Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, May 17, 2013

History and Politics of the Anthropocene: John McNeill


I want to reflect on what we’ve just heard. It began with the proposition that this term isn’t useful for public policy. But I can also see the reverse. Cost benefit analysis as conventionally undertaken seems not all that useful for problems of the Anthropocene. Maybe we need to change the concept! 

People’s discount rates are even steeper than economists’: 50 years from now, who cares? 

My own topic here is going to be a bit disorganized. I haven’t spoken on this theme before. Stray thoughts on cases for the term. 

Agassiz, Vernadsky, Stoppani (the most crucial that Jan mentioned): the Anthropozoic (1873)
humans acquired power that they did in modern times
Word cropped up 1958 (first of all) according to Google. 
becomes part of vocab after Crutzen
Journal of the Anthropocene
Anthropocene Review
Elementa: J. of Anthropocene Science

Duetsches-Museum Munich/Haus der Kulturen der Welt
National Geographic

I’m going to begin with a very theoretical case
One should expect Anthropocene like events on any planet that has life. Dead planet >> dumb planet >> smart planet >> managed planet (Vernadsky, Grinspoon)
monkeying accidentally >> monkeying with intent

Now for some more conventional cases
atmospheric chemistry case
another bioregional case: nitrogen flows
biological case: bio-globalization since 1492 (Columbian Exchange)

Charlres Mann, Homogenocene since 1492 (Orion science journalist)

Geological case: humans in late C20 the most active geological agent than any other force in Earth system (moving rock around etc) (Roger Hooke)

Land use case: land cover >> human artifact (Ellis et al 2013)
agriculture has taken over planet; Ruth De Fries, Columbia

A general case: 24 indicators IGBP (globala.org); gigantic upsurge around 1950

Steffen, Crutzen, McNeill (2007), p. 617

If it exists when did it start? 
Rival versions: Late Pleistocene Extinctions (Erle Ellis); ecosystems reshuffled before agriculture; before Holocene

Ruddiman’s early Anthropocene: land use, GHGs, temperature 5-9kyr BP (onset of agriculture, rice, 5-800 years ago)

Certini and Scalenghe (2011): 2kyr BP because of anthropogenic soils that become pervasive then

Then we have the new Anthropocenes: 
Crutzen (Industrial revolution; GHGs, temperature)

Mid C20: fuzzy mix of criteria but least illogical of the bunch (emphasis on scale of impacts); nuclear age = Anthropocene; maybe you don’t need a marker; maybe it’s just the aggregation showing major disruptions that matter; I’m (McNeill that is) impressed with that as a disjuncture, more than with 1800

Paleo vs. modern Anthropocenes

Who gets to decide? 
Geologists: clear and rigorous standards
Historians: anarchic process of decision; French and Italian idea that “contemporary period” of 60s and 70s is now over (!), a conundrum; “post-contemporary” history
(literary scholars can make the same claime)
Philosophers and journalists: all using the term (can’t be stopped)

the illogical and undisciplined people will be sovereign over the term
We are going to use it whether the stratigraphers say yes or no
get used to it! it’s like what historians have to put up with from film makers

Is there a conscious versus unconscious moment in the Anthropocene? Not really. Consider the Stalin Plan. Spain 1911: nature not good enough. Can we say when intentional planet management begins? 

Multiple cases
struggle for authority
terms are uncontrollable
heart of the matter: energy and population (McNeill is a modernist); the curves are highly conspicuous

Q&A

Q: This goes back to Eric’s skepticism. I share the idea that no one can legislate powerful words. But when you bring the term back into the university, you can’t have a proper conversation unless you stabilize the word

A: That’s why you argue. 

Q: But if we have different criteria we can’t argue. We talk past one another. In Berlin we got precisely to this point. The term is powerful but not precise enough. The term will spread. But in cloistered spaces where we want to stabilize the word for a while...The Great Acceleration seems very persuasive with or without the Anthropocene concept. Then there is the question of interference by humans with Earth systems: when? What is at stake in letting a concept be undisciplined? 

[me: you can think it as fuzzy yet precise in another sense, as a series of concentric loops]

Q: Thanks so much. I had not realized Stoppani had been thinking of the future as well as the past. Geologists don’t have a say in the use of the term. But this is not their battle. It’s fine to have the word out there. But the caution is to do with a very restrictive concept. One good thing about any formalization is what Dipesh is saying: it’s best to have a word that is reasonably restricted and clear. So the term shouldn’t mean anything from 60 000 years ago to some time in the future. The Stratigraphers can help discussion. Looking for signals in the strata: the 1950-ish moment seems to be the least worst. The one that has the least problems. No stratigraphic boundaries are perfect. And human consciousness is irrevalent--it could have been caused by my cat ganging up on us! 

Q: What we are starting to see in early Anthropocene hypotheses are ways of reframing. Normalizing it. No radical break of industrialization. No big deal. It’s better to claim that criteria depend on belief. Ellis: the “good Anthropocene.” A good epic. No limits to human expansion. “We will be proud of the planet we create.” A higher stage of human destiny. Triumphalism >> determination of when it began. 

A: He does have some anxieties about it too. 

Q: The critical thing is that there needs to be something non-arbitrary. 

A: You can argue about it. Think how historians have wrestled with “modernity.” The collective argumentation does narrow the range of acceptable usage. We haven’t even taken that first stage. An explosive stage is necessary: concept subject to ever more and new definitions. Then there comes an implosive stage, narrowing it down. 

Q: Perhaps one way is to come back to ppm question. We could periodize that easily. The 1950 story expands; McDonalds (a factor in the McNeill chart) is a moment << cornucopianism, ideology of growth different from “making a second world” (Francis Bacon); unintended consequence of second-creation-thought

Q: But there is a difference between a geological stratum and an “age of humans” concept: “when do we begin to rule.” Jan is saying that if a geologist came from Mars and all humans were gone, would she develop roughly the same concept? 

A: One defense of McDonalds: if you pen a paper with a Nobel prize winner you don’t always get the last word!

Q: The unstated issue is accountability. It matters if we can trace it to the human. Some moments are also correlated with empire (the exchange of species). Expansion of Europe >> industrial revolution (empire); or  1950s, Americanization (atmospheric nuclear testing)

A: We can bring in issues of accountability. If the concept does successfully colonize social science and humanities, it’s going to happen. It could be a pandora’s box. We may make interdiscipinarity more difficult. Historians will want to talk about x, geologists about y and z. The concept invites people to talk in mutually comprehensible terms. But if the term succeeds there will be costs. [He seems less aware of speculative realist develoments in his worry here]

Q: But it’s necessary as well. But humans are currently driving the Anthropocene. So we have to know what drives humans. 

No comments: