1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 1 (January 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

The Moving Walkway is Ending: A Speculative Essay on Climate-Driven Species Mobility and Planetary Politics

Published Online: 11 Jun 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 1 (January 2022)
Page range: 201 - 224
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

All the other species are moving. Some of this movement is readily discernible to present-day perceptive capacities, both individual and social; other elements of this movement are happening over years and decades in ways that effectively require sped-up, stop-motion animation to see; yet other parts are hidden from view entirely, requiring the cultivation of deeper capacity and knowledge to appreciate nearly invisible changes. But all told, there is a mass species migration underway around the world, driven largely by anthropogenic changes in climate, that we are still just at the edge of comprehending.

Moving walkways, escalators, and even car travel can sometimes create an optical illusion that our surroundings are moving toward us while we are still. This dizzying experience usually lasts no more than a few seconds before the world snaps back into focus, and the proper relations of motion are perceptually re-established. This experience on the moving walkway is a start to internalizing the movement of nonhuman life now underway. Imagine that we stay in one place, while entire taxonomic galaxies of creatures move toward us, and the ones we started with recede from our view behind us. Now take that experience and fracture it over time.

This narrative account of climate-driven species mobility is drawn from (Civantos et al, 2012), (Pecl et al, 2017), (University of Washington, 2020).

Some creatures move toward us quickly—insects, like mosquitos, ticks, and beetles who can reproduce quickly and move rapidly, are the fastest to move toward us and establish new ranges. They bring with them various diseases with them, like malaria and Lyme disease, to places where other creatures do not yet have immunity, and kill and weaken forests and trees in their new habitats, which creates greater fire risks and warms the planet further. Other creatures move toward us a bit more slowly, including a variety of rodents, fungi, nematodes, snails, and mammals. Their predators higher up the food chain are not around, at least not yet, to keep their numbers in check. Moving most slowly are the species whose mobility takes place not on foot but by seed—trees, plants, flowers, who die off in their original habitat when conditions become unsustainable, and if they are fortunate, are able to move upwards or pole-wards towards conditions closer to their liking.

And this is only on land. Oceanic biomes, their depths already perceptually distant from much human perceptual apparatus, and from collective political-perceptual apparatus, have already been re-arranging themselves, indeed more quickly than terrestrial life. Marine life has already moved pole-ward at the clip of 70 kilometers a decade, with more than 80% of marine life having already changed habitat due to climate change. In many cases, habitat will shrink or disappear entirely, as warmer oceans have less oxygen. Terrestrial life that cannot move or adapt will also go extinct, which will have unpredictable knock-on effects for the life that is still here and moving. This, then, is the planetary moving walkway—the world is coming towards us as we stay still. Only this disorienting illusion is actually the reality.

For although humans in recent centuries have become more mobile than ever, driven by the crosscutting currents of global economics and politics,

The wave of mobility and globalization scholarship starting the 1990s has made note of this and explored its cultural and political consequences, see Sheller and Urry (2006). But this has obscured the earlier, equally large global migrations of the 19th century, see for example (McKeown, 2008).

this observation also hides the variable and frequently place-bound rhythms of much of that mobility, which, as in nomadic societies, actually involves significant time in regularly established locations, increasingly urban ones, with strongly place-bound infrastructures, polities, and geographies. It is here that another moving walkway–this one of other species, a conveyor belt bearing more permanent changes–is coming towards us. It is a moving walkway that is accelerating, but will soon end, throwing all those in motion into newly-jumbled heaps with those who are stationary. We are moving walkways hurtling at another, by one another, and through one another, sometimes feeling stationary, sometimes unsure if anything is stationary, but not all in pure movement either. This climate-driven species mobility is having and will have impacts on humans, in differential and deeply uneven ways. It will likely further drive migrations as jobs and livelihoods disappear, particularly those working closer to the land. And it will most deeply affect those without the technical means or social safety net to mitigate its worst effects.

The last time such a massive migration of other species took place was about 25,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age. The intervening centuries have seen all kinds of species movement, of course—some of it voluntary, niche-filling evolutionary behavior; much of it in more recent years, human induced, through the circuits of colonial ecologies, multiple rounds of global trade, and the growth of agro-industrialism, including the creation and intensive cultivation of new forms of animal and plant life. But this took place within a relatively stable Holocene climate, much of which does not hold anymore, or soon will not.

