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Pre-Race Post-Race: Climate Change and Planetary Humanism

by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Article

…we have forgotten where we came from. This is a double forgetting: of the elements through which all living things are born and live, a cosmological element; and of the specific body, indeed a chain of bodies, from which we come. Life is this double debt.[1]

The prevailing critical response to the ignoble history of racial typology has been to divest race of anything reminiscent of biological or material underpinnings: to treat it as a largely semiotic venue at which social processes manifest their pernicious effects. Race, in short, has been imagined as a cultural machinery; a fictional narrative, peddling various deterministic plot lines that converge upon the flesh of the human body. As such, anti-racist scholarship has mounted a sustained critique of the scientific ontologies that have been used to naturalise and secure racial hierarchies. ‘Conceptually, race is not a scientific category’ Stuart Hall avers. Rather as an ideology masquerading as a scientific fact, race has been seen as gaining its discursive power from an internal logic whereby:

It claims to ground the social and cultural differences which legitimize racialized exclusion in genetic and biological differences: i.e. in Nature. This “naturalising effect” appears to make racial difference a fixed, scientific “fact”, unresponsive to change or reformed social engineering.[2]

The rise of constructionist approaches to race during the last forty years or so has marked a creative and politically vital period of critical thought, a time when the critique of a scientistic recourse to the hierarchical ordering of human phenotypical differences has made significant inroads into raciology’s essentialisms. Yet, as Ben Pitcher observes, ‘The theoretical commitment to anti-essentialism that is dominant in the field of contemporary race thinking does not appear particularly well-equipped to deal with the social facticity of race, or to engage critically with many current sites of racial practice.’[3]

For us, the present intensified attention to climate marks an unfolding site of critical practices and new knowledge that offer incitements for reconsidering questions of race and human difference.  As geographer Neil Adger and his colleagues point out: ‘Nearly all human societies and activities are sensitive to climate in some way or other. This is because in large measure where people live and how they generate a livelihood and wealth is influenced by the ambient climate’[4].  But some people find themselves more sensitive – or more exposed – to climate than others. In the emerging critical social scientific engagement with global climate change, much has been learned from the environmental justice movement, with its decisive demonstrations that poor and racially minoritised groups have long been disproportionately exposed to the harmful by-products of industrial society.  As the problem of climate change evolves into an issue of justice on a global scale, an important emergent theme is the way that the harshest effects of a warming planet look set to reinforce existing – and strongly racialised – patterns of global privilege and under-privilege.

To put it in more concrete terms: heat, drought, extreme weather events and other manifestations of climate change, will be impacting upon bodies whose life chances are already conditioned by race.  But if human bodies at present are variously exposed and susceptible to changing climates, then the question also arises as to the longer history of vulnerability to variation in climate. ‘If racial differences are an effect of how bodies gather in the present,’ Sara Ahmed writes, ‘we must still ask what is “behind” the gatherings.’[5]. In a related sense, we ask: if racially differentiated impacts of climate change are an effect of how bodies are gathered and distributed in the present, how might the long term variability of climate also be ‘behind’ these gatherings and distributions?

Ambitious research programmes in climate science are now giving rise to operational models of the Earth’s climate systems with an unprecedented detail and complexity – offering insights into what is unknown or even unknowable as well as providing predictive knowledge. Inseparable from any modelling of future prospects is the deepening understanding of the past dynamics of planetary climate, a project which hinges on analysis of hundreds of thousands of years of sedimented polar ice, along with other proxies of prehistoric climatic variability. Increasingly detailed evidence of climate changes over geological and evolutionary timescales is raising new questions about how archaic humans met the challenge of unstable climate. At the same time, a rush of discoveries of human ancestors and near-relatives is fuelling debate about why some branches of the human family endured while others did not; to what degree there was inter-mixture between archaic human species, and what this mixity might have meant for the survival of prehistoric populations.[6]

