The Planet Is A Political Orphan

To keep Earth habitable, we must reimagine a politics beyond the nation-state.

Kushiaania for Noema Magazine

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, where he is also a Faculty Fellow of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. Among his publications are “Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference” (Princeton, 2008; 2000) and “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” (Chicago, 2021).

He recently spoke with Claire Isabel Webb, a 2021-22 Berggruen Institute fellow, and Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and deputy editor of Noema Magazine.

Claire Webb: In your book “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age,” you argue that “the global” is a human-centric construction and that, by contrast, “the planetary decenters the human.” At the Berggruen Institute, we’ve proposed that the advent of the planetary represents “the third great decentering,” following the Copernican decentering of humans within the solar system in the 16th century and the Darwinian decentering of humans in the natural history of the planet in the 19th century. Why is decentering the human important?

Dipesh Chakrabarty: The distinction between “the global” and “the planetary” is important because we must understand the category “planet” not only as an entity without which we wouldn’t exist, but also as an entity with a much longer history than human history. It is a history to which humans belong, but it is not their history. This is something we moderns all too easily forget.

Human forgetting of the nature of this planet has been ratcheted up through economic development. For example, the tendency for humans to live in huge cities. Fundamental to city living is that humans tend to take the supply of food, water and energy for granted.

When I think of peasant societies and the India I grew up in [during the 1950s and ‘60s], there was still a closeness to knowing nature, because people were coming into the cities from the countryside, and the cities themselves were expanding into rural areas. Many of the domestic workers, for instance, were actually peasants-in-residence in urban middle-class households. In my childhood, they would share their experience of the village.

Before I learned from books, I learned peasant sayings about seasons: auspicious times to sow or harvest according to the calendar of seasonal production. Even in the Kolkata that I grew up in, parts were rural. I used to play soccer on a ground that was still called “the paddy fields” in Bengali. It was next to a kind of swamp; sometimes the ball would fall into the swamp, and we’d have to go in to get it, and we’d come out covered in leeches. We grew up with snakes, foxes and frogs. Sometimes we were cruel to them, sometimes we got hurt by them. But we were always aware of the natural world.

Someone living in Kolkata now just doesn’t have the same kind of experience. For a child growing up in the city today, these experiences would be completely impossible.

“Whether we like it or not, humans have become a planetary force, a geophysical force.”

The more urban you get, the more the tendency to take the Earth for granted gets reinforced. That happens even more when we get all-weather food. We can’t see the relationships between seasons and food. We get mangoes here in Chicago and you get them in LA throughout the winter, whereas in India, I grew up knowing that mangoes are a summer fruit. But then we got the industrialization of food production and processing and cold storage technology. The effect is that we forget what we’ve done to the Earth. Our reactions to stories about forests getting destroyed, what mining might be doing, these become more academic relationships. The experience of people who get displaced by a dam or by a forest fire is so far from many middle-class people’s lived experiences.

This decentering of the lived experience of the Earth has practical implications. The other day, for example, I was in a discussion with my younger colleagues in the University of Chicago’s School of Molecular Engineering. They’re investing heavily in developing technologies for lithium batteries to store energy derived from solar or wind power.

But their research does not require them to have any interest in where lithium comes from. Where do you mine for lithium? What environmental problems does its mining cause? They have no interest in these questions, so long as they get the product. This kind of forgetting is built into our civilization and its technological capabilities.

Whether we like it or not, humans have become a planetary force, a geophysical force. We can cause extinction of species. We can even cause earthquakes. But, also, we can intervene in the nitrogen cycle of the world, the hydrological cycle of the world, the carbon cycle of the world. We might have to do climate engineering, that is, planetary-scale management. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a different question.

Nils Gilman: The Berggruen Institute has reoriented its geopolitics program toward “the planetary” in part because this term feels as if it is on the verge of a breakthrough beyond academic thought — in the same way that “globalization” in the 1970s and ‘80s was a recondite term used only by political scientists, before emerging in the 1990s as a popular term you might hear even on MTV. It seems that “the planetary” is moving from an abstract intellectual term to one that is finding popular vernacular purchase. Why is “the planetary” emerging now, and what kind of political work does “the planetary” do?

Chakrabarty: Whatever one thinks conceptually, or even scientifically, will eventually get translated into politics.

