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.

In Praise of Objectification

riaze bronzes

The Riace Bronzes, pictured above, were originally made around 450 BCE. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in the 1970s, they are a fantastic example of Greek sculptural talent that has survived in excellent condition.

If you look at them superficially they seem the pinnacle of lifelike form. Artistic realism from a time when it was rare in much of the world. But they are in fact not quite this. A closer look reveals that they are in fact aesthetic exaggerations. The proportion of the limbs is incorrect, the spinal divot is greatly accentuated, the torso too long. If they weren’t beautiful they would be grotesques-a perverse distortion of the human form. And yet it is this accentuation itself that makes them so striking, not for being horrifying, but for being captivating. They are proof of the power of objectification.

We live in a contemporary culture that seeks to deny this power and the positive role that objectification can play. Moralists across the political and social spectrum which have inherited the puritanical drives of monotheism and puritanism seek an artistic world that reflects a reality where nothing can be perfect. Being a (political) realist, I agree that the world can never be perfect and should never be idealized in thought. But being a (speculative) realist I also maintain that there is no harm doing so in the visual arts or in the abstract. So long as we maintain the the difference between ideal and real not only do I not see harm, I see a valuable lesson for rumination by the materialist.

The first and most simple point is entirely subjective, so I will dispense with it quickly. Non-objectified art can be made with less talent and often just leads to edgy pure-interpretative postmodern navel gazing. It is boring and its time is rapidly drawing to a close. Various cultures have created great works of art by not just idealizing the physical forms of people, but animals, plants, mythological creatures, you name it. The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, one of my favorite man made places I have ever been to, objectifies (if using the definition of moralist scolds of left and right) foxes for symbolism. Much of what is great and striking in classical art does something similar for more human like figures. Modern art such as Osprey which merely seeks to recreate historic clothes and armor often does much the same. Propaganda does the same in more abstract form, particularly in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century.

But more substantially and less subjectively as a second point, to the philosophical realist objectification is good in any context because objectification is true. The concern with the moralists of left, right, and center is always the fear that humanity will be reduced to an object. They wish to avoid embracing this, but I would prefer embracing it directly. Humanity is a collection of objects which in turn creates its own cohesive object as the human in turn (See Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology and Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartology in turn, mentioned a few entries ago on this blog in greater detail). Humanity is more than the sum of its parts, sure, but only because the addition of multiple objects creates new ways for assemblages to interact in physical space and thus to create new and larger objects. Your liver is an object, but in meeting with your other object-organs it creates a greater object-assemblage, which is yourself. And yourself, it reasons to assume, is itself a smaller object as part of the assemblage of humanity itself as a species, and Earth itself as an object-planet. Therefore, from a materialist standpoint, you really are an object. And all objects, depending on their use to others, become objectified by living beings in some way.

The third point is that objectification reminds us not to be suckered into anthropocentrism. As humans we constantly objectify everything around us because our relationship with the rest of the world is much more honest than the one we have within our own species. In the era of the anthropocene it is more and more important that we disavow with this artificial separation between how we perceive ourselves and the rest of the natural world. To reduce someone to an ‘object’ is not really an insult, but rather an honest admission as to how we view most people who we do not have a personal acquaintance with. This also overlaps with contemporary culture’s obsession that physical beauty matters more than everything else. If one believes that acknowledging (ever-changing) beauty ideals exist and will always exist in some form, this is viewed as morally bad. But really it is an admission of reality. The actual ideals will change, of course, but not that such ideals in some form will exist. What this means, ironically, is that the woke-burqa alliance is actually stating that they believe, deep down inside, that physical beauty is the only meaningful form of praise.

I disagree. I think a person can be objectified for their body, or for their brain, or for some useful or impressive talent (which most likely involves the manipulation of objects in turn) because it is both consistent and correct to do so. Society does not exist to have numerous atomized individuals all pretending they are all perfect wholes separate from the rest-nor does it exist to pretend that egalitarianism must mean different traits are not exceptional. It exists so that different specializations can be harnessed for a variety of communal outputs. The real objective should not be to ‘make everyone comfortable and modest’ or ‘make everyone beautiful’, which would only make everyone bland and indistinguishable even in the entirely unlikely scenario that it would succeed (not to mention create an underground and illegal beauty and horror market to fill the need being denied) but rather to increase the amount of things we are going to objectify so that more people can be objectified in more fields…and thus elevated.

The cultures that first dove into philosophy were the same ones who made works like the Riace Bronzes. This is not a coincidence. When Christian fanaticism came to power many of these so called idols were smashed. Islam did much the same. Daesh did this just a few years ago in Syria during the occupation of Palmyra.

Maybe its time to bring the idols back.