Once perceived, this is, or at least ought to be, at least a little terrifying. The illusion of the world moving towards us—hurtling towards us, really, even if in slow motion—creates a sense of vertigo.

Jane Bennett (2001, p. 53) explores this experience from the perspective of vertigo from a skyscraper.

Rather than the confident modern human subject, moving forward into its future, through a stable set of surroundings, it is possible to experience this as being cowed and spun around by the immensity of what is flying at us. In such a moment, simply hunkering down until the storm settles is an obvious and justified response, even as we all know it to be an insufficient one as well. This article does not try to directly resolve many of the theoretical issues the climate-driven species migration implies, nor is it any kind of literary effort to re-steer imaginations, though both kinds of efforts are just as necessary and welcome. It is instead a preliminary effort to fuse some diverse academic discussions into a different kind of knot in the web of the much larger forces that are collecting around species mobility, an effort to gather some of the strands and rethink what it means to bring them together, in ways that can push against the current fabric of things from a different vantage point.

It first presents some general global projections of species mobilities and presents some of the key issues raised around intersection of human and nonhuman mobility. It then turns to two elemental forces—fire and ice—whose power increasingly constitutes contemporary planetary politics by driving mobility. Focusing on this mobility also brings into relief the need to think about planetary politics from deeper time frames, alongside with the immediate emergencies that these forces often entail. Fire cycles are remaking landscapes and driving human and nonhuman mobility in both new and old ways; but fire also offers a way to see how ecosystems are evidencing experimental processes in which humans are subjects as well as contributors. Ice, melting in many places under the pressure of climate change, is a source of loss in many ways; but it also offers a chance to pursue a thought experiment with ice that takes us back to the previous Ice Age, asking whether a re-narration of the last ice age in the present day can tell us something about today, even as it is widely treated as pre-history (and therefore pre-political). Together, these suggest more specifically what ‘the political’ might newly be, set in planetary terms of mobility that reach across deeper time. The final section takes these two mobile elements that themselves generate species mobilities, to think about the ethics, time scales, and differential politics of a fully mobile planet–one that is mobile from geological forces to earthly elements, from other species to humans, drawing on recent work on earth mobility and speculative kinetic ethics. It concludes by considering the implications of mobility and immobility for life in climate change.

Climate-driven species mobility
Moving species

The distances traveled in climate-driven species mobility vary widely, depending on the availability of alternative habitats, the capacity of other species to move, and their capacity to evolve. Some species may move no more than few hundred yards upslope to find acceptable conditions; others may need to move many miles. The effects, moreover, are not just on where species move from and to, but also about the kinds of provisionally stable interspecies relationships, or ecosystems, that can come to be formed.

I borrow ‘provisionally stable’ from Ronald Suny’s (1999) article—he uses the concept to talk about very different formations—nations and identities that are neither naturalized, stable, and essential, nor just shifting, open-ended and changing—they may change rapidly, but they may also have period of relative stability. The same seems to be true of ecosystems, though as a reviewer of this piece carefully suggested and as historians of ecology have long pointed out (Worster, 1977), ecological sciences have increasingly turned away from notions of ecological communities with well-defined niches and teleological tendencies to complex stability (such as an old growth forest system), and turned instead towards disturbance, stochasticity, and nonlinear processes to characterize their dynamics. This piece does not do full justice to those concerns, but they are critical for further thinking and practice on what creaturely experimentation as politics looks like, and point to the need for greater ecological education on the part of social scientists.

In moving, species create feedback loops, affecting existing ecosystems. Species mobility also affects the global climate, in terms of carbon sequestration and biospheric feedback loops, which will transform both biospheres and regional climates in specific regions (notably the Arctic) (Pecl et al, 2017, p. 5). For example, in Boreal forests in the north, the movement of bark beetles in the region because of warmer temperatures, combines with droughts that increase the stress on trees and plants, creates more severe pest outbreaks, and greater death of trees. In turn, this creates conditions that are ripe for wildfires, which in turn create new CO2 release that affects the global climate. However, the growth of plants on the burned areas mitigates temperature rise by lowering soil temperatures on the ground.