This accumulation of paleoclimatic and paleoanthropological data, we suggest, offers an impetus for reconsidering the materiality of human difference: an incitement that ought to play a part in rethinking race and its future prospects.  In an era conditioned by profound climatic uncertainty, it is vital that critical thinkers at once look to the future and a long, long way backwards. So, rather than a further bout of sparring between socio-cultural and biological accounts of human variation, we are keen to take up the provocations of the ‘paleo’ to propose a new twist on the tension between the primitive and the hypermodern that informs social theorist Paul Gilroy’s ideas of a deracinated planetary humanism.[7]

We begin by outlining the value of Gilroy’s cultural excavations of the injustices wrought by modern traditions of raciology and his observations of the limitations and anachronism of race consciousness as earthbound. Gilroy’s post-racial imaginary, set out in Between Camps, is one that is future-oriented: a post-race that relies upon an after-race escape from biologism while assuming a given Homo sapien oneness. In distinction, our post-racial analytic might be regarded as a move towards a deep time of ‘pre-race’ from which any subsequent human unity is conceived as precarious, contingent and achieved. This post-racial pre-race deploys the combined provocations of anti-racist scholarship, climate science and paleoanthropology to empty race of its violent hierarchies by going deeper into, rather than away from, biology and its attendant vital relations.

Through this expanded ontology we suggest that change is an inherent part of the materiality of human difference. And it is because of this inescapable dynamism that race cannot be defended as a biologically stable category. Our paper, intended as a preliminary and tentative excursion, is not so much about what science can tell us about the facticity of race: rather, we are interested in what a deeper sense of the grand planetary journeys of past human populations might mean for thinking through the environmental challenges of the present. Along these lines, we ask whether an amplified sense of awareness and wonder over the differentiated pathways our human ancestors have taken to arrive in the present might lead to a reassessment of the significance of human physiological differences in current debates about race .(see Saldanha[8])

Black to the future

In the closing chapter of Between Camps, Paul Gilroy maps out the contours of a post-racial planetary humanism, drawing upon generative tensions between the hyperprimitive and the hypermodern, in his critical analysis of raciology. The chapter opens with an account of the long and fraught history of geographical determinism that equated climatic conditions with the physical and social traits of different human populations, resulting in the ranking of races into a ‘temporal evolutionary ladder’[9]. Gilroy notes the intellectual coherence that Kant lent to the epidermalising of such rankings, whereby conditions such as ‘damp heat’ were seen as giving rise to both the bodily strength and lazy disposition of those categorised as being ‘negroes’.  The chapter moves on to consider the meeting point of the otherworldly, futuristic motifs of contemporary culture with black political thought. As time in all its manifestations as lines, scales, frames and scapes is interrogated in the unfolding drama of racial politics, it is apparent that raciology for Gilroy is temporization.

Within this analytic, dissent from raciology and utopian appeals to the future are two coexistent and tussling moments in the contorted temporalities of modern racism, where, for instance, ‘denying the future and the right to be future-oriented became an integral part of the way white supremacism functioned during and after the slave system’[10]. Using an array of historical examples including the eschatology of Black Christianity, the apocalyptic, black supremacist visions of the Nation of Islam, and the interplanetary futurism of television’s Star Trek, Gilroy unearths the ambivalent moral and temporalizing thematics that have informed the development of Black political and vernacular cultures. In this schema, extraterrestriality, UFOs, and time travel are part of a politics of counter-hegemonic temporization where human differences are forced into recession by confronting them with more substantial and otherworldly differences. The task for critical politics as Gilroy sees it, lies in the work of reconnecting these otherworldly fantasies with ‘democratic and cosmopolitan traditions that have been all but expunged from today’s black political imaginary’[11].

Taking inspiration from Gilroy’s manoeuvre of disrupting racialised divisions by working between registers that are at once archaic and futuristic, grounded and otherworldly, we turn to climate science not so much as a way of redefining race outside of biology, but as a way of rethinking biology itself.  We are aware that such a move carries its own risks of resuscitating longstanding racial divisions, especially under the present conditions of competition for scarce resources and new forms of environmental dislocation. This is why it is vital that questions of racial and climate justice are thought together.  But, taking inspiration from the politics of Gilroy’s planetary humanism, we do not want to back off from the questions of human physiological difference and its genealogies that climate science is foregrounding.

