5 evidence we are not alone in the universe

A novel kind of political ecology might give the Left a wide-ranging political base. However, we must first accept the existence of non-human wills. Jonathan Metzger shows why “more-than-humanism” necessitates a thorough rethinking of law, politics, and planning.

Among UFO enthusiasts, the phrase “Man is not alone in the universe” has become a catchphrase. It is frequently said in a trembling, mildly accusatory manner, probably in an effort to evoke a melancholy impression of an uncharted universe lurking somewhere out there. A world that is encroaching on us while we are still unaware, at least most of us.

There is nothing inherently wrong with UFO enthusiasts’ desire to learn more about extraterrestrial life. Although 2,000 years of western philosophy have suggested as much, it is tempting to point out that we may as well start looking about where we are and face the possibility that humanity is not alone on our “own” planet either.

The presupposition of man’s exclusivity permeates the canon of philosophical and political philosophy, from Aristotle and the Bible to Habermas and Rawls. Other life forms are reduced to objects of human conquest and sustenance or, at most, are considered as resources, capital to manage, while humanity – or some fraction thereof, such as “free citizens of Athens” or “adult males” – is seen as the only subject worth discussing.

Today, a trend of views that have been dubbed “posthumanism” or, less harshly, “more-than-humanism” are challenging this pillar of western thought. Sarah Whatmore, an Oxford University professor of environment and public policy, prefers the more empathetic word.
“More-than-humanism” explores the ramifications of the humanistic reinterpretations of adages like “behold the man” (ecce homo) and “man is the measure of all things” made during the European Enlightenment. The primary goal of Enlightenment humanism, whose words of wisdom still elicit default nods of approval from most well-meaning intellectuals on the Left, was to present a global order that could serve as a counterweight to religious blindness to human potential – a way of enlarging the “circle of warmth” of ethical responsibility.

Supporters of “more-than-humanism” contend that the cost of this increase in human solidarity was borne by non-human living species. They were treated as objects of low worth and excluded from the cozy sphere of morality and politics. The demand to “behold man” also seems to have entailed the formation of an extreme blindness toward the needs and potentials of other animals in order to support solidarity amongst souls harbored in human bodies. Traditions of thought and peoples who did not share this fundamental elevation of man above nature, who “naively” did not understand this clear hierarchy and who brought together components that, according to the cosmic order, must remain apart, were labeled as “primitive” or “barbaric”. Spinoza was excommunicated by both Catholics and Jews because of his inappropriate thinking. He is possibly the classical philosopher who came closest to an alternate perspective of the world.

Even a modern, radical political philosopher like Jacques Rancière feels unwilling to even consider the possibility of moving beyond this dogma since the idea of humans’ special status as political and ethical subjects seems to be so deeply ingrained in the western heritage of thought. In his own writing, Rancière explains how the political subject has evolved historically as a result of a transformation in which creatures who were once denigrated for creating only meaningless “sounds” are now recognized as having the capacity for meaningful speech and the right to have a “voice.” Rancière demonstrates how over time, this collection of (human) beings has expanded to include women, slaves, people with various skin tones, etc. Rancière, however, responds categorically with “No” when asked directly if, for example, animals might be included in this group. Why? because animals are unable to engage in direct discourse based on reason.

Language seems to be the envisioned conceptual dividing line between beings deserving of a place within the “circle of warmth” and those placed outside of it. The dismissal of Rancière can be seen as the most recent in a long line of increasingly desperate attempts to draw a clear line between humans and “the other” creatures. These attempts date back to Aristotle, the Bible, and even further; however, Rancière himself has shown that this line is highly porous and constantly shifting. The contrasts that different philosophers have relied upon to support humankind’s exceptional status as undisputed masters, categorically distinct from, and superior to, nature, have repeatedly fallen apart under close examination.

But what would actually happen if we gave up looking for the one philosophical tenet that would finally set humans apart from other creatures on the planet? What would happen if we gave up trying to draw a clear line between what is “human” and the rest of the world? Or, to put it even more radically: What if we put out the theory that this separation itself is one of the most significant reasons contributing to the prospect of imminent disaster that humanity currently faces? What would become of us? Would such a viewpoint imply that we are moving through the last barriers, collectively reverting to barbarism, and hammering the final nail in the coffin of civilization? Or maybe it’s the very thing that keeps it alive.