‘Climate-driven species redistribution’ is a scientific way of saying that nature is not going to be the same as it has been since at least the Ice Age, and in fact, that nonhuman life has already started moving where it lives. To put this another way: look out the window or go to your nearest park. What you see living there will not be the same in a few decades and has already changed. The question of losing familiar landscapes is not just, or even primarily, an aesthetic one. For some communities, it is directly tied to a long biocultural history, in which community identity and nature are intertwined. In other cases, a multi-generational resource extractive way of life will be threatened. These will both be put under strain, or even eradicated, bringing ecocidal and genocidal processes together (Dunlap, 2021). For other communities, the costs will be felt especially in increased disease rates. Ticks and mosquitos are finding newly hospitable climates, bringing diseases with them–for example, malaria is moving up mountain slopes to new communities around the world, including Colombia and Ethiopia, carried by mosquitos (Welch, 2017). There is a global spike in Lyme disease, carried by tick populations who are thriving in new zones.

Centers of global capital and consumption are most likely to feel it in terms of unexpected shocks to economic production, though these will also represent new opportunities, as disaster capitalism (Klein, 2007), with the negative effects borne largely by those with less cushion. As such, both the nation-state, and the transnationalized elements of sovereignty, have to be a key player in providing for forms of redress, justice, and social safety, though capacities to do so will be sorely tested.

On the indispensability of the state in green, democratic, and social justice projects, see Eckersley (2004), and more broadly, on transnationalized democracy and green projects (Burke et al, 2016; Eckersley, 2017).

Agricultural production and food provision, whether small scale or large scale, will be particularly affected, as well as extractive activities such as logging that turn life into commodity (mining will be less affected). For example, the main areas of coffee growing are expected to move, deeply impacting those who have made a living from it (Pecl et al, 2017, p. 3).

For the interspecies webs that form the nonhuman dominated parts of nature (and there still remains much of it, the twisted celebratory undercurrents (‘look what I broke!’) of the Anthropocene notwithstanding), this move means entirely new relationships need to and are being forged. These are sometimes positive relations of interdependence among species, which in turn make up functioning and provisionally stable ecosystems; relations of predation and prey that set up functioning food chains; and complex webs of interaction that we have, in the past, only come to learn through sustained and prolonged study and intertwinement with. This is, by contrast, a deeply experimental phase for all of life and its relations, one that will keep changing in front of our eyes for the foreseeable future in ways that may not lead to new stabilities, but rather, ongoing experimentation. In spite of its drastic costs, this experimentation is the place we have left to dwell in.

Nature, once critically assailed and politically abandoned because of its power to refer to the permanence and intrinsic qualities of a thing, paradoxically now appears mostly as a process of change—again larger than us, even in our transformation of it. It is there that we find ourselves today—in the Ecocene (Tanasescu, 2022), not the Anthropocene, enmeshed in webs of relation that will always be more than us, no matter our species potency and wonderful talents, but will also always include us in them, no matter our desires to escape.

Urban life is not well-suited to internalizing these changes, given the rift between the city life and natural circuits. Primarily it will feel these shifts in what get presented as crises—‘sudden’ outbreaks of disease or pathogens; shortfalls in agricultural production; more intense weather events. Suburbanites too will notice flowers blooming earlier, new species appearing in their backyards. Those living most surrounded by nonhuman life in rural, wild, or less populated areas are most likely to notice these changes firsthand–but they also will likely have the least voice in amplifying them. Those who live life more on the move—whether traditional pastoralists or modern digital nomads—will see differences in the place they move to, though the consequences for making and sustaining a living are greater for the former than the latter.

Political registers: grief, opportunity, creaturely experimentation

One significant question raised by this massive, multi-decade, worldwide shift is at an experiential register, which in turn implies different political pathways—will we encounter this primarily through grief for landscapes, natures, and ways of life that we have lost? If so, it would be understandable, and perhaps also the most potent source of political change we could imagine. Fighting for stable place and way of life is a cornerstone of political action and social movements, and deservedly may become one, in widely varying ways. Island populations in the Pacific fighting for their very land above water; subsistence farmers in India fighting for the possibility of making a livelihood; conservationists of various stripes fighting for the environment they knew.

Alternatively, might the changing quality of nature be embraced as a starting point, not just as a moment of loss and grief and a politics of saving what is slipping away (as many contemporary environmentalist impulses still suggest), but one of opportunity and, though not celebration (given the scale of the costs), at least engagement? That certainly represents the economic perspective of major companies who have themselves also been primary contributors to the current circumstances—shifting towards renewable energy, but also finding new oil drilling opportunities under the melting icecaps. It is also a quintessentially eco-modernist approach, meaning one that sees nature as essentially malleable and our relation to it, mediated by technology, as an ongoing project of action and reaction, innovation in response to change.

