Anthropology and the Anthropocene (Anthropology News)

By Anthropology News on December 17, 2013 at 2:44 pm

By Amelia Moore

“The Anthropocene” is a label that is gaining popularity in the natural sciences.  It refers to the pervasive influence of human activities on planetary systems and biogeochemical processes.   Devised by Earth scientists, the term is poised to formally end the Holocene Epoch as the geological categorization for Earth’s recent past, present, and indefinite future.  The term is also poised to become the informal slogan of a revitalized environmental movement that has been plagued by popular indifference in recent years.

Climate change is the most well known manifestation of anthropogenic global change, but it is only one example of an Anthropocene event.  Other examples listed by the Earth sciences include biodiversity loss, changes in planetary nutrient cycling, deforestation, the hole in the ozone layer, fisheries decline, and the spread of invasive species.  This change is said to stem from the growth of the human population and the spread of resource intensive economies since the Industrial Revolution (though the initial boundary marker is in dispute with some scientists arguing for the Post-WWII era and others for the advent of agriculture as the critical tipping point).  Whatever the boundary, the Anthropocene signifies multiple anthropological opportunities.

What stance should we, as anthropologists, take towards the Anthropocene? I argue that there are two (and likely more), equally valid approaches to the Anthropocene: anthropology in the Anthropocene and anthropology of the Anthropocene.  Anthropology in the Anthropocene already exists in the form of climate ethnography and work that documents the lived experience of global environmental change.  Arguably, ethnographies of protected areas and transnational conservation strategies exemplify this field as well.  Anthropology in the Anthropocene is characterized by an active concern for the detrimental affects of anthropogenesis on populations and communities that have been marginalized to bear the brunt of global change impacts or who have been haphazardly caught up in global change solution strategies.  This work is engaged with environmental justice and oriented towards political action.

Anthropology of the Anthropocene is much smaller and less well known than anthropology in the Anthropocene, but it will be no less crucial.  Existing work in this vein includes those who take a critical stance towards climate science and politics as social processes with social consequences.  Beyond deconstruction, these critical scholars investigate what forms scientific and political assemblages create and how they participate in remaking the world anew.  Other existing research in this mode interrogates the idea of biodiversity and the historical and cultural context for the notion of anthropogenesis itself.  In the near future, we will see more work that can enquire into both the sociocultural and socioecological implications and manifestations of Anthropocene discourse, practice and logic.

I have only created cursory sketches of anthropology in the Anthropocene and anthropology of the Anthropocene here.  However, these modes are not at all mutually exclusive, and they should inspire many possibilities for future work.  The centrality of anthropos, the idea of the human, within the logics of the Anthropocene is an invitation for anthropology to renew its engagements with the natural sciences in research collaborations and as the object of research, especially the ecological and Earth sciences.

For starters, we should consider the implications of the Anthropocene idea for our understandings of history and collectivity.  If the natural world is finally gaining recognition within the authoritative sciences as intimately interconnected with human life such that these two worlds cease to be separate arenas of thought and action or take on different salience, then both the Humanities and the natural sciences need to devise more appropriate modes of analysis that can speak to emergent socioecologies.  This has begun in anthropology with some recent works of environmental health studies, political ecology, and multispecies ethnography, but is still in its infancy.

In terms of opportunities for legal and political engagement, the Anthropocene signifies possibilities for reconceptualizing environmentalism, conservation and development.  Anthropologists should be cognizant of new design paradigms and models for organizing socioecological collectives from the urban to the small island to the riparian.  We should also be on the lookout for new political collaborations and publics creating conversations utilizing multiple avenues for communication in the academic realm and beyond.  Emergent asymmetries in local and transnational markets and the formation of new multi-sited assemblages of governance should be of special importance.

In terms of science, the Anthropocene signals new horizons for studying and participating in global change science.  The rise of interdisciplinary socioecology, the biosciences of coupled natural and human complexity, geoengineering and the biotech interest in de-extinction are just a sampling of important transformations in research practices, research objects, and the shifting boundaries between the lab and the field.  Ongoing scientific reorientation will continue to yield new arguments about emergent forms of life that will participate in the creation of future assemblages, publics, and movements.

