When the conveners of this symposium presented the topic ‘Asking questions about questions’ to me, I grappled a bit with it. Eventually, I decided to tackle the theme, based on the insight that questions are always asked within a certain framework. Sometimes we need new concepts to be able to ask different questions and build a more apt framework. In this talk, bearing in mind the context of the Anthropocene, I will propose a shift with respect to four concepts. These shifts will make new questions possible and maybe redefine the situation. I will take the liberty to use my personal memories as a Leitmotiv, simply because I know my personal history is quite a common one for Dutch people of my age, rendering my history into an apt illustration of how things have changed.
It was not until the 1990s that ‘the Global’ emerged as a popular term. Today, the global expansion of humankind is apparent in virtually all aspects of our lives. A couple of weeks ago, on television, I was watching two engineers dismantle a small vacuum cleaner. The apparatus appeared to contain over a hundred small components that stemmed from all over the world: India, China, the United States, Germany, Bulgaria, you name it. All of these parts consisted of materials that had been transported to low-wage countries to be assembled there and if one tiny component breaks, one has simply to throw away the vacuum cleaner. While one of the technicians stated that the machine, once broken, is not repairable, he added that this is what you get in a capitalist free market. Products are assembled as cheaply as possible and are not meant to last. Capitalism in a global world is very successful at cheapening things. Not only vacuum cleaners. It excels in producing cheap food, cheap fashion, cheap machinery … etc. – all at the expense of life on the planet, which is bearing the costs of this cheapening.
The banal example of the vacuum cleaner rekindled memories of my parents who, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, repaired every broken household item they could. My father was a shoemaker and my mother a seamstress, so we never bought our clothes in a shop. My mother used to manufacture dresses for my older sister from her own worn-down dresses, and once my sister grew out of them it was my turn to wear them for a couple of years. At the time it was evident, today we call this slow fashion. My father took care of our shoes until they literally fell apart.
Both my parents lost their jobs because of globalization. Low-wage economies took over their activities. But they applied the skills they had learnt to our household. They never spoke about globalization. In those days, the term was an academic concept used only by political scientists.
In recent times, the notion of the global has come under criticism. It is argued that this concept of ‘global’ is essentially a human-centric construction, and that by contrast, the idea of ‘the planetary’ is required to decenter the human.1 Doing so puts human beings back in their place, it acknowledges that the planet is greater than us humans. We might call this ‘the third great decentering’, following the sixteenth-century Copernican Revolution, which decentered humankind within the solar system, and the nineteenth-century Darwinian decentering, dethroning the supreme position of humans by reconsidering the natural history of the planet. In all of this, it is clear that we must understand the category ‘planet’ not merely as an entity without which we would not exist, but also as an entity with a history that precedes ours. That said, my first proposal for a conceptual shift is to replace our focus on the global by a focus on the planetary.2
Back to my personal history. I remember an uncle of mine as being a nervous wreck. My parents explained me that this was due to traumas he had experienced as a Dutch soldier in Indonesia. In his presence, it was forbidden to us children to ask any questions about this nation. Upon the Indonesian declaration of independence, the Dutch government refused to recognize the Republic of Indonesia as a sovereign state, but regarded the decolonizing forces as a rebellious movement within the ‘colony of the Dutch East Indies’. As is known, the government of the Netherlands did not call the events a war of independence, but chose to speak of an ‘uprising’, warranting several brutal ‘police actions’ (1947, 1948 and 1949). Today this reminds us of Putin speaking about the war in Ukraine as a military action liberating the people. Like most people in the Netherlands back then, my parents never asked any critical questions on the topic and it has taken Dutch society quite some time before it could see and acknowledge what had actually happened.
