Review: Stephen Mueckeon Critical Zones

Tree Tops to Bedrock

Over dinner, I am having a debate with my old friend Michael Stutchbury, who edits the Australian Financial Review. ‘Michael,’ I say (calmly, not yet having reached the exasperated stage), ‘I think we live on two different planets. You live on the planet of economic prosperity; I live on the planet of environmental destruction.’

But are they separate? Aren’t both processes going on at once?

Yes, one for the benefit of the other! I’m reading about Bruno Latour’s latest project which makes it clearer for me why these two planets are clashing, and why it isn’t a matter of personal lifestyle choice, where I can choose to worry about the environment while you can choose to enjoy living in a prosperous country. The crisis brought about by what he calls the ‘new climatic regime’ first has to be understood in terms of how we got to be in crisis, and then, maybe, we can think about a new kind of civilisation – if we survive. The idea of the two planets is just a device to help us think it through. Your planet, Michael, is pretty much still the planet of globalisation. It depends on confidence in modernisation and growth, the Western European success story spreading around the world which…

That’s right, Stutch interrupts, Western civilisation and enlightenment, not to be underestimated.

…is now hitting a wall, because, Latour argues, the ‘globe’ will never be big enough to host everyone living in modernist comfort, big house, two cars, etc. These little western countries always lived beyond their territorial means. They have ‘ghost acreage’ as Ken Pomeranz calls it. The country they live in is different from the country they live off. Will they be prepared to shrink their ecological footprints to make room for the postcolonial others? Give up a lot of stuff?

I question that analysis. I have that Limits to Growth book here somewhere. They predicted systemic collapse well before now. It didn’t happen. What we have seen instead is a massive reduction in inequalities, largely due to the recent Chinese prosperity.

Let’s see how that pans out. Limits to Growth didn’t take climate change into account, with its related crises, like the current pandemic, like last year’s bushfires. But Latour, with his original ‘we have never been modern’ thesis, argued that there were serious flaws with simply universalising a European version of modernisation. More recently he ramps that up: the ‘we’ is not just Europeans, now it is planetary, and for him ‘globalisation’ has become a superseded twentieth-century story, with some evidence for its demise in the Trumpist and Brexit ideological retreats from global free trade towards nostalgic nationalisms. But this is the nub of the Critical Zones book: we have never lived on the globe, the ‘blue marble’ made famous by the 1972 Apollo 17 photo from space. Where we actually live is in a very thin layer of atmosphere and biological material ‘from tree tops to bedrock’. It is highly variable, fragile and full of feedback loops.

Let me tell you a bit about some of the science chapters in Critical Zones; it’s a fascinating new field.

Sure, always happy for a lecture! I haven’t heard of this Latour guy.

Actually, it’s not just a huge 560-page book; it is more of a collective project. Like his previous collaborative exhibitions/books Iconoclash (2002), Making Things Public (2005) and Reset Modernity! (2016), it brings together artists, scientists and philosophers from all corners of the globe to engage with matters of public concern. Latour is conscious, as an historian of science, that scientific facts don’t ‘speak for themselves’, even on urgent matters like climate change. You need to engage the public, dramatise the problems in performances, in his case put on ‘thought exhibitions’. In all, he has put on four exhibitions at Karlsrühe in Germany, and this publication is the latest. It has a website, there is a ‘terrestrial university’ and there are videos and podcasts. The whole thing is evolving with the creative use of new media. It has expanded into Asia with Latour, Martin Guinard and Eva Lin curating this year’s 12th Taipei Biennial ‘You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet’.

So that’s where you pinched that from!

Afraid so, but back to the science behind the idea of critical zones, which is kind of a branch of Earth Sciences coupled with the Gaia notion of a ‘living Earth’. This project has had to drag the notion of Gaia back from the new-ageism it was mired in, to respectability among the Earth Sciences. Here, separate disciplines count less than new insights coming from a kind of scientific general practice, where scientists are like doctors with a holistic view of the organism.