Geopolitics in a World of Interlocked Machines

mt roraima

Mt Roraima, the closest thing to a true natural border, serving as the meeting point of the borders of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela

In previous posts I have mentioned in brief my fascination with speculative realism and object oriented ontology. I was always planning on making a post drawing the connections between it and the geopolitics which are the centerpiece of my writing here, but kept putting that off. Of course, now that I have read Levi Bryant’s (blog here) excellent book on ‘Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media’ I am now jump-started into finally getting around to this task. This post will also partially count as a book review for said work.

Also, as an aside, damn University of Edinburgh, you folks publish a lot in both speculative realism *and* China-Central Asia studies. I can’t believe I never realized this connection until after I moved out of the city. All my fields represented in my favorite place I ever lived. Missed opportunities and all that.

I got my start in grand historical narratives with Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, and I feel that its influence and verifiability in my experience kept me always on the side of anti-idealism and pro-realist interpretations-one of the few views I have never changed in my adult life. The anthropocentrism of so much of philosophy is both silly and divorced from the big picture and largely seemed to make most of philosophy-especially since the postmodern turn-utterly divorced from anything interesting or practical. It was only with my discovery of John Gray and then speculative realism as a whole that I finally found like minded people who wanted to insert some materialist and/or pseudo Taoism into these trends and thus rescue philosophy from its own self-imposed irrelevance.

From what can be inferred by the writings of many of these new wave of thinkers, the breaking point is the anthropocene itself. Human-caused environmental destruction ironically shows both how unintentionally powerful we are as a species as well as how utterly enslaved we are by the forces of nature even as we effect them. Climate change and the like are very real material things that cannot be ‘socially constructed’ away. This really forces the issue: western philosophy must get its head out of its own ass. The world is real no matter what you want to think about it. And postmodernism, Kantian idealism, and all the rest have done nothing but effectively make the same case for philosophy that climate change denialists and young Earth creationists do for the hard sciences. By relaying everything through human interpretation (correlationism), we elevated ourselves to the status of godlings in ideal but deluded street preachers in the real. Here is the world, we are part of it and it is part of us. We are not special or have some separate destiny through our unique access to consciousness. We are where we come from and what we are made of. In turn we effect the rest not because we are apart of the world but because we are very much an integrated (if increasingly overly powerful) part of the process.

Thinkers like Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Steven Shaviro, and others have done much work on bringing the usefulness in realism back to metaphysics and I encourage you to check out their work. But I must say, none of them quite have pieced together all the elements I wanted to see in one place like Levi Bryant has. More importantly, he does so in a way that makes it easier to do what I wanted to do–connect these forms of philosophy to geopolitics and history.

To put it extremely succinctly but perhaps unjustly as a summary: Onto-Cartography is Bryant’s mode of viewing the reality of objects (both physical and functional, so from plants to states or companies) as machines made of component parts, which in turn are machines made of component parts. All machines can be modified, made irrelevant, or increased in power by the addition or subtraction of various sub-components. These are all real de facto objects in space, whose interactions with each other and space itself as a medium are the sum total of reality. There may also be hidden objects-which is to say things that exist but that we do not and might never know of due to our lack of ability to interact with them-or objects that me might infer the existence of but still cannot detect outside of the inference on objects we can see (such as dark matter and dark energy, or the ideology of an umfamiliar society which you cannot yet communicate with linguistically). The one connector between all of these machine-objects, whether seen or unseen or man made or organic, is nature itself. The only holism here is that all things are natural.

This is not to say that all things are monistic and equally intertwined (what I would call the hippie-spiritualist platitude of ‘we are all, like, one mannnnn’). Some machines only interact with some things and may be invisible to others. The internet interacts with me and you if you are reading this, but not a wild boar rummaging around in the bush. Nor are such bilateral relations equal. The machine-activity of plant life, evolving constantly and striving to extract energy from the sun is utterly dependent on the sun-but the sun is hardly dependent on those plants and would exist unchanged without them. So too does it follow that bi-laterals can be proportionally unequal when they do exist as a back-and-forth, with the Earth influencing the sun, but nowhere near as the sun influences the Earth. Our solar system in turn, while obviously influenced by the context of evolving in the Milky Way galaxy, would continue to exist if it was ejected from said galaxy until the death of the sun, and the Milky Way itself would be unaffected by its absence. Most relationships in physical space exist to some degree, as everything observable interacts with energy and gravity, but this is dead end. Functionally speaking, the relationship between machine-object assemblages that matter are context dependent and have to be broken down to strategic linkages of power and cause and effect. So too, with grand theories of the humanities, where being pro or anti-capitalist becomes an almost meaningless position from the perspective of actively seeking to create change through politics when instead one must use a targeted approach to attack or support policies through their interlinkages with direct results, geographic context, and the interplay of physical factors that social science theory may not account for. This brings us strongly into the need to re-engage with geography-long one of my main causes.

