Arquivo da tag: Antropoceno

Why E O Wilson is wrong about how to save the Earth (AEON)

01 March, 2016

Robert Fletcher is an associate professor at the Sociology of Development and Change Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His most recent book is Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism (2014).

Bram Büscher is a professor and Chair at the Sociology of Development and Change Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His most recent book is Transforming the Frontier: Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa (2013).

Edited by Brigid Hains

Opinion sized gettyimages 459113790

A member of the military-style Special Ranger Patrol talks to a suspected rhino poacher on 7 November 2014 at the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by James Oatway/Sunday Times/Getty

Edward O Wilson is one of the world’s most revered, reviled and referenced conservation biologists. In his new book (and Aeon essayHalf-Earth, he comes out with all guns blazing, proclaiming the terrible fate of biodiversity, the need for radical conservation, and humanity’s centrality in both. His basic message is simple: desperate times call for desperate measures, ‘only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilisation required for our own survival’. Asserting that ‘humanity’ behaves like a destructive juggernaut, Wilson is deeply concerned that the current ‘sixth extinction’ is destroying many species before scientists have even been able to identify them.

Turning half of the Earth into a series of nature parks is a grand utopian vision for conservation, perhaps even a hyperbolic one, yet Wilson seems deadly serious about it. Some environmental thinkers have been arguing the exact opposite, namely that conservation should give up its infatuation with parks and focus on ‘mixing’ people and nature in mutually conducive ways. Wilson defends a traditional view that nature needs more protection, and attacks them for being ‘unconcerned with what the consequences will be if their beliefs are played out’. As social scientists who study the impact of international conservation on peoples around the world, we would argue that it is Wilson himself who has fallen into this trap: the world he imagines in Half-Earth would be a profoundly inhumane one if ever his beliefs were ‘played out’.

The ‘nature needs half’ idea is not entirely new – it is an extreme version of a more widespread ‘land sparing’ conservation strategy. This is not about setting aside half the Earth as a whole but expanding the world’s current network of protected areas to create a patchwork grid encompassing at least half the world’s surface (and the ocean) and hence ‘about 85 per cent’ of remaining biodiversity. The plan is staggering in scale: protected areas, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, currently incorporate around 10-15 per cent of the Earth’s terrain, so would need to more than triple in extent.

Wilson identifies a number of causes of the current ecological crisis, but is particularly concerned by overpopulation. ‘Our population,’ he argues, ‘is too large for safety and comfort… Earth’s more than 7 billion people are collectively ravenous consumers of all the planet’s inadequate bounty.’ But can we talk about the whole of humanity in such generalised terms? In reality, the world is riven by dramatic inequality, and different segments of humanity have vastly different impacts on the world’s environments. The blame for our ecological problems therefore cannot be spread across some notion of a generalised ‘humanity’.

Although Wilson is careful to qualify that it is the combination ofpopulation growth and ‘per-capita consumption’ that causes environmental degradation, he is particularly concerned about places he identifies as the remaining high-fertility problem spots – ‘Patagonia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, plus all of sub-Saharan Africa exclusive of South Africa’. These are countries with some of the world’s lowest incomes. Paradoxically, then, it is those consuming the least that are considered the greatest problem. ‘Overpopulation’, it seems, is the same racialised bogeyman as ever, and the poor the greatest threat to an environmentally-sound future.

Wilson’s Half-Earth vision is offered as an explicit counterpoint to so-called ‘new’ or ‘Anthropocene’ conservationists, who are loosely organised around the controversial Breakthrough Institute. For Wilson, these ‘Anthropocene ideologists’ have given up on nature altogether. In her book, Rambunctious Garden (2011), Emma Marris characteristically argues that there is no wilderness left on the Earth, which is everywhere completely transformed by the human presence. According to Anthropocene thinking, we are in charge of the Earth and must manage it closely whether we like it or not. Wilson disagrees, insisting that ‘areas of wilderness… are real entities’. He contends that an area need not be ‘pristine’ or uninhabited to be wilderness, and ‘[w]ildernesses have often contained sparse populations of people, especially those indigenous for centuries or millennia, without losing their essential character’.

Research across the globe has shown that many protected areas once contained not merely ‘sparse’ inhabitants but often quite dense populations – clearly incompatible with the US Wilderness Act’s classic definition of wilderness as an area ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. Most existing ‘wilderness’ parks have required the removal or severe restriction of human beings within their bounds. Indeed, one of Wilson’s models for conservation success – Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique – sidelined local people despite their unified opposition. In his book Conservation Refugees (2009), Mark Dowie estimates that 20-50 million people have been displaced by previous waves of protected-area creation. To extend protected areas to half of the Earth’s surface would require a relocation of human populations on a scale that could dwarf all previous conservation refugee crises.

