Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene

An excerpt from “Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene” by Angela P. Harris

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“In a paper published in 2011, a group of scientists led by Will Steffen presented evidence of what they called “The Great Acceleration:” a sudden intensification of the impact of human activity on the global environment. Taking the measure of diverse human phenomena, from human population and fertilizer consumption to the number of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide, the authors generated a series of charts. Each chart featured a curve sloping steeply upward, beginning around 1945. Extreme environmental change on planet Earth is nothing new. As J.R. McNeill points out in his environmental history of the twentieth-century world, “[a]steroids and volcanoes, among other astronomical and geological forces, have probably produced more radical environmental changes than we have yet witnessed in our time.” Nor is human impact on the biosphere unprecedented. As beings embedded in biological systems, humans have always affected the fortunes of plant and animal species around us (and within us, as we will see), and these impacts increased as humans began farming, building cities, and domesticating other animals. However, since the dawn of the Industrial Age the scale of human intervention in human and trans-human planetary systems has grown dramatically. McNeill explains that the transition from reliance on human and animal power to reliance on fossil fuels made possible an extraordinary growth in energy use:

We have probably deployed more energy since
1900, than in all of human history before 1900.
My very rough calculation suggests that the
world in the twentieth century used 10 times as
much energy as in the thousand years before
1900 A.D. In the 100 centuries between the dawn
of agriculture and 1900, people used only about
two-thirds as much energy as in the twentieth

Although this surge in energy use created the conditions for dramatic population growth, longer, healthier lives for humans all over the globe, liberation from “the drudgery of endless muscular toil,” and the flowering of complex human cultural products (including but not limited to cute cat videos), the surge also came at least two costs. The first has been environmental: an intensification of water, soil, and air pollution, the loss of arable land and biodiversity, and disruptions in large scale and long-term cycles of biology, chemistry and geology as carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. The most dramatic example of these disruptions, of course, is global warming. Steffen and his co-authors argued that these disruptions are so large that they should be acknowledged in our measurements of geological time. In their view, we should declare an end to the Holocene Era, which began about 10,000 years ago, and recognize the beginning of the “Anthropocene Era.”

The second cost of humanity’s turn to fossil fuel energy has been an increase in economic and political inequality. McNeill observes that “fossil fuel use has sharply increased the inequalities in wealth and power among different parts of the world.” These inequalities are typically discussed in terms of a divide between the “developed” and “developing” nations, or the “global North” versus the “global South,” where the wealthy countries of the “developed” North are contrasted with the poor countries of the “developing” South. This divide is clearly visible in terms of energy use. For example, McNeill notes that “The average American in the 1990s used 50 to 100 times as much energy as the average Bangladeshi and directed upwards of 75 energy slaves [human equivalents] while the Bangladeshi had less than one.” The differential is similarly reflected in comparative calculations of “carbon footprints,” a popular measure of greenhouse gas production. As Katrina Fischer Kuh notes, “The United States citizen’s Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint of approximately twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide dwarfs the Thumbelina-like footprint, a mere one metric ton, of the average Indian citizen.” Compounding these production inequalities, international trade relations frequently result in the transfer of hazardous waste from the global North to the global South.

The divide between the global North and the global South did not arise by accident. Rather, behind these differentials of wealth, energy use, and pollution burden stand the long-term, large-scale political projects we now refer to as “colonialism,” “imperialism,” and “chattel slavery.” The technologies associated with the Industrial Revolution and reliance on fossil fuel energy over human and animal somatic energy gave colonizing nations an edge over colonized nations, intensifying the socioeconomic inequalities between them. Far from being over and done with, the economic, environmental, and social effects of these global relations of domination continue today. What are the implications of the revolution in human energy use and its twin costs—environmental degradation and socioeconomic inequality—for legal theory? A large and sophisticated legal literature now addresses the regulatory implications of global climate change and other environmental aspects of the Anthropocene era at the local, national, and international scale, from the perspective of environmental law and policy. There is also a smaller but robust and growing body of work addressing the social implications of climate change, including scholarship that brings together environmental law and human rights law to consider the obligations of states to individuals and groups whose lives have or will be disrupted by rising seas and natural disasters. However, little has been written as yet considering the implications of the Anthropocene for critical legal theory. With a few notable exceptions, critical legal theorists have concentrated on “social justice” and environmental scholars have concentrated on “sustainability,” with few overlaps in these distinct conversations.

This Article seeks to help bridge the gap. I argue that feminist theorist Martha Fineman’s recent work on “vulnerability” provides a useful means of integrating critical legal theory and environmental scholarship. In a series of articles, Fineman argues that law needs a theory of vulnerability to supplement anti-subordination theory’s focus on equality among persons. For Fineman, the concept of vulnerability reflects the fact that we are “born, live, and die within a fragile materiality that renders all of us constantly susceptible to destructive external forces and internal disintegration.” Fineman further argues that recognizing human vulnerability requires that we relinquish, or at least significantly alter, our existing theories of the self and of the state. Building on feminist and postmodern critiques of the autonomous liberal subject, Fineman uses the concept of vulnerability to imagine a political subject that is not only embedded in human relationships, but is also materially and temporally fragile. She concludes that justice for beings who are made of flesh, who sicken, age, and die, and who depend on each other for survival requires positive obligations from the state to take care of its citizens, not just the negative obligation to refrain from intrusion on their liberty.

This Article argues that vulnerability theory provides a way to situate theories of political obligation within care for the natural world. Vulnerability has always been the reality of human life on earth, but today, as Steffens’ charts vividly illustrate, we are living in “a regime of perpetual ecological disturbance” that threatens not only human life, but also all life on the planet. The advent of the Anthropocene era requires heightened awareness of the relationship between humans and the environments in which they live, including a series of positive obligations of the state vis-à-vis both humans and what we think of as “the environment” or “nature.” Conceptualizing “ecological vulnerability” can help make this relationship visible. However, as Fineman acknowledges and I want to underscore, vulnerability cannot and should not stand alone as the starting place for legal and political theory. The language of vulnerability can be used to direct attention away from the social and political roots of injury. This Article argues for a view of ecological vulnerability that takes a commitment to the indivisibility of humans and their environments and a commitment to anti-subordination as valuable checks on one another—supplements, rather than substitutes.”

Read more here:

Angela P. Harris, Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene, 6 Wash. & Lee J. Energy, Climate & Env’t. 98 (2015),

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