Before we suggest ways of using climate science insights in the service of a planetary humanism, we must first explicate the lurking dangers and long shadows of moral climatology.

Race and Climatology

Gilroy reminds us that the association between climate and racial politics is a longstanding one. From the ancient Greeks until well into the 20th century, western thought has made routine recourse to climate as a primary determinant of particular human characteristics, temperaments, and dispositions. Geographer David Livingstone describes this discursive formation as ‘moral climatology’, characterised by ‘both a widespread tendency to deploy moralistic language in depicting climatic conditions and a conviction that it is entirely reasonable to read moral order straight off patterns of global climate’[12]. Typically, Europeans, and later North Americans, grounded the virtues they imagined most defined themselves in the geographical regions they inhabited, and projected less favoured traits onto other zones – with a particular disparagement of the tropics.

Morally adjudicated racial climatology provided a means of managing the human diversity that Europeans encountered in the course of their increasing worldwide mobility. The racialised zoning of global space did not necessarily deny the common origins of the human species, but it could be called upon to both explain and justify regional disparities and injustices. From the slave trade, to colonization and imperialism, climatically-determined divisions were rolled out in support of brutal racial typologies. A critical force in racial climatology’s repertoire was its evolutionary temporalising or the conversion of space into time, which produced geo-normative dualities such as ‘primitive’ vs ‘advanced’ or ‘backward’ vs ‘modern’.  In this chromatic system, Joannes Fabian writes that:

…Time may almost totally be divested of its vectorial, physical connotations. Instead of being a measure of movement it may appear as a quality of states; a quality, however that is unequally distributed among human populations of this world. Earlier talk about peoples without history belongs here, as do more sophisticated distinctions such as the ones between “hot” and “cold” societies.[13]

During episodes of drought and famine the equation of tropicality with backwardness could be taken by colonial authorities as justification for refusing relief. Or, as was often the case, as a rationale for extending the political-economic relations that had helped convert climatic variability into crisis in the first place (see Davis[14]). While the appeal of crude racial climatologies may have fallen out of intellectual favour over the course of the 20th century, vigilance is needed if their after-image is not to resurface in an era of accelerating climate change.

Powerful actors in the arenas of global climate politics must find ways of explaining a scenario in which the energy consumption of more heavily industrialised nations continues to impact negatively on others whose contribution to the problem is light or negligible. One of many ways in which this justifying work is done is through the legislative principle of ‘grandfathering’ – which accepts the right of historically early industrialisers to hold onto advantages that cannot conceivably be extended to all of the world’s nations or peoples. One doesn’t have to look too deeply into such rationales, we would suggest, to detect traces of a lingering distinction between more and less ‘industrious’ peoples: a division whose cartography reflects both old and more novel tropes of racial capability. So too must care be taken that the identification of populations most at threat from a warming world – even with the best political intentions – does not inadvertently revive the idea of brown-skinned peoples destined to be oppressed by intemperate weather.

Climate Change and Bodies

Taking issue with the assumption that early or later industrialising nations have earned a once-and-for-all right to emit high levels of carbon are a range of commitments to climate or energy justice: positions which explore more equitable ways of apportioning the opportunities and costs of consuming the Earth’s non-renewable energy. Most of these proposals hinge upon the assumption that no-one on the planet should be entitled to levels of fossil fuel consumption or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are denied to others, now or in the future. As environmental economist Jekwu Ikeme puts it: ‘the ethical starting point to equity is that the value given to a human life is the same throughout the world. Each individual in each generation has equal right to emissions of GHGs’.[15]

We might view this as a kind of alternative moral climatology: the still relatively novel and fragile idea of a justice that not only acknowledges universal human rights, but seeks to substantiate these rights in the very stuff of which our planet is composed. If, like Gilroy’s planetary humanism, such a justice gestures boldly at a future yet to come, it is also – at its core – resolutely attached to the modern ideal of juridico-political impartiality. This is justice wearing its symbolic blind-fold: dispassionate, immune to privilege, unswayed by visible or reputed difference. In the world of climate change negotiations, this is the justice that – at least in principle – holds court. Those who come before the international forums with claims of injustice subject themselves to a calculus of cause and effect, and in so doing they leave behind their passions, their attachments, and the specificity or singularity of their bodies.

