Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World, A Book Review

Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World‘ by Jairus Victor Grove was a book I had to get the second I found out about it. It merges the disciplines of international relations, ecology, and speculative realist thought and long time readers of this blog know that that is something I myself have endeavored to do for the past few years. Naturally, it is interesting to see someone else work their way through this combination of interdisciplinary issues, especially when they come to different conclusions than myself.

Grove seeks to bring the new materialisms into IR theory specifically in the context of the present environmental crisis we find ourselves in. In doing so he argues that the very practice of geopolitics has enabled this present ecological dark age by forcing the world into a hyper modernist European-led state system he refers to as the ‘Eurocene.’ The competitive arms race and its focus on expansion or continuation through war has in effect played a major role in the climate crisis of today. He then goes through many examples of how a new framework of discussion to international affairs must be created that cuts through the assumed narratives and back to a materialism that will enable us to survive this self-inflicted misery.

I believe it would be easier to split this review into two parts-the parts I am with the author on and the parts I disagree with. First up, where me and the author agree.

I am entirely with Grove that materialism is necessary and vital in a time of terrifying natural changes and a new human-led mass extinction. And speculative realism in particular offers the best way forward to making a new school of thought in this direction. I also agree with his premise that we shape the natural world but are also products of it which are shaped in turn. Humanity is more of a process than it is a dynamic primary actor. We need to recenter how we talk about politics more in the direction of how we talk about zoology. To quote a Godspeed You! Black Emperor lyric, ‘we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine…and the machine is bleeding to death.’ But its a machine we helped build to rule even though it rules us now. We need to stop thinking like good civilized people and realize some barbarism is exactly what we need to break our own self-inflicted misery-if that is even possible anymore. And the first step of that is rejecting anthropocentrism and civilized niceties not just in ecology but in politics.

Where I disagree with the author, however, is his very concept of the ‘Eurocene.’ If the present international state system wasn’t working for states across the globe it would be dying out, but it seems to strengthening. There is no way we are getting through what I will remain calling the anthropocene without some level of a command economy for resources and research direction for technologies. Many of these resources will be scare and will be competed over. The competitive nature of the state system means something Darwinistic is occurring, which is good as we do not yet have the answer for surviving our current era and so multiple approaches must be tried and the best will serve as models for others and the worst will die out.

I also do not see anything particularly European about modernity anymore. While a new era did begin with the biological and demographic takeover of the western hemisphere and its forceable wedding to Europe-previously a minor and not particularly important subcontinental peninsula of Asia-any Eurasian actor could have potentially done the same thing. The bureaucratic state was first born in China and the agricultural state came from the Middle East, and those strike me as just as relevant to where we are now than the maritime-industrial states of post medieval Europe. Furthermore, as India and China move their way into full industrialization on their own terms and countries like Japan have long held that position dating back to the colonial era, I find little to argue for something called specifically ‘The Eurocene.’ That being said, the author is entirely correct that our currently unsustainable methods of development are a type of self-replicating virus imposed by force. But so too will any solutions have to follow that path.

It may come as no surprise that I, a person very into geopolitics (and making speculative realist geopolitics in particular) also take a more neutral tone on the field than this author. I think geopolitics are as likely to get us out of this mess as they are to dig us deeper. Aside from general environmental goals, I see little universal in how we will escape from pollution and mass extinction and more a variety of paths which depend on the varying ecologies of different countries. As it is, some countries will benefit from climate change and their interests cannot be said to be comparable with those who will suffer. A stateless world is a de facto neoliberal world in practice and the author’s fear of political homogenization is not caused by realism or geopolitics but rather prevented by those same actors. Diversity can only thrive in the absence of grand universal projects.

So our approaches are very clearly different as I see realist geopolitics as the garuntor of ideological, economic, and ecological diversity, not its foe. But Grove is an excellent writer so I enjoyed his take on it anyway.

Can a Realist be a Capitalist in the Anthropocene?

Rising_seas_Isaac_Cordel

Rising Seas by Isaac Cordell

Short Answer: No.

