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"We Have Always Been Geological": a conversation with Thomas Nail (Keywords: Agency; Anthropocene)

White house on hill

Anthony Morgan (AM): I thought we could start with something about your work in general. What are the kinds of questions you have been trying to answer so far?

Thomas Nail (TN): I am a philosopher interested in movement and motion across disciplines. I want to know why philosophers and scientists in the West have been so keen to explain movement by non-moving principles. If movement is more central than we thought, how does this change the structure of human knowledge?

AM: Your recent book Theory of the Earth starts with the line, “We need a new theory of the Earth”. I’m guessing this is a movement-based theory!

TN: Yes! We typically think of the earth as stable and something we can manipulate. I argue that the most radical import of the Anthropocene is the unpredictable agency and mobility of the earth itself. The idea of turbulence and unpredictability runs through the whole book.

I propose a new movement-oriented theoretical framework of the earth as an alternative to the traditional ones defined by stability. Instead of thinking about the earth as an object, subject, substance, or essence in isolation from the cosmos, I introduce a process theory.

The kinetic theory of the earth begins from the contemporary observation that the earth is much more fluid and unpredictable than we ever thought possible. We are now aware of the deep historical coproduction, or “sympoiesis”, of all kinds of material flows that we used to study separately. Flows of rock, flows of water, flows of air, flows of life, and even vast cosmic flows of matter are profoundly interdependent processes. What if we retold the history of the earth from this theoretical perspective?

AM: Are you a reductionist insofar as your basic idea is that everything is matter and motion?

TN: I believe that everything is matter and motion, but quantum mechanics also tells us that energy and momentum are not determinate substances. They are indeterminate processes. This is very different than Newtonian mechanics. Saying that everything is “reducible” to indeterminate processes is not really a reduction. It’s an affirmation of contingency. And just because everything is matter and motion does not mean that physics or science can explain everything either.

AM: Just to clarify, what do you mean by “Theory” and “Earth” – and “of” for that matter!?

TN: By “theory,” I mean what the ancient Greeks did by “theoria.” As a civic duty, Ancient Athenians would leave Athens and walk to other cities to listen to the cosmologies and stories of other people. Theory was the process of walking and thinking about the nature of knowledge. By “Earth,” I mean the deep historical process of our planet from its beginning to the present. By “of”, I mean theory is a process that continues the Earth in a certain way. I do not mean that we humans are separate from the earth and then develop theories “about” it. Instead, we are part of the earth, walking and thinking about other aspects of it.

AM: This sounds like a “posthuman” perspective.

TN: I am certainly influence by posthumanism, especially as it relates to the critique of anthropocentrism. If humans are not the centre of the universe and the only ones with meaning, then what are they? Posthumanism is the realization that humans are non-human processes (metabolism, bacteria, viruses, etc.) that play an essential role in our lives and our ecosystems. Humans are also aspects of larger planetary systems which they do not control. For me, one of the most philosophical consequences of the Anthropocene, climate change, and ecology is that humans are part of material patterns that run through them and shape them. Therefore, we are not free to construct whatever reality we want.

AM: Please can you say something about the relationship between empirical scientific evidence and straight-up philosophical theorising in your book and your work more generally? Are scientists likely to find these ideas useful? More generally, do you think philosophers defer to scientists too readily in questions of this magnitude, i.e., at the level of the earth?

TN: I take empirical scientific evidence seriously as historical truth. It is not immune to change or infallible, but it’s crucial to work with what we have. It is also a starting point, among others, for philosophy. Science, in my definition, is a kind of knowledge that focuses on creating and coordinating quantities. As such, it typically emphasizes this one dimension of reality: the quantitative dimension.

For me, philosophy is the love of all knowledges. Philosophy wants to understand how the human activity of knowing works more broadly. Science, art, politics, and ontology are different historical ways of knowing that focus on the quantity, quality, relation, and modality of things, respectively. I am not interested in metaphysical speculations about God, reality, or goodness or truth that can neither be proven nor disproven. Instead, I work with what I have to create a philosophy for our time in history.

Scientists who are only interested in one or a couple of aspects of reality may only find a few sections of Theory of the Earth of interest. On the other hand, scientists interested in the bigger picture of knowledge may find my framework interesting not because it presents any new data but because it tells a different story about our information. For example, scientists collect data about objects, but philosophers show how those objects fit within the other manifold aspects of reality.

AM: What is the scope of the concept “Earth”? Is it a similar scope to what Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently done with “Planet”?

TN: Yes, it is similar. But ultimately, there is no ontological difference between planetary systems and global humans systems. Human systems are also planetary systems. We are part of planetary metabolism. I am uniquely approaching the Earth from a materialist and process philosophical perspective. What is specifically important to me is not just deep planetary history complicating human history but the fundamentally turbulent and unpredictable nature of earth processes, including human systems.

AM: We have already talked about theory, but your book also addresses history and ethics. Please can you say something about how you work with these frameworks?

