Eco-Thoughts: An Interview with Jedediah Purdy

Life in a Second Nature, an Artificial World

“Ultimately, environmental politics is about nothing less than the value of life—the value of our lives and all the other lives that form a planet. It’s about what ways of spending our days get celebrated and sustained. And it’s about who gets to survive the 21st century, and what kind of civilization comes out the other side.”

Is very tempting right now
Goes hand in hand with self-righteousness

I caught up with Jedediah Purdy, author and environmental and constitutional law scholar, via teleconference on a Sunday, as the U.S. moved more fully into primary season. We talked about how, while it’s still early in the year, much is being made of who is “electable.” Purdy, who is backing Bernie Sanders, mentioned how while researching another project, he recently ran across an article from May 2008, in The Guardian, that discussed doubts about whether Barack Obama was “electable,” and intense fighting between his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s.

“It reminded me that unity comes later in the cycle than May, let alone March, and sainthood comes much later—after the second term,” said Purdy. In his 2019 book, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (Princeton) Purdy argues that, as citizens, we each need to confront the political and ecological challenges of our times actively–that humans must create better bonds across countries. “Right after [my son] James was born I read him Paradise Lost; I had this conceit, ‘he will get the rhythms of the language somewhere deep in his head,’ and would joke with my wife about how we were getting his moral education out of the way. What I realized in re-reading Paradise Lost is how language is really the original special effect.” Sleep-deprived and taking their baby for walks, he listened to what he called “bad music, not just to the objectively worst music I listened to in high school—John Mellencamp—even worse music I had never listened to in high school, like Rush! But I also listened to a lot of Neil Young’s catalogue. Neil’s music is kind-of parent music—it all feels like you are worried about something vulnerable and it is right in front of you—the line from ‘Ohio,’ the song about the Kent State shootings: How can you run when you know?”

Purdy and I talked about the connection between spending time outside, walking, or hiking, and coming clear on our thoughts, how our thoughts are attached to our experiences in ecologies. Reflecting on a recurring dream of finding Appalachian-style hills in the flat Carolina Piedmont, he says, “I finally saw it was some sort of hunger for the geography of being able to think. Being able to cross a landscape and then turn back so that you can view it.” A native of West Virginia, where his parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, Purdy reflected on a new stage production he recently attended with his wife. “We went to see Coal Country, a new Public Theater production, about the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia, which is based on interviews with the miners’ families. The cadences and the diction were not only exactly what I remembered in a kind-of West Virginia way, also the variations among people. The person who grew up in the hollow and works as a miner. The person who grew up in the hollow and became the doctor. We cried the entire time.”

Now based in New York City, Purdy is on the Columbia Law School faculty, and also a sometime contributor to The Atlantic, n+1, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

—Leslie Carol Roberts

THE BELIEVER: This Land Is Our Land (2019) calls us to think through what our human and nonhuman collaborative systems—environmental, economic, political, legal—are now and where they came from. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about how they can be improved—through concerted, democratic effort.

JP: Yes. The book is written in response to a planetary crisis, a triple crisis of ecology, economics, and politics. We’re living through climate breakdown, runaway inequality, and the marriage of right-wing nationalism and oligarchy. It’s calm in tone because anyone who’s been through any kind of emergency knows that you have keep a clear head.

We didn’t get here because people are bad, greedy, predictably irrational or hyper-rational, or any of the usual stories. Those stories are both moralizing and reductive: they treat us as objects, little atoms or billiard balls, but driven by something like sin! What I’m trying to show is how our ecological crisis is a product of our collective agency. It emerges from the world we have built.

We live in a second nature, an artificial world. There’s between two thousand and three thousand tons of built environment for every human being on the planet—obviously much more in rich countries. Nothing we do is outside this built environment—eating depends on industrial agriculture and networks of food transport, moving around depends on fossil fuels and roads and trains, shelter is in heated and cooled buildings, and so on. A lot of our environmental impact is built into the technological exoskeleton that we wear and move through. Individual choices have a very limited impact. We have spun ourselves into our own web.

The kind of agency that we need to get out of this situation isn’t individual moral improvement. It’s the power to rework our shared environment. That’s where democracy comes in.

BLVR: One impressive aspect of your writing is the compact way in which you cover history. In a few pages you lay out the environmental movement vs. the environmental justice movement, as well as the laws that define 1970s collective action towards clean water, air, and ecological oversight by the people.

