Cartesian Dualism and Modern Binaries: Historicizing Climate Change from World-Ecology and New Materialism

Spencer Tompkins, The New School

Studying the history of climate change, social scientists often question how society damaged nature. Instead, World-Ecology and New Materialism analyze how this binary understanding of society and nature reinforces the political, economic, and ecological configuration underlying climate change. By comparing Jason’s Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015) with Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts (2002) and Carbon Democracy (2012), respectively, I show how their similar historical interventions support distinct political claims. Critiquing capitalism, World-Ecology maintains that emerging from 17th century imperialism, the Cartesian binary of nature/ society enabled the appropriation of cheap nature underpinning the development of a world capitalist system (Moore, 2015). Alternatively, New Materialism demonstrates how power arrangements constituted in the 20th century are reinforced by processes of simplification which portray unstable hybrids as stable dualisms: nature/ culture and human/ nonhuman (Mitchell, 2002; 2012). Therefore, both approaches historically interrelate nature with society demonstrating that climate change is not the result of society acting on nature, but rather a mutual constitution. However, while both confront the present climate crisis by supplanting historical binaries with relations, they attribute this outcome to different historical causes resulting in calls for distinct political interventions. While World-Ecology asserts that capitalism’s dependence on the appropriation of nature is sustained through its externalization, New Materialism affirms that technopolitics is upheld by analysis that conceals nature/ culture's interrelationality with simplistic binaries. Consequently, by critiquing capitalism, Moore’s approach effectively contests declarations to resolve climate change without altering relations of extractivism underlying its reproduction. Nevertheless, due to Moore’s inability to think beyond a capitalism dependent on cheap nature, Mitchell’s framework, is more useful for anticipating power configurations that may emerge from a sustainable world. Hence, Moore’s World-Ecology argues that capitalism can never be sustainable and Mitchell’s New Materialism reveals how a carbon neutral future may be deeply undemocratic.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 9. Climate and Ecology in World History