This Planetary Conjuncture
To call ourselves geological agents is to attribute to us a force on the same scale as that released at other times when there has been a mass extinction of species. Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History: Four Theses, 2009.
Dipesh Chakrabarty begins his essay The Climate of History: Four Theses (2009) by asking his readers to imagine ‘a future without us’, raising the prospect of human finitude as a potential (and some would say inevitable) catastrophe that appeals to a notion of human universals. The historian argues that scientific consensus regarding human induced climate change has facilitated a significant shift in our systems of knowledge. Humans who have evolved to cause significant changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, environment and ecological systems have become geological actors over recent periods of expansion and industrialisation, as put forward in the Anthropocene thesis. In doing so humans have instigated a series of ecological reactions that may potentially render the planet inhospitable for their continued advancement (and thereby suggesting the limits of capitalism). Chakrabarty lists recent droughts, cyclones, brush fires, crop failures, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, the increasing acidity of seas and damage to the food chain as some of the consequences of recent human activities and innovations. In light of such developments, Chakrabarty urges his readers to reconsider the discipline of human history, which over the course of its development occurred apart from natural history, to recognise human agency in changing the most basic physical properties of its host planet. At a public lecture delivered at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, June 2014, the influential scholar pressed for another kind of historical thinking in which nature might act as a co-author.
In her contribution to the Reaktion Books animal series, Bee (2006), Claire Preston refers to pictorial records depicting the cultivation of bees to claim that apiculture originated with the ancient Egyptians as early as 2500 BC. She continues to discuss other pre-common era records of bee cultivation and honey hunting across Europe and India, describing a significant and even symbiotic co-existence between humans and bees through the ages. Indeed bees and other pollinator species are essential to the human food chain. More than one-third of the world’s crop species, such as alfalfa, sunflower and numerous fruits and vegetables, depend on bee pollination. Furthermore, scientists estimate that animal mediated pollination is required for the reproduction of nearly 70% of the world’s flowering plants, including between 60% and 90% of wild plants.
In recent years the mass disappearance and death of worker bees from managed hives, a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has raised awareness of the roles and challenges faced by bee populations in the industrialised world. Scientists have not been able to narrow down a single cause of CCD, rather attributing the sudden death of bee populations to multiple and interactive conditions. These include the prolonged use of insecticides and in particular neonicotinoids; new parasites and pathogens such as Varroa mite and Nosema; environmental stresses including a lack of biodiversity in monocultural farming environments; and effects of climate change such as season creep. The phenomena of CCD and the lack of accurate data about global bee populations and other pollinator species may have inspired a renewed interest in urban beekeeping and community innovations such as Open Source Beehives. Bee lobby groups, such as Mellifera e.V. in Germany, that ‘interfere’ politically on behalf of bees, have been successful in having a temporary ban placed on the use of neonicotinoids in the EU, although not yet in the US where CCD has had a greater impact.
If we posit bee colony mortality against the expansion of human populations and their geological effects, does the prospect of the extinction of the former species necessarily spell catastrophe for the latter? The artist Ally Bisshop suggests that precarious bee populations are allegorical of human finitude as both species are effectively subservient to the sun. If pitched as a contest between populations of human, bee and other heliocentric species with regards to their ability to inhabit, extract resources and manipulate their environment, Chakrabarty reminds us that the eventual decline of the human species that can be glimpsed in the death of bee populations is not ‘a crisis for the inorganic planet’ and would not spell disaster for the Earth and its most prolific matter.
What are the implications of Chakrabarty’s call for another mode of history, in which nature might be a co-author, for our own practice that concerns social relations and exchange? How are such interspecies relations translated as politics and what is the potential for non-human agency in the expanded notion of culture that Chakrabarty suggests?
Bisshop, Ally, 2014. ‘The Bees Will Tell Us’ (draft copy). Also available in Bisshop, Ally and Messih, Gemma, 2014. Eventually the Sun will Consume the Earth.
Preston, Claire, 2006. Bee. Reaktion Books, London 2006.