John Buell

Democracy and Ecology on a Dynamic Planet

Despite the persistent efforts of neoliberals and the corporate establishment, a majority of US citizens do accept the reality of human-induced global warming. Nonetheless, many of us persist in ways of living that suggest the amenability of our planet to business as usual. In Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming [Duke University Press, 2017], William Connolly suggests our conventional consumer practices are lodged not only in formal doctrines like neoliberalism but also in cruder and less conscious “pre-understandings” or sensibilities. Events and arguments may shake the formal creed. These new converts, however, are often anxious and unhappy, because lingering pre-understanding, which we might call gut feelings, can often block their taking more constructive steps.

Dangerous as this situation is today it is not irreversible. We are not slaves to our unconscious or semi-conscious drives. Their interactions do not follow some law-like pattern. As with other drive complexes, these pre-understandings are crude, in play with other crude sensibilities, often linked to other planetary forces, and partially open to group and individual intervention.

The planetary crisis and the entangled humanism espoused by Connolly suggest both an ethic and a political strategy. Critics of such a nontheistic perspective as this often maintain that without belief in a God or in some final and transcendent purpose to the universe human beings will not be ethical and a Hobbesian war of all against all will prevail. A strange argument given the loss of life occasioned by those convinced of the righteousness of their own God.

This is an ethic anchored in experience rather than the words of a transcendent God or an abstract principle of universal reason. The ethic “taps into strains of attachment and presumptive generosity … seeking to amplify and adjust them to new situations.” It seeks “to engage blockages within and between us doing so to affirm a world of multidimensional pluralism and to become attentive to the fragility of late capitalist exchanges with several non human force fields.”

What sort of politics flows from or contributes to this ethic? In earlier works Connolly has criticized arboreal pluralism, the notion that effective and just political coalitions must flow out of commonly held core principles. Problematic as this model has always been, it is especially so in an era in which most nations are composed of multiple ethnicities and increasing rights claims along many dimensions. Rapid population flows and virtually instantaneous transmission of ideas and images add to this dilemma. The quest for a unitary core amidst such rapid change has led to the assertion of fierce forms of fundamentalism and ethnic cleansing. Global warming, economic crises, and attendant forced migration will only intensify and further militarize these conflicts.

Connolly advocates multidimensional pluralism. A democratic assemblage across lines of gender, class, nations, sexual orientations, and ethnicities fashions a set of agreed upon principles and reforms. In this complex, dynamic and entangled world no one cause, injustice, or fundamental religious principle can embrace the totality. Nor must participation in such an assemblage entail one’s whole emotional energies. Activists do commit themselves to open and respectful debate of core principles as they fashion a common reform agenda.

In Connolly’s model, as these demands occur at the macro level, specific intellectuals — I would call them whistle blowers — spot problems, such as urban decay, toxic waste, noxious pollution. Using their expertise they carry this to the attention of a larger community. That larger community includes members whose receptivity to a more radical message and way of life has been seeded by work on their own sensibilities, including meditation, structured dreaming, music and art.

Role experimentation is also vital. It includes participation in cooperatives, local food movements as well as the politics of daily life in churches, workplaces, schools and universities. The cumulative effects of role experiments are important in themselves but also work on recalcitrant inner drives.

Reverberation back and forth with the community, the formal democratic coalition, and local whistle blowers intensifies concerns and focuses the anger. Such movements occur in increasing numbers of communities, in part compliments of social media and also thanks to neoliberalism’s metastasis.. Activist minorities may then engage in specific strategies to eradicate such evils, but strategies may well be different, and the multiplicity of movements allows considerable experimentation and cross- fertilization. Eventually as momentum grows collective actions across borders, including the possibility a general strike, become possible.

Connolly is not naïve about the risks or possibilities of such action. There are no guarantees in a fragile and dynamic cosmos. Nonetheless, his recognition of the role of prejudgments and the range of possible responses he suggests is an important contribution to activism and scholarship.

Efforts that reflect a back and forth between grass roots initiatives, local knowledge, and broader national politics are already under way. Most exemplary in my eyes is the Leap agenda in Canada, the work of Naomi Klein and Canadian labor, First Nations and environmental leaders. It is exemplary in the sense of urgency it conveys, in its acknowledgment of the intersections of racism, inequality, and its efforts to live as much as possible outside the extractive economy.

In present circumstances, however, one must ask: What about the possibility that it is already too late, that by talking about other possibilities of a less growth-enhanced, more egalitarian world we are sowing subtle expectations that, once dashed, will manifest in renewed passivity? Connolly feels that the multiple modes of grass roots politics, micropolitics, macro initiatives in a pluralizing world may offer new possibilities of both ways of living, strategy and goals. To give up now amounts to a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

If failure does occur, Connolly suggests it is time to move to the “next item on the agenda.” For me plan b should include an effort to relieve as much human suffering as possible, including the option of voluntary euthanasia if necessary, Spared agonizing pain, plan B might include celebration of a dynamic planetary process from which humanity itself was once a miraculous manifestation. Such a course would seem compatible with entangled humanism and its moral values. There may well be other niches in future evolutionary paths as different from us as we are from the dinosaurs. They, by the way, did not die because they were stupid. A meteor struck the planet. Evidently the cosmos was no more predisposed to them than to us.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017

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