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How viable is the earth as a uniform model for collective imagination? #Nature’s Economies
Can we assume a planetary paradigm to have superseded a cosmic paradigm as a moral framework after the Copernican revolution? How viable is the earth as a uniform model for collective imagination? As this essay will argue, rather than marking the planet as an existing universal frame of reference, it is necessary to develop a ‘practice of the universal’ in which the relation to the earth is constantly to be renegotiated. This counter-conception of a planetary paradigm strives to detach from the generic dualism of the local and global by emphasizing life oscillating in between scales while promoting relation without universalization.
The reference to what today is often called the planetary is not a historically new phenomenon as it has occurred exemplarily in the natural sciences since their beginnings. But before the emergence of the earth sciences that globally observe the planet’s processes, the earth is primarily of interest for astronomy as it is considered in the context of the universe, the cosmos. In The Wisdom of the World, Rémi Brague suggests that in order to bring the earth itself into center of attention, the decentration of the Copernican revolution was a necessary first step: Replacing geocentrism for heliocentrism may have replaced the earth with the sun at the center of the solar system but only to establish the view of the earth as a planet.1 Following Tim Ingold, this marks the transition from a spherical cosmos to the planet as a globe. He notes: “Unlike the solid globe, which can only be perceived as such from without, spheres […] were to be perceived from within.”2 The decentration of humankind by the Copernican revolution therefore also separated it from earth, taking it out of the sphere and onto the planet’s surface, establishing both as spatially separated domains. In this turn, the earth can be addressed as distinct object of investigation: “Once it is recognized, however, that the earth is a globe, and given a knowledge of its diameter, it is immediately possible to calculate, from first principles, its surface area. And so, even though—as we traverse the surface—new horizons are always opening up, not only can we work out, by subtraction, how much there remains to be discovered, but also every fresh observation can be slotted into position, in relation to each and every other, within a complete, unifying spatial framework.”3
In Brague’s account, this transition affects not only the earth but also the cosmos. While the former is obtaining the status of an outside object, the latter is losing it, marking “the death of the cosmos”, as he contends.4 What he describes is a change in the moral frame of reference that can no longer be identified with a cosmic paradigm as it used to exist in ancient and medieval times:
“The order of the superior world is a model for men of correct behavior in life. It is through imitation of the perfect regularity of the celestial figures that man can successfully put his own sublunary life in order.”5
Here, any action was derived from the neatly structured framework of the cosmos which the earth opposes as a place of disorder and coincidence. But with the progressing observation that the laws of celestial bodies do not essentially differ from the physical properties observed on earth, the universality of the cosmos also has become difficult to justify as it has become a mundane reality, making it obsolete as a moral framework.6
So, does the earth take on the role of this universal reference if the cosmos cannot provide it anymore? Can we assume a planetary paradigm to have superseded the cosmic paradigm in this regard?
Today it seems the establishment of the planet as a moral framework is reflected in the projects of two opposing movements that we want to call the two vectors of the planet:
Famously and often cited, in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan speculated on telecommunication infrastructure as creating a “global village” of “total interdependence”.7 The notion seems to suggest a world of increasing interrelatedness and humanity moving closer together as the large and unwieldy planet is turning into a small and familiar environment. Here, McLuhan develops a common understanding of globalization which is often conceived as a unidirectional vector from the global to the local. As the figure of the globe is addressed as a universal reference figure it expresses an imperative of increasing global relations.
At the same time, the traditional ambitions of the ecological movements aim precisely at reversing what was described by Ingold. Problematizing the still prevalent separation of world and “lived experience”8, they strive to establish the earth not so much as the globe but again as a guiding principle for actions taking place on (or in) it. They aim to invert the practices of globalization and thus can be described as a second vector in the opposite direction from the local to the global.
As both movements conceive the earth exclusively either through the global or the local, they also strive to take either an outside or inside position, following Ingold’s description. It thus may seem quite ironic that the first photographic images of the globe were appropriated by both sides in the mid-20th century. Illustrative, Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, NASA’s first mission to orbit the moon in 1968 is quoted:
“When you’re finally up at the moon looking back at the earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this is really one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.”9
To him, the planet appeared as a fragile structure, as the entanglement of the local and the global which today is also reflected in the intersection of the scale and substance vector: increasingly it becomes clear that the constant emphasis on the global reverses the originally expanding figure and now exposes primarily the planetary boundaries. Both the outside and inside perspective of globalization and the traditional ecologies reveal “a vast yet tiny earth” as it also appeared to Borman.10 It is in this oxymoron where he located himself, considering the space race’s urge to leave the earth’s frame of reference only to find aspirations of the universal exactly in it.
