The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689), by Meindert Hobbema. Courtesy the National Gallery, London


We are nature

Spinoza helps diagnose the bad ideas and sad passions that preclude us from a finer relationship with the natural world

by Beth Lord + BIO

The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689), by Meindert Hobbema. Courtesy the National Gallery, London

In his book Novacene (2019), James Lovelock writes: ‘We must abandon the politically and psychologically loaded idea that the Anthropocene is a great crime against nature … The Anthropocene is a consequence of life on Earth; … an expression of nature.’

This insight resonates with the 17th-century philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. Lovelock is the inventor of Gaia theory, the idea that the Earth is one living organism that regulates and strives to preserve itself. Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ is an alternative name for what Spinoza in his Ethics calls ‘God, or nature’: the one individual who makes up the entire universe, ‘whose parts … vary in infinite ways, without any change of the whole Individual’. Lovelock follows Spinoza in believing that humans and our actions are expressions of nature, even when we appear to destroy nature. He follows Spinoza too in holding that we should rejoice in what the Anthropocene has made possible: massive increases of human activity and knowledge.

But how can we feel good about 400 years of decimating the natural environment and causing anthropogenic climate change? How can we get over our feelings of guilt, fear and despair about our impact on nature – and why should we try to do so?

For decades, Lovelock has warned of the global heating that will permanently alter human and nonhuman ways of life. His recent publications reveal an understanding, shared with Spinoza, that these natural transformations are profoundly amoral. Gaia strives to preserve itself, to preserve life as such: Gaia, God or nature doesn’t have any interest in preserving this or that species, or any particular configuration of the Earth. Lovelock also shares with Spinoza the understanding that human transformations of the Earth are part of nature, however much we might think of certain actions as harming or destroying nature. By seeking our own advantage and transforming our environment, human beings don’t destroy nature: we are nature, transforming itself. The effects of these activities are, from nature’s point of view, neither good nor bad.

For Spinoza, the moral value of human transformations of the Earth comes from their value for us as human beings. He defines ‘good’ as whatever we ‘certainly know to be useful to us’ and that we therefore strive for. On this definition, the actions we’ve taken in the Anthropocene period have been immensely good for human empowerment.

The Anthropocene is the geological era characterised by the human power to use stored energy to transform the physical world on a massive scale. Lovelock dates its origin to 1712 with Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the coal-fired steam pump. People burned coal prior to this date, but the steam pump, through draining mines, enabled the efficient unearthing of enormous stores of energy. This was an invention that gave people greater power to produce light and heat to extend the working day, to produce and move goods around the world, to travel and build, and to become wealthier. With this came greater power to learn and know, to thrive and flourish, and – at least for some – to be free of danger and want. These powers of wealth, health, happiness and freedom have never been evenly distributed, but their enhancement generated the thinking and action that produced universal benefits such as clean drinking water, sewerage and education, creating more opportunities for the enhancement of the population’s knowledge and ability to thrive.

The Anthropocene produces in us feelings of sadness, longing, guilt, anger and resentment

It cannot be denied that the Anthropocene has involved great progress towards achieving what Spinoza takes to be the greatest human goods: greater power to act, greater power to think and greater understanding of God, or nature, itself. For Spinoza, that which increases human action and thinking is useful to us, and therefore good: on this account, deriving energy from fossil fuels has been a great human good over the past 400 years. Spinoza’s Ethics suggests that we should rejoice at this enormous increase of human power and knowledge. Similarly, Lovelock, at the age of 100, wrote that his last word on the Anthropocene is ‘a shout of joy – joy at the colossal expansion of our knowledge of the world and the cosmos that this age has produced’.

And yet, of course, we cannot rejoice. We cannot rejoice in our ongoing use of fossil fuels, because we now know that taking coal, oil and gas out of the Earth contributes to global heating. We know that global heating causes massive, cascading disruptions of the regulatory systems of weather, geography and ecology that preserve and sustain human life. We cannot rejoice in the burning of the Amazon rainforests or the pollution of the oceans, even if we understand that they are the effects of human beings striving to seek their advantage. Even the real benefits of increased living standards in India and China give us pause, because those increases lead to greater demands for energy and meat.