Or do they? For what we also encounter at the climate summits and tribunals, alongside the reams of scientific evidence and the extensive debit sheets, are the anguished voices of those who are caught at the hard edge of climate change.  Representatives of communities who are on the frontline of climatic upheaval arrive not only with concrete claims and demands but with testimonials.  These narratives of pain and loss demand to be taken in good faith rather than being subjected to critical scrutiny. In advance of judgement, these voices and faces challenge their audiences not to be indifferent: they ask of us, first and foremost, that we care.  At once complicating and inspiring the quest for just resolutions, the appeal for care requires the blindfold of justice to slip – long enough to take in the vulnerability of living bodies, the singular appeal of the ones who are suffering.

If there is something unique or non-substitutable about suffering – a quality that resists conversion into metrics and abstractions – so too is there is a strong sense in stories of climate-induced affliction that the bodies in question are much more than individual. When Inuit vouch for their right to be cold or when the islanders of Kiribati or Tuvalu speak of life lived under the threat of submergence, this is at least as much about the importance of continuity with past generations as it is about the immediate prospects of present populations. Or as philosopher Judith Butler puts it, in a related context: ‘Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own’.[16].  Even if it is sometimes politically expedient to say so, this is not simply a matter of once-clement climates being plunged into chaos. For most spokespeople of those who have dwelled in-place over extended time periods, the petition for political and legal recognition of changing climatic conditions draws its force not from a stable past, but from a long history of grappling with the challenge of changeable environments. A history, that is, in which traditional knowledge and ways of life are hard won; built up and passed down through a ‘chain of bodies’, each of whom has endured, in one way or another, the variable elements of climate.

And so, we argue, contemporary climate politics opens a window to the particularity of the human body: to the experiences bodies share with others, and the potentials and capacities they inherit from the bodies that precede them. But such a sharing, strung out over generations, is not simply conveyed in memory or culture. It is also inscribed into the physiology of bodies: in differences both visible and hidden. As evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis reminds us, all biological beings bear traces of the physical challenges they have lived through, ‘Life on Earth retains a memory of its past. Living bodies store in their complex chemistry memories of past environmental limitations they overcame’.[17]  Our species, we insist, is no exception.

Following this lead, we turn now to the deeper history of human exposure to climate change. Burrowing beneath today’s changing weather patterns, we engage with the climatic volatility that has helped make us the embodied beings we are today.

Earth, wind and fire: Becoming Human

Over recent decades, amassing evidence from the climate sciences about the variability of the earth’s climate over geological time spans has added new impetus to a long-standing concern with the role of climate in human evolution. While huge gaps in the fossil record and the highly selective survival of material traces ensure that the narrating of human prehistory will remain speculative, there is none the less much to be learned from convergence between the fields of paleoclimatology and paleoanthropology.

There is now considerable agreement that the very advent of the ‘human’ is linked to a period of major climatic change: a consensus that nods to Gilroy’s planetary musings with its implication that extra-terrestrial factors helped orchestrate our earliest footsteps across the ancient African continent. Currently, anthropologists locate the divergence of the genus Homo (composed of numerous ‘human’ species, one of which eventually led to Homo sapiens) from fellow ‘great apes’ in the east of Africa some 2.5 million years ago. This is around the time when increased aridity in the Rift area of Eastern Africa led to a reduction in tree cover, and expansion of the savannahs, exacerbated by repeated multi-millennial transitions in and out of glacial episodes at higher latitudes [18]. The work of paleoclimatologists suggests that three main ‘forcing’ mechanisms were in play (the term “forcing” signifies a physical process that drives change in a system): regional tectonic uplift, orbital forcing (changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis and orbit) and global climate changes bought about by reductions in C02.[19] As anthropologist Yves Coppens describes the emergence of the earliest humans: ‘We are partly the fruit of an astronomic event, helped by a tectonic one, which produced a dramatic drought in periequatorial eastern Africa’.[20]

