“We had a garden and we paved it”

“We had a garden and we paved it”

The Expanse and the Philosophy of the Anthropocene

Diletta De Cristofaro

*Note: This essay is excerpted from The Expanse and Philosophy.

Captain Martens, of the MCRN Scirocco, had warned Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper about a “dirty” ocean, whose “stench [is] like the recycling vat” (“The Weeping Somnambulist”). Arriving on Earth, however, Bobbie is curious. She wants to see the natural features of the planet that she hopes terraforming will one day bring to Mars. As she walks through a drainage tunnel, a contemplative soundtrack interspersed with the sound of waves accompanies her (“Cascade”). For nearly two minutes, the camera alternates between shots of Bobbie’s dark silhouette against the overexposed body of water at sunset and closeups of her lit-up face, full of a longing that seems at once hopeful and mournful as she scans the unfamiliar landscape. During these two minutes, the viewer never sees the water clearly. Only when the camera zooms out, do we realize that Bobbie hasn’t been contemplating the beauty of natural wonders. Instead, she’s been pondering the awful ocean Captain Martens had warned her about.

Sadly, The Expanse’s ocean is the lifeless and polluted ocean forecast by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[1] This ocean’s rising levels clearly threaten New York, as the drainage tunnel Bobbie comes through is part of a system of defensive walls that protect the city from the water. She understands the words of Franklin DeGraaf, Earth’s ambassador to Mars, “We [Earthers] had a garden and we paved it” (“Remember the Cant”).

The Anthropocene

The disastrous impact of human activities on the Earth characterizes our age. In 2000, Paul Crutzen, atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate, popularized the term “Anthropocene” to name this age. Literally meaning the “recent age of the human” (from the Greek anthropos, “human,” and -cene, “new” or “recent”), the Anthropocene marks the shift from the Holocene to a proposed new geological epoch in which humankind is understood as a geological force in its own right.[2] As of 2021, the Anthropocene still hasn’t been formally recognized as the current geological epoch. Yet the term has become a buzzword, indicating a widespread realization of the human potential to alter our planet and shape its future.

The Anthropocene is marked by anthropogenic climate change—climate change caused by human activity—and what this might entail for all life forms, including the human species. As a dire 2018 report by the IPCC outlines, it’s vital to limit the global temperature increase at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This limit would require drastic changes and might constitute an impossible feat, as we’re on track for at least 3-4°C of warming by the end of the century.[3] Without that limit, the “recent age of the human” might turn out to be short; in fact, it might spell the end, not only of many species, but also the human one.

In The Expanse, humankind has survived climate change thanks to technological solutions aimed at stabilizing the climate and managing the risks of global warming. These solutions include the colonization of the Sol system. These days, an environmentalist slogan tells us that the Earth must be preserved at all costs as “there is no Planet B.” But in The Expanse humankind found its Planet B, Mars, as well as some asteroids, and satellites. Though climate change is no longer an existential threat to humanity in the 23rd century, legacies of the Anthropocene, material and ideological, continue to inform The Expanse’s world.

On the one hand, Bobbie’s encounter with the ocean exemplifies the show’s strong sense of loss over a natural world that humanity has taken for granted and irreparably compromised on Earth—paved, as DeGraaf puts it—before trying to recreate it, for the most part unsuccessfully, on Mars and the Belt. Images of gardens, at once objects of mourning and of desire and hope, recur in The Expanse, symbolizing the Anthropocene as an epoch where human activities destroy and remake entire ecosystems.

On the other hand, the Anthropocene is not just a scientific problem but an ethical one, as our values and how we interact with the rest of nature and other human beings produce these stresses. The Expanse depicts humanity as having failed to learn the Anthropocene’s lessons, and hence repeating the mistakes made on Earth across the Sol system and beyond. So, what does the show tell us about the worldviews, ethics, and values underlying the current ecological crisis and its potential futures?

The Cascade

Let’s jump on the Rocinante for an Epstein Drive-powered tour of The Expanse’s advanced Anthropocene, where humankind is a force shaping not just the Earth, but the Sol system and beyond. Let’s start with the episode in which Bobbie sees the ocean for the first time, because “Cascade” perfectly encapsulates the centrality of the Anthropocene to The Expanse and the show’s core message about the present environmental crisis.

