Does the Earth Care?

January 5, 2022

Mick Smith and Jason Young

This discussion of “provisional ecology” is taken from our book Does the Earth Care? (forthcoming this spring from University of Minnesota Press). It draws from a variety of literary and philosophical sources to fundamentally challenge earthly indifference and offer an alternative to alienated despair in the face of impending ecological disaster.

To speak of Earthly providence would seem anachronistic and dubious in a world of devastating pandemics, mass extinction, and destabilizing climate change. Nevertheless, rethinking the legacy of that providential imaginary which prospered in pre- and early-modern Europe might still provide certain affordances for understanding and expressing responses to such issues. For all its faults, and there are many, this providential imaginary found, in Earth’s manifestations, signs of a world infused with care, albeit a care purportedly originating in God and directed primarily, or only, towards (certain) humans.

Tracing how this providential imaginary evolved into a succeeding (and globally dominant) ‘progressive’ imaginary, we can witness how it was transformed in ways that still allowed its adherents to consider themselves ‘elect’ or ‘favored’ while evacuating an increasingly objectivized Earth of all but the most superficial relations to care. That is to say, the imaginary of progress, including scientific progress, offered no respite from, indeed helped generate, a ‘systemic worldly indifference’ such that referring to the Earth as ‘caring’ can only appear unjustifiably anthropomorphic or indicative of an antiquated wishful thinking. This absence of Earthly solicitude should, we suggest, be considered a symptom and not just a consequence of this predominant modern mode of materio-semiotic engagement with the Earth, now exemplified in global capitalism. Here the Earth is systematically reduced to a largely inanimate resource in the service of the very projects that instigate the climatological changes now undermining this same world. In other words, the ‘successful’ globalization of the progressive imaginary is revealed by climate change to be self-abnegating; its explosive teleology is now shown to lead only to an ignominious end of this world and the extinction of so many of its diverse inhabitants. Earth, though, will persist.

The progressive imaginary addresses the Earth technologically, demanding it provide answers to the questions ‘what is it’, and ‘what can be made of it’? Such questions have become second nature to most of us, yet they clearly indicate a change of emphasis and orientation from the questions posed by the earlier European imaginary of theological providence. Here the questions were ‘how is this Earth, created by God, intended to provide for humanity’ and ‘how can we interpret the Earth’s activities in terms of God’s caring providence’. Today, the questions we need to ask are quite different again, namely, ‘how might we address the Earth if not theologically or technologically’ and ‘does the Earth care’? These questions categorically reject the idea that the Earth is merely a means to fulfill an over-arching eschatology or anthropocentric project and do not expect an answer in terms of a single definitive way of enframing the Earth. Rather these questions simply assume that the Earth is the indeterminately creative and inescapable place of our abiding, that it is the ecological context of our entire existence as human beings, and that this is no less true for innumerable other inter-dependent beings.  

The modern presumption is that the Earth is uncaringly indifferent, but how can this be so if it is partly constituted by care and, albeit imperfectly and temporarily, provides so well for beings including humans that an entire imaginary was previously grounded on the idea that this provision could only be explained by reference to a caring God? It provides no kind of resolution to simply say that since the natural world appears sometimes as harmful sometimes as caring it must, in reality, be neither. Rather, the Earth is never just harmful, caring, or indifferent. Indeed Earth is never just there, like an object waiting to be explained. Rather it is always creatively present in and as it continually manifests, as it worlds in all its complexity, a complexity of which we are now, and for a little while, an integral part. Both the idea of Gaia and the provisional ecology expressed herein require that the Earth be addressed not as something (an object) that stands over and against us (subjects) but as something that is our home and we are party to. So if we say the Earth cares we are not just making a claim that non-human nature provides and cares for humans, as we might have a vision of an external God sitting back and resting while his well-designed and well-oiled machine works away providentially. Rather, we are speaking of how care appears and disappears in the more-than-just-human world. A provisional / providential ecology is not all about ‘us’; but whether we recognize certain occurrences as manifesting care is a matter (and a semiotics) of how we address the Earth and the more-than-human Earth addresses us. It is a matter of interpretation and ontology together, not one or the other.

