as insufficient once the “crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of the present.” Now Chakrabarty deploys an anthropocene that is neither present, nor past, but future-present, i.e. a ‘known unknown’. That is to say, it is known in its imminent proximity, but unknown in its precise effects.

In fact this thesis is really not a critique of the critique of capital at all. The category of capital is quickly displaced by the non-historical term ‘industrialisation’. Really this thesis is an engagement with the problematic of naturalisation versus historicisation. The proposal to treat humans as an undifferentiated species, or agent, in the Anthropocene is, of course, an assault upon everything that history and historicity stand for, Chakrabarty renders much of this assault as a problem for ‘left historians’, who have always argued that such naturalizing efforts are ideological and suppress the truth of class exploitation beneath an undifferentiated “we”. Yet, this problem also harks back to Herder’s critique of universalising historical logics. It is far from simply a challenge to left historians, it is a challenge to all histories that seek to decentre narratives by displacing the undifferentiated “we” of the human through the practice of historicism. Here there is no need to retreat to a ‘left’ historicism at all; a purely deconstructive reading shows that at stake here are the naturalizing and denaturalizing effects of the discourse of nature itself. Chakrabarty is aware of the treacherous waters being sailed here, but the ultimate conclusion, that we must think simultaneously in two registers, the chronologies of capital and of species history, smacks of an impossible compromise in which there is potentially a great deal to be lost and very little to be gained.

The fourth thesis explores these potential gains, through “probing of the limits of historical understanding” by “cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital.” Here we encounter the most explicitly political of Chakrabarty’s conclusions, and the idea that such a mode of rethinking history might help us to deal with the crisis of global warming. It is notable that at this point the idea that the Anthropocene is again reduced to the question of climate change. This enables Chakrabarty to conclude with his call for a “negative universal history” a history that, by subjecting everyone equally to the risk of global climate apocalypse, constitutes a universal human political subject.

This is certainly a most utopian conclusion, and it is far from supported by the rest of Chakrabarty’s theses. What is curious about this conclusion is the manner in which is posits the emergent human species of the anthropocene as an undifferentiated universal. Throughout his essay Chakrabarty has sailed close to these waters of that antithesis of the historical project, the undifferentiated human “we”, only to row back again furiously. At the end, however, Chakrabarty demonstrates the fullness of his rejection of the Enlightenment project by embracing the idea that between human and natural history one might find, a universal form of human subjectivity, a humanity that would finally reside outside of history.

This is, of course, utterly anthema to Hegelian or Marxian conceptions of totality, where the process of history is precisely driven by the excessive conditions of universality. For Marxists the working-class, the excluded and exploited, are constitutive of capital, but are also the point of potential emancipatory universality, the class that can stand for all others in the historical objective of transcending capitalism and achieving freedom. For Chakrabarty there is no “part of no-part”, no excess. This negative universal is not clearly emancipatory in any sense. Ironically, the anthropocene is seen to generate an organic totality out of rich and poor alike. At the end we perceive our universality in a “shared sense of catastrophe”. We are all paupers now.

So, in the end, Chakrabarty is giving us a fundamentally anti-historical account with distinctly conservative overtones? For all the tacking between the poles of human history and natural history in the end we are left with an organic universal humanity slouched around the catastrophic end of history. Isn’t this exactly the danger of accepting the idea of the anthropocene? What can an undifferentiated universal humanity achieve in this moment of crisis? Who is to do the productive work of defending and reproducing the social world through the crisis of climatic transformation and, we must hope, out the other side? Will the rich be queuing up to divest themselves of their wealth and start shovelling like the rest of us? What kind of political subject could emerge from this universal capable of making the political decisions needed to ensure us a (better) future? If such a subject were to emerge, where should the transformation take place? Must it be global or local in form? How would we negotiate between the rights and needs of the two? A negative universal history offers no answer to these questions, and Chakrabarty does not enlighten us further. In effect he offers us a common without Communism, a universality in which none of the things that really divide us would change at all. Perhaps they would not even be visible to us. In the final analysis, living with this kind of universality might be an even bleaker prospect than living with climatic crisis. It certainly suggests that we should think hard before we conclude that good old-fashioned humanist history has had its day.