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Modern Alienation from Nature
Creating New Ways of Being in the World

Field studies by Andrea Nightingale in western Nepal
Field studies by Andrea Nightingale in western Nepal | Photo (detail): © Andrea Nightingale

Efforts to respond to climate change are hampered by our current alienation from nature. Being affected by a changing environment, and recognising how efforts to predict and manage change are always infused with hazardous and uncertain dynamics, demands that we bring embodied, emotional, and affective ways of knowing into conversation with current climate science. To be effective, transformations in the face of climate change need to build on and mobilise these affective relations.

By Andrea J. Nightingale and Noémi Gonda

Transformation is a term often used by climate scientists to emphasize the need for fundamental change beyond adaptation, but that avoids the radical undertones of “revolution”. The concept of adaptation, however, is underpinned by a Darwinian legacy. Too much emphasis is placed on human impacts and behaviours mediated through infrastructure, institutions and individual values, without adequately accounting for how these are always mediated by power and politics. As a result, transformation has lost its radical edge, and often supports efforts to manage away climate problems through geoengineering or new governance mechanisms that in reality only reproduce the status quo.

Instead, the climate problem itself needs to be reimagined, recognising it not only as changes in atmospheric chemistry - although these are important - but also as a problem of social-political and socio-natural relations. How we are in the world, our actions, conceptions, and imaginations, shape our dynamics with nature, and it is precisely these dynamics that underpin the climate problem.

The rationale of the Enlightenment that separates reason from emotion makes it difficult to bring emotional ways of knowing change into science. As a result, uncomfortable problems, and unexpected and uncertain affects and emotions, are hidden from predictions and imaginations of the future. For us, this represents a continuing crisis of hegemonic knowledge production. Indigenous people around the world have been asserting alternatives to these dominant ways of being in the world. The environmental crisis, combined with Black Lives Matter and related movements against racism, have amplified their voices. These ways of being offer alternatives to modern alienation from nature, and give us tools to think about kinship and emotional ties with the world. We need to connect not just with our intellect, but also with our bodies and emotions to the changes happening.

The Necessity of Affective Adaption

Change itself is hazardous and uncertain. So are the long-term effects of efforts to manage and prevent change. Climate models show that change is indeed coming, but they remain woefully inadequate to predict precisely how. While we are not dismissing models, we are concerned about the skewed ways of knowing that inform current efforts. Instead, we advocate for creative, evocative and embodied understandings combined with science to inform transformation.

We coin the term, “affective adaptation” to describe climate change responses that are effective in producing just and equitable processes. New possibilities and relations emerge when the focus turns to the affects of adaptation and managing the future, not just the effects. It gives people, including scientists, a different understanding of their relation to the community and world around them. While we understand adaptation as a normative outcome, it is not a desired state, but rather relations and processes, through which change can be enabled. Emotions and affect permeate relations, through which the status quo is reinforced - by circumscribing our perception of alternatives, or whose authority we recognise -, or resisted; sometimes both at the same time. For us, it is the affective, and embracing the dynamic and unpredictable relations it implies, which creates space for dialogue and change.

The Failing of Socio-Natural Relations

Focusing on the hazardous and uncertain nature of predicting the future shows it is not just the world, but also our ways of producing knowledge that are in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic similarly prompts us to confront our current world order. It revealed the fiasco of not just preventing the spread of the virus, but also deeper, underlying failures in the socio-natural relations, through which we produce food. The pandemic demands that we reconsider the systems, which fundamentally support our daily survival, while also underscoring the need for emancipation from the knowledge politics that have both created and failed to address these systemic challenges.

The pandemic has thus made visible what we understand as the crisis of hegemonic knowledge politics: the shutting out of space for affective, decolonial, feminist and indigenous scholarships and ways of being in the world. However, this moment also constitutes an opening for radically interrogating the socio-natural processes that contribute to unequally affecting others in common struggles. Here is where the possibilities for emancipatory knowledge politics and transformative change lie.

Our belief in the importance of deliberation, dialogue and making political space for multiple ways of being emerges from our research. The countries where we work are struggling with authoritarian politics, undermining democracy while depleting natural resources at an accelerated rate. When people who witness such depletion, and who come with a multi-generational and multi-species vision of sustainability are able to voice their visions of the future, such depletion is curbed. The space for democratic debate must remain open but Western “democracies” that achieve sustainability through extractivism in poorer regions of the world should not be the blueprint. Rethinking our ways of conducting democracy and sustainability must be part of our vision for a transformative future.

Prospects of the COP26 in Glasgow

COP26 in Glasgow brings together scientists and policy makers from across the world to debate our future trajectory. At the meetings, the space for alternative voices and affective ways of knowing are literally on the sidelines. The side events are where the debates about who should be authorised to govern change, what the future ought to look like, and whose priorities are most important take centre stage. These voices need more political space within the main negotiations. Policy makers need to have more opportunities to connect with the affective, emotional and experiential ways of being that possible future scenarios imply. Decolonising the COP26 would value knowledges of indigenous peoples across the world and the environmental humanities and social sciences as equally important regarding predictions of climate change.

Current visions of sustainability imagine three pillars: the social, economic and ecological. Yet missing from such a framing are the intersections between democracy and sustainability. The need for healthy debates amongst valid ways of knowing - not alternative facts - and the visions of people, who are outside the hegemonic circuits of power, are desperately needed to achieve true sustainability in the 21st century. Our imagining of the future is one where process is as important as outcome, and new ways of being in the world reconnect us with nature and each other in such a way that poverty and over-exploitation of resources are no longer accepted as part of the status quo.