It has long been known that the Pleistocene, the geological epoch currently calibrated at between 2.588 million years and 10,700 years ago, was characterized by repeated glaciations, with profound influence on human evolution. Eleven major glacial events – defined by a significant advance of ice sheets – have been identified. What has more recently become apparent, from the analysis of polar ice cores now going back over 800,000 years, is how many smaller excursions of ice (known as stadials) have taken place. Temperature records indicate that there were more than 20 stadials over the approximately 100,000 span of the last glacial stage.[21] Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the evidence of the speed at which global climate has been transformed during each of the multitude of shifts between stadials and interstadials that punctuate the larger scale movement in and out glacial stages.

Many climate scientists now believe that dramatic changes in global temperature occurred in as little as a decade or even a few years. While temperature changes would have been more pronounced closer to the poles, the flip from a warmer interstadial into a cooler stadial would have had severe impacts right across the planet’s surface, resulting in declining rainfall, fierce winds and dust storms, vast forest fires and collapsing animal populations.[22] Time and time again, early humans would have had to face the rapid onset of such conditions, far enough apart to rule out any continuity of experience or cultural memory.

So extreme are the transformations associated with successive climate shifts that they can be summoned to explain just about any human achievement – from linguistic skills to tool use, social cooperation through to inter-group aggression. What is perhaps more important to grasp is the sheer improbability of surviving through a single major climatic change, let alone dozens of them. The at once obvious and miraculous implication of this feat, as climatologist William J. Burroughs notes, is that every living human being is the outcome of ‘an unbroken genetic line’ that arcs across several million years of wildly vacillating climate.[23]

This still novel sense of the precariousness of the human lineage offers a poignant counterpoint to any lingering assumption that some branches of humanity have an innate capacity to make something of themselves not shared by others. But the perplexities of paleoanthropology and paleocliamtilogy seem to do something other than simply fuse us into a panhuman unity. For around 99% of the time span currently attributed to the genus Homo, multiple species have made up the human family. So whenever evidence from human biology is rolled out to make the case that ‘The differences attributable to “race” within a population are as great as that between racially defined populations’[24], it is important to remember that this claim depends on the contingent condition of a single surviving human species. As an assertion of unity, it teeters on the shaky foundation of successive extinctions. Although, as we will shortly show, even the finality of what we think of as ‘extinction’ may now require some revision.

Climate, migration and inter-mixity

At repeated junctures during the turbulent Pleistocene, see-sawing climate change helped push and pull archaic Homo populations out of the African continent and across other landmasses. Palaeoclimatic data indicate that two important waves of expansion out of Africa and into the Eurasian landmass, dated around 1.9 million years and 700,000 years ago, coincided with an interglacial period of high rainfall in east Africa. A resultant greening of what is now the Sahara Desert would have been conducive to population movement through the area.  Subsequently, after both diasporas, the onset of colder glacial conditions would have resulted in a significant contracting of colonising populations, with localised extinctions or tenuous survival in small ‘refuge’ zones.[25]

While earlier evidence pointed to the complete disappearance of early ‘Out-of-Africa’ colonists and their replacement by a single late Pleistocene migrant population, more recent evidence supports the idea of intermixing between successive waves of migrants, in a process known as backcrossing or introgression.  Researchers in the burgeoning field of paleogenetics have found evidence that ‘anatomically modern humans’ who left Africa around 60,000 years ago had sexual trysts with Neanderthals and their close relative Denisovans  - both of whom had been inhabiting Eurasia for upwards of 200,000 years.[26] These long-term residents were much better adapted to local pathogens, and research suggests that inter-breeding gifted the newer migrants with beneficial immune system genes. The genes, called HLA class-1, are critical to the body’s ability to recognize and destroy pathogens. HLA genes are some of the most variable and mutable genes in the human genome, in part an adaptability demanded of the immune system by the rapid evolution of viruses. Within one class of the HLA gene, the researchers estimate that Europeans owe half of their variants to mixing with Neanderthals and Denisovans: for those categorised as Asians it is up to 80 percent, with the figure rising to up to 95 percent for Papua New Guineans.

