Reading Rousseau in the Anthropocene

March 17, 2017

Danielle DiNovelli-Lang

I’m a critical environmental anthropologist, which means I make my living by having serious doubts about every term in this aspirational self-description. Writing and teaching under such a sign has always been hard, but it’s gotten even harder lately, for painfully obvious reasons. For example, this semester, for the second time, I am teaching a midlevel course for undergraduates called “Theories of Human Nature.” As with so many anthropology courses at my university, the title is deceptive: instead of theories of human nature, my innocent charges are stuck with a relentless series of stories demonstrating that there is no such thing as human nature and that any effort to appeal to it inevitably entails the denigration of many would-be humans and the degradation of what is left of nature in the name of some dubious onto-political cause or other (see Haraway 2007; Soper 1995). By the end of the semester, I would normally hope my students would have become as suspicious of the word “human” as they are of the word “nature,” and downright outraged to hear them juxtaposed in an argument.

When I first taught “Theories of Human Nature” in 2013, I think I achieved this goal to a considerable degree. We wrapped up by reading an ethnography of the (mostly) nonhuman semiotic chains linking the Amazon to its inhabitants, How Forests Think (Kohn 2013), and during discussion a few of the students worried about its latent “humanism.” This time around I don’t think I’ll get there. It is not that my students today are any more invested than their predecessors in themselves as liberal humanist subjects or Enlightenment reason as the touchstone of their ideals. It might not be any real change in my students at all, although I was admittedly taken aback by their insistence just after the midterm break that a recent proposal to rename the Anthropocene the Capitalocene (Haraway 2015; Moore 2016) would be “a cop-out” insofar as doing so would seem to shift responsibility for historically recent, stratigraphically salient environmental transformations from “us” to “the system.” I wondered what could explain their longing for so many unfolding or anticipated environmental disasters to be counted as a form of responsibility-enforcing punishment, as well as why they felt more responsible for environmental harms as humans than as citizens of a settler-colonial democracy.

I can’t be sure if my students in 2013 would have felt any differently, however, because I myself didn’t think the Anthropocene bore mentioning back then, and the Capitalocene idea had not yet made it to press. This suggests that I am the one who has changed in the intervening years, albeit far too slowly for the world my students so guiltily inhabit.

This inconvenient truth first dawned on me back in January of this year, when I began the semester’s readings as usual with my favorite example of Enlightenment thinking about human nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Among other advantages, the text crystallizes the normative role played by reason in setting civilized man apart from all the others, who become more natural, or savage, only by comparison with this axiomatically unnatural, uniquely “human” faculty. It also shows the contradictory way reason is held up as a set of rules that should determine human action just as instinct supposedly does determine animal action, so that the freedom that reason grants us is not much more than striving—and usually failing—to be obedient to natural law. I like Rousseau’s demonstration of these Enlightenment principles a million times better than the other natural law theorists (see Tuck 1999, for their stories) because this irony is not entirely lost on him. He shows how reason can be used to justify all kinds of horrors, including the Discourse itself:

I admit that, since the events I have to describe could have taken place in several ways, I cannot make a determination among them except on the basis of conjecture. But over and above the fact that these conjectures become reasons when they are the most probable ones that a person can draw from the nature of things and the sole means that a person can have of discovering the truth, the consequences I wish to deduce from mine will not thereby be conjectural, since, on the basis of the principles I have just established, no other system is conceivable that would not furnish me with the same results, and from which I could not draw the same conclusions. ([1755] 1992: 43)

In other words, here Rousseau freely admits to making the whole thing up, necessarily, which is small compensation for his liberal use (no pun intended) of what he took to be real-life examples of humanity at an intermediate stage between the state of nature and civilization drawn from the European colonial encounter with New World “savages” (see Pagden 1993). Even as he enacts its harms, Rousseau teaches us that human nature is made, and made up, for a single purpose: political power. In 2013, I was content to read, and teach my students to read, Rousseau for his consistently contradictory use of human nature as a rhetorical device in a political argument. In 2017, however, I found myself responding to the argument itself, summoned against my will beyond my little province of naturalcultural expertise and into Europe’s undying imperial fray.

The Discourse’s argument is presented as an answer to two questions posed by the Academy of Dijon: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” Rousseau disposes of the second absurd proposition on the first page, claiming that to even entertain the question “would amount to asking whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey, and whether strength of body or mind, wisdom or virtue are always found in the same individuals in proportion to power or wealth. Perhaps this is a good question for slaves to discuss within earshot of their masters, but it is not suitable for reasonable and free men who seek the truth” (1992: 16; see Scott 1990; see also Klausen 2014). Most of the rest of the Discourse is a protracted fantasy—savages included—about how society could have arrived in such a terrible state of inequality that this absurd question is even on the table.