Contrary to the alarmist criticism leveled at this current of thought, more-than-humanism also entails viewing man as a relational creature whose origins, existence, and development are inextricably bound up with and dependent on an infinite web of connections to a “significant otherness” — an image that even Darwin used when he noted that “we may all be netted together.” This epiphany has begun to develop into a larger intellectual movement that Bruno Latour has dubbed the “new political ecology”. In conversation with other key figures in this field of thought, such as Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, and perhaps most importantly, Michel Serres, Latour, who is emerging as one of the most versatile and significant thinkers of our time, has started to lay out the concept of a new human attitude toward our surroundings. The method is predicated on the notion that humans are both individual and communal animals who are “always already” bound to and dependent upon larger contexts than ourselves.

These influential philosophers contend that a new political ecology must shed established ideas about a pure and peaceful “nature” pitted against a technologically-armed, destructive humanity. Instead, it should concentrate on real opportunities for creating a sustainable future that does not view humanity as either mastering or submitting to such a fictitious “natural” order. Instead of emphasizing a form of exploration, experimentation, and genesis that sees humanity neither as a manifest master of an environment that is inherently pointless nor as a destructive parasite living off an inherently harmonious natural order, they want to challenge the established “deep ecology” view of the world, which venerates an allegedly natural order to which mankind putatively must succumb. It is a viewpoint that does not depart from any notion of a “indigenous natural state,” but rather considers the world to be a dynamic process of interactions and momentarily stable states, some of which last for only a split second and others for geological eons, but never eternal or indigenous.

Thus, a demand for greater humility toward the world and all possible life forms it may contain is the source of the new political ecology. This viewpoint consistently sees humans as relays in a dynamic mélange of relations that can be more or less open, inclusive, and stable over time, but without any preordained knowledge about how these relations may develop or change. Instead of contrasting mankind with nature and the rest of the world.

Sverker Sörlin, a professor of environmental history currently affiliated with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, recently proposed this new type of political ecological perspective in the Swedish journal Fronesis1. This perspective causes humanism’s one-sided ethical and political focus on human individuals to branch out into two directions: the first direction is headed towards a wider planetary interface, and the second direction is headed inwards, towards the problema. When you consider that only 10% of the cells that make up a human body contain the human genome, and the other 90% are made up of bacteria, fungi, protists, etc., Freud’s famous adage “the ego is not master in its own house” does take on a whole new meaning. According to biologist and professor of feminist theory and technoscience Donna Haraway, this suggests that humans are “vastly outnumbered” in comparison to their “tiny companions”. The phrase “to be one is always to become with many” would be a better alternative.

However, Haraway and her coworkers seek to widen this approach to demonstrate that humans are essentially molded through connection with other species as well. Traditional psychology and sociology have investigated this reality in the sense that humans are formatively dependent on each other. For instance, Anna Tsing has noted that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” in which the human psyche for a brief period of time is a guest in, and a result of, the web of relationships between heterogeneous materials and organisms inside and outside of our bodies, forming what we chose to label “human beings”.

On a global scale, the new political ecology might resemble Michel Serres’ ideas about a natural contract. It was first released in 1990, but only recently has its true political and legal influence been seen. In many ways, Serres’ thoughts are similar to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis from the 1960s and the current wave of theories surrounding the Anthropocene notion. The existence of mankind depends on something we simultaneously hold the potential to destroy, according to Serres, so we must now learn how to master our mastering. Serres points out that we have reached a historical juncture where it is impossible to deny that planet Earth must be seen as a collective project.

The results later reached by Serres are remarkably innovative and radical while also being pretty consistent when seen in the context of how the western legal system has developed. We as humans have gradually begun to view what we refer to as “nature” not just as a legal object, but as a legal subject as well—a subject with interests deserving of respect and protection—in light of the growing insight that the planet is becoming “a de facto partner” in the overall destiny of humanity through its global response to local human actions. According to Serres, it is past due for us to completely accord the non-human world around us basic legal recognition.

The new constitution of Ecuador, which was overwhelmingly approved in a vote in 2008 and is now starting to be used in the courts, is an intriguing example of a concrete development that follows Serres’ ideas. “Nature” is given the legal right to “exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its processes in evolution,” according to this. Anyone has the legal right to represent nature in court if any of its rights are under jeopardy, according to the law.

