“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"I Don't Like the Idea of the Anthropocene"

This argument, a sort of argument from optics, is a typical at present humanities response to this term.

It's a reaction to the use of "anthropos."

In form it is precisely the conservative argument against global warming (the same thing, or a symptom of it): "Humans are so arrogant to presume they can change nature/be a geophysical force."

The humanist reaction is a symptom of its sclerosis. Exactly the wrong ideas at the wrong time.



Kai said...

"Humans are so arrogant to presume they can change nature/be a geophysical force."

it's funny, because this is the same argument from the christian right.

michael pulsford said...

I think you're right. The positive side of this objection is humility: the understanding that our power has limits. But its negative, which now is far worse, is false humility, averting our gaze from the scope of our power and its effects.

And I wonder if there's another objection hiding there, one about the division of labour. Before the Anthropocene, different people can care about different things. There can be people who care about cars, people who care about writing, people who care about something called 'the environment', and they can each do their own thing. But the of ecological enmeshment undoes this freedom to specialise quite so much, and the idea of the Anthropocene is a reminder of that. That whatever preferences and dreams you developed in a culture which pretended not to be an ecology might not survive translation into a culture which perceives ecologically. And where the objection you describe is both the good and bad kind of humility, this second idea is perhaps just humiliating.

Jozsef Kele said...
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Jozsef Kele said...

"Not even wrong", as they say.

Show these cultural idealists an Aerial photograph or a satellite image of the amazon from 1980, and one from 2013.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to stress that the conservative and humanist arguments are motivated differently. The first is motivated by a desire to deny what is (to a large extent) obvious but inconvenient. Humanists on the other hand may be motivated by the wish to acknowlegde what escapes human influence or control. I agree that humans have an enormous impact, and that this might warrant the use of the term anthropocene, yet the concept does appear to make the impact absolute, thereby cutting off an important source of meaning in life: the unknown, the uncontrolled.

Also, I notice that the term is sometimes used to defend a techofix as the solution to climate change: if humans cause global warming by means of technocapitalism, then we can solve it by means of technocapitalism. This disregards the possibility, preferred by humanists, or at least by me, that cultures of modesty and low impacts can reach more sustainable results. (As long as they're not anti-humanist/anti-technological).

Jozsef Kele said...

And it's important to see that this isn't a trivial denial. It's both the result and the precondition.

The neoclassicists or post classicists, or whatever they go by, in addition to the right-libertarians are staunchly antiempiricial, and hyperationalistic, and hyperdualistic.

Look in their economics books. Economics pertains to material accumulations of humans. Look for some sign that materiality figures into the game.

Look at their theories of the human being. Mises' praexology for example. Completely rationalistic, a priori set of axioms absolutely denying any ecological or biological trace.

Jozsef Kele said...

"if humans cause global warming by means of technocapitalism, then we can solve it by means of technocapitalism."

This is actually true. I mean, it doesn't have to be technocapitalism. It can be techno-whatever. It will have to be solved by something-techno. I.e., the carbon already there in the atmosphere remains in the atmosphere for a very long time. Let us imagine that we switched every machine off, and cut our emissions to zero, tomorrow -- global warming would continue to occur due to that carbon that's not going anywhere of it's own natural accord. Some sort of technological process would have to extract carbon from the atmosphere in order to actually reduce global warming. Changing value systems can change behavior which can change emissions, but changing emissions can at most SLOW the ACCELERATION of global warming.

Anonymous said...

Great post.
I campaign against the factory farming of pigs. The amount of pig feces produced in Canada could fill a massive sports stadium every 2.5 weeks, week in and week out.

My point? We are saturating the soil and clean waterways with the toxic, toxic, liquid manure. i.e. Human production of tonnes and tonnes of pig shit is a geophysical force.

ARP said...

to say we haven't changed nature is a romanticism unto itself.

ARP said...

To say we haven't changed nature as an agent in the biome, at least on this sphere, is a romanticism all unto itself

Atomic Geography said...

My objection is from the other side -Idon't think the term Anthroocene goes far enough. Humnans are necessary for the changes to Earth, but not sufficient. Ithink we should acknowledge that machines complete the causal matrix leading to the effects we refer to by Anthropocene. Machines have a logic powerful enouh and distinct enough to merit exlicit recognition. I propose the term Cyborgocene instead.

Anonymous said...

Humanities departments could perhaps focus on depicting "contemporary renaissance persons" i.e. we could envision enculturation patterns that introduce non-humanity topics alongside the traditional virtues of letters, character, material culture.

I'd like to see a large scale billion dollar humanities-driven Greater Anthropocene International Alliance (GAIA) organize a transformational sustainability research project. The whole thing could be crowdfunded through a hundred thousand kickstarter projects, government petitions, etc coordinated by a consortium of non-profits (if the humanities can get their shit together.)

Sandra Harding did a great thing in the 90s by transforming the knowledge hierarchy so that the natural sciences are viewed as a subset of the critical social sciences. Humanities scholars can leverage that point of view.