In this way genetic mixing with more ‘archaic’ populations may have helped new arrivals to survive in novel environments. We need to recall also that in times of rapid environmental change, microscopic pathogens generally evolve much more quickly than larger organisms, so that a genetically diverse immune system is a vital asset. The more general conclusions being drawn from paleogenetic data on intermixing within the genus Homo is one of shifting, permeable boundaries between species or subspecies. As paleoanthropologist Trenton Holliday puts it, current thinking on human evolutionary trajectories suggests the metaphor of a ‘ braided stream’ with several broad, winding channels, connected up by smaller channels: ‘The large channels represent lineages; the smaller channels represent gene flow between them’.[27] Engaging with the admixture between long-separated archaic humans, Templeton makes a similar analogy, this time with explicit reference to the concept of race: ‘….you can be 99 percent confident that there was recurrent genetic interchange between African and Eurasian populations ….So the idea of pure, distinct races in humans does not exist. We humans don’t have a tree relationship, rather a trellis. We’re intertwined.’[28]

Perhaps what is most interesting about the reticulated vision of human evolution – aside from its resonance for readers of philosophers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari[29]– is the epoch-spanning effort required to maintain inter-connectivity amongst the diasporic populations of the genus Homo. In other words, in no way can we take human ‘oneness’ as a given. If any semblance of unity materialises out of recent accounts of ‘braided evolution’ it is one that has emerged in large part from the dying out of certain lineages, and in smaller part from the way that sexual encounters kept stringing tenuous genetic bridges between temporally and spatially divergent populations. Even after the braided channel narrowed to the solitary stream of Homo sapiens, there has been plentiful opportunity for this most peripatetic of species to further diverge into multiple tributaries. The fact that Homo sapiens, while dispersing over dozens of landmasses and thousands of islands, has maintained its genetic inter-coursing, suggests that the same capacities for social networking that enabled successful migration has also facilitated the ongoing contact and intermingling of even the most far-flung offshoots of our species.

Planetary Humanism Revisited

For the last 10,700 years, the sole surviving species of the genus Homo has been spared the climatic extremes that tested, shaped, pulled apart, threw together and often extinguished our predecessors over the preceding two and half million years. Anthropogenic climate change is now looking increasingly likely not merely to deliver us back into the climatic instability that reigned in the Pleistocene, but to generate atmospheric compositions, temperatures and tipping points whose nearest analogue is the mid-Pliocene (currently calibrated at 3.29–2.97 million years ago).[30] Conditions, in other words, that no member of our genus, let alone our species, has ever experienced.

In the current environmental predicament, cultural studies scholars Michael Ziser and Julie Tsu argue that what we need are ‘new kinds of ecocultural narratives that do not pit nation against nation, race against race…’.[31] True. But we would add, neither should the various corporeal capacities and potentials that today’s human populations have inherited from their predecessors be overlooked. Differences both visible and invisible may come to matter in new and as yet unimagined ways: including how and where we store body fat; our efficiency in metabolising nutrients; the composition of our intestinal flora; our skeletomuscular proportions; our immunological resistance to pathogens. Even, or especially, that most historically fraught of visible markers, the colour of our skin: ‘the organ that most immediately and extensively interfaces with our environments’.[32] The outcome of an extended conversation with the solar flux, and thus always already imbued with the extraterrestrial, skin pigmentation is the consequence of intensive selective pressure in the past – undoubtedly both sexual and biological. Who can yet say how such pressures will play out in a world whose average surface temperatures may be 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 degrees warmer than at present?

For us, the current challenge is to find imaginative ways of reasserting the significance of bodily specificity while avoiding recourse to discredited geographical or environmental determinisms – and the raciologies they have previously supported.More useful than simply dissolving corporeal variation into cultural difference might be the acknowledgement that the range of human biological being is itself a socio-cultural achievement.