After the publication of his impressive book Revolusi, dealing with this period of decolonization, the historian David van Reybrouck recently took matters further when he delivered the 2021 Huizinga lecture.3 Under the header of The Colonization of the Future, he argues that we may well have stopped colonizing continents, yet we are busy colonizing the future with the same ruthlessness, the same greed, and the same shortsightedness applied to other continents in the past. Colonialism has ceased to be a purely territorial or geographical notion, it has now become temporal. In the past, we restructured and molded the world through imperial colonization of what we thought to be newly-discovered lands, thereby forever impacting the fate of entire societies. Now, in the 21st century, our exploitative way of living causes issues such as pollution, deforestation, desertification, and an historically unwitnessed decline in biological diversity, all of which will have devastating impacts on future generations and their construction of society.
So, the second shift I propose is to reconsider our discourse on colonization, moving our understanding from something that happened in the past, toward an understanding of colonization as a lingering temporal phenomenon with devastating effects on future societies, who are being treated as colonies of the present.
I was still living with my parents when in 1973, the first oil crisis hit the economy. It excited me when there were ten car-free Sundays late in 1973 and in January of the next year, because of the unique experience that we were allowed to cycle on the motorway. Later, when the second oil crisis arrived in 1979, I was studying at university and living on my own. The crisis was caused by unrest in the Middle East, where the Persian Shah had to flee before the Iranian Revolution, only to make way for the new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. This time I understood the socio-political origins and the economic consequences of the crisis, and I was glad once it passed. Since that seemed to be what crises naturally do: they come and then they disappear again. This common understanding of a crisis as a temporary and passing phenomenon, has led the recently deceased French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour to argue that we should stop speaking of a climate crisis. Instead the more accurate discourse is that of climate disaster. While crises come and go, disasters are understood to leave severe and permanent imprints.4
In my childhood, my parents were not concerned with saving the planet; in fact almost nobody was back then. And strikingly, their ecological footprint was much smaller even than that of an engaged, responsible Western citizen nowadays. Summer holidays were a modest affair, we never left the country; we had no car. We never asked: where will we go this summer? It was an exciting journey on its own to take a bus to Schiphol Airport and watch airplanes take off and land, to see the proud happy few boarding. Such experience was a far cry from the situation at Schiphol today.
Having proposed three conceptual shifts (from the global to the planetary, from spatial colonization to temporal colonization, and from climate crisis to climate disaster), I finally touch upon the notion of the Anthropocene.
Paul Crutzen, the Dutch Nobel Prize laureate for chemistry, tirelessly applied the term ‘Anthropocene’ to designate ‘the era of the human being’, characterized by the industrial revolution and climate change.5 However, some voices now argue that this classification is too abstract, and scholarship tends to indicate that the industrial revolution as such was not the origin of the trouble. While in the ongoing debates, a multitude of concepts has been proposed, I would prefer to use the term ‘Capitalocene’. From the sixteenth century onward, the economic greed that we associate with capitalism has led to an ‘extraordinary reshaping of nature’.6 My fourth and final proposal is a discourse shift from Anthropocene to Capitalocene, so as to indicate that capitalism as a factor ought to be taken seriously. We ought not merely to understand it as an economic system, but as a potentially devastating way of organizing the relations between humans and the rest of nature.
Adding to the few things I told about my youth, I would like to state that I enjoyed a happy childhood. Our parents loved us, their children, and loved each other. They were not rich, but as children we never fell short of anything and received our fair shares. Compared to the love and care they offered us, humankind has treated the planet as an orphan, depriving it of due love or care. Such are the costs of the capitalist drive to enhance the circulation of ever cheaper goods. My parents were actors in a circular economy, to them everything was expensive. They had no other option; maintenance and repair was their default state. Their framework was different and they asked different questions. Today everything has become cheaper, more affordable, yet we are living the paradox of being decentered as human beings on the one hand, and bearing a greater responsibility than ever for planet earth and its future.
I do not know about you, but amidst all of this, I treasure small initiatives that experiment with other ways of living. Since I refuse to give up hope, my interest goes out to lifestyles that respect our planet. Arguing that what we do matters, even if we do not know how and when, the American writer and historian Rebecca Solnit has said that hope is not necessarily naïve. She maintains that it is powerful, and that it can coexist with grief and worries. In the past, people were mobilized into action because they hoped for a better future, and many things changed for the better because of their actions. Let us remember that.