Dipesh Chakrabarty

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages & Civilizations and the College, University of Chicago, USA

How permeable are interpretations? Why are we certain that one plus one equals two but less certain what the most famous line of English literature – “To be or not to be” – means?  It is now fifty years since the British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow first described a chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists. Snow’s words touched off decades of debate on both the existence of the “Two Cultures” and the possibility of a “Third Culture” – a group that could bridge the gap between scientists and humanists.  Dipesh Chakrabarty (1948), historian and editor of “Critical Inquiry”, the leading journal within Literary Studies, has laid the first bricks for this bridge. Chakrabarty examines the scientific axiom that humans are now to be regarded as a major geological force on our planet. Analysing scientific theories of anthropogenic climate change can spur discussions about our conceptions of history, and thus end a period of unnecessary fence building between the disciplines. In a time of globalisation, isn’t it more important, while acknowledging differences, to pursue an orchestrated continuing effort to discover and increase human knowledge? “That is the question”.

Breaking the Wall of Two Cultures. Science and Humanities After Climate Change.


Since the question of nostalgia has been raised, I thought I would begin by speaking a little nostalgically about a wall that fell for me personally a few years ago when my father died- even though in the rest of my talk I will be talking about walls I expect to fall in the future. I grew up in the Indian city of Calcutta. I happened to imbibe a social-scientific view of the world rather early in life, in late adolescence in the radical 1960s. When you have developed social scientific tendencies in late adolescence and if your parents are not social scientists and the dinner table conversation is not laced with references to Marx and Weber, you tend to assume that your parents have a less developed world-view than yours, that they don’t really understand what capitalism is, what “bourgeois” means - even though they are formally educated. So, you argue with them at the dinner table, and you move away from their assumptions. Entering the world of social-science imagination was for me – as it was for many of my academic friends in India – a part of the experience of growing away from my parents’ generation.

Growing up into a teacher of the social sciences, I eventually felt very comfortable teaching my students that the Hindu tradition was a constructed or “invented” tradition, as social scientists often say of any “tradition”, a position I might still intellectually subscribe to. But when my father died a few years ago, I had to go to Calcutta, and do, standing knee-deep in the waters of the branch of the Ganges that flows past the city, what Hindu sons do for their just-deceased parents: funeral rites including letting go of some of my father’s personal effects in the river. There were hundreds of men by my side doing the same thing. Just at that moment, suddenly, I felt the power of what you might call civilization or tradition: the river felt eternal; the rituals felt eternal; Hinduism felt eternal. I knew that one day I would die, and my son would perhaps do the same thing at the same point in the river. I know that once in the past my father had done similar things for his parents. Suddenly, I realised that most people in that river doing the same rituals as I was engaged in probably felt the same way: that our tradition, like the river, was there forever.

It was quite a shock, then, to be told by climate scientists that the river may not be there forever, that the Himalayan glaciers are melting, that there might be flash floods or drought, that changes in the weather could become extreme. But, the harder shock to absorb, as a social scientist, was the news that human beings have become a geological agent on this planet. In other words, that fact that the climate of the planet is changing has something to do with what we are doing as a species, as a collectivity.

As a social scientist, as a historian talking to environmentalists and environmental historians, I had come to accept the proposition that human beings are biological agents. We have ecological impacts. But it is news when geologists and marine scientists and others begin to say that a new geological period may have begun, which they are proposing to call “ the Anthropocene”- that, in other words, the Holocene period has ended, and Anthropocene has started. Anthropocene is the period when humans collectively become a geophysical force on the planet. It really shook up all my assumptions as a social scientist, because in political thought, in social science, you always assume that the geological calendar is completely indifferent to the calendar of capitalism, socialism, feudalism, the calendar on the basis of which we teach human history in the classroom. There is a long heritage going back to going back to the 17th century in western tradition, of keeping natural history and human history separate. The 17th century argument was that nature was created by God; so we could presume to understand God’s work (though we could try to decipher it), but we created society, hence society was what we could truly understand.

Suddenly, I realised that this news that human beings have become a geological force on the planet is something that fundamentally shakes up one of the assumptions of social science, where you assume that the geological calendar and the human calendar are completely indifferent to one another. So, when you think of human freedom and autonomy in a political way, you assume that human freedom and autonomy are independent of geological forces. Indeed, the question of human mastery over nature was an issue of mastering these latter forces. Then to be told that we ourselves are a geological agent changes the nature, conception, and the scale of human agency.

As I began to read more into what climate scientists wrote, the science of climate change posed a challenge to my own thinking as a social scientist. I realised that the wall between the culture of the sciences and that of the humanities – to speak for a moment of the “two cultures” problem - was being actually pushed from both sides. .