I would also like to caution against potentially unhelpful uses of the Anthropocene idea.  The term should not become a brand signifying a specific style of anthropological research.  It should not gloss over rigid solidifications of time, space, the human, or life.  We should not celebrate creativity in the Anthropocene while ignoring instances of stark social differentiation and capital accumulation, just as we should not focus on Anthropocene assemblages as only hegemonic in the oppressive sense.   Further, we should be cautious with our utilization of the crisis rhetoric surrounding events in the Anthropocene, recognizing that crisis for some can be turned into multiple forms of opportunity for others.  Finally, we must admit the possibility that the Anthropocene may not succeed in gaining lasting traction through formal designation or popularization, and we should not overstate its significance by assuming its universal acceptance.

In the next year, the Section News Column of the Anthropology and Environment Society will explore news, events, projects, and arguments from colleagues and students experimenting with various framings of the Anthropocene in addition to its regular content.  If you would like to contribute to this column, please contact Amelia Moore at

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Big Data and the Science of the Anthropocene

By Anthropology News on December 17, 2013 at 2:44 pm

By Lizzy Hare

In her September Section News Column, “Anthropology and the Anthropocene,” Amelia Moore made a distinction between anthropology in the Anthropocene and anthropology of the Anthropocene. The distinction is made between those who research the effects of global change and those who investigate the concept of the Anthropocene as a social process. My own research related to the Anthropocene is not on the effects of climate change. Rather, it focuses on the process of establishing credibility, authority, and trust through scientific knowledge.  I am following the process of developing an ecosystem forecast model. This model will provide land managers and policy makers with predictions about landscape and vegetation responses to climate change. Following the model’s development serves as an entry point for exploring what counts as credible scientific knowledge about climate change, who gets to decide what counts, and how credibility is determined.  It is fair to describe my research as “anthropology of the Anthropocene.” However, framing it in this way makes it too easy to neglect the generative nature of the Anthropocene as a concept.

As it is used colloquially, the Anthropocene carries heavy connotations of destruction and degradation, and I do not want to discount the serious environmental consequences of global change, or the inequitable distribution of their effects. But the Anthropocene as a concept also has political and technological consequences. Scientists and policymakers who wish to understand, predict, and manage the consequences of this new anthropogenic geological epoch have pushed forward tremendous innovations in science and technology. The Anthropocene is thus not only about unprecedented human impact on the planet, but also about unprecedented changes in technology, such as the rise of global connectivity and computing power that made “Big Data” possible.

“Big Data” typically refers to massive data sets of quantitative data, often originally collected automatically and for non-specific purposes. Big Data’s optimistic supporters claim that they will be able to revolutionize science by using statistics to mine large sets of data rather than tackling each research question with a different set of methods and tools. While Big Data techniques have led to the success of companies like Google, it remains unclear how or even whether automated data collection and statistical analysis can produce more than large-scale correlations. Recently, however, scientists have been working to develop tools for incorporating Big Data with more traditional empirical data by using simulation models. Scientists are developing this technique for use in climate, weather, and ecological forecast models, as a way to reduce uncertainty in forecasts by constraining them with observed data.

Data assimilation is not the only way that modelers have tried to control uncertainties within climate models. Some political leaders have misconstrued climate science, and it has come under intense scrutiny by multiple government committees following the 2009 “Climategate” scandal. The critics of climate science cite the uncertainties inherent in forecasting as well as concerns that scientists with political agendas manipulate data. This specter hangs over US climate science, and one response has been to develop a quantitative scale for uncertainty in forecasts. This move is grounded in the assumption that quantification is an effective technique for neutralizing information, and it displaces concern and politics on to users of the quantitative information. This is especially attractive when trying to convey information as (potentially) dire as the consequences of climate change.

The Anthropocene as a concept asks us to pay attention to changes in the world around us. These changes have environmental, social, and political impacts. In efforts to understand the environmental changes of the Anthropocene, and to respond to changes in political and social order, both anticipated and actualized, scientists have developed new tools and techniques. Many claim that Big Data techniques are revolutionizing science, but it is probably too early to assess that claim. Techniques for assimilating Big Data into climate models are just one example of technological and scientific developments of the Anthropocene. There are certainly many more. The generative potential of this epoch should be a site for ongoing anthropological inquiry because it has the ability to drastically change the world we live in.

The effects of global change—and thus the scope of anthropology in the Anthropocene—will be vast, even more so if we take seriously the impacts that this epoch has had and will have on science and technology. The lived experience of global environmental change is not limited to encounters with environmental catastrophe. New technologies will have consequences for everyone, perhaps especially for those who cannot access them. As anthropologists, we ought to be attentive to what the Anthropocene is capable of producing, not only what it is capable of destroying.

Lizzy Hare is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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