Famously, Rousseau identifies the institution of property as the first step in “the sequence of wonders by which the strong could resolve to serve the weak, and the people buy imaginary repose at the price of real felicity” (1992: 17), but it is not the last. The second is the creation of the state, or “the magistracy,” to protect the property of the rich against the poor. The third is “the transformation of legitimate power into arbitrary power,” mainly through the law of inheritance. Inequality itself is offered at once as the cause, sign, and symptom of this third step in the sequence, “the ultimate degree of inequality and the limit to which all the others finally lead” (65) If this were really the end of the story, the argument would be not just paradoxical (Cress 2011) but tautological. Rousseau would have shown that the evolution of inequality is as natural for reasonable human beings as its suppression was in the fictive state of nature. This is what the thought experiment (nature + reason = inequality) that makes up the bulk of the text avowedly demonstrates. This is also what my students seem to have gotten out of it in their short essays on the topic, a result alarmingly consistent with their sentiments about the Anthropocene. But Rousseau provides an alternate conclusion, though I confess to having missed this point in reading and teaching his political philosophy as protean anthropology at least a dozen times since the turn of the millennium.

After having shown the origin of inequality in property, the state, and inheritance on the basis of pure conjecture, Rousseau allows himself to speculate on what he would find were he to actually examine the facts, “where one would examine all the different faces under which inequality has appeared until now and may appear in future ages, according to the nature of these governments and the upheavals that time will necessarily bring in its wake,” (1992: 67). Carefully protecting himself, and perhaps his readers, with the safety afforded by the future conditional, Rousseau describes in this last moment not the origin of inequality, but its climax:

From the extreme inequality of conditions and fortunes … there would come a pack of prejudices equally contrary to reason, happiness and virtue. One would see the leaders fomenting whatever can weaken men united together by disuniting them; whatever can give society an air of apparent concord while showing the seeds of division; whatever can inspire defiance and hatred in the various classes through the opposition of their rights and interests, and can as a consequence strengthen the power that contains them all.

It is from the bosom of this disorder and these upheavals that despotism, by gradually raising its hideous head and devouring everything it had seen to be good and healthy in every part of the state, would eventually succeed in trampling underfoot the laws of the people, and in establishing itself in the ruins of the republic. The times that would precede this last transformation would be times of troubles and calamities; but in the end everything would be swallowed up by the monster, and the peoples would no longer have leader or laws, but only tyrants. Also, from that moment on, there would no longer be any question of mores and virtue, for wherever despotism, in which decency affords no hope, reigns, it tolerates no other master. (68; emphasis in original)

With this Rousseau offers an argument, this time based on experience veiled as conjecture instead of the other way around, for why inequality is a problem for peoples—note the plural—who in his time as in ours are bound to live together. Inequality is bad, not because we judge it to be bad, because we are bleeding-heart libtards or commie snowflakes or social justice warriors, or critical environmental anthropologists for that matter. Inequality is bad because it admits no other principle, no other government, no other society, no thinking, no feeling, no justice, no peace. And as I learned a little too late, no education worthy of the name.


I’m grateful for timely discussions of the Capitalocene and other critical environmental topics with my colleagues Jenny Cockburn, Reade Davis, Karen Hébert, Pablo Mendez, and Zoe Todd. The untimely reversion to Rousseau, however, is my own fault.

Danielle DiNovelli-Lang
 studies resource politics and human–animal relations in Alaska. She teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.


Cress, D., ed. 2011. Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings. London: Hackett.

Haraway, D. 2007. The Companion Species Manifesto. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Haraway, D. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene.” Environmental Humanities 8 (1).

Klausen, J. 2014. Fugitive Rousseau. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kohn, E. 2013. How Forests Think. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moore, J., Ed. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Pagden, A. 1993. European Encounters with the New World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rousseau, J-J. (1775) 1992. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Ed. Donald Cress. London: Hackett.

Scott, J. 1993. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Soper, K. 1995. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Nonhuman. London: Blackwell.

Tuck, R. 1999. The Rights of War and Peace. London: Clarendon.

Cite as: 
DiNovelli-Lang, Danielle. 2017. “Reading Rousseau in the Anthropocene.” EnviroSociety, 17 March.

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