A sufficient truth
On the cosmopolitics of the Anthropocene
How to recognize the truths of non-Western peoples and, at the same time, refuse relativizations of the inconvenient truth of climate change? Philosopher Alyne Costa addresses truth as a worlding activity.
The Anthropocene — the new geological era in which the planet’s ecological processes are being severely impacted by industrial activities — places us in a seemingly insoluble contradiction regarding the relationship between truth, science, and politics. On the one hand, it is past time to recognize as legitimate the diverse ways in which non-Western peoples express their belonging to the world, including their own non-“scientific” ways of perceiving the current desynchronization of the earth’s cycles. On the other hand, we cannot accept the truth that certain others claim: I am referring to the climate deniers who, despite all the evidence of the anthropogenic character of climate change, vehemently deny the problem, confusing public opinion and obstructing political action. What to make of this apparent incoherence in affirming the “truths of others,” and, at the same time, refusing relativizations of the “inconvenient truth” of climate change?
Let’s start with those whose claims seem fair to us. One of the most important discussions regarding the Anthropocene has revolved around the following question: how to recognize the legitimacy of the worlds lived and conceived by extra-modern peoples — worlds that diverge in important aspects from the western worldview — while acknowledging that these peoples are, like all living beings on earth, facing the “same” ecological collapse of global dimensions? Just when the ideal of universalism seemed to have lost much of its prestige in the human sciences (due to the accumulation of atrocities committed in its name), the Anthropocene threatens to bring it back into the picture. The ongoing ecological catastrophe is global — that is, certain well-identified anthropogenic impacts have systemic repercussions everywhere on the planet. Would this imply the epistemic indestructibility of the category of the universal?
In recent writings, the philosopher Patrice Maniglier has been trying to clarify the ambiguous nature of this “global.” First, the warming is global because it unexpectedly places beings in connections that are alien to the logic of ecosystems; CO₂ emissions from cars circulating in Rio de Janeiro, for example, reach the atmosphere and affect places as far away as Alaska or the Pacific Islands. But warming is global also (and especially) because what happens in Alaska or the Pacific Islands is “not necessarily ‘exactly the same thing’ […] [b]ut it is nonetheless part of something that must in some sense be construed as one, even though its manifestations and mechanisms are remarkably diverse.” Maniglier illustrates this claim by recounting how a hunter of the Gwich’in people in Alaska, upon coming across the rotting intestines of the reindeer he had just killed, told the anthropologist Nastassja Martin: “You see, the Chinese pollute and our reindeer die.” Although the agents involved in this phenomenon explained by the Gwich’in hunter are not the same as those present in the scientific narrative, both discourses attribute to China, a highly polluting country, at least some responsibility for the observed degradation.
Admitting that the earth is not univocal implies recognizing as legitimate other peoples’ ways to conceive the world and the beings that inhabit it.
However, if the Gwich’in and so many other non-Western peoples are concerned about the recent intrusion of exogenous beings into their worlds, this does not mean that relations with these new beings are constructed and lived on the same terms established by science. Such an assumption would remove the ontological autonomy of these other worlds, reducing them to mere representations of a reality unveiled by scientific knowledge. To prevent global warming from serving as a pretext for new colonialisms, Maniglier outlines a pluralist ontology, with the worlds of the various cosmologies constituting divergent realities. The earth, thus, would be a kind of structure in which these realities relate to each other through their divergences.
The earth is our real equivocation, it is this “common” ground that only exists through the diverging ways by which the very unification is made. The earth is not a transcendent identity; it is the dynamic of the diverging versions of itself. The earth therefore only exists because it makes sense to say that the entity uncovered by IPCC reports and the “great earth-forest” presented by Amazonian shaman Davi Kopenawa are indeed continuous with one another, which means that we have to understand how one becomes the other, without reducing either to a metaphor or just a representation of the other one. It is therefore not in the laudable achievements of the IPCC alone that we should find the earth; it is in all the “contested ecologies,” that is, in all the controversies about that which we are forced to accept that we have in common; in sum in the equivocations by which the earth, the true earth, transits.
This is the other meaning of the notion of global: it does not refer to a common grounded in what all peoples would share a priori, as the notion of universal leads one to suppose, but to a commonality that needs to be built a posteriori, in the encounter with the differences that constitute the world itself. Admitting that the earth is not univocal implies recognizing as legitimate other peoples’ ways to conceive the world and the beings that inhabit it.
This provisional communality composed a posteriori is a central aspect of the concept of cosmopolitics, coined by the philosopher Isabelle Stengers. This concept inscribes politics in a different register from the one consecrated by the old modernist habits: instead of being concerned only with human disputes that take place in the social and cultural sphere, politics is now concerned with the coexistence of multiple and divergent ways of understanding the world, no longer seeing science as the only legitimate discourse on reality, nor considering humans as the only effective agents of history. However, more than claiming the legitimacy of these other worlds and agents, the concept of cosmopolitics concerns above all the ability to exercise diplomacy, defined by the author as the articulation of “common interests that are not the same.”