Our discussion so far has sought to show that it takes considerable inter-generational effort to endure environmental forces long enough for them to impact upon a population’s genetic make-up. Thus we might see human physiological variation as the tribute that biology plays to successful cultural innovation and social organization.

Justice and its adventures

A crowded world at risk of being nudged over major climatic thresholds is one in which appeals for justice, or appeals for a responsiveness that exceeds what is just, will be on the ascendant.  Justice, we have argued, sets out and sustains itself through care or compassion. As Jacques Derrida and fellow ethical philosophers have insisted, such care or passion or desire to be just to others does not arise primarily from a sense of our sameness with those who turn to us in times of need.[33] Rather, it takes flight from our intimations that the others whose suffering or injustice we wish to relieve are different from us in vital ways: that their experience, their story, their pathway though life has not been the same as ours. Which means that a sense of imagined or perceived difference is not so much an impediment to justice, as its very incitement. Care, responsibility, the quest for justice, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, is ‘(t)he adventure separation opens’.[34]

The long, drawn-out, and often painful pre-racial struggles with climatic change sketched out here are offered as a way of extending and deepening this adventure of separation (and of intermittent re-uniting). Human life, we have been arguing – with the help of the ‘paleo’ stories of climatologists and anthropologists – has often been precarious. Each of us derives our current capacities and possibilities from a miraculously unbroken relay of ancestors, ‘a chain of bodies’ to whom we might see ourselves as being profoundly indebted – if in ways which we can never fully bring to light. But the bodies we have inherited, while they may have shared the same volatile planet, have often taken very different routes. Human physiological or phenotypic variety signals, amongst other things, that we have survived and thrived differently. It hints, if often in ambiguous and misleading cues, that our predecessors faced different ecological and geophysical provocations, and found different solutions to the challenge of vacillating climate. When members of visibly distinct human populations meet, it may well be over a hiatus of 15, 30, or 60, 000 years, and one or many continental or oceanic divides. The miracle of any such meeting is that we can so often bridge these vast spatio-temporal rifts in a few moments.

We propose, then, an alternative moral climatology, another planetary humanism, in which biophysical difference within our species is affirmed and explored rather than disavowed: one in which new futurologies take full account of the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures. Proliferating the base matter of our variability, rather than subtracting from it, we suggest, might best serve to arrest the slide from impartiality to indifference when the heat is really on. Whether we overcome impermeable racial typologies by multiplying our differences and similarities into ‘a thousand tiny races’[35] or by seeking to banish the concept of race altogether may ultimately be less important than the question of how best we might reconnect with our varying bodily inheritances when heavy weather descends.


1.  Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 2  [↑]

2.  Stuart Hall, Conclusion: the Multi-cultural Question, in Banor Hesse (ed), Un/settled Multiculturalisms: Diasporas, Entanglements, Transruptions (London: Zed Books), 209-241, 222-223.  [↑]

3. Ben Pitcher, The Materiality of Race Theory’, Darkmatter (2008). [↑]

4.  W. Neil Adger, Saleemul Huq, Katrina Brown, Declan Conway, and Mike Hulme, Adaptation to climate change in the developing world, Progress in Development Studies 3,3 (2003): 179–195.  [↑]

5.  Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 142-143.  [↑]

6.  Laurent Abi-Rached, Matthew J. Jobin, Subhash Kulkarni, Alasdair McWhinnie, Klara Dalva, Loren Gragert, Farbod Babrzadeh, Baback Gharizadeh, Ma Luo, Francis A. Plummer, Joshua Kimani, Mary Carrington, Derek Middleton, Raja Rajalingam, Meral Beksac, Steven G. E. Marsh, Martin Maiers, Lisbeth A. Guethlein, Sofia Tavoularis, Ann‑Margaret Little, Richard E. Green, Paul J. Norman and Peter Parham. The Shaping of Modern Human Immune Systems by Multiregional Admixture with Archaic Humans, Science