Care is circumstantial, relational, provisional; not something injected into a situation but an involvement of various patterns arising in the ecology of lives. There is nothing essential about care, it is not a singular kind of relation, it is a word we use in so very many different circumstances to try to express something of situations where we find overlapping patternings of provision that are not self-directed and self-concerned. Care appears as expressions and configurations of relational patternings of existence that for a while, whether intentionally or not, touch upon and serve to sustain or succor particular beings and the all too brief existence of things in the face of forces that would otherwise dissipate or damage them sooner rather than later.

With climate change, the exceptionalist ground of the progressive imaginary has begun to tremble. A different kind of Earth-quake is coming. There is a sense that we are coming to the end (whether conclusive or inconclusive) of this particularly destructive and colonizing imaginary. The very ‘success’ (let us rather say the globalized enactment and enframing) of the progressive imaginary ironically ensures it loses its purpose, its obviousness, and its sense of direction. The accelerated consequences of the technological reduction of everything to standing reserve and its commodification is precisely what now undermines the possibility of thinking of anything as either a fixed or final end. Events, everywhere, every day, open up a realization that the progressive imaginary entirely fails to offer any final purposes, any ground on which to stand, or any comforting destination. Instead, it just produces increasing quantities of consumer products with short shelf lives, rapidly passing fads and fashions, debts, profits and discarded theories, mountains of personal data to be mined and processed, etc. Capitalism and technology have in effect, produced a totalizing and failing parody of nature, where we are economically, digitally and chemically (de)composed by what we consume, where computer algorithms now decide the expendability of lives. We have to face it: “The end itself has disappeared” (Baudrillard).

What though, if anything, are we to make of events coming together and being conjoined to afford the possibility of such moments of realization. Perhaps nothing. But then again, perhaps this isn’t a question of our ‘making’ anything but rather of our trying to conserve (since preservation is never an option) something of others’ threatened existences, of our coming to care.

Is this moment of opportunity itself providential? Will it save us? Who could tell? Who cares? With theological providence we always had to find the message elsewhere, to interpret God’s intent, and we never dispelled final ends or ceased to interpret everything in terms of benefits to individual human beings or a larger human collectivity. The value of every Earthly affordance was in the intent behind it, in the presumed relationship between God and humanity. Nature, the Earth, was just the intermediary. With the ecological provision we are working to define, it is very different. There is rarely a message in terms of there being a specific intention or an intended recipient, and even where there are intentions or purposes there is still so much scope for misinterpreting them. Some messages are received by us and interpreted in one way, some by another being and interpreted quite differently. Any event might provide a plethora of materio-semiotic affordances for innumerable and incredibly diverse fellow Terrans, and the ‘messages’ are not always good! Some of these messages might take the form of an iceberg or an eagle, some the form of an argument.

Things might be experienced or interpreted as providential after the event, but non-theological providence would really just mean an acceptance that the event was a kind of inception, that it provisionally changed the patterning of the Earth in some significant way. We no longer have to think of such events as a providential opportunity sent by external forces to change our lives, or as moments of enlightenment, but they might, nonetheless, be provisional, affording openings into the evolution of provisional ecological imaginaries, generating care that would otherwise be absent. Such epochal events also allow us to recognize that even here, in the so-called Anthropocene, the Earth may have been overwritten but it has not ceased to exist and to (de)compose wor(l)ds.

Does the Earth care? At issue here is the Earth and speaking of the Earth, and what Earth means beyond signification. The Earth does not care as a whole qua a totality or unitary entity, but then we need to stop thinking of Earth in this way. Rather, as an inescapable involvement, an an-archic gathering of differently changing patterns, innumerable ways of creating and holding things together, composing, decomposing, recomposing, as that which lets something originate from itself, then care certainly is amongst Earth’s worldly provisions. When we are afforded the possibility of letting the Earth world differently, then care wells up as the spring after rain, mysterious in its source but incontrovertible. We will never be the sole or privileged vessel or end of the Earth’s care. Wanting, we sometimes find care, or care sometimes finds us wanting. Care appears, it cannot be made, shaped, completed, and certainly not manufactured, it does not have a final purpose, rather we are sometimes called, ecologically, by events beyond our control to provisionally become caring in our Earthly inclusion and our worldly exposure to others.

Mick Smith and Jason YoungMick Smith and Jason Young

Mick Smith is professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Queen’s University in Canada and author of Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural and An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity and Social Theory.

Jason Young is a PhD candidate in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University working at the intersection of (eco)phenomenology, Gaia theory and posthumanism.

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