Comment on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age

One can understand Dipesh’s new book as a pressing invitation to question our perspectives on the challenges of climate change. To do so, Dipesh reminds us that we need to reconsider the basic understandings of our condition as humans. Following his approach, climate change cannot purely be met through our everyday practice as citizens and our democratic policies. Instead, Dipesh suggests distinguishing between the “globe” and the “planetary”.

We need to shift our perspective towards the planetary since it allows us to see what is made unseen by the global perspective. Global history is made by humans. It centers the human and surrounds it with the non-human. We understand humans as rational agents. We think we can calculate the effects of our capitalist form of life and control our desires. We do recognize the harm we keep on doing to the planet. Still, we also realize the limits of our regional approaches. We seem to be stuck within our created structures but accept them as given. Shifting to the planetary helps us put the harm we are doing to our surroundings into context. From the planetary perspective, we can see the immense geophysical force humans have evolved to become within the Anthropocene. The planetary decenters the human. In planetary history, the “humans come late”, as Dipesh writes in his book. Still, our consuming way of living determines the climate and all life on earth – human and non-human. This distinction between human and non-human is reflected in different temporalities: deep time, in which the planetary resides, and historical time, which is ‘our’ human scale. Bridging these two modes becomes the main challenge in facing the planetary.

Reconsidering the basic understandings of our condition as humans also means asking ourselves what Dipesh’s planetary approach means for our field of expertise. Who counts as human? Since Frantz Fanon, this question has been at the center of postcolonial theories. Fanon’s work aims at a new understanding of the human to an account that liberates the Eurocentric taxonomy of “being human” since it is interwoven in imperialism and colonial rule. In his book, Dipesh criticizes the focus on what divides us and the skepticism towards universalities in postcolonial thought. He says it made postcolonialists blind to the challenges of environmental or climate justice. Taking Dipesh’s thesis seriously would mean conceptualizing a humanism that decenters the human and takes all life into account.

This “more-than-human” account would still be a task for the Humanities since academic institutions enforce a logocentric approach to knowledge. This opens the question whether the human is even able to grasp deep historical time beyond ‘scientific’ facts against the backdrop of the modernist tendency to provide certainty. In that sense, modernity has profoundly contributed, if not created the affective and mental limitations of the human to decenter himself and foster a planetary perspective.

Dipesh, towards the end of the book, identifies modernity’s role in the loss of human reverence, which may be linked to these potential limits of cognitive, rational-scientific knowledge and the need for a deeper transformation of what it means to be human. In other words: a planetary perspective might entail not only an epistemological shift of perspective, but also an ontological one.

The postcolonial critique of colonial and racial continuities has not become less important. But Dipesh reminds us that it must be implanted into a larger context. Fanon’s famous outcry reminds us to constantly reflect on our understanding of being human: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” Or may I respectfully correct Fanon and say, “a human who asks questions!” For Fanon, his body continually reminds him that there is always something outside the symbolic order. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers says the idea of “the human” is brought to the world by something-he-is-not. Following the existentialism of Fanon and Jaspers, one could say that our body connects us to the something-we-are-not, the non-human. It reminds us of the necessity of the non-human for our being as embodied minds.

Centering our body in our thoughts means decentering the human towards a planetary perspective. Destroying the planet through our geophysical force destroys our material basis. To stay human or become human means recognizing that we are – primarily – nothing but complex, multicellular life, just like the planet itself. Therefore, the task of Fanon’s revolutionary humanism today would be politically linking both. Caring for those who are not (yet) accounted as human and caring for the non-human since it is fundamental for our being.

By Pauls, Christina/ Weber, Nicki K.