I discussed this briefly with Andrew Revkin last year, he was amused.

One problem orientation could be: suppose at some time in the future hard-core geologists decide that the Anthropocene must be divided into two phases, the Lesser and the Greater. We can imagine a dystopian reading of this scenario in which the G.A. entails even more rapid depletion --> stepping on the Anthropocene Accelerator, pedal to the metal. Alternatively, an optimist reading is available. The idea would be to combine knowledge types, disciplinary perspectives, artistic media, collective actions to explore the past, present, and future of the Greater Anthropocene Transition, the interzone of this proposed geological shift.

Anonymous said...

The acronym GAIA is brilliant! I love this idea. As an English prof, I am constantly berated by big agriculture for not being a farmer who knows what she's talking about. It's total bullshit. I read their propaganda and their articles in their "science" journals and have a skill for it (for reading critically and knowing how to research). It's humanities peeps who can push back against the dead language and belligerent multinationals profiting off the end of the world.

Unknown said...

I think you missed the boat on this one, Tim. (PART I)

There is a critical difference between acknowledging that the humans dominate the planet, possibly warranting the naming of new geological epoch…and deciding that the epoch should be named after humans. Few in the humanities disagree with the first, while many are rightfully uncomfortable with the second.

There is a naïve and almost entirely unacknowledged premise within the Anthropocene discourse that if it is true that humans have pushed the planet into a new geologic state, we must necessarily name the new state Anthropocene. In fact, doing so violates traditional geological nomenclature.

We currently live in the Cenozoic Era which began 66 million years ago with Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event which wiped out the dinosaurs. Cenozoic means “new life” to indicate that, taken as a whole, the plants and animals in the fossil record (and alive today) changed after the K-T event. The Cenozoic is divided into seven Epochs. The Anthropocene would be the eighth.

Neither the Cenozoic nor any of its formally recognized epochs are named after a species, a geological force or an event. They are all named after faunal composition:

1. Paleocene: oldest new fauna
2. Eocene: dawning of new fauna
3. Oligocene: few recent fauna (compared to today)
4. Miocene: less recent fauna (appearing)
5. Pliocene: more recent fauna (appearing)
6. Pleistocene: most recent fauna (have appeared)
7. Holocene: entirely recent fauna (are present)

Unknown said...

I think you missed the boat on this one, Tim (PART II)

So if we have entered a new geological epoch, there is no nomenclatural necessity to name it after humans or any other force or event. An alternative name proposed in the 1980s—homogenocene—would be more in keeping with geologic naming traditions.

If you have seen more push back against the name from within the humanities, it is likely because humanities scholars are more aware of the history of western anthropocentrism and efforts to move away from it in a diverse array of often intensely conflicting movements named post-structuralism, post-humanism, post-modernism, eco-criticism, deep ecology, bio-centrism, etc. From this critical perspective, the term Anthropocene raises suspicions about the reinscription of anthropocentrism.

Anthropocene is also suspect because—to the extent that “we” wish to name the new epoch after a force (and who is this "we"?), it generically identifies that force as humanity as a whole, rather than the identifiable power structures most responsible for the geological Anthropocene traces: extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, creating/distributing nitrogen, etc. Whether one looks at the issue from a gender, race, economic, or geographic perspective, the genericizing of causality always benefits power by hiding power.

Finally, Anthropocene proponents have yet to fully acknowledge the fact that contemporary westerners have never not lived in the Age of Man. The condition of the possibility of conceiving of the Age of Man is an awareness that the Earth is old and humans are young. Prior to that knowledge, there are no ages preceding humans, thus no possibility of a human age. So it is remarkable (well actually, entirely predictable) that since the Buffon in the 1770s-- from the very moment the fossil record was understood to indicate a young humanity-- the “current” time (whether at the Epoch level or higher) was thought of as the Human Epoch. And it has been thought of that since: Anthropozoic, Anthropolithic, Age of the Human Species, Psychozoic, Periode Anthropeian, Human Period, Terrain Humain, etc. Indeed, Eastern Europe has widely used Anthropogene (with a “g”) instead of Quaternary (the level above the Holocene) since the 1960s (though the term was coined in the 1920s).

It is no accident that the relative frequency of key Anthropocene term in literature since the 1830s demonstrates a strong sine wave pattern. A new term rapidly gains popularity after introduction, it peaks within one-two decades, then declines fairly rapidly over one-two decades due to criticism and (more importantly, I think) lack of newness. When the term reaches low enough level for long enough, a new term is introduced and the sine wave takes off again. Why? More historical research is needed, but I think because the lack of a broadly recognized term creates a psychological need (in Western culture at least) which the new term fills.

The pattern technically—by which I mean in a mathematical modeling sense—is fashion. Not similar to fashion. Fashion. I hesitate to use that term though, because it will be taken as pejorative and slight. But fashion, is not slight, it is culture. There is no outside of fashion.

But that’s (maybe) another topic.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity

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