The problem is that our disposition for composing does not seem to be the same in the face of all kinds of divergences and controversies. The philosopher Steven Shaviro expressed this difficulty in his blog review of Stengers’ book Cosmopolitiques:
Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.
To which Stengers responded, in a comment on the post:
First, if some contemporary so-called evolutionary thinkers wanted to create a situation where “creationism” appears as the only alternative against triumphalist crude imperialism enjoying its own dismembering nastiness in the name of “science”, they would not write otherwise. So, I refuse mobilization: I am quite unable to side with them against the enemy they so powerfully contribute to create.
In refusing to subscribe to the claim of science’s privilege to the truth, Stengers is not undervaluing scientific knowledge; neither is she putting the two sides “on an equal footing.” Rather, her attitude expresses a refusal to play the very game that created the problem, in which the dispute for truth takes place in the register of reason (embodied by science) against belief or opinion. If there is truth in what science does, it is not due to its supposedly incontestable authority, but to its ability to offer reliable answers to the problems it sets out to solve.
For the same reason, reacting to climate denialism by invoking the “scientific truth” of global warming would be tantamount to trying to settle the controversy by putting science back in the position of indisputable authority. A strategy as mistaken as it is impotent: the widespread adherence to denialism and conspiracy that we witness today is not explained simply by foolishness or lack of information, but by the loss of confidence in science and the truth it produces. In this context of general distrust, the shortcut offered by the pair of opposites true/false, which science has historically resorted to in order to disqualify any non-scientific worldview, now turns against science itself at the hands of its detractors. That being so, not only does science need to create other means to prove its worth and regain society’s trust, but it is also crucial to rethink the very notion of truth.
I propose here a conception of truth inspired by the pragmatism of William James. For James, an idea is taken as true when it proves itself useful for dealing “practically or intellectually with either the reality or its belongings.” Instead of something “ready-made from all eternity” that imposes itself upon experience by virtue of its self-evidence, truth, as pragmatism conceives it, is produced in the world, in the midst of the transformations it undergoes, and the interactions through which we bind ourselves to it. This is why Stengers and Philippe Pignarre consider pragmatism an “art of consequences.” Rather than being content with asserting a truth and denouncing a lie, the attitude toward truth must be one of vigilance — paying attention to the effects it produces in the world and how it transforms the interactions that constitute us and the reality in which we exist.
Truth is a compositional process: reality is compressed or extended as our interactions modify the way we perceive and act in the world.
However, admitting the fabricated character of truth and the interest in the effects it produces is the first step; if I do so, it is not to slip into a crude relativism, whereby “anything goes,” as if the truth were a mere matter of point of view or conviction (individual or collective). The way I propose to conceive it, truth corresponds neither to a single reality explained in scientific terms, nor to particular realities forged within each individual or in the relationship of certain individuals with their groups of belonging. It consists in the very act of connecting ideas, images, memories, relationships, expectations, desires, behaviors, and practices through which we understand and construct the reality we live in, over and over. Truth is a compositional process: reality is compressed or extended as our interactions modify the way we perceive and act in the world. It, therefore, presupposes a multiplicity of ways of fabricating this belonging, without its legitimacy being judged based on an expected correspondence with “objective reality,” nor granted only by claiming the right to a merely subjective conviction.
Therefore, if we embrace relativism, it is not to establish an unrestricted equivalence between positions or to refuse to make value judgments of the current truths; rather, it is to enable the comparison between different ways of telling the truth and of measuring, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposed, the truth value of what is said, according to criteria such as importance, necessity, and interest. The philosopher Barbara Cassin calls this “consequential relativism,” since it “does not make room for a ‘whatever,’ in the manner of an ex falso sequitur quodlibet (‘from falsehood, anything follows’); it makes room […] for a ‘better for,’ and appeals to judgment.”
To understand the concept of truth proposed here, it is necessary to move it from the register of ontology to that of politics (as Maniglier did with his ontologically pluralist conception of the earth). It is this displacement that turns relativism into an effective resource to overcome the impasse presented at the beginning of this text, as long as we do not interrupt the movement in the first stage. After abandoning the expectation of truth as eternal and absolute transcendence and recognizing that truths are made in the world, being more legitimate the more they are useful to build the reality in which we live (first political movement, the admission of ontological pluralism), relativism ceases to designate an abstention from value judgment and becomes a valuable tool to compare truth propositions according to their contribution to the desired political effects — a political or cosmopolitical movement of confrontation and negotiation of divergences. From the true/false opposition, we move to the better/worse comparison. This shift in perspective affords us more effective means of making truth a means of building partial connections between divergent worlds to create, however temporarily and unstably, a commonality around the question at hand.
