It’s not the first time that the world seemed like it could collapse. The political upheavals that marked the early modern period (roughly 1500–1700 CE) produced widespread ambivalence toward the social and philosophical structures that for centuries gave shape to our sense of the human condition and its place in nature. As local, communal, and sacred forms of imagining the self and the world gave way to one that was increasingly mechanized and universal, the arts and sciences responded with a radically denatured image of the individual and the environment. Today’s global climate crisis is a byproduct of this historical process, and addressing it demands more than a change in habits; it demands a profound transformation in the way we inhabit our bodies and our world.
In my research, I argue that we can find resources for this transformation in the cultural artifacts of early modernity, when the worldview that brought us here was first an object of debate. Long understood simply as political or economic revolutions, the crises that defined the early modern period are increasingly understood in ecological terms, as recent scholarship in biopolitics, anthropology, and earth science upends longstanding distinctions between cultural events and environmental ones. By attending to how the arts and sciences of early modernity responded to a changing sense of the relationship between the human and the nonhuman, we might in our own moment reclaim valuable resources for thinking and living in an uncertain world.