Jedediah Purdy, a professor of law at Duke and inveterate big-thinker, writes the lead essay in a forum in this month’s Boston Review focused on themes from his new book, After Nature: A Politics of the Anthopocene. Purdy’s subject is the politics of the “Anthropocene” or “Age of Humans”—the historical epoch that has prevailed since humanity became a main influence on the climate and ecology of planet Earth. Purdy makes several related arguments. As the Anthropocene is the era of human influence on the planet, Purdy maintains that the character and the course of the Anthropocene is a political question “because the Anthropocene future is, unavoidably, a collective human project.” A new Anthropocene politics, which would attempt to steer human impact on the planet, is urgently needed in light of climate change, species extinction, and the human-led remodeling of the Earth’s surface.

Purdy insists that nature itself is “political,” in the sense that “talk about nature has always been interpretive, not simply descriptive.” Purdy calls this the “Antropocene insight,” which he thinks implies that political questions cannot be answered “by recourse to extra-political criteria.” He goes on to suggest that “neoliberalism,” the ideology of “market fundamentalists,” is founded on one such extra-political notion of nature—the idea that the economic logic of the market somehow inheres in nature itself, or is a sort of unavoidable natural law.

According to Purdy, the rhetorical function of appeals to “extra-political criteria,” such as putative laws of nature, is to short-circuit debate and bully us into accepting that there’s something mandatory about one among many possible ways of living. Neoliberal arguments, in particular, function to blind us to real possibilities for political, economic, and social life that don’t rely on the economistic property/prices/markets/incentives/externalities way of thinking about nature and natural resources. Purdy writes:

To invoke nature’s self-evident meaning for human projects is to engage in a kind of politics that tries, like certain openly religious arguments, to lift itself above politics, to deny its political character while using that denial as a form of persuasion. … Such arguments succeed by enabling their advocates to make the impossible claim that only their opponents’ positions are political, while their own reflect a profound comprehension of the world either as it is or was intended to be.

This is a very astute insight. Of neoliberalism in particular, Purdy says that

because its key mechanism is individual choice within the economic frame, it elides the political choice among possible economic architectures. Because each economic order is, in turn, a blueprint for a world that human activity will help to create, this elision of political choice means that the neoliberal Anthropocene is the death of possible worlds.

Purdy here is too quick to assume that it’s only our neoliberal blinders that keep us from developing a preference for non-neoliberal possible worlds. I’m about as much of a “market fundamentalist” as you can get (prices work, people!), but I don’t think the alternatives to a liberal market order need to be invisible to win a political argument. It’s possible to detect a deeper complaint in Purdy’s essay, which seems to bubble up between the lines. The complaint, or worry, seems to be that, even when our evaluative criteria aren’t based on a specious “extrapolitical” interpretation of nature, our vocabulary remains somehow rigged to exclude the beautiful possibility Purdy very vaguely imagines: a sort of ecologically harmonious, egalitarian deliberative democracy. His problem is that he has no way of articulating or defending his ideal system in terms that people already accept. So he needs to get us to see that the terms we do accept may be tainted or bogus, in order to open us to the terms on which his ideal might prevail.

For now, we can see Purdy’s ideal Anthropocene politics only through a glass darkly. “The alternative [to a neoliberal Anthropocene], a democratic Anthropocene, can be forecast only in fragments,” Purdy says. “To reflect on it is, in part, to reflect on its nonexistence.” “Democratic” for Purdy is high praise, though it’s not clear to me what he really means by it. Democracy, as he understands it, seems to be something rather more than a formal majoritarian collective decision procedure, which we have already. Romantic democrats—I suspect Purdy numbers among them—tend to think of democracy less as a tool for making group decisions than as a constellation of conditions that already need to be in place for our collective choices to have legitimacy. For example, such democrats sometimes say that everyone affected by a collective choice needs to have an active voice in the decision-making process, and that wealth and other goods needs to be distributed relatively equally, so that all the voices are more or less equal. For this type of democrat, robust, universal political participation and substantive equality of condition aren’t optional goals a democratic polity might or might not choose to pursue. They are, instead, necessary conditions for a polity to count as democratic at all. If you’re thinking along these lines, a “merely formal” liberal democracylike Canada or Indiaisn’t really democratic. Accordingly, “neoliberal” policies probably can’t count as legitimate democratic outcomes, because markets tend to produce a level of inequality antithetical to the more-or-less socialist preconditions for true democracy.

