Do we need “the Anthropocene?” (Inhabiting the Anthropocene)

Zev Trachtenberg | January 5, 2015 at 7:00 am

As 2014 came to a close I received a wonderfully provocative e-mail from my friend and colleague in the Environmental Political Theory community John Meyer. He wrote that he has been led to

ask — out loud — a question that may seem either naive or cynical, but is not meant as either: so what’s the big deal about the Anthropocene? . . . To be clear, I get why it’s a big deal in geological terms. But what I’m wondering is: in what ways does it alter our understanding/approach/argument as philosophers, political theorists, political ecologists, environmental humanists, etc., that have already been working on environmental/sustainability concerns?

Does it add to or modify established critiques of “nature”? Does it convey an urgency that might otherwise be lacking? Does it alter our sense of human/more-than-human relations? Is it primarily a vehicle that might convey a set of concerns to a broader public? I know that none of these questions are original, but I pose them b/c I’m fascinated with the explosion of attention to the concept over the past couple years and yet genuinely struggling to make sense of the impetus/es for it.

This strikes me as a really good question. So as 2015 begins, here are some (I hope) seasonally appropriate reflections–not direct answers to John–on whether speaking about the Anthropocene adds some distinctive value to preexisting conversations about anthropogenic environmental change.

An immediate issue has to do with the status of the word as a term in Geology; in that context of course the Anthropocene is a proposed period in the geological time-scale, and it is an open question as to whether or not it will be formally adopted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the “ICS”—the decision is anticipated in 2016; here is the website for the working group handling the proposal). But the “explosion of attention” John mentions is due to the usage of the term in an informal way to refer to the massive transformation of Earth systems by human beings. Reference to the Anthropocene lends a kind of scientific prestige; it may be that work in the Humanities (my own area) is particularly prone to the urge to bolster its relevance and credibility by affiliating itself with a scientific endorsement of the project of discussing human-induced environmental change. And that appeal (made explicitly or implicitly) to Geology seems to vindicate the sense that anthropogenic change is really happening.

There is, no doubt, a degree of “wow factor” to the idea that humanity has become a force of nature, akin to geological phenomena like volcanoes and earthquakes, and potentially just as cataclysmic. Reference to the Anthropocene seems to ground this amazing thought in the sober authority of dispassionate geologists attuned to processes that shape the Earth itself. To speak of the Anthropocene is thus to hitch one’s claims to a fundamental understanding of nature, which can help justify one’s own demands on one’s audience for belief, and for action. It is not impossible, therefore, that we are experiencing a bandwagon effect–that the term “Anthropocene” is functioning as a buzzword in what will turn out to be a passing wave of academic fashion. Its passage might be accelerated if people find that, after all, adding the term to studies of particular examples of anthropogenic environmental change does not in fact add any value. And I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the ICS ends up rejecting the term next year. Will that deflate an academic bubble? Or will there be an intensification of C.P. Snow’s split between two cultures?

My own sense is that the “buzzier” sense of “Anthropocene” in fact does have some value—though I want to acknowledge that it is probably not be the best word for the job I want to approve. As a geological term “Anthropocene” refers to a hypothesized condition or set of facts about the Earth; it is the task of the ICS to decide whether that hypothesis is, in it sbest scientific judgment, true. But the informal usage of the word seems to connote a meaning over and above the idea that the present condition of the Earth has been profoundly shaped by human activity. On this additional meaning the word refers not to a condition, but to a broad intellectual approach. In this sense “Anthropocene” can be taken to name something like a paradigm: an intellectual framework which provides a consistent way for understanding diverse phenomena. The framework brings together a range of ideas and outlooks which harmonize around the theme that human activity has led to a distinctive condition of the Earth; it might therefore be called “Anthropocenism.” Thankfully I’ve not see that word before—and hope never to again. But the absence of a viable name leaves the imprecise usage—of the name for the condition—in place as the label for the approach, i.e. for the cluster of views that overlap by attending to anthropogenic environmental change.

In other words, the recent “explosion of attention” to the Anthropocene John notices might reflect the emergence of a consensus across a fairly wide range of disciplines on how to think about the relationship between human beings and the physical environment. The concept may not add any new information to any given field—many of which have well established traditions of examining that relationship. But, by redescribing ideas that are already available it facilitates the recognition that disparate fields indeed address a common theme. The shared term holds out at least the potential that researchers with profoundly different interests can see in each other’s work ideas that can advance their own. At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I believe that the possibility that the Anthropocene proposal might facilitate disciplinary cross-fertilization means that the value it adds to existing work is not negligible.

What I’ve said so far is pretty general; I have not given much detail about the content of the “paradigm” I’ve suggested the term the Anthropocene should be taken to name. One hope for this blog is that that content might emerge out the readings we are presenting in our reading posts. But I will conclude with a highly compressed (and too general) statement of what I take to be the core notions.

As the name of an outlook, the Anthropocene articulates the idea that human beings are natural: human life is embedded in the natural world. I draw two key implications from this starting point. First, while it is a commonplace of environmental thinking that our embeddedness means that human beings are essentially dependent on the causal processes at work in natural world, embeddedness equally means that human actions have effects in the natural world; this fact is also essential to our status as natural beings. The causal continuity here points to a systemic understanding, whereby there is no clear conceptual distinction between human and natural domains. Second, the humancharacter of the causal processes by which human beings affect the world is associated with technology. An image from the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 conveys my point here. The proto-human creature becomes human by using a tool—the bone it uses as a weapon. It then tosses the bone in the air, and we next see a space craft. But the human character of human causality is at the same time social—and technology can only be understood in terms of the social and economic structures and processes through which it is developed and deployed.

As a matter of shorthand I interpret the Anthropocene (in the precise sense of a condition of the Earth) as the consequence of these two implications of naturalism: the socially organized deployment of technology so amplifies and concentrates human causal power that human activity can redirect or disrupt planetary-scale Earth system processes, yielding a state of the system best characterized by reference to human influence. But I am suggesting that we also use the term Anthropocene in a less precise way, to point to something like a paradigm. In that sense it gathers together empirical research that describes and explains the socially and technologically mediated effects human beings have on the world. Within this paradigm the project of understanding observations involves interpreting them in terms of the traces of human causal influence they might reveal. And that is why, I believe, this paradigm can successfully link normative inquiries to descriptive ones. For, by attending centrally to the structure and dynamics of human causal power within the natural world, it keeps in clear focus the issue of moral responsibility.

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