When you consider that agriculture first arose in parts of the world that had the easiest plants to domesticate, and animal husbandry arose where the easiest and most useful animals to domesticate still lived or evolved, it becomes a legitimate question: Who domesticated who? Are we not now as beholden to our wheat crops and herds as their spread and cultivation is beholden to us? Are we not one giant interlocked process of physical objects as machine processes whose relationships can change or be re-evaluated by the constant evolution, revolution, and modification of these relationships through nature-often unintentionally? I would lean in the direction of a strong yes. The factors cited above which are also those which most directly the anthropology and history at the center of the humanities are directly tied to this geographic understanding. Against this background there is also the understanding that Bryant, much like Ibn Khaldun, constantly reminds us of: entropy. Machines break down with time. Geography itself, long treated by pop-geostrategists as eternal, is in fact temporal-if not as much as human societies themselves (Bryant 120, 174). To function in such a world machines need to either repair themselves or be re-invented, so is the overlap of seeing states (or tribes or gangs or whatever) as machines interlocked with the fate of their physical and contextual environment. To quote Bryant directly from page 191: ‘The social is not a specific sort of stuff, but is another word for the ‘ecological’. A social assemblage is an ecology.’ So zoologists have treated the interactions of their various species but anthropologists often have difficulty meeting this standards when looking at people.

So too does Bryant’s concept of hidden objects matter for international relations. Something that effects nothing until it does is a surprise, and often disproportionately makes history precisely because no one was prepared for it. Daesh, or ISIS, was something that lurked from the De-Bathification and marginalization of Sunnis in occupation Iraq but did not come to have proper international sway as a new and utterly bizarre entity until the circumstances of conflict in the Post Arab-Spring world enabled it to move from an ideology of rejected and angry sunnis to one which held a territorial base and influenced a web of international alliances. It was an object that barely mattered, dark to most of the world, until it achieved the mass necessary to exert a much larger gravitational force on other actors, so to speak. One could also see this process on a much larger scale in the meteoric rise of previously nonexistent powers in a short period of time, From Macedon under Philip II and then Alexander to Mongolia under Chinggis Khaan. As Ibn Khaldun was fond of postulating, the next new vigorous dynastic founders are often the most marginalized and sometimes even irrelevant people in a given order. See also the French and Russian revolutions where ideas of disaffection merely simmered until the situation made it that they could co-opt entire societies once they had momentum and a territorial base. The territorial base is key, as it means direct resource acquisition and interaction, something discussions in a salon never could achieve on their own. Tellingly, those that think salon discussion alone can bring about change (these days, mainstream liberals and conservatives) are those who already identity with the ruling class and therefore whose priorities are already de facto supported by the arms, power, and consensus of the pre-existing state.

Geography both constrains and enables what those who rule a certain place can do. It also means, in my opinion, that even if all nations can (and should) come together on environmental points that clearly would benefit everyone that they will never be able to share other common causes. Nations dependent on rare Earth exporting are going to be different that nations dependent on tourism, just as a highly urbanized region is not going to see eye to eye with a mostly rural area and neither will agree with a wilderness frontier. As geography and culture are very interlinked in an explicitly materialist way, and Earth is replete with societies of different geographies, the political idea of a common humanity vanishes even as we acknowledge we need to downgrade humanity’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Resource security with different powers and maintaining the right diplomacy is a way of maximizing differences for mutual gain, rather than some quixotic quest for a world order of moralism. The only thing universal is the natural and material mediums through which all such interactions take place-and even those change with climate, altitude, arability, power relationships between assemblages, and the like.

Bryant offers those of us who are old school realists and geostrategy watchers to engage with contemporary philosophy and both put into place language outside of general policy-wonkery. Considering how many absolute quacks infest geopolitics this goes in a positive direction to establish a much maligned field as more legitimate philosophy in the materialist tradition. Seeing states as the entropy-affected machines that rise and fall in reaction to the various people in that interact with their physical places as well as the pressures of the natural world and those of other people is a neutral and realist way to ground the study of alliances, war, strategy, and the historical contexts which feed into the self-justifications of states and the policy traps they often make for themselves. The relationship with nature by societies are always (at least) two ways, we affect nature and it effects us, because we like our technology and our animals, are as much a part of it as the wilderness. If we can chart the territories of wolf packs relatively objectively and always keeping the environmental context in mind, there is no reason we cannot do it with the formations of people as well. And any attempt to effect change within these societies must keep this context in mind. It also, perhaps most importantly for the realist school of IR thought, gives us the means to engage in contemporary materialism when talking about the power imbalances between strong and weak states as well as how they constantly adapt and evolve to try to find better balances of power for their interests.