I’ve always thought that this way of talking about democracy is a great example of the fallacy of persuasive definition. It happily embraces the moral prestige of democracy, as it is commonly understood, but replaces the common understanding with an ideologically loaded special meaning that excludes genuine democratic possibilities by defining them away. Talk about rigging the terms of debate! Talk about the advantages of theft over honest toil! We’re then pressed to ask: Why should we aspire to democracy so construed? Now, I’m not certain that Purdy is this sort of democrat, but he certainly talks like one in this essay.

Anyway, he writes:

The emerging Anthropocene politics of nature may yield a new set of ideals. But if we embrace not just the Anthropocene condition but also the insight—if we accept that there is no boundary between nature and human action and that nature therefore cannot provide a boundary around contestation—we may have the basis of a democratic future. It will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

I find this very confusing. Purdy seems to me to blur together several ideas throughout his essay which need to be made explicit and distinct. Here are some of them:

(1) Nature’s meaning for human projects is not self-evident, but depends on human interpretation, which is always contested. Moreover, our politics tend to color our favored interpretation of nature’s meaning.

(2) In the Anthropocene, nature is profoundly affected by human activity, and therefore cannot be used as an independent standard against which to evaluate human activity.

(3)  Because nature is endogenous to human action—that is, because nature is what it is partly because of what we do, and isn’t simply an independent, external constraint on what we do—and because human action is subject to political negotiation, the nature of nature is itself subject to political negotiation.

(4) Conventional evaluative standards and vocabulary tend to reflect the dominant political and economic architecture, so it’s hard to apply those standards and that vocabulary to the prevailing architecture without begging the question in its favor.

I’d say that (1) is entirely true, and is reason enough for wariness about glib appeals to nature in political argument.

To the extent that (4) is true, it amounts to a horizon on political imagination which would seem to explain Purdy’s admitted difficulty in clearly envisioning a comprehensive mode of social, political, and economic all that different from our own. If moral and political imagination is bound up in the terms of the existing social order, no matter what, it’s misleading to blame our limited political imagination on neoliberalism, or bogus appeals to nature. It simply may not be possible to see too far past the status quo, no matter what.

There’s a kernel of truth in (2) and (3). But mostly Purdy carelessly confuses “nature” with our planet’s “environment.” It’s pretty clear by now that the condition of our environment isn’t independent of human action. The weather and the acidity of the oceans and the existence or nonexistence of species and their habitats really are affected by political and economic choices communities of human beings make. That’s why it does make sense to name this era the Anthropocene.

But this doesn’t begin to imply, as Purdy says, that “As a practical matter, ‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity.” The motivation behind Purdy’s (and Naomi Klein’s) whole project is based on the fact that the consequences of human activity are determined by laws of physics about which we don’t get to vote. The human choice to burn tons of carbon-rich fossil fuels warms up the atmosphere rather than, say, causing the appearance of candy-cane rainbows that drip lemonade, because there are mind- and politics-independent physical laws that govern cause and effect. “Nature” is one word people sometimes use for the mind-independent world and it’s inexorable regularities. The boundary between human action and the laws of physics seems pretty dang impermeable. We can’t do anything about them. And it’s impossible to do anything that violates them. The laws of nature, whatever they are, are the hardest of hard constraints. That’s as impermeable as it gets!

Sure, our theories about those laws, and about what constraints they impose, may be better or worse, nearer or further from the truth. And it’s true that we’re prone to reading our politics into nature. Purdy offers many persuasive examples of political abuses justified by bad ideas about what is or is not natural. But the problem with these ideas are that they are bad, not that they’re based on claims about nature. Our spotty track record on this score does mean that we need to be very careful when applying science, and especially social science, to politics. We’ve gotten it wrong before, and we’ll get it wrong again. But that doesn’t mean that our best scientific theories are and must be politics in drag. We actually can fly planes, split atoms, and estimate with some accuracy the frequency of the cosmic background radiation. If we could keep the lights on with carbon-free wishes, we would.

But nature, which is a huge bummer, says we can’t. So we can’t decide, democratically or otherwise, to spin the dynamos with wishes. Something has to put a boundary around political contestation. Otherwise, we can’t have genuinely good reasons to prefer some political options over others. Values can’t go it alone. Appeals to value only make sense—only count as considerations for or against anything—against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.

If Purdy’s hope for democracy, whatever he thinks it amounts to, lies in “politicizing nature’s future,” he’s going to be disappointed. The future of the atomic weight of nitrogen is haughtily independent of our schemes. But the Earth’s flora, fauna, and climate aren’t. They do depend on what human communities decide. And it’s clear that everyone—and especially poorer peoples less equipped to cope with disaster or adapt to climate change—have a stake in what is decided, and deserve to have a say in the matter. “Politicizing nature’s future” may be a democratizing force in this sense, but it seems unpromising as path to global democratic equality. Politicizing the future of the planet’s shared physical systems seems less likely to give Pacific islanders losing their shoreline an equal say in the future of the global political economy than it is to empower richer, more powerful countries to undemocratically override the democratic will of billions of people in poorer, less powerful countries who want to get rich by burning cheap coal.

