Theory of the Earth
Published by: Stanford University Press
352 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503627550
- Published: April 2021
We need a new philosophy of the earth. Geological time used to refer to slow and gradual processes, but today we are watching land sink into the sea and forests transform into deserts. We can even see the creation of new geological strata made of plastic, chicken bones, and other waste that could remain in the fossil record for millennia or longer. Crafting a philosophy of geology that rewrites natural and human history from the broader perspective of movement, Thomas Nail provides a new materialist, kinetic ethics of the earth that speaks to this moment.
Climate change and other ecological disruptions challenge us to reconsider the deep history of minerals, atmosphere, plants, and animals and to take a more process-oriented perspective that sees humanity as part of the larger cosmic and terrestrial drama of mobility and flow. Building on his earlier work on the philosophy of movement, Nail argues that we should shift our biocentric emphasis from conservation to expenditure, flux, and planetary diversity. Theory of the Earth urges us to rethink our ethical relationship to one another, the planet, and the cosmos at large.
We are witnessing a second Copernican revolution, in which the earth is not just moving around the sun but is itself internally on the move. Terrestrial events that we could in the past only have imagined taking place over huge time scales are now happening before our eyes. Flora and fauna are headed north in mass migrations, throwing tens of thousands of species into motion around the world. Today, half of all species on earth are on the move, including insects, viruses, and microbes. However, since not all species are moving at the same rate or in the same way, species are coming into contact with one another in new ways and producing new hybrids. A new history of the earth is necessary in order to understand the immanent conditions of the present and the kind of earth that we are.
The earth flows because the matter of the cosmos flows through it. It is not an unchanging or even uniformly changing substance following its own autonomous processes. Geology is also cosmology, and the cosmos flows. Flows of matter continually compose, cycle through, and flow out of the earth. The earth is only a regional circulation of a much larger kinetic and entropic process. Historically, however, philosophy, politics, and much of geology have not taken the ongoing flow of cosmic matter seriously. This has led to a complete inversion of what the earth is and the human relationship to it. The earth is not a planet, but rather a process of terrestrialization.
The pedetic flow and fluctuation of matter is constitutive of the earth and its elemental body. The word "earth" designates not only a planet and its soil but also one of the four classical elements. The earth is elemental and elementary only because the universe is—and the latter is the key to understanding the former. If the element "earth" is mineral, then the earth must share its elemental namesake with the mineral bodies of the cosmos. In this sense, earth is not just on the earth, but in the universe and from the universe. In other words, the universe was already earthly before the earth was terrestrialized.
Matter flows and folds into elements, but these elements are in turn distributed into celestial and planetary fields. Elements are conjoined into atomic and molecular composites that in turn are arranged and ordered together in a field of celestial and planetary circulation. This is the third core concept of geokinetics. If matter flows and elements fold into periodic cycles, planetary fields organize them all in a continuous feedback loop. This chapter provides a geokinetic theory of how conjoined flows become organized according to distinct regimes or planetary fields.
The earth is material, kinetic, and thus historical; it is possible for different, coexisting, and mixed planetary fields to emerge. In other words, it is possible for matter to distribute itself differently over time into different patterns or orders of arrangement. There is no way to know what the earth is without understanding its historical process of becoming. If this is the case then it is possible to study this material history and to discern the planetary regimes or fields along with the different elements and beings that are distributed there: minerals, atmosphere, plants, and animals. What this means is that the contemporary earth is not defined by a single geokinetic field or pattern of motion, but is composed of a motley mixture of everything that has ever been.
In this chapter we look closely at the kinetic patterns produced by three major geokinetic phenomena that define the Hadean earth: meteors, the moon, and water. The argument of this chapter is that each of these major phenomena is defined predominately by a distinctly centripetal pattern of motion and a geokinetics of mineralization. Centripetal mineralization was the first major transcendental kinetic regime invented by the earth. This first movement inward toward the center from the periphery along differentiated layers continues today as the immanent condition of planetary life and mineral-based technologies.