Would these people include Montana cattle ranchers? Or Australian wheat growers? Or Florida retirees? The answer, most likely, is no, for the burden of conservation has never been shared equitably across the world. Those who both take the blame and pay the greatest cost of environmental degradation are, almost always, those who do not have power to influence either their own governments or international politics. It is the hill tribes of Thailand, the pastoralists of Tanzania, and the forest peoples of Indonesia who are invariably expected to relocate, often at gunpoint, as Dowie and many scholars, including Dan Brockington in his book Fortress Conservation (2002), have demonstrated.

How will human society withstand the shock of removing so much land and ocean from food-growing and other uses? Wilson criticises the Anthropocene worldview’s faith that technological innovation can solve environmental problems or find substitutes for depleted resources, but he simultaneously promotes his own techno-fix in a vision of ‘intensified economic evolution’ in which ‘the free market, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology’ will solve the problem seemingly automatically. According to Wilson, ‘products that win competition today… are those that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy’. He thus invokes a biological version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand in maintaining that ‘[j]ust as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy’ and asserting, without any evidence, that ‘[a]lmost all of the competition in a free market, other than in military technology, raises the average quality of life’.

Remarkably, this utopian optimism about technology and the workings of the free market leads Wilson to converge on a position rather like that of the Anthropocene conservationists he so dislikes, advocating a vision of ‘decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs’ in order to create sustainable livelihoods for a population herded into urban areas to free space for self-willed nature. The Breakthrough Institute has recently promoted its own, quite similar, manifesto for land sparing and decoupling to increase terrain for conservation.

In this vision, science and technology can compensate for some of humanity’s status as the world’s ‘most destructive species’. And at the pinnacle of science stands (conservation) biology, according to Wilson. He argues: ‘If people are to live long and healthy lives in the sustainable Eden of our dreams, and our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology.’ How exactly humans are to ‘break free’ is not explained and is, in fact, impossible according to Wilson himself, given ‘the Darwinian propensity in our brain’s machinery to favour short-term decisions over long-range planning’. As far as Wilson is concerned, any worldview that does not favour protected-area expansion as the highest goal is by definition an irrational one. In this way, the world’s poor are blamed not only for overpopulating biodiversity hotspots but also for succumbing to the ‘religious belief and inept philosophical thought’ standing in the way of environmental Enlightenment.

Let us finish by making a broader point, drawing on Wilson’s approving quotation of Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German naturalist who claimed that ‘the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world’. In viewing the world, we also construct it, and the world Wilson’s offers us in Half-Earth is a truly bizarre one. For all his zeal, (misplaced) righteousness and passion, his vision is disturbing and dangerous, and would have profoundly negative ‘consequences if played out’. It would entail forcibly herding a drastically reduced human population into increasingly crowded urban areas to be managed in oppressively technocratic ways. How such a global programme of conservation Lebensraum would be accomplished is left to the reader’s imagination. We therefore hope readers will not take Wilson’s proposal seriously. Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.

Half-Earth (AEON)

29 February, 2016

Half of the Earth’s surface and seas must be dedicated to the conservation of nature, or humanity will have no future

by Edward O Wilson

Header essay nationalgeographic 381719

The Serengeti National Park. Photo by Medford Taylor/National Geographic

Edward O Wilson is a professor emeritus in entomology at Harvard. Half-Earth concludes Wilson’s trilogy begun by The Social Conquest of Earth and The Meaning of Human Existence, a National Book Award finalist. 

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Unstanched haemorrhaging has only one end in all biological systems: death for an organism, extinction for a species. Researchers who study the trajectory of biodiversity loss are alarmed that, within the century, an exponentially rising extinction rate might easily wipe out most of the species still surviving at the present time.

The crucial factor in the life and death of species is the amount of suitable habitat left to them. When, for example, 90 per cent of the area is removed, the number that can persist sustainably will descend to about a half. Such is the actual condition of many of the most species-rich localities around the world, including Madagascar, the Mediterranean perimeter, parts of continental southwestern Asia, Polynesia, and many of the islands of the Philippines and the West Indies. If 10 per cent of the remaining natural habitat were then also removed – a team of lumbermen might do it in a month – most or all of the surviving resident species would disappear.

Today, every sovereign nation in the world has a protected-area system of some kind. All together the reserves number about 161,000 on land and 6,500 over marine waters. According to the World Database on Protected Areas, a joint project of the United Nations Environmental Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they occupied by 2015 a little less than 15 per cent of Earth’s land area and 2.8 per cent of Earth’s ocean area. The coverage is increasing gradually. This trend is encouraging. To have reached the existing level is a tribute to those who have led and participated in the global conservation effort.

