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Book Review: After Nature

By (August 22, 2015) One Comment

After Nature:after nature

A Politics for the Anthropocene

by Jedediah Purdy

Harvard University Press, 2015

Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy calls his new book After Nature, “in part, a call to responsibilityabout the dawning of the “Anthropocene,” the newly-christened tail-end of the Holocene in which the activities of mankind have supplanted the forces of nature as the primary factor shaping life on Earth. “The urgency of the Anthropocene,” he writes, “begins with the realization that, after nearly ten thousand years of relatively stable climate and burgeoning human wealth, ecological systems are intensely stressed, and that their health or collapse, as well as the shape in which they will survive (if they do), is substantially down to human choices.”

Specifically, according to Purdy, human choices in “the major realms we inhabit”: ecology, economy, and, perhaps most importantly, politics:

This is an uncomfortable truth. Politics suggests instability, arbitrary power, intrusions on personal liberty and on local harmonies. It is politics that authorizes strip-mining and produces mass surveillance in the United States, takes Chinese peasants’ farmland for development, leases African communal lands to Chinese agribusiness, and sets off wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Shouldn’t we avoid rather than celebrate it, and find some other, more harmonious order – economy or ecology, say – to lean on instead?

After Nature takes the reader on a smart and eloquent tour of the history of conservation movements, the rise of the study of ecology (and its flourishing in the wake of the Vietnam War) and the gradual expansion of environmental law, but Purdy is at his most insightful and persuasive when writing about the first of his “major realms,” economy – and the subtle ways money has been shaping nature for centuries to suit its own needs:

Wealth has always meant the power to resist natural shocks and carry on with one’s life. Wealth commands vaccines and antibiotics, upland real estate safe from floods, reliable flows of food and water when drought strikes, and muscle and weaponry when the desperate and the opportunistic try to take those things for themselves. In these ways, natural catastrophe amplifies existing inequality.

“The global atmosphere is a great launderer of historical contributions to, and benefits from, inequality,” Purdy stresses, and the ultra-wealthy recently displaced by drought in California might reluctantly agree, “Everything washes out in the weather.” In the previous year, there’ve been many studies of the deeper meaning of the Anthropocene and the future of humanity, studies ranging from the impenetrable to the inconsolable. After Nature is by a wide margin the best of these books; in its passion, intelligence, and persistent thread of hope, it may very well be the Silent Spring of the 21st century.