The second major geokinetic field to rise to dominance in the earth's history was the atmospheric field. This second type of field became increasingly prevalent over the course of the Archean Eon, from about 4 billion years ago to about 2.5 billion years ago. Three major events define this transition: the end of heavy meteor bombardment, the emergence of living organisms, and the rise of a highly oxygenated atmosphere. These events were the cause of a dramatic historical shift in the earth's pattern of motion, from one of largely centripetal accretion and crystallization to one of increasingly centrifugal movements of outward expansion, respiration, and reproduction.
During the Archean Eon (4 to 2.5 billion years ago), the entire planet began to move in an increasingly centrifugal pattern of motion from the center out to the periphery (and back). This chapter argues that the emergence of a prevailing centrifugal pattern of motion occurs increasingly over the course of the Archean Eon. The deep history of atmospherization is the material condition of terrestrial motion for all subsequent eons, up to the present. In this chapter we look closely at the kinetic patterns produced by four major geokinetic phenomena that define the Archean earth: sky, clouds, mountains, and life. The argument of this chapter is that each of these major phenomena is defined predominately by a distinctly centrifugal pattern of motion and a geokinetics of atmospherics.
The second major historical event of the Archean Eon was the emergence of living organisms (prokaryotic bacteria and archaea) with metabolism, genetic multiplication, and natural selection. Organisms are dissipative or vortical systems that have the distinct ability to remember and reproduce the material kinetic patterns that produced them. During the Archean, the entire earth erupted into centrifugal motion. Volcanoes blasted themselves into the air, the ocean evaporated into the clouds, and organisms released an incredible amount of volatiles and stored energy. However, by the end of the Archean Eon, around 2.5 billion years ago, a new form of life emerged that would change the motion of the planet yet again: plants.
The third major geokinetic planetary field to rise to dominance in the earth's history was the vegetal field. Over the course of the Proterozoic Eon, the longest eon in the earth's history, from about 2.5 billion years ago to 541 million years ago, three major events occurred: the emergence of eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and organelles), the development of multicellular organisms (such as protozoa, fungi, and plants), and the arrival of life on land. All these events were defined by a new kind of tensional motion inside, between, and through these organisms. But this new pattern of motion defined by a system of held contrasts was not limited to life alone. Life, like mineral and atmospheric flows, is not just one discrete region among others, in isolation. Vegetal life completed, saturated, and transformed all planetary processes.
During the Proterozoic Eon, the entire life-saturated planet began to fold itself up into a vast knotwork of cellularized tensions. The birth of cellular and complex cellular life was not just the birth of a new type of substance "on" the earth but a new kinetic relation of the earth to itself. This chapter argues that the emergence of a prevailing tensional pattern of motion occurred increasingly over the course of the Proterozoic Eon. I argue that the deep history of phytality is the material condition of terrestrial motion for all subsequent eons, up to the present. In this chapter we look closely at the increasingly tensional kinetic patterns produced by vegetal bodies and that eventually defined the Proterozoic and early Phanerozoic earth: thallus, stem, leaf, root, seed, and flower.
Animality is the fourth major geokinetic planetary pattern of motion. The rise of animality overlapped with the end of the Proterozoic Eon as vegetality slowly dovetailed into the Phanerozoic Eon, from 541 million years ago to the present. The Phanerozoic Eon began with the Cambrian explosion of diverse animal and plant life. This explosion was itself made possible by increased oxygen in the atmosphere and mineral-rich soils produced by vegetal life across the continents. The emergence and proliferation of animals on the earth was the source of a radical new regime of elastic motion defined by the ability of living matter to expand, contract, stretch and oscillate back and forth to a degree never before seen on the earth.
The Phanerozoic Eon (541 million years ago to the present) is our geological eon. It began with the Cambrian explosion of living forms, the greatest number of evolving creatures in a a single period in the history of the earth. During the Phanerozoic, the entire planet became increasingly elastic as the proliferation of life forms expanded, contracted, and mutated more rapidly than ever before. The more new organisms emerged, the faster they changed their environment. This chapter argues that the emergence of a prevailing elastic pattern of motion occurred increasingly over the course of the Phanerozoic Eon. In this chapter we look closely at the increasingly elastic kinetic structures produced by animal bodies that eventually saturated the late Proterozoic and early Phanerozoic Earth: body, head, and tail.
