Planetary History

As I’ve hinted for the last week or so, I’ve been reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). It’s a fantastically rich book that I neither have the depth of learning to review nor the time to digest even partially (and this appears to be my fate in life). The book takes as a point of departure, Chakrabarty’s seminal article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” from 2009, which he republishes in the book with some commentary.  

That said, I do want to offer some book notes if for no other reason than to tempt historians and archaeologists to pick up this book. As per usual, these are random and reflect things that stuck in my mind rather than a systematic review. 

1. Global versus Planetary. One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between our concept of the global, which Chakrabarty locates in the mid-20th century with the development of not only post-war economic and political networks, but perhaps as importantly the post-colonial move to modernize the “developing world” in political and economic terms. This view of the “global” forms the basis for the notion of globalization that has come to dominate certain kinds of late-20th century and early 21st-century thought and certainly has influences our experiences and the kind of history that we write. Of course, Chakrabarty recognizes that various moves – from Atlantic trade to post-war “neoliberalism” – contributed to the history of globalism in our contemporary world. 

Chakrabarty distinguishes the global from the planetary which he sees as a way of seeing the world developed by James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and later by the field of Earth Systems Science. These theories seek to understand the planet Earth as a system with its own regulating mechanisms that operate on the scale of millennia rather than decades or centuries. Reconciling the historical notion of the global with the vast time scales indicative of the planetary systems is part of the challenge for history, the humanities, and even our experiences as humans.

2. Deep Time and Experience. One of the main issues that Chakrabarty addresses is how do we reconcile our distinctly human (even phenomenological) experience of time with the planetary scale. The latter Chakrabarty recognizes as “deep time” which intersects with our experience in ways ranging from our dependence on fossil fuels and the evolutionary scale of the development of species and the human mind. Climate change at a planetary scale forces us to confront the messy intersection between deep time and the immediacy of the present. 

One of my favorite dilations on this topic is Chakrabarty’s discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s distinction between experience and expectations. Experiences are the “present past” and expectations are “the future made present” and “that which is to be revealed.” For Koselleck, experience and expectations coexist in humanity, but in the modern period, the gap between the two is ever expanding but at the same time it is this efforts to reconcile expectations and experiences that constitutes historical time. For Koselleck and Chakrabarty, this tension ensures that historical time is not simply reflect past experiences, but also embodies affect and emotions. In the context of planetary level climate change and our expectations of catastrophic change and efforts to avert it contribute to a sense of historical time that is infused with both hope and anxiety. Thus, the deep time of the planet influences the historical time in which the past and present co-create the present.

3. Labor and Time. One of the key elements of Chakrabarty’s thinking derives from his long association with the subaltern studies project and post-colonial historiography. This not only informs his view of modernity which he sees as a global project informed by both the traditional colonial metropoles and in the post-colonial world as it sought to improve and develop their communities and nations in way that respond to local needs, accommodate distinctive priorities and beliefs, and enable them to integrate into the globalized work.

Here Chakrabarty admits that his earlier concern for the post-colonial experience overlooked the planetary concerns of climate change despite being contemporary with its formulation. I’m particularly interested in how he thinks about the relationship between labor and climate change which he just starts to develop in the final section of the book in his dialogue with Bruno Latour. Here he develops a distinction between labor (in a Marxian sense) and work as energy and the extent of capital’s reach. And here conventional understandings of labor (even in the context of subaltern and post-colonial studies) breaks down and gives way to a theory of work redefined as the extent of capitalism’s reach into planetary stores of energy. Here, then, labor, work, energy, and deep time intersect in ways that require new paradigms to understand.  

4. Deep Time and Archaeology. One of the interesting oversights of Chakrabarty’s book is that it overlooks the role that archaeology can play in bridging the gap between deep time, history, and experience. Moreover, archaeology is situated in place where it can find ways to integrate approaches developed in science, social sciences, and the humanities. Indeed, archaeology’s intense interest in methods creates an opportunity to foreground the tensions that different time scales and different types of knowledge.

Even something as basic and routine as stratigraphic excavation involves understanding that soils are not necessarily contemporary with the human artifacts that are typically the objects of archaeological study. Without understanding the character of the soils present in stratigraphic excavation or even the surface of ground in surface survey, it becomes impossible to recognize the context for the human-made objects present in these contexts. 

I suspect this capacity for archaeology to contribute to our ability to reconcile the global and the planetary is part of the reason we’re seeing an outpouring of recent work on the archaeology of climate which not only brings together multiple sites on a global scale, but also planetary scale data that traces not only long-term processes, but requires us to understand both these processes as they occurred and the results of these processes to make sense of human scale activity.

I wonder, then, whether this is a missed opportunity for Chakrabarty and a vote of confidence in archaeology’s efforts to imagine new ways to reconcile deep time and history.

4. Finally, this book clocks in at about 230 pages. It is a long-weekend read, but it’ll take me months to unpack the implications of this book, however.

This isn’t a criticism, but a demonstration that short, intense, and compelling works continue to exist even as we weekly confront some or another 500+ page magnum opus from this or that ambitious senior scholar. And, I’d rather read a 200-odd page book than any of the recent crop of mega-tomes and spend time that I might have spent reading thinking though what the author had to say. 

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