Since we have ventured into the terrain of consequential relativism, I would like to propose, albeit as a hypothesis to be developed and verified, some criteria to judge the soundness of a proposition postulated as truth. The first of them would be, as already mentioned, its usefulness: is such a proposition capable of guiding our interactions, of aiding our understanding of reality, of contributing to the construction of our belonging to the world?
The second criterion involves openness to narrative composition. To think of truth as a worlding activity implies admitting that part of its strength lies in the ability to involve people in the stories told about that world; in the power to arouse interest in telling the stories by which people bind themselves to a truth. As Cassin reminds us, all fiction is waiting for good readers — that is, for a collective that complements, modifies, or resumes the story in its own way.
The third criterion, perhaps the most crucial of all, is that of adherence to the world. In a recent interview, Donna Haraway said that to discuss post-truth (but we could also say denialism) is to enter “an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world.” Cassin’s diagnosis goes in the same direction: instead of engaging readers, as happens in good fiction, post-truth demands that they obey; it is an authoritative lie that gains supporters possibly because, faced with the fraying of the social fabric caused by the current crisis of democracy, people end up desperately seeking a leader who promises to meet their yearnings for a better life. But this expectation of a quick and definitive solution erects a truth that favors submission and oppression, not composition, and is therefore oblivious to the agencies and movements that are constantly changing the reality in which we live.
On the contrary, the truth proposed here must elicit responses that are not tailored by the generalist authority of a universalistic imperative. It must be patiently constructed, embracing the mediations, hesitations, and divergences that confer its strength, its solidity. This does not mean, as should be clear by now, that all disagreements have equal value: attention is needed to distinguish disagreements and recalcitrance that contribute to complexifying the issue from those that intend to circumvent the truth-building process by making use of pre-established certainties. The problems around which truth can be established need to intrigue us, to question us, to invite us to build new relationships, to admit new members to the political circle, to recognize other perspectives, to reevaluate answers that so far have been satisfactory.
The more the truth can reflect the diverse interests of those implicated in the issue, and welcome new possibilities for understanding the problem, the more it will be capable of engaging and producing community. This capacity is a very effective way of measuring the truth’s consistency. The question of verification, in this sense, is crucial: does a given idea, definition, or hypothesis presented as a candidate for truth reflect the plurality of agencies, movements, concerns, and expectations involved in an issue? Does such a candidate offer feasible, credible, responsible answers to deal with the problem that questions us, that has called into question the way we have thought and acted in the world up to that point? Or, as Haraway summarizes, “Do things hold or not?”
It is above all this last criterion that is not met by the “truth” of the denialists. Their attitude expresses the desire for a truth that stabilizes the movements of the world, that suppresses contradictions and reduces the world’s complexity; a desire for an immutable truth that, paradoxically, causes “alternative truths” to proliferate. The disputes in which they engage present the world as incapable of arousing fascination, care, and apprehension; on the contrary, the world must immediately become unimportant again, subject to the authority of a truth that is reassuring, because it is valid once and for all.
On the other hand, the truth that interests us here, the “sufficient” truth, resorts to engagement rather than imposition; it can produce pragmatic convergences without flattening ontological and political divergences; and it is not afraid of being interested, fabricated, produced in the world, with the world, and with the beings that participate in the world. This perspective provides us with the means to compare the truth claimed by the denialists with the truth expressed in the exhortations (scientific and non-scientific) to pay attention to the transformations that the earth is going through today. The latter is much more consistent than those of the deniers, for they concern a living, dynamic world in which conditions favorable to life are not guaranteed once and for all. A world whose history is made of contingent events and unheard-of connections, populated by countless beings acting upon each other, multiplying and dying out, becoming means of life for each other. No single narrative is able to encompass everything that can be said about this unpredictable, dynamic world, a world continuously giving birth to creations and modifications. Thus, the potential of adherence to this truth depends on its ability both to reflect the agencies and movements of the world and to allow the diverse perspectives to add something to the reality we share.
For truth to effectively intervene in the disputes that take place in the Anthropocene, it is necessary to think of it as a practice of cultivating belonging and of learning about the connections that sustain and make our reality exist. Truth is fabricated through the engagement of affects and their reciprocal production, constituting bonds as a way to prepare for an event that establishes something new, and preferably good enough for those interested in the issue. In this way, the “inconvenient truth” of climate change is inconvenient not only because it demands deep and rapid changes in the way we live and coexist with other beings, but because an idea of truth anchored in scientism is neither suitable to characterize the way heterogeneous worlds negotiate their divergences, nor to combat those who profit from environmental collapse.
The cosmopolitical challenge posed by the Anthropocene, thus, concerns the ability to create unusual and non-consensual alliances and histories, availing ourselves not of denial, which is the weapon employed by the enemy, but of attention to the means of building and maintaining realities good enough for us and for the beings who co-create this earth with us — which, although unique, is far from being univocal.