Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene is notable for two reasons – it is published under a creative commons license with a publisher committed to innovation, and it is an optimistic book that attempts to prefigure a world in which life and research are undertaken more sustainably. (And it contains an actual manifesto!)
The first thing to like about this book, therefore, is its publisher, in particular its business model and its ethos. Punctum texts are freely available on the internet – readers can make a donation before accessing a title, but can also access them for free. Hard copies can also be ordered. The objective of punctum books is to challenge scholarly norms – its motto is ‘spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion’ and it describes itself as ‘dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage. We specialize in neo-traditional and non-conventional scholarly work that productively twists and/or ignores academic norms.’1 As academics become more critical about certain trends in traditional scholarly endeavor with its formalities and many constraints, there is a huge potential for new forms of more open-ended and innovative scholarship. Books published by punctum are short – novella length – making them ideal for conveying creative interventions succinctly, without getting bogged down in detail.
Which brings me to the Manifesto. The anthropocene is our geological era, the era in which humans actions have shaped the planet, primarily through our impact on the climate and on the earth’s ecosystems. The Manifesto is a short inspirational book which aims to encourage scholars to think and research experimentally in response to this situation in order to better understand human effects on the earth, and to minimize and even reverse them. It was inspired by the work of the late eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood, who wrote two significant books about the need to reconceptualise the human-nature relationship (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature 1993 and Environmental Culture 2002). The Manifesto brings together twenty-one brief essays, each around five pages long. These can be read together, but can also be experienced as short, intense, and provocative encounters with new ideas – they are all designed to make the reader think outside conventional forms, and to see new connections between human society and the physical, especially the natural, world.
The book starts with a manifesto encouraging scholars to think in a way which is (among other things), ‘curious’, ‘experimental’, ‘open’, ‘adaptive’, and ‘responsible’ (P. ii) and to tell stories which show connections and ‘reach beyond abstractions’. Research, according to the editors should ‘adopt a reparative rather than a purely critical stance towards knowing’ (P. vii.) The Manifesto directly encourages scholars who are skeptical of limited and formulaic modes of thinking and writing to experiment, innovate, and reach for new intellectual horizons. This harnesses what might be perceived as an anti-conventional energy in scholarship at present but is, more importantly, imperative to the change required for sustainable long-term living with others and with the earth.
These ideas are illustrated in the essays, which deal with a surprising range of topics. A few examples will have to suffice to give a flavor of the creative engagement of the writers with their subject matter. In ‘Conviviality as an Ethic of Care in the City,’ Ruth Fincher and Kurt Iveson write about urban spaces that enhance sociability and play, promoting ‘temporary identification with others in a shared space’ (P. 27.) In ‘Economy as Ecological Livelihood,’ JK Gibson-Graham and Ethan Miller critique mainstream notions of the economy in which it is seen as a separate sphere of human life, and instead argue for a more connected understanding of diverse economies which are more intrinsically linked to earth’s ecologies and to livelihood, not only of human beings in their separated lives but of interconnected and mutually reliant communities of living things (including humans). In ‘Flying Foxes in Sydney,’ Deborah Bird Rose explores various efforts to control and expel flying fox populations in Sydney, an effort which brings conservationists into conflict with those who experience the flying foxes as a pest. Bird’s essay reminds us that ‘in the Anthropocene there is no way out of entanglements within multi-species communities’ (P. 89) and that the ethical imperative is to find ways to co-exist rather than to insist on the purification of human spaces. Many other topics are considered, such as local food economies, graffiti, ethics, walking, and experimentation and mindfulness in research. What connects these essays is an imaginative engagement with a topic that tests or reconstructs received scholarly habits and frameworks – it is an invitation to scholars to think in new ways and make new connections.
Of course, not everybody accepts the term ‘anthropocene’, since it seems to separate humanity from the rest of the physical world and, problematically, attributes responsibility for ecosystem and climate change to our entire species. This species-level thinking elides the massive differences in power and resource consumption between human communities and perpetuates a universalist discourse in which those who have most damaged the earth can spread responsibility, even to those who have benefited the least and suffered the most from capitalist consumption. At the same time, the anthropocene is a useful term, in that it makes a powerful political point about the impact of (a subset of) human beings on the earth whose insatiable desires have exposed earth’s vulnerabilities. Planetary resilience is considerable, but not infinite.
This short book inspires us to think beyond conventional scholarship for a new way of engaging with each other and the planet. It holds the promise of paradigm change, towards styles of thinking which do not counterpose extractive human society against increasingly scarce natural resources. It asks us to think nature and culture together, and to understand that we are all ecologically connected. Although law is not specifically addressed in the book, it poses significant challenges for law, which in the West has been entirely conceptualized as an abstract product of human society. Legal scholarship can become more attentive to law’s material surrounds and more explicitly relational in orientation. This first involves understanding law as relations between human beings, a project which has been evident in legal scholarship for over two decades. Paying attention to the ecological relationships, however, also means situating law in relation to the material interconnectedness of all life systems. Law can no longer be regarded as a separate human sphere. I appreciate that these are broad statements with little explicit substance at present. Exactly how law will be understood in a fully interconnected world is a question which will be thought repeatedly in coming decades – law’s shape is yet to be worked out. Books such as this one inspire such new thinking, and while it would be easy to criticize the optimism and even utopianism of this book and others like it, the problems it is trying to address will be intractable without innovative and expansive attempts to reconceptualise humanity’s place in the world.