See The Ecomodernist Manifesto (Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al, 2015), co-authored by a number of self-identified ecomodernist thinkers for a representative statement, and related commentaries, e.g., Robbins and Moore, 2015; Crist, 2016. Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book (2007) and related discussion (Buck, 2012) engaged in similar themes.

Geoengineering and carbon capture is thus a growing ecomodernist response to climate change, put alongside technological innovation and regulatory measures designed to reduce carbon emissions; and extreme ‘adaptability’ to climate-induced species mobility is equally the call when it comes to the living elements of nature—come what may, we need to move funds around to help address the deepest costs of climate change (as in the struggling Paris Accords, which had pledged $1 billion to help communities in need), while also moving where we do our economic activities to more advantageous places, and rapidly using science to address the growing and inevitable outbreaks of disease and pathogens.

However, one of the costs of this second sort of turn is that it entails a politics of acceptance and resignation, one that chooses not to hold anyone to account for the current situation we find ourselves in, and indeed in some ways, creates the ground for many of the same entities to profit again from the renewal and emergency disaster response, while leaving behind the shards for others to deal with. Just as artists and students make new forms of value that precede neighborhood gentrification (and are themselves early forces of gentrification), from which real estate brokers and property owners then profit, in turn displacing previous residents, by turning from grief and loss to embracing opportunity and innovation, a critical political moment of justice is skipped—the holding of account. Without this step, we are very quickly back to a world where ‘the strong do what they can, and the poor suffer what they must’, in the (academically strip-mined) Thucydidean account of the war between the Athenians and Melians.

Whether or not states and political movements choose to embrace it, mimic it, or reject it, the experimental mode that nature itself is undertaking currently is unavoidable, and deserves further reflection. Central to this experimentation is species mobility—that is, the quasi-voluntaristic movement of species in ways that goes well above beyond regular levels of species mobility. Nature has always been mobile, and human trade (including recent globalization), colonial and imperial projects of collection, dispersion, and transformation; and movement of people has made that even greater. It is now moving at different scales entirely, because the entire planetary system is now changing. But we do not yet feel nature moving all around us on its own terms–much of it is too slow for us to grasp. It is, therefore, critical to grasp more of the spatial and temporal contours of this movement and experimentation—if there is a politics to be found, it has to be one of first coming to grips with the scales on which nonhuman nature moves–this might then give us different tools to grasp at combinations of loss, grief, injustice, opportunity, and experimentation. The next two sections thus turn to two major planetary forces–fire and ice–that drive life to move.

Fire and ice
Fires: ‘natural’ disasters as species mobility

As recent fires on the western half of North America, parts of Greece, Turkey, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere have made plain, the mobility of nonhuman species is not always a benign process of habitat transformation, where species move into newly habitable zones and leave those behind that are no longer suited to their needs. Rather, it is an often ecologically violent series of changes and disturbances to ecosystems, in which the new ecosystems emerge in response to rising global temperatures, and their associated disruptions of weather, moisture, soil, air, and other factors (Dalby, 2018; Pyne, 2021; Verlie, 2022). Fire is a central element—or symptom—of climate-driven species migration. In addition to the issues of forest management and mismanagement, where decades of fire suppression has led to dense, flammable underbrush, forests also burn for reasons due to climate changes—for example, when they become particularly dry due to drought, or when pine and fir forests become beetle-infested and therefore more flammable and thus unable to survive low-level fires. While low-level fires can be part of healthy ecosystems, high-level fires together with changing climactic conditions can lead to conditions where forests, or at least certain trees in them, do not regrow. But as previously forested areas become unhealthy and then burn due to climate change, so too do newer habitats for some trees become available in zones that are becoming more climactically friendly to them.

As such, this nonhuman species mobility is equally becoming a story of human mobility—the effects of these massive fires, so often thought in terms of the economic costs to rebuild (to homeowners, insurance companies, and local, state, and federal governments), is increasingly one of human displacement—and where people will move to, and can move to, is central. In short, this is a story of multispecies mobilities–differential capacities to move, to start with, followed by differential actualizations of mobility.

My thinking on multiplicity and mobility has emerged largely from a multiyear collaboration with colleagues in the Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster at the New School. See www.multiplemobilties.org. I am also indebted to David Schlosberg, Danielle Celermajer, Christine Winter, and Blache Verlie for discussions around a number of points.