All that said, Purdy’s “Anthropocene insight” is in the neighborhood of a valid point, and we can see more clearly if we focus for a moment on just human nature.

It is now well within our power to tinker with and modify the human genome, the blueprint for building a human. Should we do it? Is human genetic engineering morally permissible? How should we decide this question? It’s tricky to use “human nature” as our guide when the question is whether it’s permissible to change human nature. You can’t use the human “moral sense” as your guide if the proposal on the table is a re-engineering of the human moral sense. You can’t use human flourishing as your standard if the proposal on the table would change what it would mean for humans to flourish. Do you see the problem? If human nature can be changed by human intervention, we’re going to have to talk about what we think human nature ought to be. When asking that question, appealing to human nature, or an aspect human nature, as it currently exists, is problematic. Anyway, given the possibility of re-engineering our genome, there’s a real sense in which human nature is up to us, and subject to political oversight and choice. This is Purdy’s “Anthropocene insight” writ small, and I think sums up what’s sound in it.

But notice how little it actually implies. So, yes, it may be in our power to legally forbid tinkering with human nature, or to permit tweaks that let us live a lot longer or that alter our moral sensibilities on certain margins. (Suppose we knew how to make our children more empathetic, altruistic, and egalitarian—or less.) But it is not in any sense open to us to make it so that humans can thrive on a diet of pure lead or walk through walls or age backwards. Again, the fundamental laws of the physical world exist totally independently of our thoughts about them and constrain what is possible, including  possibilities for human society.

Back to neoliberalism. It may be true that neoliberal ideology tends to occlude our view of non-neoliberal modes of common social life that would leave humans as well off as we are now and wouldn’t threaten the stability of the physical systems that sustain life on this planet. But since Purdy knows how to see past neoliberalism, he ought to be able to say what a “democratic” Anthropocene might look like. Let’s hear about it! Well, Purdy says, it’s still pretty hard to imagine what ideal, environmentally sustainable democracy looks like. But he does point to the new food movement—small organic farms peddling their goods to local farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants—as a model of the sort of thing he has in mind.

Robert Paarlberg, in his comment on Purdy’s essay, lucidly explains why trying to produce more than a tiny bit of a large population’s food in this way would be an environmental disaster, and can’t possibly be a model for a feasible eco-minded political economy. It’s worth reading Paarlberg’s full response, which is detailed, incisive, and devastating. His main point is that huge, soulless, industrialized farms are super-efficient—”better at conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitat than are the small, diversified, local farms favored by the new food movement.” Paarlberg concludes that, for the environment’s sake, we need “to embrace more productive systems that depend less on human labor and on natural resources. This means new investments in technology, more specialization, more scale, and capturing greater efficiencies through trade.”

Sounds like … neoliberalism! Boo! But if this is how neoliberalism goes about excluding alternative “economic architectures,” it’s hard to see the problem with it. Indeed, it’s easy to see the problem with not thinking this way. Smaller, non-industrial farms require more acreage to produce the same quantity of crops as big, high-tech farms. A move to this mode of food production would mean cutting down lots of trees and destroying vast swathes of animal habitat. It’s more labor-intensive, so food would cost more, which especially hurts poor people. These aren’t figments of neoliberal market ideology, or of some politicized conception of nature. There’s no neoliberal conspiracy to bully people out of even imagining a pastoral, eco-friendly artisanal farm-to-table political economy. We all ought to believe that more carbon is often emitted, on a per-apple basis, by transporting a few bushels to farmer’s markets in pickup trucks than by transporting them in huge loads from New Zealand to American supermarkets on massive container ships and semi-trailers, because it’s true! It’s basically just math. We, as a democratic people, need to be open to math. As Paarlberg says of this sort of thing, “We need to get over the fact that this isn’t romantic.”

It is very important that we don’t let easy ideology blind us to political/ecological possibilities that we’d find compelling if only we could see them. But since there are in fact many extra-political truths, some of which we need to be in possession of, lest our politics make our environmental problems even worse, it’s at least as important that we don’t dismiss as mere ideology crucial empirical facts that happen to sit uneasily with our romantic political attachments. It may well be that markets and prices and the profit motive and whatnot have a lot going for them. A well-informed democratic public, the future of nature firmly in mind, and well aware of its many options, might even freely choose a neoliberal Anthropocene. I’d ask Purdy not to rule out the possibility in advance.