And this is to say nothing of our inability to rejoice in the loss or diminishment of species of insects, plants, animals and places that sustain our lives and give us joy. The Anthropocene produces in us feelings of sadness, longing, guilt, anger and resentment. These feelings are all the more strongly felt because we understand the climate crisis to be anthropogenic: we believe that we caused it through a series of choices, and that we might have chosen otherwise. As Spinoza says, we feel most keenly those emotions that are caused by beings we believe to be free.

In Part III of the Ethics, Spinoza offers a lexicon of the emotions, or ‘passions’, defining and explaining the causes and behavioural effects of each one. We might expect to feel repentance about environmental destruction: sadness accompanied by the idea of ourselves as its cause. Yet repentance is strikingly absent in discussions of the climate crisis. Instead, we feel guilty for what we have done, and continue to do, to exacerbate global heating; we resent our forebears who got us into this situation; we are angry at politicians who fail to take meaningful action; and, overwhelmingly, we feel fear. We fear the predicted effects of 400 years of seeking our advantage through transforming the Earth, effects that will not only be climatic but also social and political. We fear that our children will inherit a degraded Earth. We fear that we have caused this devastation and this curtailment of our children’s flourishing. The emotion that plagues us is fear of our own power.

For Spinoza, ‘power’ (potentia) refers to a thing’s capacity to be what it is and to act from its nature. Each thing strives to persevere in its being, to seek its own advantage, and to do those things that follow from its nature to achieve these ends. Spinoza links power to virtue and explains that the more we strive for what is advantageous to our being and acting, the more powerful, and therefore virtuous, we are. We seek to do those things that preserve our being and increase our power to act. As we act in ways that are good for us but bad for nature, it is easy to see how our power appears fearful. Seeking to preserve our being and increase our power to act involves being bound up in complex systems of energy extraction and food production that contribute directly to climate change.

Fear of our own power means that we fear what follows from our own nature: we fear our essential tendency to seek our advantage. We fear our power only to the extent that we doubt its effects. Fear is a sadness that arises from imagining an uncertain future outcome. Once doubt about the future has been removed, fear becomes either despair or confidence. Where there is doubt about the outcome of seeking our advantage, we fear our power; where there is no doubt that our actions are destructive, we despair of it.

Campaigns for neo-fascist leaders all make strategic use of fear and take pride in lack of knowledge

Now, whenever we feel any kind of sadness, Spinoza argues, we strive to destroy its cause. So, when we fear or despair of our own power, we strive to destroy our own striving, or ‘to avert it from ourselves, so that we shall not regard it as present’. This results in self-destructive behaviour. Fear of our own power leads us to act in ways that are contrary to our advantage, even as we are naturally determined to act for the sake of our advantage. We vacillate between seeking our advantage and trying to distance ourselves from our power and desire.

Spinoza takes this to be a perverse situation that indicates low levels of virtue and knowledge. For the sad passions diminish our power to act and think, and sadness directed towards our own power is a diminishment of our desire to exist. The foundation of virtue is the desire to preserve our being and the knowledge of what is good for our self-preservation. Fear and despair ‘show a defect of knowledge and a lack of power in the Mind’, and self-destructive feelings indicate ignorance of oneself and ‘very great weakness of mind’. In this situation, we have poor knowledge of ourselves and what is good for us, and we are unable to think rationally.

Widespread fear of our own power and degraded self-knowledge can have significant effects. Consider ‘fake news’ and the notion that we live in a ‘post-truth’ era. Misinformation is nothing new, but indifference to truth might well be. Fearing our own power entails that we fear the mind’s power to know, and we doubt knowledge that has been arrived at by solid inferential methods. Fears and doubts about climate change have arisen together, alongside vacillation over what to do about it. In a milieu of doubt, denial and uncertainty about our ‘overall geopolitical situation’, it becomes, as Bruno Latour put it in Down to Earth (2017), a kind of survival reflex to adopt a general indifference to the facts so that, when presented with streams of disconnected claims, we neither assent to nor deny them.

All sad passions, for Spinoza, are experienced as diminished power. When we fear our own power, we might feel this disempowerment to be what our power consists in. Disempowerment becomes our basis for striving, acting and thinking, generating what Friedrich Nietzsche in 1887 called ressentiment. Spinoza calls this humility, which is not virtuous self-effacement but an ‘evil and useless’ passion closely aligned to self-regard and envy. Because we naturally rejoice in our own power to act, we perversely celebrate our own weakness. Our fears and resentments become the basis of misplaced pride and arrogance. As we know, those feelings can be put to political uses: our climate fears have loomed behind campaigns for Brexit, Donald Trump and populist and neo-fascist leaders, all making strategic use of fear and resentment, and taking pride in lack of knowledge. When we fear our own power and its effects on the ground we stand on, we are easily swayed by those who promise the imagined stabilities of the land and borders of the past.