Managing species redistribution under climate change is a growing field in ecological sciences. With a focus on ‘informing policy and management decisions’, it is an invaluable backbone for state-planned approaches to ecology, and for scientific tracking and understanding of these shifts (Bonebrake et al, 2017, p. 286). Yet in political terms, these approaches will have deep limits if they are not just democratically legitimated through a kind of public consultation, but if they do not come from strong elements of the public to start with. Moreover, in a deeply divided political world, policy and management themselves depend on a prior arrangement of state, society, and science, one that has been increasingly eroded and is being reconfigured. Restoring that relationship is an important functional imperative for ecological—and liberal—democratic societies, though illiberal, authoritarian, and other polities too face such demands.

But it is equally important to think about climate-driven species redistribution (hereafter, species mobility) from an experiential level as well. That is, it is from individual, communal, and relational kinds of experience that there is a groundswell of action, and this might be what science needs to inform, as much as state policy. This is all the more so, as the kind of experimentation that nature is doing is encountered and made sense of at this level of experience—still an open-ended space, in many ways. It is the space where people, in their different ways, might calibrate themselves to mobile species differently, and thereby recalibrate the very need for a nature that needs to be ‘managed’ in the first place.

One powerful account of the how to approach the upheaval of species mobility is to understand this is a particular moment in a larger cycle of natural change, even in remarkable planetary shifts, through the concept of back loop, an ecological concept that can also be turned into a metaphor for social response. As Stephanie Wakefield (2020, p. 22) writes:

The adaptive cycle contains a ‘front loop’ of early rapid ‘growth’, leading to a ‘persistence’ or ‘stability’ phase dominated by a few species and characterized by rigidity and the capture of earlier energies. Those ‘stable’ states are not permanent. Gradual or sharp disturbance can cause systems to slip into a ‘back loop’, marked by a ‘release’ phase where energies and elements previously captured in conservation phases are set free, unexpected new combinations emerge, and wild, exuberant experimentation becomes the modus operandi. The most understudied aspect of ecological systems, back loops are also one of the most exciting.

The experimental movements of the back loop can thus eventually result in new stabilities, perhaps, through growth, conservation, release, renewal—in ecosystems, at least, and perhaps in other domains. This means needing to let go of the nature that has been here and now, but not of nature as such. Instead, it means understanding the multiple time scales of nature’s movement—both quicker than humans in some cases, and much longer than humans in others. The progressions of forests, for example, can work on this kind of cycle. The question is whether the same can be said about planetary-scale nature.

But working with nature’s experimentalism right now (of which fires are a particularly difficult example) also means less directly intentional intervention, and more maximization of the widely varying inclinations of species to move. Corridors and connectivity, already common ways of thinking about protecting large, highly mobile wildlife by linking fragmented habitats of species like grizzly bears, jaguars, and ocelots, can also be applied to other, less clearly mobile species. Trees, for example, move their range over time through seed dispersal—but they encounter barriers that may be impassable, such as cities and suburbs, or large tracts of regularly tilled soil, requiring ‘soil highways’ for microbes to travel along.

Not all species will be able to move, then, and a number will go extinct. Although transformation of land (rather than climate) has actually been the major driver in eradicating habitats and driving extinctions in recent decades, climate change’s imperative to move will be increasingly an exacerbating factor. The last mass extinction event, caused by an asteroid, demolished nearly 75% of all species, leaving only a few dinosaurs, mammals, and insects and paving the way for the emergence of humans. Current extinctions, caused by habitat erasure, do not yet match this percentage—but they are well on pace to create a sixth mass extinction event within a few decades, with populations, habitats, and viability shrinking drastically in the face of massive changes in land use by humans, and the absence of compelling international response (Burke, 2019). Even in the absence of a full-scale extinction event on par with the five previous ones, it is unlikely that we will avoid the massive transformation of the earth’s ecological diversity, into one much less diverse, and more homogenous, especially in the more complex forms of animal life. From the record of previous extinction events, it seems likely that this will be met by nonhuman life as an opportunity as well as a crisis, though it is difficult to say precisely which life forms will thrive and in what combination, and which new interspecies assemblages will evolve and emerge—often on time scales that are well past the life span of this article. As such, the next section turns away from fire, and toward ice, and a thought experiment that might help us think about experimentation.