The episode’s title alludes to the collapse of Ganymede. The station is the breadbasket of the Belt, a garden-like ecosystem artificially developed—“a ball of ice [turned] into a garden” (“Jetsam”)—as part of humankind’s technological solutions to the Anthropocene. Surveying the wreckage caused by the Ganymede incident, Dr. Prax Meng explains the concept that gives “Cascade” its name. The use of distilled water in Ganymede’s hydroponic cultures, rather than the mineral solution needed for the long-term stability of this artificial ecosystem, is about to trigger a series of cascading catastrophic failures that are hard to predict and model, but that effectively entail that “the station’s dead already. They just don’t know it yet.” The collapse of its ecosystem means famine and dispossession for a large number of people, not only on Ganymede, but throughout the Outer Planets. This event turns the Belters into climate refugees overnight.

Bobbie’s encounter with a lifeless and polluted oceanand theprediction ofGanymede’s cascade combine to drive home The Expanse’s warning about our Anthropocene. Thanks to short-term human activities, Earth’s garden is dangerously close to being paved once and for all by an irreversible cascade of interlinked environmental catastrophes that have already begun to displace people. And it will only get worse.[4]

What’s more, The Expanse suggests that relying on space colonization as a technological solution to the existential threats to humanity posed by the Anthropocene is also short-sighted. Space colonization doesn’t address anthropocentrism, the problematic worldview that underlies the epoch. Anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are the most important entities in the universe and that our interests matter above anything else. The view also includes a stratified understanding of what we value as fully human and, therefore, worth protecting from environmental and other risks.

The Anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene

The concept of the Anthropocene is important for framing how our activities are endangering the survival of humans and numerous other species. Already, scientists talk of a sixth mass extinction underway.[5] Nevertheless, the concept of the Anthropocene has issues, and anthropocentrism is one of them.

As contemporary philosopher Brian G. Henning writes, it’s clear that climate change and the related environmental crisis are the “result of an anthropocentric worldview and narrative that have for millennia sanctioned human dominion over a world denuded of all (intrinsic) value.”[6] This worldview functions by separating the human from, and elevating it above, the rest of nature. The Expanse depicts a future in which the anthropocentric worldview remains the pillar of human relationships with the rest of nature long after the damages of our activities have become apparent in paving Earth’s garden.

When Avasarala joins Bobbie at the shore, she asks, “Is [the ocean] everything you thought it would be?” Bobbie evades the question—it’s obvious the ocean isn’t what she expected—and instead emphasizes that Earthers “take it for granted” (“Cascade”), echoing Captain Martens’s words in the previous episode (“The Weeping Somnambulist”). The same accusation of a careless anthropocentric attitude towards the natural world—a misguided confidence in human superiority and separation from the rest of nature—can be found in an exchange between Holden and Lieutenant K. Lopez of the MCRN Donnager. Earthers, Lopez tells Holden, are “short-sighted and selfish,” since they “care so little” for the bountiful nature the universe had once bestowed upon them (“CQB”). Some Earthers do care, like Holden’s family, who brought him up to think that “the land needed him” in an example of a symbiotic, rather than anthropocentric, relationship with the rest of nature. But even these people face “a fight [they] could never win” (“Windmills”), given that anthropocentrism is the prevailing worldview. Despite Lopez and Bobbie’s holier-than-thou attitude, Martians aren’t exactly immune from anthropocentrism, as we’ll see.

Henning points out that “rather than challenging the narrative of human dominance and control over every aspect of nature, the Anthropocene discourse effectively enshrines it in seemingly neutral, objective language.”[7] Climate policy documents (including the IPCC’s) reflect this judgment. As contemporary philosopher Katie McShane emphasizes, often such documents fall into the anthropocentric trap by suggesting that the need to protect the environment derives, first and foremost, from the need to protect human interests.[8] After all, in its very name, which foregrounds the human (anthropos), the Anthropocene reproduces the anthropocentric worldview that generated the prospect of climate breakdown in the first place.

In leaving anthropocentrism unchallenged, the concept of the Anthropocene treats environmental issues, not as something that requires a paradigm shift in our worldviews, but, as something “to be ‘managed’ through the application of ever more aggressive forms of technology, geoengineering the very climate if necessary.”[9] This management approach thus paradoxically amounts to proposing anthropocentric solutions to issues caused by anthropocentrism itself. Because these management solutions are technological, Henning calls the Anthropocene a “Technozoic era,” whose aim is to extend human dominion not only on Earth but out into space thanks to technological developments.[10] Illustrating Henning’s point, The Expanse’s humankind manages anthropogenic problems on Earth by colonizing the Sol system and, once the Ring System is opened, what lies beyond it.