‘The Great Leveler’: A Review

four horsemen

‘You could listen to the endless promises of scientists, engineers, and politicians and believe we lived in a golden age that would last forever and a day, where all men were free from want. But those men and women were arrogant, and we swallowed their hubris and made it our own. {…} They didn’t talk about the working conditions in the mines and factories, or the Red Indian reservations, the people who suffered and died so that a few of us could live our lives of plenty. Most of all, though, they didn’t talk about how nothing lasts forever-not coal, not wood, not oil or peat-and how one nation turns against another when it starts to run out of the resources it needs to power the engines of progress.’

~Kailtyn R. Kiernan, ‘Goggles (c 1910).’

It is not Kiernan’s excellent short story that parodies the euphoria of much of modern steampunk fiction that brings me to you this night, though the quote above is eminently apt, but rather something of the nonfiction variety which overlaps with the sentiment of that passage. I wish to give full justice to a book I just finished, Walter Scheidel’s ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality.’ If you don’t want something elaborate I can give you the short version: This is what Piketty would have been like had he the courage of the historian who can set aside their era specific values to look at long term trends in a truly dispassionate and realistic way.

The more elaborate take of this book follows.

Scheidel is a historian of the classical world, with prior studies in the Roman Empire as well as its opposite-Eurasia counterpart the Han Dynasty in China. It was apt that with these two examples of early continent straddling superpowers that he opens a quite large and dense study of civilization’s cycles of boom and bust. Not economically speaking, but rather of class. The boom and bust cycles of the elite and the commons, as one makes relative gains at the expense of the other, only to concede to an eventual reversal. Usually, this comes in the form of technology enabling the rise of an aristocracy which is at first a patron (herding, agriculture, industry, possibly electronic information), which then rapidly outpaces its once modest accumulations and becomes parasitic on its own order, leading to either revolt or overreach which causes ‘leveling’, or some re-assertion of some economic fairness in reset, and eventually starts the process over again. The events that can cause these seismic shifts which partially undo the gradualism of the growth of the ruling class in any stable order are varied. They can be large scale warfare, state collapse, internal revolution, or pandemic. Obviously, there are many instances in history where more than one of these factors meet, sometimes one touching off another.

The conclusions he draws are stark. So far, leveling is an inevitable reaction to either the complacency, hoarding, or misrule of the rulers. It is also often a devastating process leaving mixed results. To live in such times is undesirable for most, but often necessary for a future where problems do not simply accelerate ad inifintum. He comes down on neither ‘side’, admonishing either who might be too partisan on these questions to be careful what they wish for. I would somewhat quibble with this final note of caution, however, as I feel that the present environmental calamity we find ourselves in strongly tops this balance towards one side more than the other. Despite this, I find this book to be a remarkably robust addition to non-doctrinaire materialist history, and thus utterly necessary for our time. It makes a case with historically reconstructed data from the classical era to the present day, tying in events that fit with the ‘four horsemen’ of leveling and showing success stories, failures, and everything in between in a list which includes numerous governments of the most varied geographic, cultural, and ideological persuasions-which further strengthens the case of circumstantial materialism above that of both intent and innate inheritance. Issues of class as well as epidemiology and both domestic and foreign power politics weave together to create a story of the costs and benefits of civilization itself.

Naturally, I realize this makes me sound like a broken record here, but I would have liked to have seen a shout out to my boy Ibn Khaldun. After all, he came up with the cyclic civilizational analysis working in material factors all the way back in the Fourteenth Century, including the necessity for new governments to have large amounts of group solidarity before the inevitable rot set in if they were successful bringing stability and prosperity to the land, leading to the gradual weakening of their society and the resurgence of new outsiders who resembled what the current ruling class once was. Despite not seeing one of my favorite historians mentioned in this very topic relevant piece, I must give Scheidel a massive amount of credit for not indulging in typical ideological pique when looking at modern history. He speaks of the positives and negatives of all kinds of governing orders, from early modern transition economies to capitalist and communist orders alike. In an era where economic idealism is treated as sectarian dogma, this is a great thing to see. When one’s central thesis is crisis leading to opportunity-at great risk-it makes sense to consider all the variables. Naturally, in a study of this scope, many interesting case studies are left out. The early Turkish Republic compared to the late Ottoman Empire, for instance, would have been welcome. As could the turbulent post-WW2 history of rapid economic policy change shown at multiple stages in Chilean history. But obviously, and I know this personally myself, to work in big picture requires parsing ones examples down to the bare necessities to make the point lest one drag into repetition.

An extremely important and heavily recommended book.