2b. Ice age thought experiment

A thought experiment is a device that uses an imagined scenario to grasp something about the real world. The thought experiment I try out here is not a pure case of this, as it draws on a deeply past event. Political science and international relations typically go no further back than a few thousand years, at most, looking at ancient Hellenic, Chinese, and Roman empires. What if we went back further? The thought experiment here is this: what if the perspective of mobility in deep time, in response to ecological change, was brought more directly into our thinking about the contemporary condition of climate change? We largely think about climate change in relation to futures, in terms of future carbon targets, future planetary tipping points, future generations. We see it as a sui generis event, a feature of modernism gone awry, and its largely human origins (crystallized in the naming and thinking around the Anthropocene) mean that we rarely see it as having a precursor. But what if climate change—and climate change technopolitics—is a comparative event? That is, it has a past. Just as nuclear weapons were, on one hand, a brand new moment in the grim history of human destructive capacities, they could nonetheless be apprehended in relation to a series of preceding weaponry. The newness of the event came in its comparative difference; and much of it was thought bore connections to past examples.

The Last Glacial Maximum (approximately 22,000 years ago) is set in the much longer period of glaciation known as the Quateranary or Pleistocene Glaciation (2.6 million years ago, and ongoing) in which Arctic ice caps developed and remained stable, while glaciers advanced and retreated. It was the period, however, where ice sheets were at their maximum. With homo sapiens emerging about 300,000 years ago), humans had a long history before this ice age. We take it for granted that the current situation is a radical break from that period, and in many obvious ways, it is–industrialization, agriculture, culture, transportation, technology, modern subjectivity (we think). But the reason to consider it is not as an ill-founded parallel of opposites with current anthropogenic climate change, as a pre-civilizational model to return to (as some darker ecological thought would suggest (Jensen, 2006). It is rather to force ourselves to think geologically and climactically (Chakrabarty, 2009; Nail, 2021), and especially in terms of species mobility under conditions of substantial planetary change.

If climate challenges our modernism, it does so not just as a planetary boundary check on industrial and resource extractive technology and economy—if anything, it may in fact call forth a renewed modernism on this front. Rather, it comes in challenge to the modernist faiths of a) radical ruptures of current human subjectivity and sociality from those of the traditional and pre-historic past (which stretches back at least to the Last Glacial Maximum); and b) a strong ontological divorce of humans from nature (which Ice Age humans were presumed not to have enjoyed). Neither rupture looks particularly sustainable as a characterization of the past.

In an article on deep history and the origins of the political, Kennan Ferguson (2014) argues that even among early species of hominins (a group which includes homo sapiens and other subspecies of archaic humans such as Denisovans, as well as Australopithecus and Neanderthals), there was politics before there were humans (as homo sapiens), and indeed that there was politics and sociality between various hominin groups. Exhibiting cultural, linguistic, and social behavior, the interactions among and within hominins were themselves political, and, he argues, that this implies that politics was itself formative in generating contemporary humanity. Such were the humans who populated the Last Glacial Maximum, indeed partly because the changing climate helped drive the final extinction of Neanderthals, alongside the competitive rise of human—an apocalyptic moment that is something we might heed in thinking about the under-determination of the current moment (Grove, 2015).

While hominins were clearly dependent on, and at the mercy of natural changes in ways that we are not today, we are also nonetheless questioning just how radical our freedom from natural forces is–as the prelude of a single coronavirus is showing us; as the tip of the climate iceberg in raging wildfires, stunning heat waves (‘heat domes’), liquidification of polar caps, glaciers, and snow climates, and more all shows; as the challenges to agriculture; and as the growing climate-driven migrations show.

Ice Age humans moved to meet the changing climate, to ecologically productive zones. Ecocene humans are letting the climate move new ecological relationships to us. We are mobile individually, but much of our cities and productive infrastructure is not, not yet. Are we moving through the imagined space of the world, or is the walkway moving us? More troubling, perhaps the moving walkway is ending, and we are no longer moving at all, in metaphorical and historical terms–everything else is what’s moving.