The Issue with Wanting to “Turn a lifeless rock into a garden”

Henning warns us that a Technozoic response to the Anthropocene isn’t viable in the long term. Instead, we risk bringing to other planets a flawed environmental ethics that “places virtually no moral limits to human exploitation of the Earth, our solar system, and beyond.”[11] The Expanse is a case in point. After paving Earth’s garden, humankind doesn’t learn to recognize that, whether on Earth or in space, we’re intertwined with the rest of nature and aren’t its masters. Rather, The Expanse’s humanity simply exports its anthropocentric mentality to its Planet Bs and, with it, practices that are profoundly damaging to the environment.

Throughout the show, humans use technology to dominate the non-human. Take, for instance, the Martian geoengineering dream of turning “a lifeless rock into a garden” (“Remember the Cant”). This dream assumes that remaking an entire planetary system is morally justifiable. Because Mars is devoid of life, its empty expanses should be put to good use by serving the interests of life—specifically, human life. Or, consider UN Secretary-General Nancy Gao’s decision to fully open the Ring System “for exploration and colonization” (“Cibola Burn”). Gao makes this decision even though the first colonizing mission to Ilus ended up, thanks to Holden’s interaction with alien technology, endangering the settlers’ lives and profoundly altering the planet in the space of a single day. The devastating tsunami Holden inadvertently unleashes on Ilus acts as a powerful metaphor for the unintended consequences of human activities on Earth, especially given the role that rising sea levels will play in our Anthropocene future. Or take the unfettered exploitation of the Belt’s resources, an exploitation that conveniently ignores that these resources are finite. As an OPA activist explains, “Ceres was once covered in ice. Enough water for 1,000 generations. Until Earth and Mars stripped it away for themselves.” Water is now scarce and, for Belters, “more precious than gold” (“Dulcinea”). Even Protogen’s research on the protomolecule rests on the principle of human dominion: “If we master it, we can apply it” (“Doors & Corners”). This plan, of course, backfires, making tangible the risks of exporting our anthropocentrism to other planets.

All in all, The Expanse’s future illustrates Henning’s thesis that a Technozoic response to the Anthropocene’s existential threats through space colonization would repeat anthropocentric environmental mistakes made on Earth. As humankind continues to work on making space colonization a reality—think SpaceX, for instance—The Expanse demonstrates that developing a different kind of environmental ethics is imperative.

This new environmental ethics should be profoundly non-anthropocentric. Contemporary philosopher Keekok Lee argues that in order to be “capable of defending other planets against human control and domination,” this ethics should be based on “inanimate Nature as a locus of intrinsic value.”[12] Condemning anthropocentric arrogant mastery, Lee identifies awe and humility, such as those that Bobbie exhibits when seeing the ocean for the first time, as the ideal foundations of our relationship with the rest of nature, on Earth and beyond. After all, the reality of the Anthropocene is that, through anthropogenic climate change, we might cause our own extinction but the Earth itself would find a new and different equilibrium. We need to recognize that nature—and not only Earth’s garden but also the lifeless rocks found in space—has intrinsic value. Therefore, our goal shouldn’t be to alter nature relentlessly to serve human interests. We’d do better to follow Miller’s advice here: “stars are better off without us” (“Godspeed”).

“We’re all in this together.” “That is a story”

Another issue with the concept of the Anthropocene is that it’s based upon the notion of a homogeneoushumanity—the anthropos giving the epoch its name—that is in this predicament together. Anderson Dawes’ words to Holden remind us to question the “story” that “we’re all in this together” (“The Seventh Man”).

The truth is that stark inequalities characterize the climate crisis. Climate and environmental justice therefore seeks to remedy these injustices. On the one hand, we’re living through the unintended consequences of centuries of human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels. What we do in this century to mitigate, or not, climate change will determine what kind of Earth future generations will inhabit or whether they have a habitable Earth at all. Thus, the principle of intergenerational justice holds that each generation should act to ensure that future generations don’t have a standard of living worse than their own.[13]

The lack of fundamental change in national and international policies, however, suggests a much darker reality. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson observes, “We don’t care enough about those future people, our descendants, who will have to fix, or just survive on, the planet we’re now wrecking … [W]e’re creating problems that they’ll be unable to solve. You can’t fix extinctions, or ocean acidification, or melted permafrost.”[14] This intergenerational injustice shapes The Expanse’s advanced Anthropocene. The image of Earth’s paved garden captures how humanity will have to live with the environmental devastation we’re now producing. As “Cascade” shows, Robinson is right: you just can’t fix something like ocean acidification.