The fear induced by the climate crisis has significant social and political effects. This fear is directed at ourselves, and we believe it to be caused by ourselves: by what human power has done and will do to nature. Spinoza argues that all passions are linked to ‘inadequate ideas’: ideas from everyday experience that are impressionistic, confused and often erroneous. Fear of our own power is linked to two such ideas: the idea that human beings over the past 400 years were free to take different actions or exercise their striving in a different way, and the idea that our actions and striving are contrary to nature.

Spinoza thinks that these are deep misunderstandings of our place in the world. First, humans are not really free to choose differently. By virtue of being part of ‘God’s absolute nature’, we have no free will, and ‘all things have been predetermined by God’. The human beings of the past 400 years were thoroughly determined to extend their power and knowledge as they did, and we continue to be so determined. Human beings are part of nature. We don’t transcend nature; nature is not an object standing over there, that we do things to. To put it in metaphysical terms, God, or nature, is the ‘substance’ of which we are ‘modes’; we and our actions follow from its essence. According to Spinoza, a thing’s essence cannot contain that which negates it, so it is impossible that our actions could be contrary to nature. Nature is infinitely variable, and in causing changes in nature we don’t diminish or destroy nature; our actions are nature changing itself.

Seen in this way, what we designate as the climate crisis is just one sequence of nature’s infinite variations. What appears as a massive and devastating upheaval from our perspective is business as usual for infinite and eternal nature. Since we were not free to avert it, we are not morally responsible for the changing climate, rising sea levels or extinction of species, and we should get over our feelings of guilt and blame. Indeed, we should get over all our sad passions, for once we understand that God is the source, ground and cause of all things, we understand that God is the cause of our sadness. According to Spinoza’s formula for overcoming the passions, understanding the cause of sadness means it ‘ceases to be a passion, that is … it ceases to be Sadness. And so, insofar as we understand God to be the cause of Sadness, we rejoice.’

But surely this is not good enough. It is not enough to say that we have done nothing wrong because we are part of nature, we have only acted according to our nature, and everything that happens follows from God’s nature. For human beings are, after all, causally responsible for the accelerated melting of the polar ice caps and the burning of the Amazon. We are causally responsible for the changes in land use that have removed the habitats of pollinating insects, drastically reducing their numbers. Logically, perhaps, we cannot act contrary to nature, yet we can and do act in ways that are contrary to other things and species.

The flourishing of ice caps, trees and butterflies has a direct impact on our flourishing

Spinoza believes that we are entitled to kill animals and use natural resources in pursuit of our own advantage. Our right to do so is based in our greater power. No moral codes govern our relations to nonhumans, for they take place in the ‘state of nature’, where there is no good or evil, and no law but natural right. For Spinoza as for Thomas Hobbes, whose social contract theory he broadly follows, the state of nature is bad for human flourishing. To minimise and control our fear of one another, human beings had to form civil states, delimited realms of human activity determined by human laws. These laws reflect what a given community of humans determines is good for their flourishing. Animals and things cannot be citizens, and their flourishing is not a goal of Spinoza’s civil state, unless their flourishing has a direct impact on our own.

We now understand, in a way that Spinoza did not, that the flourishing of ice caps, trees and butterflies does have a direct impact on our flourishing. Spinoza understands that all things are interconnected parts of nature, but he understands this in strictly metaphysical terms, not in terms of ecological systems. From his vantage in the 1660s, Spinoza would not have understood that it is good, and indeed necessary, for the preservation of human life that the ice caps remain frozen and the Amazon forest remains intact. The understanding of our profound interdependence on all of nature, in a biological sense, is a product of the knowledge we have gained in the late Anthropocene; Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson was pioneering in this regard.

We should strive to support the flourishing of other animals and natural things not out of pity or guilt or fondness, but because their flourishing is essential for our flourishing. Recall that for Spinoza, ‘good’ is what we certainly know to be useful to us: we certainly know the utility of the ice caps remaining frozen, of the Amazon remaining intact, and of bees and butterflies continuing to thrive. According to Spinoza, this certain knowledge should determine us to strive for those ends. Given that we know that the flourishing of other beings on Earth is instrumental to our own, what prevents us from striving for it? Spinoza argues that passions and inadequate ideas can derail us from affirming and acting on what we know to be good. In these cases, we need laws to make us act well: laws that are determined by a state that agrees on shared goals. Laws tell us how to act when we don’t know, or can’t remember, what is good for us.