For him, but also in symbolic representations of the earth such as the iconic Blue Marble image, it is precisely the absence of humanity that constitutes the universal vision of global closeness and a population acting as one. Yet in the environmentalist context, this constitution of a new collective unity led to the erasure of the colonial history that is central to the geology’s practices of extraction, states Kathryn Yusoff, professor of inhuman geography.11 Envisioning the globe as a mutual habitat proclaims the existence of an allegedly “post-racial we” which without the consideration of historical responsibility just again reproduces the writing of one specific history.12 And so does McLuhan’s dreamy figure. A counter-narrative to his global village of perpetual peace is offered by Ginger Nolan who analyzes the reference foundation his concept is built upon. She describes that the analogy of the village in this context is significantly figured by a colonial history as she addresses the crucial question of representation in the planetary scale. Subsequently, her antithesis contends that “some belong more thoroughly to the global village than others”.13
What is the local other than a place?
What is the global other than an accumulation of the local?
Yusoff’s and Nolan’s critiques are those of the dissolution of the old, overcome, and discarded colonialism into a new, subtle neocolonialism and complement critiques on universalizing globalization, as formulated not only by positions clinging on nostalgic localism. On the contrary, contemporary thinkers like Yuk Hui and Patricia Reed attempt to outline the foundations of a prospective “cosmo-politics”14 (Hui) in “figuring the possibility of an emancipatory planetary scale”15 (Reed) in which the relation of the local and global is again to be negotiated. They claim that additional accounts besides the local as the specific and the global as the abstract have to be developed that allow not only for consideration of the local in global and the global in local contexts but further recognize inconsistencies in those concepts themselves.
As Reed emphasizes, insisting on the “comforts of a small-world framework” dilutes the possibilities of orientation on (and navigation of) a planet that has not been shrinking but on the opposite has gained in dimensionality.16 For this, a simultaneous and conditional account of the local and global is needed:
“A big-world perspective does not in any way disavow small-world localization; it’s a necessary position of departure, but it insists on the insufficiency of such positioning in isolation to address (and be accountable to) the planetary scaled. Big-world positioning demands a nested account of situatedness, where ‘location’ is no longer figured as self-evidently enclosed, despite its differential status, but is rather imagined as a synthesis between immediate/concrete surroundings and the dimensional vectors of relation that co-constitute it.”17
What she introduces is a flexible and dynamic notion of the local “as a continuum between the concrete and the abstract”: a relational concept that requires implicit or explicit thresholds for definition.18 Reed proposes a politics of location as a highly dynamic concept that is built upon its specific relation to the larger scale of the planet. As it is positioned against the current paradigm of universalizing globalization, it is coherent with Hui’s writings who claims that the “main difficulty of all cosmopolitics is the reconciliation between the universal and the particular.”19 What is understood here as cosmopolitics is a reconfiguration of the concept of geopolitics, which is no longer wielded by one unidirectional vector of sovereignty in the form of global hegemonic state power. Instead, it applies to many synchronous and competitive actors on very different scales.
This seems to conflict the remarks on universalizing globalization, which suggests the exact contrary—the reduction of many perspectives into one singular formation. However, this does not say that this perspective has always existed and was only elevated to the global scale. On the contrary, this singular perspective is reflected in the structures emerging in between different actors on the planetary scale: Only then they produce universalization, it has not always existed before. Subsequently, Hui contends that there has never been a single cosmos. He follows the central remarks of the ontological turn as he draws on the claims of multi-naturalism, the existence of different ontologies in different cultures. In a similar way, he states different relations to the cosmos have existed and still do around the globe. Now in face of the unilateral globalization, he stresses the necessity “to consider cosmopolitics from the point of view of locality”.20
Reed’s and Hui’s elaborations can serve for the development of an alternative conception of a planetary paradigm that ceases to identify with both a new totality in the form of the globe and with any nostalgic images of the local as a place of comfort and familiarity. To replace the historic role of the cosmos with the earth neglects complexity as it insists on an overcome dualism of the local and the global. Rather, as Reed reminds, creating planetary relations is a dynamic practice in the entanglement of the local and the global in which both co-constitute each other: A distinction between both does not exist per se, not a priori, but is only constantly established. In this sense, today a planetary paradigm has to be conceived much more as a practice of the universal instead of the alignment to a global imperative. In the same way as Nolan questioned McLuhan’s global village, Hui states that for the development of any prospective cosmopolitics it is to ask: “which and whose cosmos”?21 It is to recognize the multiplicity both of individual standpoints but also of global frames of reference. So we have to add: which and whose earth?
To relate to the planet is to explicitly and intentionally relate not only to what is familiar but also to what is unfamiliar, to all other planets. In times of planetary crisis, it is neither to only focus on one’s own position nor to neglect the variety of all individual and situated positions for one singular global narrative. This is the planet’s conflict of scale and has to be the aim a prospective planetary paradigm has to set out for: creating relation without universalization.
Finn Steffens is a designer and writer. His research interest conjuncts theoretical and applied works on the intersections
of critical media studies, urbanism, and geopolitics.