Moreover, the Anthropocene involves an unjust distribution of responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Contemporary philosopher Henry Shue writes,

the largest cumulative emissions have come from the nations which were the early industrializers and which thereby gained great wealth from the energy consumption that produced their damaging emissions, while the nations which will, under business as usual, suffer most from the climate change driven by those emissions will be the poorer countries that have not fully industrialized (and have emitted very little). This is primarily because these less industrialized nations control less wealth that can readily be used for coping with the effects of climate change as it occurs.[15]

Philosophers like Shue have produced models that seek to distribute the burdens of the climate crisis and its mitigation equitably. Yet the reality of the Anthropocene is that the populations that are the least responsible for the origins of climate change—the Global South—are already bearing the brunt of climate change and its extreme weather events. Even within the wealthier countries of the Global North, poor communities and people of color are the most exposed to environmental risks.[16]

The world of The Expanse reflects the distributive injustice in our world’s environmental risks. Most scenes on Earth take place in the homes and offices of the UN elite. Yet, their lush gardens, airy houses, and high-tech glass aesthetics are a far cry from the glimpses we get of what lies just beyond the compounds of the rich. “Cascade” is again crucial, as it offers one of these glimpses.

On her way to the ocean, Bobbie walks through the slum outside the UN’s gates. Ironically, soon after an ad calls citizens to “register today for a better tomorrow,” we see poor people, many ill or intoxicated, who have no such prospects. Bobbie strikes up a conversation with Nico, and we’re introduced to further aspects of the wretched life of Earth’s poor: children exposed to radiation from a power plant and people forced to drink sewer water. Notwithstanding all its Technozoic advancements, The Expanse’s Earth has failed to address the fact that the poor and often non-white communities shoulder the majority of environmental burdens and toxicities.

In our world, the uneven distribution of the vulnerabilities of the climate crisis is the legacy of colonial racist hierarchies. Colonizers saw natives as part of the realm of nature—to be mastered and exploited alongside their lands. As contemporary philosopher Kyle P. Whyte emphasizes, the challenges of the supposedly new epoch of the Anthropocene are ones that colonized peoples have already faced.[17] For the populations of the Global South, Indigenous communities, and people of color, 21st-century climate and environmental injustices are often a continuation of the violence of the colonial era.

The Anthropocene’s core worldview is an anthropocentric belief in the importance of protecting human interests above those of the rest of nature. But it’s also true that the epoch is defined by the reality that not all human interests are seen as equally worthy of protection. We humans aren’t in the Anthropocene together. Some of us are more affected by it than others. “That is a story” indeed, dear Dawes.

“Earthers, Martians—they see us as their possessions, animals”

The section title above is a quote from Dawes in “The Seventh Man.” His words draw attention to the uneven power dynamic between Inners and Belters that we see playing out throughout The Expanse. In the Belters, indeed, we find the clearest articulation of the hierarchical understating of the human at the heart of the Anthropocene and of the links between this epoch and colonialism.

As Henning notes, those who are working on making space colonization a reality appear to be wilfully ignoring how colonialism brought about immense devastation on our planet, including, as Whyte underlines, environmental devastation.[18] Characters in The Expanse use images from the colonial era to understand the protomolecule’s existential threat. For instance, upon seeing what seems to be an impossible sight—the protomolecule-hybrid—Holden tells Alex: “When the European tall-ships first arrived on the American continent, the natives couldn’t see them. The sight was so completely outside of their experience, they just couldn’t compute.” Alex responds: “Those natives all got wiped out in the end, didn’t they? If that thing out there really is some sort of human-protocrap hybrid, then we’re yesterday’s model. Obsolete” (“The Monster and the Rocket”).  Pondering the colonization of what lies beyond the Ring System, Avasarala observes that “When Columbus arrived, at least he knew what was waving at him was human” (“New Terra”). These moments indicate that The Expanse’s humankind is worried about the prospect of being colonized and annihilated by an alien species. Yet, it’s evident that human colonization of the Sol system has already replicated the violence of old colonial patterns.

The exploitation of the Belt’s resources—both natural and human—is a form of colonialism grounded in the belief that Belters aren’t, in fact, fully human. As an OPA activist explains, “to them, we will always be slaves. That’s all we are to the Earthers and Dusters. They built their solar system on our backs, spilled the blood of a million of our brothers. But in their eyes, we’re not even human anymore” (“Dulcinea”). Eros is chosen for the protomolecule experiment because Belters are viewed as “animals to test their [Inners] new weapons on” (“The Seventh Man”). For the same reason, Belters are victims of environmental injustices, from the exposure of Anderson Station’s children to the health hazards of living in a low oxygen environment (“Back to the Butcher), to the refugees created by the collapse of Ganymede. Indeed, as a “race of exiles in space” (“The Big Empty”), all Belters are de facto climate refugees produced by the Anthropocene on Earth.