The third major historico-morphological event of the Phanerozoic Eon was the explosion of elastic sensory organs and limbs in the animal body. With the evolution of mollusks, arthropods, and vertebrates, an enormous transformation occurred as animal life in the seas spread to the land and the skies. The process of terrestrial animality saturated the untapped energy of these new regions—completing the transformation of the earth into its full animality. The material evolution of animal morphology is also a kinetic evolution toward the increasingl elasticity, mobility, sensitivity, and energy expenditure of the earth more broadly. Animals are not on the earth but aspects of the earth itself—the becoming animal and becoming elastic of the earth.
Today, the earth is in increasingly unstable motion. The earth, as we have seen in this book, has always been in motion, but today these four major patterns of geological motion have become increasingly disrupted due to the coordinated efforts of certain human groups. What I am calling the "Kinocene" in the final Part of this book is a new geological period not because motion is new to the earth, as we have seen, but because of the increasing mobility of the earth's geological strata, described in Parts I and II. At the same time, however, we are also witnessing for the first time in a long time a significant reduction in the net kinetic expenditure of the planet as a whole.
The ethics of kinetic expenditure is not a universal ethical ground but a hypothetical ethical ground that allows us to say not only that capitalism is descriptively wrong about nature but that it is unethical (assuming we want to survive), on the grounds that it leads to the reduction of planetary expenditure (including the reduction of human and ecological diversity). Furthermore, the ethics of expenditure relates to the material conditions of all human society as such. If we even want to have humanist ethics in the first place, there must be humans alive to practice it. Thus, implicit in all humanist ethics is the assumption of planetary existence and survival. In short: If we want human ethics, then we need to be alive and survive, and if we want to survive then we need to try to increase planetary expenditure (with all that entails).
Everything is in motion. The earth is in motion because so is the cosmos. The West's historically mistaken belief in a static or stable earth is one of the biggest mistakes ever made. This mistake is symptomatic of a similar belief in stasis in politics, ontology, science, and the arts. Together, the belief in stasis of one form or another across the major domains of human knowledge and activity is the source of our contemporary world crisis. Movement and expenditure had always been primary. Human history was not the progressive realization of static forms. Progress and development in the Western tradition are dead. Human history can now be seen for what it is: a series of kinetic patterns iterated in the material diffusion of the cosmos itself.
"One of the most remarkable books I've read in some time. Thomas Nail forges a mode of materialist philosophy in conversation with recent, cross-disciplinary movements in the environmental humanities, generating a mode of thinking and theorizing that moves beyond the scale of human life." ~Claire Colebrook, Pennsylvania State University
"Thomas Nail has developed a much-needed, and previously underrepresented philosophy of geology. In elaborating a process theory of a kinetic earth, this book helps us imagine our planet as neither a static place of habitation nor a protective Mother Earth." ~Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University
"Is ecocide, unconsciously practiced by industrio-techno-capitalist humans to their own detriment and potential extinction, a direct result of the reduction and destruction of Earth's complex energy dissipation? In an ambitious and fabulous synthesis, with a Lucretian sensibility and deep scientific rapprochement, Thomas Nail gives us back a real Earth, where life is part of a planetary more-than-human dissipative system and humans better get with the flow. A fascinating, difficult, needed scientifico-philosophical document, Theory of the Earth should interest and irritate scientists as it provides a needed provocation to much modern environmental philosophy." ~Dorion Sagan, author of Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science
"While Anthropocene ideology focuses on the destructive action of humans on a passive Earth, Nail posits that conceptual refocusing—away from conservation toward an ethics of energy transformation—can help address the serious environmental problems we face. Though chiefly a work of philosophy, this text is accessible for any advanced reader interested in environmental meta issues. Recommended." ~E. Kincanon, CHOICE