The constitution’s omission of “nature” as a category apart from “culture” or “mankind” is particularly intriguing. Instead, it recognizes that individuals are a part of larger ecological systems and that they have the right to live “a good life,” however it is understood that this can only be achieved via sustainable engagement with the environment. Similar to this, the constitution is grounded in the notion that man and nature coexist in an unending evolving interplay rather than a static picture of nature. As a result, it appears that the goal is to foster a perception of mankind as “always already in” nature rather than to subject humankind to a purportedly harmonious, indigenous environment. Instead, the goal is to ensure a positive and sustainable relationship over time between humans and our surrounds.
Thus, it appears that the new political ecology will lead to a new kind of environmental policy, which Helga Nowotny has dubbed the politics of “the expansive present” and where the fundamental premise is not an ominous foreboding of coming catastrophe. Instead, it is a policy that expands the list of species and entities we believe we must acknowledge and consult during the current decision-making process. This is the kind of policy that Emilé Hache and Bruno Latour refer to as a moral sensitization toward other, non-human beings. It depends on it and is a result of it. It requires that we as humans, without prejudice or blinders, highlight and examine the ecological systems that we are a part of, that shape us, and that we, in our time, are dependent on. This calls for a way of living and thinking ecologically here and now, rather than just a reaction rooted in the fear of some vague climatic holocaust in the uncertain future.

This new way of thinking does not necessarily need to be established on a macro level in society; rather, it could be anchored in micro practices that allow for the emergence of new ideas and concepts. This would allow for a re-evaluation of the position that humans and other living things hold on the planet and the degree to which “we” are interdependent with and bound to “them” inextricably. We are failing to respect ourselves as humans if we do not respect, cherish, and give “them” space. Thus, it is a political viewpoint that still places us at the center of the universe, but in a world populated by countless other animals and beings to which our future as a species is closely connected. They similarly depend on us for our continued life as we do on them.

What specific political positions might be supported by such reasoning, and how can they motivate a new Leftist agenda? Among the positions necessary for the new political ecosystem, either expressly or indirectly, are:

– The necessity of expanding what is known as “the circle of warmth” for moral, political, and legal issues. This would necessitate an effort to broaden and strengthen the solidarity between many beings, both human and non-human.
– To emphasize shared needs, to avoid fostering fantasies about singular, autonomous, and rational subjects, whether they are represented as a rational person, a “culture”, a country, or a species, and to instead place an emphasis on the processes of becoming-together.
– The desire to acknowledge distinctions, but go beyond symmetry delusions, or the notion that all beings are capable of the same things. As a result, we must place a new emphasis on collective caring in systems of mutual dependence where the various heterogeneous members are nevertheless dependent on one another’s care and responsibility. We must instead accept the fact that different life forms have different needs.
– A call for group action and an assessment of the boundary between private and public concerns, without ever taking that boundary for granted. This entails using all available tools that a representative and participatory democratic system has to offer, including mobilizing the public and experts, collaboratively examining and creating political priorities that transcend conventional social classifications and divisions.

Gilles Deleuze said that a leftist perspective, in essence, requires an active way of thinking, a questioning of the given, whereas the right tends to strive to accept the given state of things, the issues and the future prospects that are “already on the table” in response to a question about how, in his opinion, a position on the left differs from one on the right. A brief glance at the political stances described above indicates that none of them historically have been important concerns or right-wing central problems. These issues—solidarity, reciprocity, acknowledgement, and democratic mobilization—are at the heart of the Left in the broadest sense.

All Swedish political parties on the Left must reevaluate their current views in virtually every aspect of politics in order to fully accept the insights of more-than-humanist thought. It would necessitate a change in perspective and in the fundamental framework for analysis, which would have an impact on educational politics and its core values, as well as consultative processes and the factors taken into account in city planning and infrastructure policy, financial policies over time, and the methods and goals of long-term investigations. This would also entail a completely different approach to environmental conservation, one that places more emphasis on fostering conditions for sustained coexistence of species than on preservation-destruction. For example, Sarah Whatmore’s work on developing flood-proofing in England and Isabelle Stengers’ so-called GeCo project are examples of interesting and inspiring experiments in this vein that have already been conducted. However, the difficulties of putting these types of experimental micro practices into practice on a large political scale still need to be overcome.

Following Ecuador’s lead would be wise on a more fundamental, legislative level since it would ensure that all political discussions and choices are formed through careful exchanges, taking into account interests other than narrowly conceived human ones. It is still unclear if the best way to do this is through a painstakingly crafted constitutional change or through some other, more innovative political option.

We must have the courage to let go of the deeply established belief that we can never “know what they want” in order to allow the Left’s political agenda to go in this direction. It need not be more difficult to gather trustworthy and legitimate testimony from strictly human collectives like “the citizens” or “the local residents” than it is to gather testimony from non-human people and organizations. Contrarily, if we are willing to look outside the boundaries of what we currently consider to be meaningful forms of communication, it might even be simpler. This suggests exerting more effort to try to understand signals and messages that go beyond spoken and written language, something that anyone who has a dog or a baby does on a regular basis. If nature could talk, what would it tell us? is a question we wouldn’t have to ask ourselves.Instead, we can realize that countless species and beings are always speaking to us; all we need to do is learn how to listen.

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