I was not all that aware, myself, of the extent to which the Earth, as it is today, has been geologically transformed by the long history of life on Earth. I was vaguely aware that life had increased oxygen levels enormously, but Lenton and Dutreuil in this book, writing about the role of Gaia, tell us that oxygen is almost entirely produced by cyanobacteria, algae and plants via photosynthesis, and that without them ‘oxygen would be around 1 part in 1012 (1, 000, 000, 000, 000), rather than 1 in 5.’ And they add

…while the total amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is massive (3.7×1019 mol), it is all processed through life forms roughly once every four thousand years. So here is a nice case of life forms breathing what is in effect the excretion of other life forms. Oxygen is to organisms what the termite mound is to all the beings inside it: not an “environment,” but the byproduct of other organisms inside which they find themselves entangled.

So this is one of many arguments against human exceptionalism. Humans are inextricably part of an Earth system that has co-evolved with them, and somehow it is all maintained in a complex equilibrium.

There is no escape, as in the fantasies of your billionaire mates who, infected with the imagination of a global planet, think they can colonise Mars after they have finished making Earth uninhabitable. It is a nutty imaginary, which precisely depends on not knowing about the critical zone. The book has a piece on the failure of ‘Biosphere 2’, a closed set of domes built in Arizona in the early nineties which tried to replicate Earth’s ecosystem as an experiment for future space colonisation. Most of the insects died, the oxygen levels plummeted, and the eight suffering humans had to leave within two years. Lucky for them they could go back to Earth just by opening a door. I wonder though, how much this imaginary of escape is tied into old religious ideas of transcendence to a ‘better world’, and of how time and history came to dominate space, philosophically. Earthiness was the province of ‘dirty’ pagans, peasants and primitives, and had to be left behind by this new gleaming aristocracy of the modern. Faith in technology as a new transcendence. But they forgot that they depended on Earth, specifically the critical zone, in every fibre of their being!

Well, I did notice that some of your lefty mates are advocating ‘well-being’ as an economic category. That would be like living on thin air. You still need the powerhouse of big business driving 90 per cent of the economy.

We might be confusing ends and means. And anyway, this left/right political opposition we are maintaining is so useless for the current planetary problems, that is, the shift from the global imaginary of endless growth to critical zones falling apart in all sorts of different ways. For years Latour has been under attack from those who can’t imagine politics being about anything other than human relationships, often orthodox Marxists of his own generation of ’68, still obsessed with class struggles. Latour’s huge innovation is to theorise the inclusion, into democracy, of non-humans as active agents. That could include giving rivers river-rights, polar bears bear-rights – not human rights. It involves first understanding their ecological roles, roles that masterful humans change at their own peril. There is a great piece on ‘domesticating soil’ in this book, in case you thought soil was stable and unchanging. But Latour’s version of politics means not treating these non-human agents as mere externalities, as in, we used to think that the weather had nothing to do with politics. But now the changing weather, reacting to what we have done with carbon, is a revolutionary agent. It is arguably the most important political actor of the last few decades, in that we can’t afford not to calculate its effects: bringing down national leaders, changing voting patterns, defunding scientific expertise and the arts, everything.

Well, a carbon-pricing mechanism would be a good thing, I concede that. But humans still have to take control of the situation, so doesn’t politics have to remain a human thing? Otherwise we wouldn’t even be debating this in human language.

Yes, but we humans are too limited, too dumb, in a way, to just ‘take control’. You wouldn’t trust any one person to do that, and the appropriate collective is yet to be composed. That’s the problem. For instance, we dam a river and the ecosystem gets screwed up, so then we come to realise that the river was doing some ‘thinking’ too. In consequence, it should be part of the collective. And entangled with us, not just a bit of nature, an externality to what we think really matters. Let’s not forget that not so long ago women were considered external to the political process.

That’s why, thinking all this through requires a lot of imagination. Hence the arts are included. There is a lot in this book on the nineteenth-century German scientist Alexander von Humbolt, more of a polymath, really. Not only did he meticulously record all sorts of data around the world, but he made paintings, created notebooks and wrote stories in many different styles. In the introduction, Latour writes

Faced with the task of landing on terra incognita, we realize how little equipped we are to cope with its novelties. We don’t have the right imagination nor the psychological makeup to metabolize the flood of terrifying news pouring in every day. How to cultivate emotional resources without the arts?