Although we can’t attribute this view to Spinoza himself, it follows from his philosophy that we need to legislate for the flourishing of nonhuman beings. It is in our own interest to do so. And of course, states and unions of states have legislated for environmental protections and rights. But national and even international agreements don’t provide laws that are far-reaching enough to respond to anthropogenic climate change. What is needed to deal with the climate crisis is legislation on the scale of the whole Earth.

In Down to Earth, Latour suggests that we go beyond the civil state to form a terrestrial state, the goal of which is the flourishing of all the individuals and systems that compose it. This is a new version of the social contract story. Its classical formulation, used by Hobbes and Spinoza to think about the foundations of politics, takes place in the Holocene era, immediately preceding the Anthropocene. To neutralise their fear of mutual violence (so the story goes), human beings gave up their natural right and formed the civil state. Doing so enabled them to understand that their flourishing depended on the collectivisation of their power. Now in the late Anthropocene, we find ourselves back in the state of nature: a state of constant fear, propelled and horrified by our own natural right to do whatever we can. Perhaps we need a political solution in the form of Latour’s terrestrial state that collectivises the powers of all living beings and aims at the preservation and flourishing of life as such. Perhaps such a move would neutralise our fear of our own power.

Latour argues that we must replace the concept of nature as the framework for human action with a concept of the terrestrial. On this model, the Earth itself is understood to be a political actor, and politics becomes a sphere in which human beings have a non-central role. In a terrestrial social contract, we give up our natural right over other species, and we agree to cooperate with the not-exclusively-human others on whom we mutually depend. This vision of a politics of the Earth is not a ‘return to nature’, or an attempt to reconstruct nature prior to human intervention. This position doesn’t call for the removal of civil states or the reversal of human progress. Like all political structures, the ‘terrestrial state’ is an artificial public thing, a res publica, that must be established by its members and made to work through laws and institutions.

We can start to affirm our own power because it is part of the power of nature

How would such a state work in practice? Would animals and insects become citizens? Should rivers and forests have seats at the UN? Should nature be recognised as a collective subject with legal rights, as has happened in Bolivia and Ecuador? Such strategies have their uses. But the procedural detail of how to establish a terrestrial state is less important than its utility as a narrative. Unlike Hobbes, Spinoza stresses that the social contract story is just that: a story, designed to bind people together as citizens. The emergence of the civil state from the state of nature is not a historical fact, but a fiction that makes us understand the power and advantage of all humans working together towards common goals. When people commit to this narrative, they act in ways that promote the common good, even if they don’t fully understand why they should do so. The terrestrial state is a similarly useful fiction that can bind us together, not just as humans seeking human flourishing, but as ‘terrestrials’ seeking the flourishing of life as such.

We already see other terrestrial beings as constituting a state, but it is a state that we perceive ourselves to be at odds with: ‘nature’ as the object alternately of our guilt-ridden violence, pity or longing, something over there that we do things to. What we need is a narrative that rejects those perceptions and feelings, and founds a citizenry of all living beings. A story of the ‘contract’ by which we gave up our right to dominate nature and realised that we are part of it. A story that leads us to act and feel differently, and that instils in us a commitment to worldwide legislation for a less fearful, precarious and oppositional way of being on Earth.

Spinoza argues that there is great power in understanding that our actions are part of nature. For then we understand that everything that happens is nature changing itself. To be responsible citizens of the Earth requires that we act for what is truly to our advantage, based on the most complete understanding available of what is good for us. If we act according to that understanding, we will exercise our power without fear.

When we stop fearing our own power, we might be able to get over the sad passions of guilt, blame and anger that we feel about the climate crisis. Nor will we feel any repentance. For to understand that we are part of nature is to better understand our causal role in the changes occurring on Earth. We understand that our actions in extracting coal, oil and gas were good in the past, but are bad now – not because they are immoral, but because they are bad for our flourishing. The sad passions we directed towards ourselves, once they are understood, cease to be passions, and become actions of the mind. We can start to affirm our own power because it is part of the power of nature. And nature has the power to strive for what is good for life as a whole.