JP: The history I’m recounting in this book has been with me for a while. The more you digest something, and the more genres you do it in—scholarship, teaching, public talks, a magazine essay, a book—the clearer you can get on what you think are the essential. Such as, environmental politics for many decades was involved in questions of power, distribution, and the basic terms of economic organization. It was always, in a way, an environmental justice movement. But in the 1970s, when modern environmentalism was born with a series of new laws and the creation of the mass-membership environmental groups, it grew away from those roots and became more narrowly professionalized, technical, and administrative. There was great progress in the 1970s, but it could have been so much greater.

BLVR: You write: “The planet’s fate is written in how we make our energy, dispose of our waste, and value our lives.” This seems particularly key in this election year.

JP: 100%. The Green New Deal is the only policy idea that comes close to working on the scale of the crisis. It’s a vision for remaking our technological exoskeleton, our systems of energy, food, transport, shelter. That would make us into different kinds of beings, from an ecological point of view.  It would change our nature.

The GND is also great in not being about green austerity—giving things up. It’s about giving concrete benefits to popular majorities today, in the form of public prosperity: public transport, guarantees of education and work and health care, and ultimately a living world. Critics make fun of the way it contains so many progressive goals, but the thing is that they’re all connected in making a livable world.

BLVR: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s work is discussed, from her protests at Standing Rock to her advocacy in Congress for the Green New Deal.

JP: Yes, I think people sense the need for a politics big enough to take on systems that are breaking down and also breaking the planet. AOC is also part of this reclamation of socialism—not always precisely as a program, definitely not as a simple program of state control of the economy, but as a name for the conviction that the economy should serve human beings, put us in relationships with one another that are more reciprocal and sustaining than zero-sum and exploitative or degrading. In this economy, we are often one another’s threats, problems, or at best profit opportunities. Socialism is a name people are using for the idea that the economy should help us to organize ourselves as one another’s friends, helpers, comrades. In the book, I use the world “commonwealth” to express a very similar idea. We are all feeling our way toward names, and programs, for this change we desire and recognize as necessary.

BLVR: The clarity and presence in the book—it feels like we’re sitting in front a fireplace somewhere, sipping Scotch, having a discussion. You write: “We are suffering not from ignorance or innocence but from a lack of faith that understanding can help us.”

JP: Well, the temptation of nihilism is very great right now. Caring what happens to the world can be painful even under better circumstances. Today it’s almost a guarantee of suffering.

So it’s not surprising that the mega-bestselling historian Yuval Harari closes Sapiens and his other books with a counsel of indifference: humanity hasn’t been all that great, and why not sit back and allow ourselves to be replaced by whatever comes next? A less worked-through version of this is when people say things like, Well, whatever, my life sucks but it’ll all be over soon.

Then there’s the attraction of holding yourself apart—being morally or just aesthetically superior to your society, because you’re sure you see all the ways it’s decadent, corrupt, misguided, structurally unjust—but with no bridge to making it better. Self-righteousness and nihilism actually go hand in hand: because I’m so right, I can see there’s no hope.

BLVR: Aziz Rana is referenced the “two faces of American freedom,” and you say how from the outset, America was, above all, designed to respect white male citizens, and was among the cruelest countries in its exploitation of enslaved and indigenous peoples, women, and those who do not fit sexual or gender norms.

JP: Rana has one of the earlier, and still one of the best, uses of the concept of settler colonialism to make sense of American experience. His point is that in a colony like this one, with abundant resources and people “planted” here, there was a natural tendency to egalitarianism and self-rule—for the simple reason that it was hard to keep people down! From fairly early on, the US was uniquely equal and democratic—among white men. It was equally extreme in its racial subordination and genocidal clearing of the continent. That was, among other things, how the US got those abundant resources, and maintained a supply of cheap labor. National history since then is a kind of dialectic between efforts to extend the principles of equality and self-rule and efforts to maintain and extend our founding hierarchies.

So where some critics will say “settlerism” is an evil to be overcome and discarded, Rana says we have to radicalize and universalize settler freedom, building a country where the self-rule of equals can be real. Of course, this would also mean transforming settler freedom, as American democracy the way it’s actually practiced continues to have a lot of vile hierarchies strung into it. Consider the reaction some people had to Barack Obama’s presidency: they couldn’t stand being ruled by a black man. But that’s what democracy is: not nice phrases like “an endless conversation,” or “institutionalized uncertainty” (though it is partly that), but consenting to be ruled by your fellow citizens, owning up to that.

Thinking with Rana helps you to see that the exploitative and destructive attitudes taken toward land and resources here aren’t just the symptoms of some national neurosis or ideology called settlerism. They’re the results of the capitalist imperative to return on investment. Our economy is constantly probing, testing, looking for value to extract. That’s where we have to use democratic power to press back and overmaster the system that has mastered us. To do that, we need a stronger democracy than we’ve ever had here.

