Just Futures from an Unjust Present?

Kate Sullivan, California State University Los Angeles

Over the past few months and to focus on our immediate surroundings, we have witnessed devastating wildfires in Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona. We have witnessed people living in coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, and on the islands of Puerto Rico, Saint Martin/Sint Maartin, Dominica, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, the American Virgin Islands, Cuba, all struggling to set their most basic daily needs back on track in the wake of pulverizing hurricanes, several of which were Categories 4 or 5. Once again the brunt of anthropogenic changes to planetary systems (oceans, the atmosphere, forests) has differentially affected the lives of different groups of people inhabiting the hierarchies of contemporary capitalisms and modernities.

We now regularly invoke the umbrella term ‘climate change’ (along with sea level rise, resilience, desertification, ocean acidification, and host of other subcategories) to situate our actual and anticipated experiences of these anthropogenic changes. We appeal to the notion of climate change in the face of a U.S. presidential administration that is making an unprecedented effort to erase representations of current events as being the effects of anthropogenic change (for example, ocean warming) from our federal agencies, federal databanks, federal funding practices, and federal governance practices.

George Monbiot (2017), a Guardian columnist writing in an opinion piece in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, observes that it is not just the administration, but the whole of the U.S. press that is loath to link the accumulated effects of ever expanding capitalist production to “climate breakdown” (his preferred term for climate change), an omission that he argues is highly political. Even as a number of people resist these erasures, we still have not effectively interrogated some of the fundamental ways in which our social practices, including our discursive practices, continue to reinforce the existing relations of power that have been part and parcel of our anthropogenic influence.

Around the same time that I wrote my piece in 2006, which is included in this virtual edition, several other authors were grappling with how to communicate their concerns about the ways in which collective human actions (in particular, fossil fuel uses) have taken on the characteristics of planetary-scale geological forces in altering the atmosphere and oceans. In 2011, Steffen, Grenivald, Curtzen, and McNeil authored a survey of the scientific literature that provides evidence for the epochal shift to the Anthropocene. They aim to establish an accepted starting point for the epoch and to get formal recognition for a new geological era in which human practices are treated as causative. A key shortcoming in their argument, however, arises from the way in which the category ‘human’ is rendered the equivalent of the category ‘species,’ and thus the often brutally hierarchical human relations foundational to the very causative processes—capitalist forms of production built on petroleum coupled with ceaseless absolute increases in consumption, wars, contemporary forms of governance, and historically specific notions about subjects—in which the authors hope to intervene, are also rendered only tangentially significant.

Historian and postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009, 213-220) recognizes this lacuna, while also taking seriously the strengths of deploying the category ‘species’ and its geological time frame as proposed by the work of Crutzen and his colleagues, suggesting that we rethink our own humanist theories about the relationship between humans and nature, and our insights into the histories of capitalism, industrialization, and empire in conjunction with the longer planetary history to which human history belongs, in part because of the sheer scale of anticipated impacts. Chakrabarty argues “…the consequences of that warming…make sense only if we think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as a part of the history of life on this planet…the warming of the planet…threatens the very conditions, both biological and geological, on which the survival of human life as developed in the Holocene period depends” (2009, 213).

Bruno Latour (2004, 2011) taking a different although no less urgent approach, argues we must do away with the humanist separation between nature and humans as part of a radical revamping of our socialities and governance processes, through the composition of an inclusive collective and inclusive collective processes that recognize the political as intrinsic to our emplacement in a human-nonhuman world, and where agency is not solely the prerogative of a few dominant groups of humans. If Chakrabarty and Latour situate the crux of our problematic responses to climate change in a misplaced, persistent, and potentially deadly humanist insistence on the separation of nature and humans, Amitav Ghosh (2016) poses a different question: What is it about our commonplace artistic and literary representational practices that creates barriers to changing our thinking and acting practices?