Terra mobilis and geokinetic ethics

The other part of the mobility question, which I have been quietly ignoring thus far in the service of balancing the legers of thought, is the vast human-driven and human-enacted mobility that is driving this climate-change induced movement of species–the movements of people and of goods, and particular the movements (and preceding extractions, transformations, and containerization) powered by fossil fuels. A destructive percentage of the earth’s energy is consumed by this apparatus of movement, alongside the growing human migration that is increasingly directly driven by climate change. But crucially, the story is not just one of increasing mobility, as opposed to sedentarism, in a teleological slide towards endless frenetic motion. Rather, it is particularly about differential patterns of mobility and stasis. Just as there is a seasonal rhythm of movement and rest in nomadic societies, so too are there such rhythms in contemporary mobilities–migration that episodic, halting (both forcibly and voluntarily); goods that ship across oceans and then sit in stockyards; travellers who span the globe but then stay put for long periods.

Yet we tend to continue to think about this as human mobility—this is a category error, as it is mobility that is irreducibly embedded in, and emerged from, a larger world of motion. This world is terra mobilis—a planet constitutively in motion, at a range of scales and in particular, in a range of time (Clark and Szerszynski, 2021). The core and mantle, fluids in motion; solids in motion, disintegrating to smaller pieces; the major geological currents more visibility in motion (ocean currents, winds and thermocurrents). On this planet—indeed out of those processes, the first mobile life forms emerged (bacterial), relying at first on their ability to copy themselves in order to move, and on their ability to drift with planetary motion; and then later the revolution in animal mobility that allowed self-propelled motion, derived from the conversion of solar energy through various means; finally in human mobility, the externalization of animal mobility into technological forms—wheels, carts, cars, planes, ships—all themselves relying on animal-like inspiration in the ways they store and transport energy. From the most distant vantage point, all mobilities on earth are connected, if we can see our way to how the intense time scales relate. This is not just a god-trick as Donna Haraway suggested about the objective view from nowhere; but also a useful, imaginative way to be situated, or resituated, on earth.

What we might take from this is not just the abstract if intensely useful point that the mobility of creatures is embedded in planetary mobility, but also a kind of thinking about how these nested cycles of movement might be—must be—otherwise in the future. For Clark and Szerszynski, drift is one operative concept (2021, pp. 140–142)—for example, they suggest we might work with planetary forces of drift at all scales (continental drift; weather-driven drift to assist shipping; using ambient gradients of slopes, fluids, or other flows) to make existing mobility systems differently. Correspondingly, drifting—conventionally located as a negative social act (‘drifter’)—might be repurposed as a positive form of mobility.

For Thomas Nail (2021), thinking along similar lines, this is a prelude to a kinetic ethics, rather than an anthropocentric energetics. The tragedy of the current era of ecocide–the destruction of biomass, biodiversity, and life processes of many kinds—is not only extinction of species and of human societies, but also that it is preventing a planet that is itself fully in motion from expending energy in the ways in needs to. Rather than assuming the planet to be a stable, static object upon which life takes place (or conversely, its spiritualization as Gaia), Nail suggests that the major planetary processes–mineral and geological; atmospheric; vegetal; and animal are themselves fully mobile processes, in that they move, expend, change, and transform. The mobile planet is thus an historical actor, making new things, and not just a stage for biological life or human action. The power of these processes of the mobile earth, moreover, is that they actually increase the expenditure of planetary energy—water and carbon cycles, for example, are actually ways of expending energy much more rapidly through planetary mobility, more than humans could ever do themselves (Nail, 2021, pp. 254–255). Thus, ‘if 6 trillion trees were still alive on this planet today, the earth would be expending twice as much energy as it is currently…The fossil-fuel classes are selfishly holding back the earth from its collective dissipation—its generous waste back to the cosmos. Whether we like it or not, we are directly participating in a lager cosmic drama’ (Nail, 2021, p. 257). This framing leads to ideas like planetary composting ethics, as the opposite of capitalist utility and accumulation—ways of allowing the dissipative energies of planetary mobility to be better used.

While the political activation of composting ethics and drift are not entirely clear, the power of these wider accounts lie in relocating contemporary mobility as part of the long lineage of planetary mobility, drawing widely if sometimes liberally from geology, physics, and biology. There is of course also a danger to planetary thinking of this kind, in that it biologizes and geologizes human beings as well as other forms of life, seeing them largely as mobile energy functions, and thereby overriding many of the social and political drivers of contemporary mobility. Such dangers—of ‘naturalization’—have plagued social theory for decades; and they are not entirely wrong. But they have come at the price of making us unable to think social theory in a way that is adequately embedded in the planet and its processes. We should be less inclined then, after decades of work on the problems of nature-culture dualism in actor network theory, science studies, and beyond, to spend our energies policing the intrusions of our natural bodies, embedded in natural systems, into the political, and more energy trying to think through how we might move differently.