BLVR: “We have made a system that overmasters us.” Let’s break that idea down.

JP: Collectively, we built this world. It contains the labor and vision of billions of people. Law and the state made the capitalism that directs resources, including “human resources,” and tells us what we’re worth. But individually, we confront it as a kind of ruler. Although you can choose what you do in many ways, you can’t choose the terms of what you do: whether your comfort comes from my exploitation, whether we’re in competition in a hard labor market, what ecological destruction follows just from your staying alive.

BLVR: How are we trained to understand our value as humans? How do our systems tell us who we are in terms of price and value?

JP: So, capitalism is one of our infrastructures. We act, connect with one another, and so on just as much through our legal and economic systems as through our more concrete infrastructures like roads and digital networks. And its basic principle is that every resource gets drawn or pressed toward the use that will produce the highest financial return. That includes the labor, time, and attention of human beings. A capitalist market tells us what we’re worth, not just figuratively, but in concrete rewards: the income that gives us access to housing, mobility, education, often respect, etc. This way of experiencing value colonizes other areas of life. People talk about testing their value on the dating market, things like that.

Ultimately, environmental politics is about nothing less than the value of life—the value of our lives and all the other lives that form a planet. It’s about what ways of spending our days get celebrated and sustained. And it’s about gets to survive the 21st century, and what kind of civilization comes out the other side.

BLVR: I never knew that the United Auto Workers were a major funder of the first Earth Day.

JP: Yes, and there were real forces in the United Mine Workers in the early 1970s who wanted to ban strip-mining and even strike to enforce environmental standards. There were the beginnings of an environmental-labor alliance that could have given a different shape to the jobs-or-trees dilemmas that have recently helped Trump in the coalfields and the rustbelt. With that alliance, environmentalism might have looked more like a Green New Deal movement all along,

BLVR: In addition to writing and teaching, you also collaboratively founded the Facing the Anthropocene project with the theologian Norman Wirzba.

JP: Yes, Norman is a super-lovely person, and he really deserves all the credit. He came to me with the idea that we should get some thoughtful people together to talk about what scholarship looks like in a time of perennial ecological crisis, when many old premises are gone: about the division between humanity and nature, about the relationship between geological time and political or cultural time. To give an example: in my lifetime, global carbon levels have increased quite a bit more than in all human history to before I was born. That suggests we need to think about our historical narration differently. Or take law, my field. I don’t think it tends to reckon with its own world-building power, the ways that, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are not working against a stable ontological backdrop. We are exercising the crazy power to bring things into being, and cast them out of being, throughout.

BLVR: This idea leaps off the page: “If we can build this unsustainable world, we can very much design and build a better one.”

JP: This has to be our practical hope, anyway. We have to take it as the premise of our actions that we can do this. We have to start untying ropes that we’ve knotted, and weaving something different out of them.

It’s democracy or barbarism, to repurpose Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase. More accurately, democracy and/or barbarism. The nationalist right has a natural advantage in times of scarcity, crises, and threat. It calls on us to cleave to our own and take back control of the places where we can. The climate denialism of the next twenty years won’t be about rejecting the science. It will be about denying that climate breakdown creates ethical obligations, or should unify us in political movements. The wall is the architectural expression of the idea that your problems are not mine, and I’m not going to let them become mine.

The answer can’t be to reassert the thin market cosmopolitanism of neoliberal globalization. All that does is to extend through global macro- and microrelations the idea that your problem isn’t mind unless I can profit from it. What we need is solidarity within the politics we have—the solidarity of the Green New Deal, for example—as a platform for internationalist forms of solidarity. What would that mean? For one, reworking the global financial architecture around specifically green development, and coordinating big international investments in green infrastructure. Call it a Green New International Economic Order—based on the vision from the some of the nonaligned countries in the 1960s and 1970s of a global, truly non-colonial system of social-democratic security and distributive justice, but with ecology at the center.

This goes beyond the politics we’ve seen in any of our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. One source of the radicalism of the moment is recognition that we need to do so much than we are, so much more than we’ve recently been told we even can do. We are passing out of the time when it was reasonable to imagine that democratic publics were just presented to you with the preferences, biases, etc., that they had, for political consultants to slice and dice and distribute into coalitional majorities. Now we see again that politics makes a world, in the material ways we’ve been talking about, and also at the level of identity. Racist campaigns  make racists. Socialist campaigns make socialists. The politics of the Green New Deal makes more GND politics.

Everyone is realizing this at once—the left and the right, the nationalists and the commonwealth forces. And we’re vying to make a world. Our world.

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