(published on-line 25th August 2011).  [↑]

7.  Paul Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race. (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000).  [↑]

8.  Arun Saldanha, Re-ontologizing race. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24 (2006): 9-24  [↑]

9.  Gilroy, 329  [↑]

10.  Gilroy, 337  [↑]

11.  Gilroy, 356  [↑]

12.  David Livingstone, Race, space and moral climatology: notes

toward a genealogy. Journal of Historical Geography, 28 (2000): 159–180.  [↑]

13.  Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. (New York: Colombia University Press, 2002/1983), 23  [↑]

14.  Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, (London: Verso, 2001).  [↑]

15.  Jekwu Ikeme, Equity, environmental justice and sustainability: incomplete approaches in climate change politics, Global Environmental Change 13  (2003), 195-206,  201  [↑]

16.  Judith Butler, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. (Verso:  London 2004), 26  [↑]

17.  Lynn Margulis, Bacteria in the Origins of Species in W. John Kress and Gary W. Barrett (eds), A New Century of Biology, (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 9-27,18.  [↑]

18.  Anna Behrenmeyer, ‘Climate Change and Human Evolution’, Science 311 (27 January, 2006): 476-8.  [↑]

19.  Mark Maslin and Beth Christensen, Tectonics, orbital forcing, global climate change, and human evolution in Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 53 (2007): 443-464.  [↑]

20.  Yves Coppens, Introduction. In  African Biogeography, Climate Change and Human Evolution (eds). Timothy G. Bromage and Schrenk Friedemann (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 13-18, 17.  [↑]

21.  William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: the end of the reign of chaos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 37.  [↑]

22.  William H. Calvin, A Brain for all Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 3.  [↑]

23.  Burroughs, ix-x.  [↑]

24.  Hall, 222.  [↑]

25.  J. R. Stewart and C. B. Stringer, Human Evolution Out of Africa: The Role of Refugia and Climate Change, Science 335, (2012) 1317-1321, 1320.  [↑]

26.  Laurent Abi-Rached et al.  [↑]

27.  Trenton W. Holliday, Species Concepts, Reticulation, and

Human Evolution,   Current Anthropology 44:5 (2003) 653-660, 660.  [↑]

28.  cited in Tony Fitzpatrick, New analysis shows three human migrations out of Africa: Replacement theory ‘demolished’, Washington University in St Louis Newsroom,

(published on-line 2nd February, 2006)  unpag.  [↑]

29.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 3-25.  [↑]

30.  Alan M. Hayward, Harry J. Dowsett, Paul J. Valdes, Daniel J. Lunt, Jane E. Francis,  and  Bruce W. Sellwood, Introduction: Pliocene Climate, Processes and Problems, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: 367 (2009)  3-17.  [↑]

31.  Michael Ziser and Julie Sze,  Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice,  Cultural Studies: Discourse 28 (2007): 384-410, 386.  [↑]

32.  Brian McEvoy, Sandra Beleza and Mark Shriver, The genetic architecture of normal variation in human pigmentation: an evolutionary perspective and model, Human Molecular Genetics 15.2 (2006): R176-R181, R176.  [↑]

33.  Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”,   in Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson (eds) Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (New York: Routledge, 1992) 3-67.  [↑]

34.  Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969) 292.  [↑]

35.  Saldanha, 22.  [↑]

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Yasmin Gunaratnam is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College (London University). She is interested in bodies and care; social research methods & narratives and stories.
All posts by: Yasmin Gunaratnam | Email | Website

Nigel Clark is a Senior Lecturer in the Geography Department of the Open University. He has a longstanding interest in environmental issues that has gradually mutated into a concern with the variability and volatility of earth processes both because of the activities of human beings – and in spite of our efforts. More recently, he has been looking at ethical and political responses to such interrelations, especially in those events we experience as 'disasters' - such as the Indian Ocean tsunami. Such events open up the question of how a changing physical world leaves its mark on cultural identities, political mobilisations and social formations. These questions are considered in Nigel's book 'Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (Sage, 2011).
All posts by: Nigel Clark | Email | Website

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