Saturday, December 4, 2021

Race and the Anthropocene: planetary circuits of imperial power

William E. Connollyauthor, Resounding Events: adventures of an academic from the working class (forthcoming, March, 2022); Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (2017.)

In my early work on race, I focused, along with numerous others, on ideological and social power dynamics that create degradation for Blacks and Amerindians in America. The thesis today--again in the company of others--complicates and extends such state, global and postcolonial analyses. The suggestion: you cannot dig far into global issues of race and imperialism without addressing the phenomenon recently known as the Anthropocene. As a corollary, you can’t trace the ecological course and differential consequences of the vast accumulation of carbon emission triggers generated by Euro-American states without exploring how diverse planetary amplifiers carry the most immediate and devastating consequences to regions predominately populated by people of color. Now global, and state examinations of race become entangled with the planetary; it consists of multiple nonhuman processes such as ocean currents, glacier flows, trade winds, El Ninos, volcanic eruptions, monsoon interruptions, and shifting drought zones.

One or two examples. The entire continent of Africa has released only about 4% of the world’s cumulative C02 emissions over the last 200 years. The United States alone--not a continent--has released 25%. But several zones of the African continent suffer a highly disproportionate share of the adverse consequences of these emissions, including drought, famine, wars, pressures to migrate, and so forth. Expanding and intensifying drought in north Africa and the rapid melting of mountain glaciers, particularly Mts Kilmanjaro and Kenya, are crucial instances.

Indeed, the disproportion between sources of emissions from temperate capitalist states and the distribution of effects across zones in the pacific islands, the Arctic, Africa, India and parts of Latin America are crucial.
When you explore planetary patterns that carry consequences from here to there, the picture becomes clear. Here is one example: the intensification of pacific El-Ninos during the Anthropocene curtails the strength and absorptive capacity of seasonal trade winds blowing east (the exact mechanisms are still a little hazy). During the Medieval Warming Period (900 to 1300), the result was interruption of monsoon seasons that created severe drought and famines in the Sahara, the horn of Africa, India, and parts of China. From 1897 to 1899 the same cascade of forces interrupted seasonal monsoons again, with the British Empire then neglecting the famine and strife spawned in India.

Mike Davis in Victorian Holocausts (2000) has exposed in detail the extent of the carnage. His work even stretches beyond the sociocentrism of so much of social theory of that day--and this day--to explore the planetary dynamics by which these effects were distributed. Sociocentrism--the stubborn insistence to pretend that only social factors explain social changes--is incapable of coming to terms with a key nonhuman relays in these shifts. It ignores the planetary circuits of imperial imposition. Planetary circuits are not in the first instance intentional modes of power; but as imperial powers learn about them and refuse to take corrective action they become intentional. Hence the scourges of climate denialism and casualism in imperial states.

The world is on course to repeat those earlier seasonal monsoon interruptions again, with peoples of color targeted today by the national, global and planetary entanglements much more densely populated than heretofore. The resulting civil wars, famine, and migration drives could also foster renewed fascist drives in several Euro-American states. With the latter, of course, carrying severe consequences for race, class, gender, sexual diversity, and democracy within temperate zone regimes. You might think of the processes in question as a series of cascading human and nohuman causalities, where the bumpy flows scramble the sociocentrism that still prevails in too much of social theory. A variety of theorists such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Kathryn Yussoff, Brian Fagan, Anna Tsing, and Donna Haraway are exploring these issues. At Hopkins theorists such as P.J. Brendese, Bentley Allan, Dan Deudney, Jane Bennett, Naveeda Khan and I have been involved, probably others too.
    The favorite response to the Anthropocene of those techno-neoliberals who do admit that there is an issue is to seed millions of particles in the sky to block the most damaging rays coming in. That "solution" allows offending states to retain the systems of production and consumption now in place. But it, in all likelihood, will produce a permanent white sky over regimes in the north and block monsoons over Africa and India.

Moving to Gulf nations and the United States, some authors study the little ice age, with one of its probable sources in the slowing of the ocean conveyor and its severe impact on First Peoples and the European invaders of North America. And today, it is obvious that more intense and long-lasting hurricanes assault Caribbean states brutally, as well as southern cities in the United states populated significantly by people of color. Again, they exert devastating effects upon the very populaces who leave a small carbon imprint on the earth.
    If you turn to accelerating polar glacier melts--each marked by nonhuman amplifiers of several sorts such as the reduced albedo rate of melted ice, algae growth on surface water, and the flow of water down moulins to grease glacier flows--the immediate effects are significant for native American populations in the north and pacific islanders who, once again, both make hardly any contribution to global C02 and methane accumulations.

These planetary circuits become entangled with global power dynamics. To articulate one ironic example, today, in the midst of sporadic attempts by temperate capitalist states to create more electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions, cobalt has become an extremely valuable metal for the millions of batteries needed to power electric vehicles. Much of the cobalt is concentrated in the Congo, where the United States once controlled many of the mines and China dominates them today. The expansion of cobalt mining has uprooted locals there, as the land underneath their houses gives way. And the dangers to workers grow by the month.

I am pleased to say that several former students in theory from Hopkins now make significant contributions to the study of intersections between vast carbon releases of temperate, capitalist states, the planetary dynamics that distribute them cross-regionally, the power dynamics that further concentrate racial modes of suffering, and the fascist dangers the whole dynamic poses within temperate states. All of these intellectuals have outgrown the assumptions of sociocentrism and planetary gradualism that previously hindered such work. As intellectuals, they follow the course of a problem where it takes them, even when it means exploring bumpy intersections between capitalism, race, empire, and nonhuman planetary processes. Besides those mentioned earlier I note in this regard former theory students from Hopkins sprinkled around the world such as Dorothy Kwek, Anatoli Ignatov, Adam Culver, Jishnu Guha-Majumdar, Stephanie Erev, Franziska Strack, Cara New Daggett, Jairus Grove, Chad Shomura, Lars Tonder, Derek Denman, Kellan Anfinson, and Nobutaka Otobe, with others to be heard from soon who are now completing their dissertation research.
    A group of Australian earth scientists recently published a report announcing that nine of the fifteen climate planetary tipping points have now been crossed. A tipping point, as you know, speeds up and intensifies the cascade of causalities that preceded it, breaking with classical conceptions of individuated causality. An accelerated cascade in turn, upon settling into a new equilibrium, is not typically reversed for centuries.

Today, then, you can’t proceed far in studying the bumpy dynamics of the Anthropocene without addressing the dynamics of capital, race and empire with which it is entangled; you can’t proceed far in studying global racial dynamics without addressing the asymmetrical planetary event recently known as the Anthropocene.



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