Today marks the end of our celebration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, and we end our month of short articles on his thinking with a post from Ruth Thomas-Pellicer, author of The Places of God in an Age of Re-Embodiments: What is Culture? Ruth is at the forefront of utilising continental philosophy to rethink our ‘ecocidal’ age, and her book is among four that is being offered in October for a 50% discount. Today is the last day of the promotion, so act fast if you’d like to pick up a copy of her book for only 23.99 – please click here to see more.
It is already widely accepted that Western and Westernized lifestyles pose one of the greatest menaces to the continuity of many life forms —including the human one— on the Planet. As it may be known to the reader, states throughout the world, under the UN umbrella, have responded to this major impasse by advocating the formula ‘sustainable development’ (WCED 1987, UN 2000, UN 2015). But what is ‘sustainable development’ at heart? Nietzsche’s insights help us to unravel the true nature of this banner.
One of Nietzsche’s noted contributions to knowledge lies in pointing to the fact that the unity of the history of Western metaphysics has been sustained by virtue of a univocal truth and logos. This unity has been achieved by deploying a multiplicity of signifiers including ‘progress’, ‘industrialization’, ‘development’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’. Perhaps even more notable has been Nietzsche’s disclosing of the fact that these two “unconditional authorit[ies]” (Nietzsche 1967, § 412) —truth and logos— obscure a wide range of interconnected local effects (Plotnitsky 1993, 152). Plotnitsky (ibid) specifies that the repeated insistence upon a unity that is compulsory and, to that extent, illusory elicits the rebellion of a disenfranchised plurality.
In this brief article, I will claim that the Nietzschean revolution assists us in disclosing that the phrase ‘sustainable development’ is the signifier that gives a new lease on life to the life-threatening Western metaphysical project in an age where concerns for the ill-state of the natural world can no longer be overlooked. Moreover, I will make the point that Nietzsche’s call for the development of a ‘philosophy of the future’ fuels rebelliousness within the ‘disenfranchised plurality’, of which the modern green movement is an integral part.
The Nietzschean Revolution and Sustainable Development
The juxtaposition of will to knowledge to will to power has been claimed by some to conform to the true Nietzschean revolution (Macksey and Donato 1972, xii-xiii; Plotnitsky 1993, 152; Schrift 1995; Schmidt 1996, 25–7). Nietzsche —by and large setting the tone for the post-modern condition— warns us against the naivety of value-free statements. Any claim to truth is enmeshed in the power/knowledge grid, as subsequently one of Nietzsche’s foremost disciples, Michel Foucault (1980), curtly puts it. The Nietzschean revolution operates as a true eye-opener not least in sweeping scientific and political claims to truth which, when issued, are —allegedly— set in stone.
To be more precise, the apparent neutral and benign formula ‘sustainable development’ that the UN disseminates throughout the entire Planet —thereby endowing it with universal value— stems from a highly narrow and provincial outlook with its cradle in Ancient Greece. In The Places of God in an Age of Re-Embodiments: What is Culture? (Thomas-Pellicer, 2016, 2017: Ch. 1), I have demonstrated that the project of sustainable development is conterminous with the Western metaphysical tradition largely inaugurated by Socrates. Seven points of continuity between this project and the ancient Hellenic tradition are identified in my work.
First, sustainable development is seen to fully endorse the anthropological slumber into which the Modern Age —the zenith of the Western metaphysical trajectory— plunges, thereby eschewing the ecocentrism that a dark green ethic reclaims (Curry 2011, Ch. 8). Similarly, sustainable development is found to project the analytic of finitude common to the Modern Age to the environment as the latter turns into an issue of public concern. Third, the rational management with which the application of sustainable development is imbued is pinpointed as an intrinsic element of the logocentric sciences into which Western metaphysics evolves. Points four and five relate to the leading feature of Western metaphysics —namely, the pervasiveness of binary pairs. Sustainable development replicates the Cartesian culture/nature divide by which the res cogitans —the human intellect— stands over against the res extensa —our bodies and all members of the flora, fauna and mineral kingdom. Likewise, the rubric of sustainable development is conceived as conforming to an unproblematized reversal of productivity —as an extension and complementary pole of the latter, that is. Sixth, the propensity of sustainable development to take for granted a docile nature, assumed to be utterly controllable by Promethean Man, is interpreted as an extension of classical theory or restricted economy, a leading trait of Western metaphysics. As George Bataille (2004; Derrida 1978; Habermas 1987; Plotnitsky 1993, Ch. 1; 1994, Ch. 2) claims, classical theory or restricted economy overshadows non-classical theory or general economy, the latter being the one defended in contemporary debates upon cross- and supra-disciplinarity. Seventh, sustainable development, in its attempt to render productivity clean, is severely charged with the perpetuation of the teleology of progress also ingrained in Western metaphysics. To be sure, despite the apparent drawback that industrial capitalism has meant for the non-human world, sustainable development warrants —or so it promises— a bright future for the Earth and her inhabitants.
