Do we live on or are we part of a planet?
Rethinking democratic agency as everything is connected - Frederic Hanusch

Author: Frederic Hanusch

Aldo Leopold, in his classic “Sand County Almanac” (1949), proposes to “think like a mountain”. Just as cloven-hoofed deer fear wolves, the mountain “fears” cloven-hoofed deer, which, without the natural enemy, eat the mountain sides bare, resulting in erosion that ultimately causes both the forest and the cloven-hoofed deer to die out. In a similar Alexander Hick shows in his documentary movie “Thinking like a Mountain” (2018) how the Arhuaco Community co-lives with Colombia’s highest mountain, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. As such, they comprehend that also the mountain “thinks” as it becomes different to itself – and the Arhuacos think like the mountain.

To “think like a mountain” opposes and complements the anthropocentric perspective with something one might call a planet centered or even “planetocentric” perspective.

In this view, the mountain also has a material capacity to act. What does this mean for earthlings like us? When we recognize that human and non-human activities are coupled and interact with each other around sites such as mountains or rivers, human capacity to act is not devalued. On the contrary: to recognize the agency of “non-human” nature and our entanglements with it leads, first to the recognition of humans as material beings, second to acknowledge our kinship with non-human materiality, and third to recognize the co-existence of things, plants and animals in a larger assemblages, interactions or networks. On this account, agency is not a possession or an attribute of individual entities. We cannot know in advance the agency that assemblages around a mountain might have. Whilst this complicates notions of human responsibility, we are not unable to identify causally relevant actors, whether they are human or not.

What if we take this all-encompassing thinking one step up to the planetary level and try to “think like a planet”?

Data collections about planet Earth form the basis for the interpretation of Earth system models, are thus the mouthpiece of the planet, and allow the projection of alternative future scenarios. In doing so, the models show how processes that operate at different scales and involve material flows produced by both animate and inanimate matter intertwines in complex and precarious ways. They trace how the anthroposphere, geosphere, and biosphere undergo mutually dependent changes under the influence of factors such as solar radiation, volcanic activity, and climate change. Accordingly, the research network Future Earth identifies in its Risks Perceptions Report (2020) the greatest threat to the well-being of future generations not in individual risk areas such as climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, food and water crises, as media coverage or politics regularly suggest, but in their feedback loops and interactions. The negative trends fuel each other and can create a risk that goes far beyond the sum of individual impacts. So, how can we envision a democracy that takes into account that everything is connected? We humans have to take responsibility for these entanglements and relations, because despite all the agency we attribute to trees, mountains and rivers, trees by themselves will never convene a “world parliament of trees” or become a political force out of their own. Rethinking agency is important for our democracies. When we look back in the history of democracy, one core factor making our democracies better was the process of inclusion. When those, who were assumed to have no agency and were primarily seen as a human resource for labor or reproduction, such as slaves, non-whites or women, were included in democratic decision-making, democracies democratized, reached a higher level of democracy so to say.

Empirical research has shown that – in average – more democracy leads to more sustainability. If we assume that there is such a thing as relational agency and we involve the non-human in democratic decision-making, which is currently explored when rights are given to rivers, we cannot only expect better democracies, but also more sustainability.

Drawing on Abraham Lincoln’s famous notion, one can understand democracy in that manner as a government of, by, and for not only the people, but also the planet. Yet, a democracy that recognizes us as part of a planet where everything is connected is still in the making. An early symbol may be the Althing in Iceland called “Thingvellir”. It is the site where one of the oldest still existing parliaments of the world was founded, which met for centuries in the Silfra, where the earth plates of Europe and America meet. The landscape offered protection and supplies in the valley, so that the people’s representatives could travel from different parts of the island and attend the deliberations, which lasted several days. Parliamentary debate on shaky ground with uncertain prospects of success, how topical that seems.

April 14, 2021

Frederic Hanusch

Frederic Hanusch is scientific coordinator of the “Panel on Planetary Thinking” at Giessen University, Germany, and a research fellow of the Earth System Governance project. He holds a PhD in political science and a MA in political science, philosophy and sociology. His research is focused on the intersections of democracy and planetary change. He is currently working on a book, together with Frank Biermann, entitled “Deep-Time Governance” (Cambridge University Press) to explore how our relations to the planetary times can be institutionalized in politics.

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