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Savage Ecology is not an easy book to read or forget. It makes enormous claims and pulls together such a heterogenous set of literatures that it is difficult to keep up, and to keep depression at bay. It also is a genre-crossing work. Some chapters read in the neighborhood of IR theory, others on the high mountains of political theory, yet others as inspired science and technology case studies. Many featuring dizzying juxtapositions from history, theory, fiction and film. It is sometimes overwhelming, but it is also compelling for it resolutely wrestles with the dark sides of modernity in ways few political science books do. The book is realist yet also hyperbolic in ways that reflect the cultural and aesthetic style of a certain academic sub-culture.
Geopolitics is a supervillain in Savage Ecology in ways that are productive yet problematic. Grove makes his claim early: “Geopolitics is, at its most fundamental level, a husbandry of global life in which thriving is intimately connected to the particular form of life and the particular lifeworld through which one becomes who one is. Geopolitics is structured to be selective, and to ensure that selectivity by lethal force” (3). These bold mountain top declarations with Darwinian undertones comes not long after a moving acknowledgement section in which Grove tells us how he became who he is. Is his own hard won subjectivity part of the geopolitical regime he decries? I know from experience that the critique of geopolitics can leave one mirroring the practice. The lure of the mountain top, for those claim it, is great. Grove (4) links geopolitics to European imperialism and violence as a form of life: “Geopolitics, enacted through global war, is itself a form of life that pursues a savage ecology…” Geopolitics here is a dystopian terraforming conspiracy: “Geopolitics as a European-led global project of rendering, in the way that fat is rendered into soap...is the driver of our epoch and the obstacle to any other version of our world…” (5). Channeling Sloterdijk, Grove (5) writes: “geopolitics persists as the primary operating system of planetary life.”
This attribution of conspiratorial superpower agency to geopolitics is problematic. The “primary operating system of planetary life” is not geopolitics but the geophysical and biogeophysical processes of Earth and its relationship to its atmosphere and the sun. One of the paradoxes of the Anthropocene as a concept is that it attributes geological power to Anthropos at the same time as it reminds us of our insignificance as a species next to the Earth’s history and power (Hamilton 2017). We are not very old, about two hundred thousand years. And within our own history, the Eurocene is merely moments ago. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that this inaugurated an ecological imperialism and chemistry experiment that has altered the parameters of life on Earth. It is still hubris to think that geopolitics is the primary operating system of planetary life.
The classical geopoliticians, human geographers trained in geology and biology more than in sociology and political science, grasped our constrained and dependent agency. “The conditions under which all life develops are governed by a great telluric force…. All earthly being rests on one single law: the greatest and the smallest being depend on the basic properties of the planet” (Ratzel 1901/2018, 60). That was Ratzel whose insistence on the ‘earthboundness’ of all life is enjoying a revival (Latour 2016). The first geo in geopolitics is the overpowering dynamic Earth.
Of course, Ratzel’s discourse was famously weaponized for nationalist imperialism. Here we get the second better known geo of geopolitics, the great powers as voracious organisms competing over territories and resources across the planet. That darkest history, and many others less visible and prominent, is the wellspring for Grove’s understanding of geopolitics. In his hands it is a dark human species story of the Eurocene, violence as a way of life, and planetary homogenization.
It is worth wrestling with these concepts but also noting how they echo lines of critique already expressed by classical geopoliticans. The European expansion to the New World is the original spatial revolution in Mackinder, a concept Schmitt fills out in suggestive ways while condemning European behavior (Schmitt 2015). Struggle, warfare and violence as permanent condition is a given for Ratzel, Mackinder and Schmitt: no argument there. All three were cranky organic conservatives and most certainly against the homogenization they saw in liberal American style capitalism.
Grove’s analysis, of course, is at another level. And he’s smart enough to realize his concepts are too totalizing, dialing back the idea of the Eurocene, qualifying the idea of war, and exploring the difficulties with homogenization. He sees the problems, yet he wants the concepts nevertheless (39). Shorn of any nuance, these big bruiser concepts overdetermine the historical record and re-cast contingency eventful history as conceptual affirmation. Lost in this process is not only resistance but some victories and a lot of in-betweenness.
An oily bubble of genes about 100 nanometers in diameter (SARS CoV-2) has killed millions this last year. It has slowed the global economy and brought fear to most people on the planet. I do think that Grove is right to place geopolitics at the heart of our contemporary dilemmas. But his conception of it should encompass the more powerful agency of the Earth to shake us off: how the geo-Earth bosses human-politics. Grove’s pessimism is justified in that, irrespective of how much human history is open to collective action to address existential risks, fundamental battles are already lost. We have unleashed vast chemical experiments, split the atom and glorified an extractive capitalism that is killing the ecologies we depend upon for human flourishing. The pyramid scheme just hasn’t crashed yet. There is no turning back from poisoning the planet beyond the benign climate of the Holocene. There is not enough attention to the empirical scientific terms of that trouble in Grove but his book will endure better than most books in Political Science. The truth is we are in serious trouble.
Hamilton, C. (2017) Defiant Earth. Cambridge: Polity.
Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth. Cambridge: Polity.
Ratzel, F. (1901/2018) Lebensraum: A Biogeographical Study. Journal of Historical Geography 61: 59-80.
Schmitt, C. (2015) Land and Sea. Cantor: Telos.
Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.