Conclusion: towards bios mobilis

In sum, the current and future mobility of nonhuman species–animals, plants, bacteria, fungi—is not well appreciated. In particular, the now unavoidable impact of a degree of anthropogenic climate change is going to affect where other species do live, how they live, and where they can live. This will have significant repercussions for every aspect of human life—not just in material and biological terms, or in economic terms, but in conceptual, political ones as well. The form and meanings of contemporary polities were built on a Holocene understanding of climate and ecosystems as a relatively stable backdrop and referent, a standing resource to be used and eventually regrown or disposed—even as the practices of state-building, colonial, and imperial projects deeply transformed the ecologies in which they took place. In climate change, it is both people and species who are confronting the core mobility questions: where can I live, and how will I move to do what I need to do and want to do in order to live? Is there a ‘right to follow a livable autochthonous habitat’ that other species already take as a right, no matter what humans do, and do humans have a similar right?

What we might we need more of, instead, are things that help to enact a world where neither hunkering down, nor a simple reassertion of old tropes in new guises, neither a blithely confident experimentalism and faith in the future, nor a pessimistic grief-driven experience are the dominant affective orientations at work. Where can such resources be found? One place many have increasingly found them—in the academy and outside it, I have come to realize—is in speculative but grounded spaces of science fiction. For the ecological theory and environmental politics I have read, the times in particular the past ten years when I have seen a door open up and felt myself reorient my thinking adequately has been in reading Kim Stanley Robinson, NK Jemisin, Neal Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin. Robinson’s books—2312; New York 2140; the Mars trilogy; and most recently, The Ministry for the Future—in particular have managed to draw out a different orientation in me—one that has largely been buried, as it sometimes stands in direct opposition to my ongoing interests in interspecies interactions, wildness, and semiotic natures. Instead, they call unexpectedly on a kind of eco-modernism—it has a scientific rationality, a large-scale vision over space and time, and a politics that is sometimes pastiche socialism, but nonetheless cognizant of international politics and relations between conflictual forces. But unlike many ecomodernists, these works face the future with a critical political eye, attuned to ambiguities, tensions, and conflicts without relinquishing possibility, rather than the largely apolitical technologism of ‘bright greens’, and in fact steps into the future imaginatively through a densely-woven tapestry of social, political-economic, political, ecological, and technological worlds. Robinson’s work is brilliant in creating a different affective orientation to both actual changes in nature and human relationships to them, ones that I now think are utterly indispensable. There is something about the particular scales—of crisis, of potential change, and multiply realizable uncertainty—that requires a different combination of imagination and empirical research. Plausible futures, expressed in literary form, rather than utopian or incremental ones, have a different power. Whether these might loop back into the social sciences, or their replacements, and how, remain open questions.

Human nature is, as Anna Tsing (2012) has written, itself an interspecies relationship—something not given, but forged in the interstices of ecological interaction. Indeed, ‘humans are themselves habitat’, as Mihnea Tanasescu (2022) writes, as the COVID-19 virus has surely highlighted. Such an observation might extend also to the subject, and to political theories of the subject. As Michael Uhall (2021) has eloquently formulated it, we can think about the subject not just as an effect of discourse, or as a structural position, but as something made in ‘companion ecologies’—as such, political concepts and practices such as freedom and responsibility cannot be thought or understood without being ecologically embedded. That is, even the thinnest account of the subject requires some kind of ecological grounding. What happens when that ecological grounding—all the way down to its planetary grounding—is a mobile one?

The same can be true, I have argued elsewhere (Youatt, 2020), for nation-states—that they cannot be understood just as abstract bundlings of territoriality and sovereign authorities, guaranteed by Weberian monopolies of violence and resource extractive power on the inside, and forms of mutual recognition in their external relations. Rather, states too are ecologically embedded, even in the most minimal of definitions. But ecological embeddedness can be surprisingly place-bound and relatively immobile in its conception of ecology. That is, what happens when species move and the webs of relations change? At multiples scales and places, and in particular ones that depart from the relative stabilities of the Holocene? Does that make it better or less well-suited?

What opportunities does it afford us for rethinking them both? Perhaps this moves our mental apparatus away from static nature, upon which mobile human societies and its politics are predicated–moving humans, resources, goods—towards a bios mobilis—a political question of how moving beings are going to live in motion.

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