Long answer:

There is a common stereotype in American academia that foreign policy realists are conservatives. In a purely philosophical sense this is true. Conservatives are supposed to disavow schemes to artificially socially engineer society to create a utopia. Of course, it could also be said that by this philosophical definition American conservatism hardly applies, being a radical project tied up inextricably with religious and theoretical economic faith and little in the way of accepting reality as it truly is. That and clearly psychological projecting one’s desire for a stern father figure to lay down the rules.

One thing I found in my graduate studies abroad was that this stereotype of realist-as-conservative, which applied to me little in the past and even less now, basically did not exist. At least among other realists. If anything, a realist in the UK academia was far more likely to be significantly left of the mainstream. Conservatives, much as in the US, were the ones more likely to gravitate towards liberalism and even constructivism, as the first prioritizes the interests of the present ruling class’ mythology of individualism and the second centers culture above all else. I got along best with Marxists, who, if for different reasons, had a similar material understanding of power relationships and the brutal truths of reality. If one separates foreign and domestic policy into distinct spheres, one could certainly be both a Realist and a Marxist at once. Plenty of historical figures actually meet this criteria. If one does not, however, there are certainly issues that prevent a full convergence. Since I personally do share the historically verifiable view of human civilization as cyclic, non-universal, and non-teleological, with all gains being temporary and all ‘golden ages’ occurring at different times and places for different societies, I myself cannot be a Marxist. But I certainly can take a view critical of capitalism as well as the historical position that we should not judge Marxist governments on base with more or less of a critical eye than we judge our own…something most in the west are conditioned to do early on by a selective reading of history.

Personally, I don’t believe a universal economic system should ever exist, as different societies find themselves in different places at varying times, with attendant issues such as divergent population density, ecologies, and the like. What communism stated it could do-create a universal system-it never did nor really could ever have done. But this is what neoliberalism has done. While a few countries hold out, it is the neoliberal order which has come the closest to global domination.

While I heavily suspect that we would be living in the Anthropocene no matter what the present economic system was, the fact remains that the more powerful and entrenched the system, the harder it is to change. And it has to change. So long as it pays to pollute by cutting corners on the profit motive or to manufacture far out of proportion to what is needed, our home planet, the only one we have, will continue to become a worse place on which to live. Speaking a realist language specifically, this is both the power and the threat that we must balance against. With greens, with leftists, with the communities most effected, and with enemies of the present economic order that will not change itself so long as the chimera of eternal economic growth and profits remains its driving purpose. Fight for the Earth now no matter the odds or live under the occupation of an aristocracy out of touch with the consequences of their own actions.

A vibrant discourse of varying strategies could be proposed, some at odds with each other, and that is fine. But to begin the common threat needs to be addressed directly-there will be more mass extinctions, more loss of biodiversity, more unpredictable weather and natural calamity, more refugees, and a greater divergence between the rich and poor as a form of capitalist-neofeudalism begins to emerge under various (and often unhinged) billionaire personalities who are all that is left since they continued to defund the state and civil society. And then, when that created a less functional society, used this breakdown as an excuse to defund it even more. This is already a measurable problem as gigantic private companies as well as the upper classes disproportionately contribute to the problems of pollution and climate change. For the first time since World War II, a genuine global threat exists. And this one is not to be fought by fighting merely a few states, but rather as a fight both internal and external in almost all of them.

We, as realists of history, diplomacy, policy, and war, cannot promise a golden ideal of a bright new future. Its neither in our nature nor in the issues we deal with when we engage public policy to do so. We are not purists and can put our skills in the service of many different from ourselves for the love of strategy and the calculation of what hay can be made from a new or old balance of power. We cannot and do not pretend to predict specifics of the future outside of general trends. But this isn’t about any of that. This is about taking steps right here and right now to make the future less terrible. To understand that a systemic approach to reforming or replacing our present drive towards growth and production at all costs is necessary to prevent an enormous downgrade in the quality of life for most people and resulting conflicts and disease outbreaks that will ensue. It is therefore contingent upon political realists of all stripes to join with those who looking at systemic structural reform in economics and ecology and contribute what we can. Analyzing strategy is our forte, so why not apply it here and now on the very issues of combating a Sixth Mass Extinction and the rising seas?

There surely can be no strategic problem more worthy. And there won’t be enough court monkey positions in the scattered few palaces of Vampire Billionaire fiefdoms for the vast majority of us. And those will likely only take those whose main talent is flattery rather than critical thought.