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"The struggle over what to do with the remains” is vital. Photo from Pixabay; Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license

Book Review: Melancholy Realist 

Seymour, Richard. The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism & Barbarism. London: The Indigo Press, 2022  

As various strands of ecosocialist thought coalesce into a coherent whole, author Richard Seymour’s latest book is a unique and engaging intervention. Composed of a series of essays spanning the years 2017 to 2021, the book chronicles what the author calls his “ecological awakening” and recent foray into the natural sciences.  

As such it reads as the diary of a keen intellect applying insights from a wide range of sources and disciplines — political economy, philosophy, cultural critique, and psychoanalysis — to the confluence of crises facing humanity and the biosphere we depend on. Knowing that Seymour comes out of the Salvage collective, whose motto “because we need a strategy for ruination” expresses a view from defeat, I was prepared for a large dose of “environmental melancholia.” I share their view that the Eco Left, and the earth system it hoped to protect, are “half gone, in a shallow grave.” And yet I also agree with Seymour that “we need not be in thrall to our doom” and that “the struggle over what to do with the remains” is vital. I find his willingness to engage with the esoteric and often fraught dimensions of ideology and the psychosocial, the subjective and subconscious, a necessary addition to more orthodox Marxian approaches. 

I have been following Seymour’s writing for many years, starting with his blog Lenin’s Tomb, and have always appreciated his unsparing appraisal of the Left’s failings while remaining dedicated to the radical project. Throughout the book’s 16 essays he holds up a number of themes to different lights and approaches them from different angles. They range widely, from the ideology behind a “climate sadism” that results from reactionary forces libidinally invested in harming others, to the climate forcing caused by globalized supply chains, to animal liberation.  

A recurring motif is the necessity of mourning, allowing us to persist and persevere through what John Berger termed “undefeated despair.” Another persistent theme throughout the book is the tenuous relationship between democracy and capitalist social relations; that is, governance and production. 

Lyrical Prose Befits the Subject 

Unlike that found in much dry, often pedantic eco-critique, Seymour produces some lovely prose, as well crafted as the best nature writing. For instance: “…the curious symmetry of equally desolated, fossil-black columns stuck with seaweed, a booming Atlantic thronging with the compound music of ruddy turnstones, skuas, puffins and storm petrels.” What needs protection is not some abstraction, but specific, beautiful life forms that are felt, loved, and grieved. Seymour is also clear as to the enormity of the challenge we face: “The issue,” he says, referring to “the rolling cataclysm” that is ecological devastation, “is capitalist civilization.”.  

In the book’s titular essay, Seymour expands on this personal anxiety and mourning, quoting sources from Ezekiel to Nietzsche, Job to Benjamin, attempting to illuminate what Freud called the “mass psychology” of our collective loss. “This is where the dimension of faith enters politics,” he writes, “and where a certain kind of worldliness has to be abandoned.” Here I am reminded of the work of the late Bruno Latour and the attention he gave, towards the end of his brilliant career, to hypothesizing the “Terrestrial” as an active agent. Seymour traces this “disenchantment” to the earth’s becoming a raw material, available for domination, “deprived of anything that could be regarded as agency.” As an input for production, he writes, “nature is conscripted into capitalism’s civilizational order, joining the unpaid work of women and slaves.”  

Quite coincidentally, the next book I read, God Human Animal Machine by Meghan O’Gieblyn, also explored disenchantment, linking it to both the theological and subconscious desire driving the current development of a “masterful, God-like artificial intelligence.” She cites the turn from Platonic, universal, and eternal truths knowable through reason, which made “both God and the natural world comprehensible to humans,” to the “radically contingent” unknowability of the Protestant God. It was this trauma, O’Gieblyn posits, which “led to the Enlightenment, disenchantment, and the scientific revolution.” Transcendence lost, we now had to decide our own fate.  

I think Seymour would agree that both the tremendous promise and profound alienation that technology and the modern project have wrought can be traced back to this historical rupture. He writes: “To work through the chiasmic relationship between ‘spirit’ and ‘nature’” is our collective psychoanalytic task. 

Seymour then delves into the natural sciences, areas which he readily admits are unfamiliar realms of inquiry for him personally. I found that his essays on paleontology, biochemistry, and geology reflect his wonder at this new terrain as well as the challenges of gaining proficiency in these often intimidating disciplines — the same challenges I experience, for instance, when confronting complex climate modelling. Here I took exception to his analysis around carbon capture and storage, a technology Seymour declares “essential” and which I believe to be an industry-promoted false solution. I likewise found the essay “The Atomic Genie,” where he delves into the weeds of “meta-reviews” of jargon-loaded studies concerning nuclear energy, a brief exception to an otherwise captivating read. 

More in Seymour’s wheelhouse are the essays on the politics of food, the rise of ecofascism, and the Libertarian linkages between disaster and denialism. Explaining how industrial food production makes labor “cheaper for capital to buy,” he makes clear how little market price has to do with true cost. While waste and pollution pencil out for agribusiness shareholders, in fact they are preparation for a “mass wake,” the externalized costs “piled up in the future” for our descendants. 

Andreas Malm’s 2021 book White Skin Black Fuel is the definitive book assessing capitalist environmentalism’s rightward shift and tolerance of those who see nature as a white homeland invaded by foreign bodies. Seymour provides a valuable addendum. In an effort to explain the rise in reactionary, paranoid, even sadistic attitudes and behavior by decision makers, he probes the psychological as well as materialist roots of what he terms “social Darwinist petromodernity.”  

Indeed, the future of which Rosa Luxemburg warned has arrived. “It is difficult,” Seymour writes, in a sobering conclusion, “to see a non-violent, democratic resolution.”  

Some of the most evocative, descriptive writing is in Seymour’s history of the Arctic ecosystem, one experiencing rapid, cataclysmic change. Seymour believes the geographical and cultural remoteness of the Inuit and other indigenous cultures allows a calloused humanity to ignore the region’s “death spiral” and its peoples’ collective melancholia. Who mourns for ice? Unlike mountains and streams, forests or moors, it is not an “aesthetic” with which most people have rapport. And yet it may determine our destiny. 

What’s Old Is Needed 

So what might a re-enchantment of Earth entail? Seymour suggests “a radical recalibration of social priorities and ways of living” and here I am reminded of indigenous terms such as sumac kawsay, lekil kuxlejal, and buen vivir, all expressions of a plentiful, just, more harmonious and dignified existence, containing both cosmological and political dimensions. Believing that access can be gained through “gospel, song, poetry, or prayer,” re-enchantment embraces a “readiness to experience something that can only be half-known.”  Perhaps this means seeing nature as having not just a metabolism but also a will.    

Seymour ends this book in a state of tension, suggesting on the one hand that  “only indigenously managed ecosystems, spared the dynamic of capital accumulation, have avoided the worst,” while on the other asking whether we might not “maximize the Edenic potential of the world” to not just preserve or sustain, but also to improve the biosphere itself “through science and technology.”  

Is there some synthesis between Utopian “ecophilic” change and the re-application of ancient knowledge? This tension is familiar to those engaged in the discourse around “extractivism,” de-growth, eco-modernism, and the designing of a new global energy system. Operating within this constructive tension, The Disenchanted Earth is a thoughtful survey of the expanding terrain of ecosocialist thought and author Richard Seymour a welcome interlocutor. 

Dave Jones is a retired fishing guide and autodidact living in western Montana. He is the father of three amazing women and husband to a fourth. He is a founding member of the Zootown Zapatistas and is active with DSA as well as with System Change Not Climate Change.   

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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