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The Bite of the Material – A Conversation with Jedediah Purdy

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?


If you ask Jedediah Purdy about the potential of the human imagination, he is pretty optimistic. The last 5-6 years, he said in his talk on March 25th, has seen an effervescence in visions for common life and in what people are willing to call for. Human imagination remains free in terms of what it can envision. The problem, according to Purdy, is that the material world constrains our visions.  

For every human being in existence, said Purdy, there exists about 2000 tons of built world: highways, cables, powerplants, factory farms, parking garages, etc. This is our footprint, the weight on the planet that we have made. This vast infrastructure is thoroughly integrated into every facet of our lives. We have become an infrastructure species. Meeting our basic needs, socializing, providing for those we love; all these require tapping into and participating in infrastructure.

Our infrastructure creates an ecological script that is more or less mandatory, even if you ascribe to conscious consumerism, small scale living, zero waste, and so on. To participate in this world as workers, citizens, and family members, we rely on these infrastructures, which have ecological consequences.

That is the crisis, said Purdy: we can choose so many things, but we can’t choose not to be part of this world whose achievement is in many ways the undoing of the world on which it relies. This is the bite of the material. We have not found a communal or common way to exit that world, to live together in a different way.

So how do we change the world? Purdy says that change tends to happen through changes in consciousness, changes in technology, and changes in politics and collective decision making. Purdy focused on the last of these, and the challenges that arise when you try to effect change through politics.

The good news, said Purdy, is that one commonly cited problem, the mismatch between the global reach of environmental issues and national politics, is not necessarily a problem. National governments can change global politics, even in the absence of global institutions. For example, the liberal market network was achieved without any true global politics.

There is a significant difference between the creation of the global liberal market and the change we now need, however. Purdy argued that the global liberal market spread because people were convinced that it offered a positive sum game, a situation in which every boat would rise on its tide. The global market has not fulfilled that promise, but the promise was nonetheless central to its spread. Global ecological transformation cannot credibly promise a similar positive sum situation. The change we need will require allocation of sacrifices, costs, and burdens, a much less attractive package.

Convincing communities to take on costs and make sacrifices require institutions that can generate decisions and make them binding, while also generating legitimacy for those decisions. Legitimacy, said Purdy, makes people willing to live by terms they have not necessarily chosen. It is at the heart of politics, the willingness to live with collectively chosen leaders and legislative agendas, even if they differ from what you desire. This is exactly what is lacking in the US today, and the reason Purdy remains pessimistic about the current political landscape, even as there are signs of positive change. Politics in the US, he said, have become about the promise to save you from the intolerableness of living under other side. Because politicians can’t credibly promise to deliver on their legislative agendas, all they can do is promise that at least you don’t have to live under the guy the other side chose.

These are not politics adequate to our times. Instead, said Purdy, we need a politics that can rethink the fundamental questions. What is value? What is harm? What kind of costs are necessary, and what kind of costs should we not risk or permit? These kinds of questions require both a criticism of institutions and the wielding of institutions. We must find a way to hold together two thoughts: on the one hand, a critical approach to institutions, and on the other, an openness to the possibility that the ability to do much better might reside within institutions. Though it is difficult to see how we are going to generate the kind of public conversation necessary to effect change, all other alternatives are scary. Politics may be hard, but politics is the only route to a world in which all of us, humans and non-humans, can flourish.


Join us on April 1, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Radhika Khosla, Research Director of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and Research Fellow at Somerville College and a Senior Researcher at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, School of Geography and the Environment, at the University of Oxford. To register for this webinar and to learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jorstad

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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