I often say that the 1972 Blue Marble picture represents the apex of the concept of “the global,” in its assertion that we have but one planet. But the anarchist in me is always critical of describing a system in the singular: politics is a problem of the many, not a problem of the one.

Whereas globalization is a concept that comes out of the social sciences and thus is political from its inception, the planetary is a category that comes out of Earth System Science (ESS), which is based on geological records, satellite observation, climate modeling, etc. The “Earth system” as imagined by ESS describes a dynamic planet that derives its system-like nature by drawing on natural processes in many parts of the Earth that humans don’t even inhabit: the deep ocean, the glaciers, the ozone layer, etc. In that sense, the Earth system of ESS does not index human experience. That’s why ESS scientists can talk about the Great Oxygenation Event of 2.3 billion years ago, or the age of the modern atmosphere being about 350 million years. ESS talks about entities that are much larger than human experience can grapple with.

“Nations remain mired in the temporality and politics of development.”

Another way of saying this is that politics is intrinsic to the global, whereas it is human interference with planetary processes that has forced humans to ask if global politics provide resources sufficient to deal with planetary problems. Engaging with what the planet is is now an inescapable problem. I’m not saying that ESS is the only way to conceptualize the planet, but I am saying that you can’t understand the planetary climate system without engaging with planetary sciences. At the same time, however, the same sciences tell us that the planet — the Earth system that supports life — is much, much older than humans and it did not come into being just so that humans could evolve and flourish.

Webb: Despite its view of the planet as a single integrated entity, globalization did imply a politics of the many and of multiple, differentiated temporalities. What are the political temporalities of the planetary?

Chakrabarty: The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) speaks of a singular planetary calendar. It is telling nation-states: “This is how much time you’ve got. You can only emit so much carbon if you want to stay below raising the average temperature by 1.5 degrees.” This treats the planet as one, because it assumes that the carbon emitted in America contributes to the warming just as much as a carbon molecule emitted from Russia. In other words, the IPCC’s calendar is based on the oneness of the planet. ESS is based on a oneness of the planet.

But what do nations do? Nations bargain with that singular, planetary calendar to extract differentiated timetables for their own national action. To give you an example: in 2016, there was a conference in Rwanda on air conditioners. India bargained very, very hard to be in the group of countries that could be slowest to scale down the use of air conditioners. That had to do with the fact that India’s cities are becoming hotter — indeed, dangerously hot. As India gets richer and hotter, therefore, people are buying air conditioners, including even poor families. The air conditioning companies (who are all using old, more pollutive technology) are experiencing booming business. The politics of this in India are defined by a combination of families’ desire to buy air conditioners, and maybe — I am only guessing here — the commercial interests of air conditioning companies that benefit from the sale of old and less clean technology. When developing nations like India talk about historical responsibility for climate change, what they’re actually saying is, “Look, Americans, you work faster to deal with the planetary. The planetary is your problem. Development is our problem.” India and others are saying, “You guys have polluted it, you guys have screwed it up, now you fix it. And then give us the technology to meet our developmental goals.” This is like splitting the planet, converting the one into many.

Or one could say that such thinking is a politics of giving up on the oneness of the planet that Earth System Science posits, which goes to the heart of the problem of why the planet as such doesn’t lend itself to politics.

Gilman: This analysis underscores the institutional problem we have in attempting to govern planetary challenges. On the one hand, we have institutions like the Indian national government or the American national government that have been designed and built primarily to optimize for exactly what you said: development. In the 20th century, the advent and hegemony of the nation-state’s form emerges in part out of the project of modernization and economic development, focused on building national economies that could lift people out of poverty. On the other hand, what we call the global governance architecture consisted of multilateral member state institutions that represented the interests of the individual states, but not the interests of the planet. So who speaks politically for the planet?

Chakrabarty: The planet is a political orphan. Theoretically, people have been designing global governance, but they still do so, naturally, in terms of nations. Think of the Himalayas. There are eight or nine rivers issuing from the Himalayas that service about eight or nine countries, from Pakistan to Vietnam, so the glaciers are important to these countries. But the glaciers are all nationalized. India owns India’s glaciers, Pakistan owns Pakistan’s glaciers, etc. The result is that the Himalayas have become the most militarized mountain range in the world. India and China have fought wars there. If you look at the number of tanks, the number of military bridges built, the blasting of the mountain, you can see that nation-states remain totally invested in geopolitics.