TN: In terms of history, the profound uncertainty of the earth’s systems today prompts us to completely reconsider our previous categories, substances, teleologies, and hierarchies. We need new definitions and histories for these new hybrid processes of mingled minerals, atmospheres, plants, and animals. We need a process theory of the earth based on patterns, not substances.

The conditions of the present are not locatable in the present alone nor human history alone. Deep history in all its uneven flux is the key to understanding our planetary present. The past does not go away but persists and coexists in the present to varying degrees. In other words, there are humans only because there are rocks.

A new kinetic history of the earth will help us fully see the present earth that we are and how to live better on it. This history is critical if we are to move away from our current tendencies toward mechanism, vitalism, uniformitarianism, geo-constructivism, and homeostasis.

As for ethics, by thinking only of our movements of energy expenditure and conservation on a “relatively static Earth”, we have failed to see ourselves as part of the larger cosmic and terrestrial drama of increasing flow rate and mobility. By damaging Earth’s dissipative processes (especially the biosphere), humans have slowed down the kinetic movement of energy throughout the planet. Fossil fuel capitalism has increased human energy consumption but only at the cost of decreasing planetary energy consumption by much more.

I rewrite natural and human history from the broader perspective of movement. This offers a new ethical orientation to our “Kinocene” present and to the cosmos. My thesis is that if humans want to survive, then the most geo-historically likely way forward is to contribute to the Earth’s massive process of energy expenditure, including land fertility, biodiversity, and climate stability. This shift requires us to reject our current biocentric emphasis on conservation in favour of expenditure and flux.

AM: You just mentioned “uniformitarianism” which you refer to in the book as a near-consensus view in geology. Please can you say something about what this view entails and where it is failing as a view?

TN: Geological uniformitarianism is the theory that geological processes occur today at the same speed and in the same way as they have always done. In his 1788 book Theory of the Earth, the geologist James Hutton used this theory in contrast to “catastrophism”, the idea that sudden violent events shaped the earth. Most geologists no longer believe in strict gradualism, but, according to the geologist Marcia Bjornerud, many geologists still believe that sudden events are exceptions to the rule of uniform geological laws.

In my view, periods of metastability, such as the Holocene, punctuate the process of non-linear change. Furthermore, I don’t think we can understand geological laws as uniform or separate from chemistry, biology, technology, or climate. With so many different processes at work, geology is not as uniform as we once thought. Non-linear feedback is showing up everywhere more and more. And this is changing our understanding of geology.

AM: You have just touched on “deep history” and one of the tasks you set yourself is to “interrogate the prehuman material conditions of human beings”. Why is this important, and how might it be done in a way that might reveal things we have not already learned through studying the history of the Earth?

TN: People tend to think about natural history and human history as separate disciplines. So when we hear people referring to “the end of nature”, they are working within this framework and usually mean that humans now intervene in and construct every aspect of nature. Micro-plastics are a great example. Scientists are now finding them in the most remote places on the globe. So if no element of nature is pure or unmixed with culture, then “nature” as something separate from humans is “dead.” I find this framing unnecessarily polemic. In my view, humans have always been natural, and nature has always been cultural, so setting up the opposition to undermine it in this way seems to be accepting a division in the first place.

Climate change has inspired many scholars to start thinking about the role of climate and natural disasters in human history. (I am thinking of Nigel Clark’s 2010 book Inhuman Nature and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent The Climate of History in a Planetary Age.) But I wanted to take this farther back and show that it’s not that nature intervenes in human culture, but that human culture is and always has been at the heart a geological activity. Human culture is an energetic planetary activity that has always been an aspect of geology. So I hope Theory of the Earth helps change our usage of the terms nature and culture.

One thing I have tried to do is write a cultural history of the earth. This means that instead of treating earth’s history as a mechanical uniform natural history, I have tried to emphasize its contingencies, turbulence, and creativity. Furthermore, I have tried to show how this coincides with the dissipation of energy as well.

Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

AM: The climate change lesson seems clear: we are consuming far too much energy for our planet to keep supporting human life. We must renounce our impulse to consume and instead live more simply and conserve our resources more wisely. However, in an essay published shortly before your book, you write that “[t]he problem… is not that our planet cannot handle too much energy consumption but that it cannot handle too little”. This is an extremely counter-intuitive idea so please can you explain what you mean by it?

TN: We have framed the energy problem anthropocentrically. This is an excellent example of how science uses data but tells the story upside down. It’s not just about “our” energy use. The aim of the universe and our planet is to break down energy and spread it out, not conserve it. The main problem is that we have destroyed the largest energy dissipators on the earth: trees. They dissipate way more energy than humans per year and in ways that help other organisms disperse more as well. So we should not be thinking only about how much energy we dissipate but also about how we can help the whole planet dissipate more optimally.

AM: This is what you mean when you refer to an ethics of “expenditure” as part of your ethical vision towards the end of the book?

