From Globalization To Gaiapolitik

Planetary realism challenges the old geopolitics of competing nation-states acting in their narrow self-interest.

Justin Moore for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine, and Kathleen Miles is the executive editor.

In the second print issue of Noema, just out this week, we focus on shifting from the paradigms of globalization and geopolitics toward a concept of the “planetary.” There are two aspects to this concept: “planetary reason” — the awareness that we humans are not the center of it all, but only one part of an overall ecology of being that strives for sustainable equilibrium — and “planetary realism,” the practical manifestation of this awareness.

For the French philosopher Bruno Latour, the most profound insight of our time, as conceived by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, is that this planet is one self-regulating organism, which they named “Gaia” after the Earth goddess of Greek mythology. 

“Lovelock locked us in!” Latour exclaimed in a recent interview. “While Galileo used a telescope to reveal that the Earth is part of an infinite universe, Lovelock used his electron capture detector to reveal that the Earth is completely different from any other planet because it has life. He and Margulis spotted Gaia. Lovelock from space, taking the question as globally as possible — Margulis from bacteria, taking the question from the other end — both realizing that Life, capital L, has managed to engineer its own conditions of existence. For me, that is the greatest discovery of this period.”

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The implications of this discovery are finally sinking in as the exhaust of the Anthropocene destabilizes the only habitable biosphere we know. As we become intimately familiar with the microbe universe that is both part and parcel of our healthy existence as well as a menace to it, some radical thinkers, like anthropologist Tobias Rees, look beyond what they consider nostalgia for the privileged place of humans in the natural cosmos. “Planetary reason” for Rees is a nonhuman-centric logos defined by the symbiotic interaction of multiple intelligences, from viruses to AI. In his latest musings in Noema, Lovelock also sees super-intelligent machines widely inhabiting the planetary civilization of the future, conjoining with humans to organize society like resource-efficient hornet colonies.

We now live in a “planetary age,” Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman have declared. “The ‘planetary’ refers to issues, processes and conditions that span the Earth and transcend nation-states. ‘Global’ and ‘globalization’ are the currently popular terms for describing world-scale issues. But the planet is not the globe: The globe is a conceptual category that frames the Earth in human terms. Globalization, likewise, adopts a fundamentally human-centric understanding of ‘integration’ that has happened over the last few decades — the accelerating flow of people, goods, ideas, money and more.”

“The planetary, by contrast, frames Earth without specific reference to humans,” Blake and Gilman write in Noema. “The Earth is not ours alone. Worldwide integration is not merely the intentional work of humans. Humans are embedded and codependent with microbes, the climate and technologically enabled emergent trans-species communities.” 

To illustrate this oncoming era, our cover image by the French artist Pierre Huyghe (above) imagines a “mutation in the forest” through an image partially generated by AI.

In this condition of embeddedness and codependency, the role of responsible human self-awareness is to align our unique technological prowess and daily habits with the natural resilience of the Earth. Latour calls this realignment “Gaia 2.0,” deploying everything from temperature sensors that mimic the recursive feedback loops of the Earth itself to renewable energy infrastructure to zero-waste end-to-end production. 

Paradoxically, as Rees has put it, only when intelligence becomes artificial and can be scaled into massive, distributed systems beyond the narrow confines of biological organisms can we have a knowledge or understanding of the planetary systems in which we live. 

Benjamin Bratton has taken the case a step further in Noema online: “Instead of reviving ideas of nature,” he argues, “we must reclaim the artificial — not fake, but designed. For this, human-machine intelligence and urban-scale automation become part of an expanded landscape of life, information and labor. They are part of a living ecology, not a substitute for one. Put more specifically: The response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic.” 

For Bratton, the concept of “planetarity” is a kind of “synthetic intelligence” based “on the secular disenchantment of Earth through the ongoing artificialization of intelligence and the emergence of a general sapience,” or wisdom, “that conjoins human and nonhuman cognition.”

In his contribution to Noema, Vaclav Smil is less focused on complex technological advances than on the need to curb our upstream overconsumption — not just the downstream greenhouse gas emissions.

This active awareness compels a shift from heedless globalization and the old geopolitics of competing nations toward a new planetary realism that could be called “Gaiapolitik.” Its primary aim is common health and climate security across all borders. In practical terms, this entails a “partnership of rivals” between the two largest economies and carbon emitters in the world — the U.S. and China — on climate and pandemics despite conflicts in other realms, from technology to trade and human rights. Paradoxically, planetary realism in this context suggests that the shared challenge of proliferating pathogens and global warming may be what prevents the new, all-out Cold War that is shaping up.

To explore what this means in terms of governance, we invited former California Governor Jerry Brown and futurist Stewart Brand, both of whom were seminal figures in thematizing ecological consciousness in the 1970s and beyond, to discuss the origins and future prospects of their respective notions of “planetary realism” and “whole Earth” thinking. The main conundrum they identify is how the legitimacy and affinity associated with the earthy virtue of the places in which we reside locally can be transferred to the planetary level.

The road to a planetary perspective will be long and winding. To that end, we have sought in this print edition, as well as in our daily online presence, to juxtapose ideas across boundaries and explore the correspondences among them in order to map out the terrain of the great transformations underway.