These seven points reveal that the quest for sustainable development has a great deal to do with the survival of the Western metaphysical trajectory in the present day and very little with the protection of non-human life forms —let alone, with an ecocentric concern for the flourishing of the non-human world. This is a preoccupying situation given the grandiloquent anti-ecologism ingrained in this trajectory with its latter-day scientist facet (Curry 2017) and attendant deployment of techno-scientific tentacles (Heidegger 2000 ). Moreover, it must be pointed out that the project of sustainable development has very unfortunately co-opted part of the impetus of the modern ecological movement which had advocated root-and-branch shifts in the functioning of society (Thomas-Pellicer 2017: 24). Yet Nietzsche’s call for the development of ‘a philosophy of the future’ encourages us to re-orient this movement.
Philosophy for a Post-Ecocidal Future
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (2003, § 211; cf. also Foucault 1980 , 382–7; Deleuze 1988, 129–32; Schrift 1995: 24) invokes the philosophers of the future in an exasperated tone: “Are there at present such philosophers? Have there ever been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers some day?” Despite the rhetorical strategy adopted by the German thinker, it is worth noticing that for Nietzsche “philosophy must always be —[…] and true philosophy can only be— philosophy of the future, a philosophy for new stages of life and spirit” (Plotnitsky 1996: x).
The “future” of the philosophy of the future refers in many respects to utopia, “‘another place’, where justice prevails, the people are perfectly content, and where sadness, pain and violence are banned” (De Geus 1999, 19). In effect, Nietzsche regards the figure of the real philosopher as the one who is unremittingly unsettling the prevailing order of values. A “philosophy of the future” is thus an exercise in critique. The “future” —a place yet to become— that this philosophy proposes coincides with both the practice of protest and the utopias enacted by the critical project. Which begs the question: what is the utopia that a true ecological movement should envision and pursue?
As it has been advanced above, the phrase ‘sustainable development’ succeeds in perpetuating the life-unfriendly Western metaphysical outlook. This phrase sends out the message that the Western(ized) part of the world may carry on with its business as usual. Only minor adjustments have to be introduced to our way of life. Often these adjustments boil down to more efficient ways of production so that the carrying capacity of a heterogeneous whole teeming with life that is deadened and homogenised into a passive receptacle called ‘environment’ —the Cartesian res extensa— is not surpassed.
Against this background, the reader may easily comprehend that a philosophy of the future that is to provide some intellectual guidance to the green movement can by no means set sustainable development as its target. In no way can we settle for the sustainability of industrial and corporate capitalism —this is proving destructive at a grand scale. The actual problem besetting the Planet is the geno-cum-ecocidal dimensions of Western(ized) lifestyles that are informed by Western metaphysics and are indeed organized under an industrial and corporate capitalistic regime. We live ecocidily and are to adopt an unwaveringly revisionist attitude towards our actions. To be sure, unlike sustainable development, the ecocidal approach opens up the critical spatiality. It encourages us to gain awareness as to the extent and rate at which the extermination of myriad life forms is being forced. Moreover, this outlook promotes instructive questions related to justice such as: for what purposes and to whose advantage is the climate being forced?
Notwithstanding, the philosophy of the future which Nietzsche calls for has to invoke ‘new stages of life’. It has to courageously aim at surpassing the current ecocidal phase. The philosophy which is to rekindle the spirit of an uncompromising green movement must, in short, be geared at a post-ecocidal future. My The Places of God in an Age of Re-Embodiments: What is Culture? is a contribution to this end. Cambridge Scholars Publishing are kind enough to make accessible a contemporaneously relevant rendering of the great Nietzsche and part of his entourage —Heidegger, Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Plotnitsky.
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THOMAS-PELLICER, Ruth, ‘Dystopian Contemporary Positions: Sustainable Development as a Manifest Instance of the Epistemological Disposition’ (Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 1, 2016: pp. 309-335. Available online at https://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/513/882
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