The Earth Doesn't Care


'Coronavirus' image credit: Felipe Esquivel Reed: Wikimedia Commons

I was invited to give a talk and take part in a panel discussion at the Wellcome Trust funded MedEnv (Intersections of medical and environmental humanities) project workshop on Climate which would have taken place in Bristol on 14-15 May 2020. As with many other events this was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hoped that the workshop will now take place in January 2021.

As the workshop organizers stated: ‘On the Climate theme: one of the prompts for the network is the increasingly frequent invocation of notions of 'planetary health' in institutional & policy responses to climate change. This conjoining of environmental and human health is worthy of our attention.’

The Covid-19 pandemic has provoked many discussions on climate and crisis, which I will expand on in my talk in the future.

This is the short abstract for my intended talk, preceded by an extended quote from Isabelle Stengers’ book, The Invention of Modern Science (2000), which is a reminder of how indifferent the Earth is to human histories.

The Earth doesn’t care

‘Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it. What we call a catastrophe will be, for it, a contingency’ Microbes will survive, as well as insects, whatever we let loose. In other words, it is only because of the global ecological transformations we can provoke, which are potentially capable of putting in question the regimes of terrestrial existence we depend on, that we can invoke the Earth as having been put in play by our histories. From the viewpoint of the long history of the Earth itself, this will be one more ‘contingent event’ in a long series' (Stengers, 2000).

The Earth doesn’t care. To reflect on these catastrophic times of ‘planetary health’ through scenarios of climate change is to be unsettled by humanity’s power to disrupt and also by its vulnerability to disruption. It is not surprising then that stories of illness and decline – ‘the sick planet’ – abound. But what kinds of precautionary diagnosis are yet to be considered in conditions of planetary turmoil? What are the side-effects of proposed fixes? And for that matter, if the alarm has been sounded, where are the emergency services? Thinking and practicing the future otherwise involves re-considering responses, responsibilities and obligations in the present day, with the prospect of climate-changed futures and the troubling uncertainties of an increasingly damaged planetary home. These are, after all, ‘matters of care’ (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). Isabelle Stenger’s notion of the ‘care of the possible’ invites us to engage in speculation as to what the consequences of care and precaution might be for this world and for future worlds.