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Jedediah Purdy’s essay in AEON may be challenging bedtime literature but it’s worth reading, and rereading, if you want a more holistic view of our current planetary predicament.
I find his conclusions to be a theoretical exploration if not a remedy to the daily frustrations that I run into. The whole idea of being able to do nothing about everything does not sit well me. I much prefer the lessons we have learned in the past that we can change behaviors and cultures, but it often takes a lot of effort and it can take decades.
The Transcendental Movement of the early 1900s took decades but eventually changed the American perspective of the human ability to change – to change one’s situation, one’s place in life. It gave us the sense that we can achieve much more than the life we were born into.
The Conservation Movement of the late 1900s taught us that we can and should preserve our natural resources including lumber, land, water, and of course our great national parks. We went from a culture solely focused on exploitation to one that started to balance other qualities of life into the equation.
The woman’s suffrage movement also took decades as did the human rights for people of color and sexual preference.
The basic idea and struggle for human rights – such as the right to democratic standing in planetary change – allows us, in fact, impels us to challenge our institutions to create a better and more sustainable world. We need to turn what appears to be an unmanageable situation into a campaign where we can all better focus our energies.
Purdy’s concept of a “democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional program, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.”
Purdy is Professor of Law at Duke University in North Carolina. His forthcoming book is After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.