Pondering Planet Politics: A Response to Peltonen

13 November 2017, 1123 EST

I was fascinated by a brilliantly written, and well-thought out, guest post here on Duck, by Hannes Peltonen, posted over the weekend. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you won’t be disappointed. Peltonen presents an argument that digs into recent debates about the seemingly ubiquitous “anthropocene” and its relationship to world politics—and particularly the ways that IR theory should approach issues relating to humankind’s interconnectedness with natural/planetary processes.

I’d like to take the opportunity to engage with Peltonen’s argument, with an eye toward extending the discussion into a few new directions. Specifically, I think the issue of the anthropocene paints an even grimmer picture for the future of IR.

Peltonen’s argument draws on previous critiques of IR theory’s inability to constitute itself as a discipline with a “big idea” (drawing on arguments by Justin Rosenberg about IR wedding itself too closely to political science), sticking IR in a sort of purgatory of borrowing from other disciplines, while having little cross-disciplinary import on its own. Peltonen then takes this critique as a starting point for thinking about IR’s big idea as centering on a “planet politics.” He writes:

“Planet Politics is an effort to re-think the starting premises of IR and to draw attention to the relations between human and non-human.”

While I think Peltonen is on to something here regarding a new avenue for future research—especially in the ways that a politics of nature/anthropocene/capitalocene/planet/etc might help us understand international/transnational processes—I have a much bleaker outlook on what these processes mean for the future of IR theory as an enterprise.

First, I am not so sure that IR has been inattentive to humankind’s intertwining with nature. Early deterrence theory, and its critics, delved deeply into the implications of nuclear weapons and the human potential to author its own Armageddon.

Two examples are illustrative.

Thomas Schelling on nuclear weapons:

“Man has, it is said, for the first time in history enough military power to eliminate his species from the earth […]” (p. 18, Arms and Influence).

Schelling notes that the scale of death is maybe not new, but speed is.

And, Hedley Bull, in talking about order vs. justice, notes that these kind of debates are ubiquitous in IR (and he was writing in the 1970s):

“[i]t is not uncommon to speak of a general nuclear war as not simply a disaster for the society of states and an infringement on individual human rights, but also as a threat to human life or human civilization as such.” (p. 81, The Anarchical Society).

He continues on the same page:

“In discussions of ecological or environmental questions the basic appeal that is being made is not to co-operation among states or to individual human rights and duties, but to solidarity of all human beings in facing certain ecological or environmental challenges that face them as human beings.”

The recognition of a planet politics is there in classic IR texts, and—to some extent—post-nuclear revolution security studies is a planet politics project. The problem, however, is precisely the critique that scholars like Robert Cox raised decades ago about IR as “problem-solving” theory—its real legacy from political science. What did we learn from this first wave of planet politics? That mutually assured destruction (MAD) could save us from Armageddon? That finding the right strategies to managing conflict escalation can prevent nuclear war? The planet’s future hanging on the promises of political science.

Second, I’m not as optimistic as Peltonen about the future of an IR based on planet politics. What IR theory has shown is that most of its practitioners are interested in trying to explain, or give policy prescriptions, for political issues. What IR has yet to do (or rather, has done only on the margins) is help us understand how to live in the context of human-caused environmental changes. Other work outside IR on this idea of post-human relations has approached this issue from a variety of angles with more success. Donna Haraway’s new book, for example, urging us to focus on a “making-with” approach to relating to a dying earth, focuses less on “solving” the problem than on living in it.

The problem of the anthropocene for IR is not, therefore, in regards to reconstituting a “big idea.” The anthropocene has shown that IR is a dying field: when we recognize paradigm changing processes, like climate change, it is in an effort to “control” them, or to bring them under the frame of problem-solving theory. IR cannot do that in an age where humankind’s mastery of nature is an illusion, and may—in fact—be leading us down the road to a literal “end of history.”

That is not to say that alleviating the effects of climate change is a lost cause. On the contrary, we should devote a lot of energy to it. But, there’s no going back to a pre-anthropocene era (and maybe humans never existed in such an era). The study of global processes, largely, needs to move beyond IR. Maybe even leaving it behind. This is a hard pill to swallow. Many of us work in political science departments teaching IR, and find great fulfillment in doing so. There’s a political economy of IR that is very real for many of us. However, if our goal is the study of global processes under the specter of mass extinction, maybe we need to look elsewhere for an intellectual center-point.

In short, rather than trying to adapt IR to a planet politics, maybe (to borrow phraseology from Roy Scranton) it’s time for IR to learn how to die in the anthropocene.