The Expanse’s humanity, therefore, ends up exporting to its Planet Bs not only the Anthropocene’s anthropocentrism but also its environmental injustices and stratified understanding of what we value as fully human. Failing to address these worldviews in an ethical paradigm shift repeats the mistakes made on Earth’s garden.  

“Doing nothing is just as bad as doing the wrong thing”

Where does The Expanse leave us in relation to the challenges of this epoch? Holden firmly holds on to the possibility of justice, even in the face of atrocities like the genocide on Eros (“Safe”). As Alex explains, the Roci’s philosophy is that “You can talk all day long about, you know, looking out for yourself, minding your own business, just trying to survive. It all boils down to an excuse and that excuse ain’t worth a good goddamn thing when the world is burning down around you. Doing nothing is just as bad as doing the wrong thing” (“Doors & Corners”).

When the world is quite literally burning down around us due to climate change—think the Australian bushfires emergency—the Roci’s crew remind us of the importance of the fight for environmental justice and for a different ethics in our relationships with the rest of nature.

What is at stake is nothing less than the possibility of a future.

Diletta De Cristofaro is a Research Fellow in the Humanities based between Northumbria University, UK, and Politecnico di Milano, Italy. She is the author of The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times (Bloomsbury, 2020) and the co-editor of The Literature of the Anthropocene (a special issue of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings, 2018). Her writings on contemporary culture, crises, and the politics of time have been published in venues like Salon, The Conversation, RTÉ, b2o, ASAP/J, and Critique. She used to have a Milleresque haircut but lacked his cool (and pet nuke).

[1] IPCC, “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate,” 2019, at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/.

[2] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (London: Pelican, 2018).

[3] IPCC, “Global Warming of 1.5 °C,” 2018, at https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.

[4] For an analysis that shows how Earth might be “approaching a global cascade of tipping points that [will] le[a]d to a new, less habitable, ‘hothouse’ climate state,” see Timothy M. Lenton et al., “Climate Tipping Points—Too Risky to Bet Against,” Nature, November 27, 2019, at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0#ref-CR1. It is estimated that, by 2050, there could be up to 1 billion people forced to migrate due to environmental degradation (desertification, ocean acidification, erosion), rising temperatures and sea levels, as well as sudden onset disasters such as storms and floods. See International Organization for Migration (IOM), “IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change,” 2014, at https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/iom-outlook-migration-environment-and-climate-change-1.

[5] That animals are rarely featured in The Expanse—and not only in space, where they would have problems adapting to different gravity conditions, but, crucially, on Earth—might, in this sense, be an allusion to the Anthropocene as an age of mass extinctions.

[6] Brian G. Henning, “From the Anthropocene to the Ecozoic: Philosophy and Global Climate Change,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 40 (2016), 284-295, 288.

[7] Henning, 288.

[8] Katie McShane, “Anthropocentrism in Climate Ethics and Policy,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 40 (2016), 189-204.

[9] Henning, 288.

[10] Henning, 290.

[11] Henning, 291.

[12] Keekok Lee, “Awe and Humility: Intrinsic Value in Nature. Beyond an Earthbound Environmental Ethics,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 36 (1994), 92. It is interesting to note that Lee develops her non-Earthbound environmental ethics by thinking through the project of terraforming Mars. 

[13] Simon Caney, “Justice and Posterity,” in Ravi Kanbur and Henry Shue eds., Climate Justice: Integrating Economics and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 157-174.

[14] Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Coronavirus is Rewriting our Imaginations,” The New Yorker, May 1, 2020, at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future.

[15] Henry Shue, Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 5.

[16] On the effects of climate change on the Global South, see, for instance, Christian Parenti, Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Bold Type, 2011). In terms of the uneven distribution of environmental risks in the Global North, consider the case of Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate impact on the black community: Gary Rivlin, “White New Orleans Has Recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleans Has Not,” The Nation, August 29, 2016, at: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/white-new-orleans-has-recovered-from-hurricane-katrina-black-new-orleans-has-not/

[17] Kyle P. Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1 (2018), 224-242.

[18] Henning, 290; Whyte.

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