One of the overarching stories of our time is the Anthropocene, the recognition that human activity is now detectable in geology. We are apparently capable of influencing the whole planet, and a lot of soul searching has ensued. Some embrace the idea – if we’re effectively managing the earth already, then let’s just get good at it. Mark Lynas’ book The God Species is the epitome of that view. Others see it as arrogance and over-reach, or see the Anthropocene as nothing but a tragedy. Either way, our understanding of nature and our relationship to it is changing. It’s a debate that I find intriguing, and so I picked up Andreas Malm’s book The Progress of this Storm: Nature and society in a warming world.
Malm is a professor of human ecology in Sweden, and his latest book looks at the philosophy of climate change. Each chapter takes an idea from contemporary thought and critiques it for its usefulness in the face of climate disaster. These are ideas out of social theory: constructionism, hybridism, new materialism. They’re not things normal people talk about, but they filter down into the world indirectly, subtly influencing discussion. Malm takes aim at the idea that nature is a human construct and a false distinction. He also takes a dim view of the purist definitions of ‘untouched’ nature that feature books like Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. Instead, he suggests that “nature is a soil for society”, a description I rather like. Nature and society can be distinguished from each other, but society can never be separated from nature.
There are little gems of insight all through the book, but it rarely drops down into real world examples. Much of it feels like theorists arguing amongst themselves, and some of the arguments Malm attacks are downright bizarre. One chapter addresses Timothy James LeCain, who argues that we should call the current era the Carbocene, because climate change is the fault of fossil fuels, not people. It’s an idea that hardly seems worth a response to me, but LeCain’s books are issued by credible publishers and he speaks at credible conferences, so presumably it does. But I’m not sure those of us outside of academia need to pay too much attention.
In fact, Malm admits that the mainstream climate change movement “can obviously grow without theory”, and that some of the current debate is “much ado about nothing.” The trouble is that if where vested interests can find intellectual backing to avoid tackling climate change, they’ll take it. And so the climate change movement may not need theory, “but at least it should not be a drag on it.” In that sense, perhaps we can thank Malm for reading LeCain or Bruno Latour so that we don’t have to.
As someone with more of a curiosity than an active interest in the social theory of climate change, I actually enjoyed the book most in its introduction and conclusion. That’s where Malm voices his own opinions more, and he writes with a powerful moral conviction about climate justice. So while I wouldn’t recommend The Progress of this Storm to a general audience, I will look up Andreas Malm’s previous book Fossil Capital.