Are We At The Endgame Of The Age Of Humans? Saurabh Thakur's Insighful Essay Takes A Look At 'Day Zero'

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Are We At The Endgame Of The Age Of Humans? Saurabh Thakur's Insighful Essay Takes A Look At 'Day Zero'

An essay by Saurabh Thakur.

"It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism," writes Saurabh Thakur.

As summer winds breach the subcontinental borders, a strange new event is about to repeat. Day Zero - the day a city runs out of water. Growing up in India, almost everyone has dealt with resource shortages as a part of their everyday reality. The parables of sacred Nature are ubiquitous, and the virtues of conservation are extolled often, and therefore this new phenomenon is a strange harking back to the past when scarcity of resources was a mortal threat and an imperial tool of suppression . The Day Zero essentially marks a new turn in the man-nature relationship, which has been traditionally shaped by the utilitarian logic of industrial capitalism for the past many centuries.

On a more personal note, it is a moment of grief and intimate loss. It marks a separation, between those who grew up with the boserupian stories of Green Revolution, bountiful ecology and the forward march of progress and those who are left to face the prospects of the death of ecology, and dystopian visions of climate catastrophe. This generational rift lies at the heart of the politics of climate change. The beaming grin of President Trump and the consternation in the eyes of Greta Thunberg are the two sides to this story - For one the future stands cancelled, while the other contemplates its skewing options.

A still from 2001 : A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
A still from 2001 : A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

The Day Zero event has brought the apocalypse to our doorsteps and unlike the eschatological apocalypses of the past, which held a redemptive hope and a promise of ‘second coming’ or a cosmic churning, the ecological apocalypse is, “leaving behind any hope of rebirth or renewal . . . in favour of an unquenchable fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes” ( 1994: 33 ). When we look around today, the existing ecological imaginaries display very little possibility of projecting new or better futures. In his book titled Capitalist Realism , Mark Fisher argues that we are increasingly incapable of producing a new future- it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This uninhabitable earth narrative, which depicts the future as a dystopian wasteland, has been described as both a wakeup call and reckless alarmism.

The impact of human species on the geological processes of the planet has reached such profound proportions that scientists have come up with a new term to describe it- The Anthropocene . Under this proposed self-aggrandizing term, which roughly translates as the Age of Humans, they argue that since the humans are now shaping every geological process of the planet, causing the sixth mass extinction, and hold the capacity to shape the atmosphere, it is only appropriate to deem the new geological epoch after them.

The meta-narrative of Anthropocene views the earth systems as a whole, where the common threat of ecological collapse renders the historical differences obsolete and breaks down the man-nature divide that is entrenched in the modern civilizational discourse. It imagines the humanity as a monolithic whole, a species, and presents two contrasting images of survival- an eco-modernist utopia of human dominance over Nature or a dystopian nightmare as depicted in sci-fi novels and movies. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that the Anthropocene demands a more serious conversation about the recorded and deep histories-“There is widespread recognition now that we are passing through a unique phase of human history when, for the first time ever, we consciously connect events that happen on vast, geological scales—such as changes to the whole climate system of the planet—with what we might do in the everyday lives of individuals, collectivities, institutions, and nations (such as burning fossil fuels)” (Chakrabarty 2018) .

Confronting the ecological crisis under the conditions of the Anthropocene presents two vastly diverse imaginaries- On the one end, the humanity has to confront of the End of Nature and a possibility of a post-human ethic, and on the other end lies the prospects of a future dominated by man and his machines. The end of Nature debate is particularly trenchant as it conflates a host of different fields and disciplines. Alan Badiou describes the contemporary debates on the issue of environment as a ‘ contemporary form of opium ’ and ‘slightly camflouged religion’. In the name of indisputable evidence, contemporary green politics tends to de-politicize the environmental concerns, “to the point of leaving citizens nothing but gloomy asceticism, a terror of violating nature and an indifference towards the modernization of modernity” ( Beck, 2010 ). Others pose a separate concern regarding the meaning of ‘nature’ itself, which has undergone several transitions throughout history.