The proof that we lack even the simplest visualizing tools, is that if we portray the Critical Zone by projecting it onto the Blue Planet, it becomes so thin as to be invisible! As soon as we wish to represent what it could mean for organisms to be entangled with one another, we are at a loss. So today, much as in other earth-shaking periods, we need aesthetics, defined as what renders one sensitive to the existence of other ways of life. Just as politicians are supposed to hear voices previously unheard and scientists to become attuned to phenomena so far invisible, artists are challenged to render us sensitive to the shape of things to come.

Science, politics and the arts are thus recombined in an effort to think and feel differently, a multi-pronged effort that is more realistic (than just leaving it up to science) because it matches up in some small way to the multiple complexities of the critical zones that created us, that we inhabit, that we can’t escape from…

But, Stephen, you would argue that your Indigenous friends have the answers, that they lead a better life, or something, when only three generations ago they were using stone tools. Look at how much we have progressed – OK, call it ‘the West’ – with all our technological innovations. They have lifted half the world out of poverty!

Yes, but that European industrial acceleration was fuelled by coal and then oil. One only has to look at a graph from the start of the Industrial Revolution to see how carbon emissions have created major problems. Who is going to pay for the environmental damage they have caused? Insurance companies, with their sober, rational calculations, understand this, but denialism, disinformation and right-wing populism are pushing the other way, for no good reason except short-term profits for some.

That’s just the play of the market. Look how big tech companies have surged this year, despite COVID. In a way they have saved what you call ‘the planet’.

Actually, I want to talk only about specific critical zones. But on the topic of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), I’m distressed to see the way they are swallowing up perfectly good industries like mine: tertiary education. My bosses are pretty happy for everything to go online. They can reduce staff and other ‘overheads’. But who profits, who loses out? Students, the fee-payers, who are going into more debt, certainly lose out. Today’s profits come from capitalising their futures. There’s a great piece in the volume by Timothy Mitchell, ‘Uber Eats: How Capitalism Consumes the Future’, where he shows how Goldman Sachs’ $5 million investment in Uber a decade ago is now worth over half a billion. He calls this windfall ‘the value of an encumbrance imposed on the firm’s future customers and workers’. Not bad for an enterprise that has never made any money and outsources all its assets.

 Clever business, eh? says Stutch. They saw a tech-assisted opening in the tired old taxi industry. Better service too, don’t you think?

Once they’ve achieved their monopoly, prices will go up, like Amazon’s. And monopolies are not good for the competitive market you are supposed to espouse. Anyway, we can debate these issues for ever. And I can give many examples of terrific green initiatives, like regenerative farming, that takes care of precious soils. My main point (before I start getting exasperated with your foot-dragging on these issues) is that there is a better story to guide us that you still don’t buy. You are wedded to the fiction of unlimited growth on a limited planet. That story depends on seeing nature as dead materials, mere resources – or if not dead, about to be. That is one pole of a continuum. At the other pole there used to be a munificent God to believe in. Now, people think, it is technology that will lift us out of any problems; it will lift us to other worlds. It is a colonisation story.

My story is a harder sell. Yes, it does derive in part from what I have learned from my Aboriginal friends in the Kimberley, as in the economics chapter in my new book. They insist that Country is alive. Same as what is being argued in Critical Zones: the Earth is animate, reproductive, reacting to human action, finding collaborative ways to survive. We humans are not exceptional, we are ‘holobionts’ who have been living with our friendly bacteria as long as we have been human. We can’t go on thinking that we are ‘in control’, when we learn in this book that 75 per cent of all newly emerged diseases in humans are ‘zoonotic’. That is, emerging from neglect of animals in factory farms and wildlife markets. You say economies will bounce back. But we are already experiencing wave after wave of crises like COVID. We have to forget the story that continually opposes ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’, because they are intertwined. Survival depends on a new story, with a new vocabulary.