TN: Exactly! I mean, if we want to survive to do ethics, we have to be better at contributing to planetary systems of dissipation. Dissipation and expenditure mean transforming energy from hotter states to colder ones. I imagine a kind of meta-ethics that says “if” we want to survive, “if” we want to do ethics in the future, we have to be alive. If we want to live, we have to go with the cosmic flow and be better planetary dissipators. Even what we’re doing now is part of the larger cosmic dissipation of energy. The human activity of thought is just a little movement of matter like everything else. We make it special by giving “thinking” its own special name. But it’s not outside the material universe. It’s an expression of it. This is a different way of thinking about what thinking does and what it can do.

AM: Why is capitalist economics so antithetical to your ethical vision? Conversely, why does composting play a positive role in this domain?

TN: Capitalism is like cancer. It’s natural, like everything, but it’s also suicidal. It requires open-ended growth, treats objects as quantities without qualities, and its aim is profit, not planetary dissipation. Capitalism dissipates energy, but only at the expense of destroying other more important planetary sources of dissipation. I define composting as dissipating energy in ways that share and help others dissipate; ecosystems compost by sustaining life from dead material. We do the same thing when we compost our kitchen scraps to grow our gardens.

In short, the more ways there are of dissipating energy on earth, the more likely it is that some of them will survive unpredictable changes in the future. This includes human cultural diversity and species diversity in general. The more ways there are to disperse energy, the more kinds of energy sources we can harvest. The limit to stable and diverse energy consumption is any act that would decrease the net dissipation of the planet. We know a few ways to reduce planetary energy dissipation and cultural and species diversity (empire and capitalism). Still, there are vastly more ways to live that do not have this kind of impact.

AM: You write that “Humans are the earth and therefore bear its history”. If you argue that the earth is characterised by instability, mobility, unpredictability, and so on, to what extent is this true of humans? After all, humans are in many ways prone to stability, stasis, predictability, and so on (as the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor puts it, “We inherit or adopt opinions about ourselves and the world that we cling to and refuse to relinquish. So certain are we of being ‘rightthat our convictions feel embedded in our flesh.”). I guess this is a question about philosophical anthropology…

TN: This is a big implication. If the earth is mobile and unpredictable, so are humans and their knowledge practices. Philosophers have often implicitly assumed or explicitly sought out stasis as a philosophical ground or foundation. They based their ideas on a false geological assumption that the earth is a stable place. The earth is not a stable foundation for universal knowledge. It is a local and unstable anti-foundation for human understanding. All our local convictions feel embedded, but they are only metastable moments on shifting earth.

AM: To what extent is your theory likely to be acceptable to people? After all, security and certainty are two of the most prized goals of western thinking, and your account undermines them both!

TN: We live in a deeply uncertain and unstable world where the speed of life is increasing. The philosophy of movement is a philosophy for its time because it tries to help people understand how all this movement works. We are at a significant historical moment where part of the population is trying to slow down and work more closely with planetary systems, while the other part still believes that doubling down on nations and techno-capitalism will save us. At some point, I hope we acknowledge that we are not dealing with a predictable, stable system. To the degree that readers are willing to accept this perspective, they will find something of interest in Theory of the Earth.

AM: Are you optimistic that humans can overcome their preference for stability and stasis?

TN: In my view, the earth has no essence, and neither do humans. Some humans invented a preference for metaphysical stasis, and there is no reason they can’t get over it. There is no such thing as physical stasis. The whole universe is against the idea of immortality and universal knowledge. What we should be aiming for is metastability through diverse dissipation (if we want to survive).

AM: Turning now to the future, you conclude that “we are ignorant of the future because the cosmos itself is ignorant of the future” and that “there is no a priori reasons why nature could not invent new fields or patterns in the future”. If prediction and control have been valorised goals of knowledge, what role does the search for knowledge serve in the face of this radical indeterminacy regarding the future?

TN: It’s OK to make educated guesses about the future – that’s part of knowledge. But the indeterminacy of matter and the earth puts a big asterisk by any of our ambitions toward metaphysical universality, truth, certainty, and morality. The Earth does not know precisely how it will end up dissipating all its energy. It has to try out different strategies. Human culture is just one of these strategies. We do not have a complete picture of the cosmos or what it can do. Even our most fundamental “laws” are regional observations subject to change in cases of what physicists call sudden “vacuum decay”. What then is the aim of knowledge? It is, like everything else, to spread out energy in diverse ways that help others do the same. We don’t have to do it well, but if we don’t we probably won’t last long as a species. We mustn’t forget that knowledge is a physical act. It is something we do. It’s got nothing to do with universal truth. It’s got everything to do with the earth.

Thomas Nail is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. His current work focuses on the influence of mobility in the 21st century and the philosophy of movement broadly. His research has had significant international influence and has been translated into eleven languages, read in more than 200 countries, and cited across more than 20 academic disciplines. Theory of the Earth was published in April by Stanford University Press, and his latest book Theory of the Object is published by Edinburgh University Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 4 ("Thinking Otherwise"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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