How do we move from here to a planetary-level governance? Can we move on the basis of a planetary calendar? The IPCC’s report last year and the year before was described by the UN as “code red” for climate, and they used the expression “climate emergency.” Now clearly “emergency” connotes a sense of time because it signals urgency. It’s urgency on a planetary calendar; it’s asking for some kind of synchronization of national and subnational actions. It is saying to nations, “Can you come together on this by this time? Because that’s what the planet needs.” But nations remain mired in the temporality and politics of development.

Webb: Circling back to the concept of decentering the human — in one of your essays, you write that “the planetary environmental crisis calls on us to extend ideas of politics and justice to the nonhuman.” And you dramatize the point by invoking the absurd image of a polar bear standing at a lectern at some imagined organization for multispecies government, voicing (perhaps roaring!) her concerns about melting ice flows in her native Arctic. How should we conceive of “agency” in the planetary? Agency as collective, agency as distributed, agency as a form of equality that recognizes different capacities of different agents and different kinds of forms of cognition? How do you propose that we conceive of living and nonliving entities — the planet, animals like the polar bear, microbes in our gut that can affect our mood — as having political agency, a quality that is usually ascribed only to humans?

Chakrabarty: I’ve been struggling with the question of agency. When you ask “how can we be political?” you articulate a desire in the name of a word, “the political,” which has a genealogy that goes back to human phenomenology. Human politics and human institutions are based on human phenomenology, which itself is a terribly partial take on the world.

Humans will have to think about our ethical and ecological relationship to nature and use our wisdom to prevent the collapse of biodiversity. Planetary problems cannot be defined without taking into account the role of the nonhuman.

“Planetary escape seems to me a very unpracticable solution to the problem of a planet in peril.”

With that said, my sense is that politics — the question of “what is to be done?” — is for humans alone. I recently wrote a piece (forthcoming in “Contributions to Indian Sociology”) where I talked about provincializing the political. I argued that the political is provincially, parochially human. Having read Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, I totally agree with them on their epistemological stance. But I don’t see how the holobiont (which describes the communities of living that we are) can be made into a political subject in human terms. Other living things will respond to the climate crisis; trees will move, bees will move, fish will move. But only humans, to our knowledge, will ask the question, “What should we do?”

Gilman: Folks like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos view space as the next frontier, promoting a vision that extends colonization into outer space. What lessons would you most want humans to extrapolate into outer-space sites like Mars?

Chakrabarty: Elon Musk’s is an escape strategy. But imagining that humans can survive by fleeing Earth misunderstands our embodied relationship to other Earth system processes. It fails to recognize that we’re Earthlings in a particular way. Given current technology, colonists to Mars probably will not survive. For us to survive on another planet, we will need to export not just human-created technologies but the whole microbiome system on which we rely. Planetary escape therefore seems to me a very unpracticable solution to the problem of a planet in peril. So, I come back to my position that we humans will have to remain political to solve the climate crisis on Earth, to maintain the habitability of Earth for ourselves and for future humans and nonhumans. But being political is a distinctly human vocation and it seems to be ours alone. 

Webb: When we think in terms of concepts of habitability, the governance question that you’re alluding to necessitates thinking intergenerationally and politically. That is, the planetary calls for new modes of temporal thinking. Can we reconcile deeply emotional, deeply individual decisions — how to be a climate activist, how to decide whether or not to have children — with planetary risks that supersede humans’ daily embodied experiences? How can we reconcile the longue durée of “the climate of history,” in which humans are a “geological force,” with forms of governance that shape policies for individuals, families, communities?

Chakrabarty: The statement, “I’m not going to have children in this world” has begun to circulate as something of a movement among young people in the West. I think it’s a tragic statement. I think not experiencing bringing up another human being is… well, having been a father, I would say it’s a huge loss. Parenthood is about participating in evolution, about participating in human psychology; it has its own exhilarating insights. Every morning, my wife and I speak to her 7-year-old niece in Kolkata through Zoom or Skype. We’ve been talking to her ever since she began to talk. I think that’s wonderful.

To abandon the possibility of that experience is tragic. But the tragedy has yet to assume political forms. To enter adult life by saying “I won’t have a child” is a planetary statement. Now, someone might say this with happiness for personal reasons, with absolute peace. But when a lot of young people say it, it’s a statement that combines the personal with the planetary.

We can be planetary in good ways and planetary in bad ways. But we are planetary anyway, given our technology.