From the providential understanding nature of the European settlers in North America, and the Romantic visions of wilderness in the writings of Thoreau and Muir, to the extractive logic of the colonial empire, and the racist origins of environmentalism , the history of ‘nature’ is a chequered and complex mess. In the Anthropocene epoch, human and Nature are almost indistinguishable categories, which makes the question of nature inherently political. The end of Nature demands, “a profound re-consideration and re-scripting of the matter of Nature in political terms. The question is not any longer about bringing environmental issues into the domain of politics as has been the case until now but rather about how to bring the political into the environment” ( Swyngedouw 2011 ).

At the other end of the Anthropocene lies the prospects of technological utopianism as a last resort in a battle against extinction. The ecomodernist manifesto celebrates the death of environmentalism and welcomes the age of complete human dominance. This view has no room for despair instead, it rests the fate of human species on the shoulders of grand proposals of modification of the earth systems, such as carbon capture technologies , and geo-engineering . Ecomodernism finds resonance in much of the modern world as a Plan B for saving the planet. The instrumental use of technology, bereft of any specific context, at an unforeseen scale, raises serious political and ethical concerns.

The alarmism raised by climate emergency movements and the broader institutional and political inertia has managed to break the taboo on the issue of Geoengineering. These disruptive forms of technologies are shaping the planet and changing the way we interact and live in our ecosystems. As a counter to the dominant environmentalism discourse, “ecomodernists do not view access to abundant energy as inherently destructive but rather as a key to achieving broader socio-ecological objectives… ecomodernists seek to use technology reflexively to overcome environmental and geographical determinism and to achieve a more equal global distribution of opportunities” ( Symons 2018 ).

Within this meta-narrative of Anthropocene, the Day Zero event holds an incisive lesson. As cities like Cape Town, Chennai, Shimla, once again prepare to line up in long queues for basic drinking water, the irony should not escape that in many parts of the world, each day is a zero day . The Anthropocene narrative reveals a much deeper crisis of inequality and lack of accessibility, which plague much of the populations around the world. In a fantastic study of Hydraulic citizenship in Mumbai , Nikhil Anand found that Water infrastructure is a scarce public commodity, and often scarcity is employed as a political tool to manage the urban bodies. It is not actual scarcity, but, “a discursive tool to fuel anxiety about the outsider, in this case, the rural–urban migrant” ( Gohain 2019 ). Day Zero, therefore, is not merely a tale of ecological deterioration and human exploitation, but it can, and must be read as a cautionary tale about how crisis, in general, have been misunderstood and misused.

Therefore, Equity and collaborative survival must be intrinsic in the blueprint of Anthropocene futures. Citing the example of Matsutake Mushroom, a rare and expensive variety of mushroom, which was the first living species to regrow amidst the nuclear landscape of Hiroshima, Tsing points to the possibility of “collaborative survival”. Multiple species on earth negotiate across differences, and form assemblages of livability in the midst of major events like desertification, deforestration etc. What made the forest possible? Anna Tsing believes the answer is ‘Resurgence’ , a concept which encompasses the ability of multispecies assemblages, the refugia , to recover and regrow after any disturbance, human or otherwise. Anthropocene signifies the end of resurgence, and extinction of the refugia and the multispecies assemblages, which sustain life on earth amidst all the change and destruction.

The humanity now constantly lives under a falling sky, with a weak, engineered hope, and bleak prospects of the future. Unlike the tale of Matsutake Mushrooms resurfacing at the end of the world, the new language of ‘Day Zero’ and ‘climate emergency’ is ridden with private guilt and an end of possibilities. The wounds of ecological deterioration in the Anthropocene may never heal, and one of the penalties for living with this knowledge is individual despair and ecological grief. In the movie, First Reformed , a pastor deals with his loss of faith as he confronts a couple, whose lives stand on the edge of ruination.

The man, an Eco-activist, plagued by illness and insecurity about bringing a new life into a world of destruction, believes his wife should abort their child. The eschatological visions of the future are at the core of this story of ecological grief- Climate change now represents an illness, undiagnosed and unfolding in strange new dimensions. As the Pastor in the new movie, each individual today confronts a challenge of translating scientific graphs, and data about rising temperatures, into a more philosophical and intimate language. Our strained relationship with the natural world will require resilience, both material and emotional.

Saurabh Thakur is a doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His work focuses on the issues of global environmental politics, Equity, and Climate Justice.

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