I want to focus on just one thread in Ghosh’s richly provocative book. Ghosh argues that the modern novel arises as a literary form in conjunction with the development and intensification of the very social and economic processes and practices that have shaped the Anthropocene. In conversation with both Chakrabarty and Latour, Ghosh explores the ways in which climate change is silenced as a thematic in contemporary serious fiction. He observes that the serious modern novel, as a literary form: a) focuses the reader on a series of quotidian scenes that hide the operation of the improbable in moving the story along (2016, 16-17, 23), and which as a result, create a pattern that helps to engender a bourgeois sense of predictable regularity (2016, 19-21), b) focuses the reader on the immediacy of particular places in contrast to the vastness of oceanic and atmospheric systems (2016, 58-63), and c) culminates in an overriding focus on “individual moral adventure” (2016, 76-80, 120, 126-130; a term he borrows from Updike’s 1988 review of Cities of Salt in the New Yorker). Ghosh argues that these literary devices so prevalent in the modern serious novel reflect as well as create a set of bourgeois expectations in readers that are deeply at odds with efforts to represent planetary-scale systems, to register irreversible changes in these systems as opposed to predictable regularity in these systems, and to organize collective social efforts to prepare for and to mediate the effects of “climate derangement” or “climate breakdown.” Ghosh writes that “the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge posed by the climate crisis…to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide” (2016, 128). Ghosh underscores the striking materiality of our discursive practices.

My own work concerns oceans and coastal governance systems, and I recently attended a conference where UNESCO representatives foregrounded Ocean Literacy Principles. A short film (Ocean Literacy) was used to present these principles, which are also available in a more detailed print format (Ocean Literacy: The Essential Principles of Ocean Science for Learners of All Ages, Version 2, March 2013). The joint ocean literacy project between National Marine Education Association, NOAA, SeaGrant, and several other U.S. public and nonprofit institutions, has made its way into the oceanic currents of transnational knowledge sharing. In all fairness to the UNESCO users of this document, they are working to redress some of the cross-cultural issues and concerns raised by the language and emphases in the document.

However, the principles as written evince two striking characteristics. The ocean is treated as a natural planetary system upon which humans depend. While the principles capture the planetary scale of the oceanic system and fit specific coastal and ocean locales into that planetary system, the principles also reinforce the humanist gap between humans and nature, even as they try to bridge this gap. Secondly, these principles emphasize the importance of individual actions, which were reframed as individual citizen responsibilities at the conference. The ocean literacy principles accord primacy to “…‘individual moral adventure’ in the sense of being an interior journey guided by the conscience” (Ghosh, 2016, 127), echoing Ghosh’s observation that the “the modern novel represents… a special case of a broader cultural phenomenon” (2016, 127). I am particularly struck (although not entirely surprised given the original source of the document) by the resultant silence as to the importance of collective activities, especially given that people act socially and in collectives of one sort or another most of the time, and given that individual actions, while not to be dismissed entirely, will not provide adequate coping, nor mediating mechanisms for derangements on the scale that we are currently beginning to witness, for example, in the Caribbean and on the U.S. Gulf coast. Echoing Ghosh, I think it is high time that we take into account the material implications of our representational practices as we face our planetary futures.

Both Charabarty and Ghosh confront in a head-on manner the bone-chilling implications of climate changes for an already hierarchically and inequitably organized humanity facing the potentiality that vast tracks of the planet will be made uninhabitable and no longer suitable for cultivation or harvesting, and the potentiality that very large numbers of people will be forced to migrate away from flooded coasts and away from growing tracks of desert in search of water, food and shelter. Their arguments suggest that as well as preparing for and working to mediate some of the potentially devastating biological and geophysical effects of our impacts on the planetary systems (on oceans, the atmosphere, forests), we need to seriously consider how we plan to foster and implement our notions of justice and equity in a resource-strained future, from a present that has prioritized neither environmental justice, nor environmental equity.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(2):197-222.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2011. “Politics of Nature: East and West Perspectives.” Ethics and Global Politics 4(1):1-10.

Monbiot, George. 2017. “Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?” Guardian Tuesday, 29 August 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/29/hurricane-harvey-manmade-climate-disaster-world-catastrophe, accessed October 1, 2017.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grenivald, Paul Curtzen, and John McNeill. 2011. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369:842-867.