Let me give you an example. A colleague in the Geophysics Division at the University of Chicago, David Archer, a paleoclimatologist, has written two very interesting books on global warming. His last book, published in 2009 and called, The Long Thaw, has an interesting subtitle: how human beings are changing the climate of the earth for the next 100,000 years. This is not somebody ranting; this is a sober geophysicist talking. He begins the whole book by raising an urgent ethical question. The ethical question is this: the mild, or what he calls “mild”, the subtle effects of climate change we are suffering now, is not because of the CO2 or the greenhouse gases we are putting into the atmosphere today; it is because of the past production of these gases. So his question was: the past production of greenhouse gases may have been unintended; we didn’t know what we were doing; but now that we know that the effects of this will linger for thousands of years, how do we, after this knowledge, still keep on producing our energy from the same polluting sources? The American Department of Energy has just said that even after 2030, 80% of American energy will come from fossil fuel and not from renewables. Archer actually then poses a problem that a humanist may have posed: “Imagine, “ he says in effect, “if the ancient Greeks had found some way of making a few quick bucks by using up a fossil-fuel-like resource that they could squander away, make a huge amount of profit from, and we were to face the horrible after effects of that a few centuries down the line, how would we feel about our classical past that we take so much pride in?”

I realised that while in the social sciences, and in philosophy particularly, we have talked about bioethics- a new age has come where we need to talk about geoethics of human politics. The more I read climate change scientists, the more I found them raising extremely interesting questions for political thought and for social science - very fundamental questions. To give you one example: Mark Maslin, a British climate change scientist ends his book, Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction with a very interesting question that I can’t avoid thinking about as somebody interesting in political thought and political institutions. It is a question about the politics of climate change. So, Maslin says in his last chapter (I am paraphrasing): It is unlikely that global politics will solve global warming. Global warming requires nations and regions to plan for the next 50 years, something that most societies are unable to do because of the very short-term nature of politics. In other words, the fact that most democratic electoral cycles run for three to five years, means that we mostly have governments that are extremely open to pressures by special interests lobby groups. It is very hard for democratically elected governments to take a view of the whole. It reminded me of certain kind of utopian critiques of the parliamentary system that Gandhi used to make at the beginning of the 20th century.

On the other side, the political scientist Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University has recently published a very interesting essay called “Carbon Democracy”, in which he shows that most modern conceptions of democracy take the idea of unlimited growth for granted. So, there has been a kind of assumption on the part of political scientists, that there will be unlimited growth, which is why is why we often think that there could be unlimited rights, but that is a separate topic. .

There is thus an emergent conversation, but it is incipient, just beginning. This is a conversation between the physical sciences and the human sciences that will cross the barrier of the two cultures.

If we take then the question of sustainability seriously, and if we take climate change seriously, we have to rethink our political categories. I will come to the question of how to rethink political categories in a minute, but just as in parenthesis and as a caveat, I still want to say though, that in saying that there is an insipient conversation between climate change scientists and political thought, political thinkers, philosophers, and social scientists, I am not saying that all the differences will be abolished between the humanities and science. A certain kind of fundamental division of labour will probably remain in place for a long time to come.

Think, for instance, of two questions, the first question being: what is a human being?, meaning: How does the human organism work? I think that this is a question that will be increasingly answered by scientists. One will not have to go back to Aristotle to learn physiology or human anatomy. But consider another the question, a separate question, or a connected series of separate questions: How does it experience, how does it feel to be a human being? What is the meaning of being human?  These will need to be answered by humanists for a long time to come. Such humanists could be theologians, philosophers, or even historians of one kind or another, or literary or artistic creators and critics.

But the present crisis, in spite of this continuation of the difference just discussed, makes a difference. David Archer, my colleague in Chicago, and other climate scientists seek to bring scientific facts on a geological scale, facts that we can only grasp with our facilities for cognition, into our immediate emotive reckoning of urgency and ethics. Archer recognises that human beings are almost hardwired in such a way that we can’t really identify with people two generations before or after us. That may have been a thing about our survival, because survival requires every species to focus on the present. We are sort of deeply present-oriented creatures, but at the same time cognitively we can think very far.

Therefore, in a way, they are asking for the seemingly impossible. They are asking us to identify in our imagination with something that we can only cogitate about, but not actually agitate about in our hearts. There is sense of urgency in the apparently impossible plea of climate scientists: to bring the geological sublime within the realm of affect. And this only points to the political and intellectual challenge of the current crisis. Out of this may very well emerge a new kind of politics where political imagination is actually influenced by geological imagination. In fact, several scientist have just recently published a paper where they call for seven kinds of global human compact that humanity will not cross- seven thresholds- like thresholds of temperature, what do you do with the sea, and asking for some kind of global convention and global agreement.

So such politics, politics that will actually be influenced by the geological, something normally ignored even in the kinds of conservations we have had in Copenhagen- such politics will have to take into account, not only the economic and the sociological, but the biological and the geological as well. This politics will supplement climate-change politics based on the more short-term perspectives of market principles, political negotiations, and technological fixes. Just a quick aside on market principles: when you use price as regulator of behaviour, one of the things that you assume is that by pricing something up you will encourage people to use less of the thing in question and/or look for substitutes. But in the climate change crisis there are certain things for which there are no substitutes- there is no substitute for the seas, the oceans, for example, as carbon sinks. You cannot actually, by using price, get people to find a substitute for the oceans.

In other words, it seems to mean that we have to move away from the idea that the geological is happening on a scale that is not of importance to our political thought, which is on a much shorter scale. It seems to me that we have to think on multiple scales all at once. And all this has to bear on our habitual and profoundly deep tendencies as a species to respond to the crisis we face now rather than to the one that another generation or we ourselves may face later. We have to learn to do both together. Thank you very much.