But is the level enough to halt the acceleration of species extinction? Unfortunately, it is in fact nowhere close to enough. The declining world of biodiversity cannot be saved by the piecemeal operations in current use alone. The extinction rate our behaviour is now imposing on the rest of life, and seems destined to continue, is more correctly viewed as the equivalent of a Chicxulub-sized asteroid strike played out over several human generations.

The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war, and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself. To those who feel content to let the Anthropocene evolve toward whatever destiny it mindlessly drifts, I say please take time to reconsider. To those who are steering the growth of reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher.

see just one way to make this 11th-hour save: committing half of the planet’s surface to nature to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it. Why one-half? Why not one-quarter or one-third? Because large plots, whether they already stand or can be created from corridors connecting smaller plots, harbour many more ecosystems and the species composing them at a sustainable level. As reserves grow in size, the diversity of life surviving within them also grows. As reserves are reduced in area, the diversity within them declines to a mathematically predictable degree swiftly – often immediately and, for a large fraction, forever. A biogeographic scan of Earth’s principal habitats shows that a full representation of its ecosystems and the vast majority of its species can be saved within half the planet’s surface. At one-half and above, life on Earth enters the safe zone. Within half, existing calculations from existing ecosystems indicate that more than 80 per cent of the species would be stabilised.

There is a second, psychological argument for protecting half of Earth. The current conservation movement has not been able to go the distance because it is a process. It targets the most endangered habitats and species and works forward from there. Knowing that the conservation window is closing fast, it strives to add increasing amounts of protected space, faster and faster, saving as much as time and opportunity will allow.

The key is the ecological footprint, defined as the amount of space required to meet the needs of an average person

Half-Earth is different. It is a goal. People understand and prefer goals. They need a victory, not just news that progress is being made. It is human nature to yearn for finality, something achieved by which their anxieties and fears are put to rest.

The Half-Earth solution does not mean dividing the planet into hemispheric halves or any other large pieces the size of continents or nation-states. Nor does it require changing ownership of any of the pieces, but instead only the stipulation that they be allowed to exist unharmed. It does, on the other hand, mean setting aside the largest reserves possible for nature, hence for the millions of other species still alive.

The key to saving one-half of the planet is the ecological footprint, defined as the amount of space required to meet all of the needs of an average person. It comprises the land used for habitation, fresh water, food production and delivery, personal transportation, communication, governance, other public functions, medical support, burial, and entertainment. In the same way the ecological footprint is scattered in pieces around the world, so are Earth’s surviving wildlands on the land and in the sea. The pieces range in size from the major desert and forest wildernesses to pockets of restored habitats as small as a few hectares.

But, you may ask, doesn’t a rising population and per-capita consumption doom the Half-Earth prospect? In this aspect of its biology, humanity appears to have won a throw of the demographic dice. Its population growth has begun to decelerate autonomously, without pressure one way or the other from law or custom. In every country where women have gained some degree of social and financial independence, their average fertility has dropped by a corresponding amount through individual personal choice.

There won’t be an immediate drop in the total world population. An overshoot still exists due to the longevity of the more numerous offspring of earlier, more fertile generations. There also remain high-fertility countries, with an average of more than three surviving children born to each woman, thus higher than the 2.1 children per woman that yields zero population growth. Even as it decelerates toward zero growth, population will reach between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion, up from the 7.2 billion existing in 2014. That is a heavy burden for an already overpopulated planet to bear, but unless women worldwide switch back from the negative population trend of fewer than 2.1 children per woman, a turn downward in the early 22nd century is inevitable.

And what of per-capita consumption? The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology. The products that win are those that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy. Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Teleconferencing, online purchase and trade, ebook personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms, long-distance business conferences and social visits by life-sized images, and not least the best available education in the world free online to anyone, anytime, and anywhere. All of these amenities will yield more and better results with less per-capita material and energy, and thereby will reduce the size of the ecological footprint.

In viewing the future this way, I wish to suggest a means to achieve almost free enjoyment of the world’s best places in the biosphere that I and my fellow naturalists have identified. The cost-benefit ratio would be extremely small. It requires only a thousand or so high-resolution cameras that broadcast live around the clock from sites within reserves. People would still visit any reserve in the world physically, but they could also travel there virtually and in continuing real time with no more than a few keystrokes in their homes, schools, and lecture halls. Perhaps a Serengeti water hole at dawn? Or a teeming Amazon canopy? There would also be available streaming video of summer daytime on the coast in the shallow offshore waters of Antarctica, and cameras that continuously travel through the great coral triangle of Indonesia and New Guinea. With species identifications and brief expert commentaries unobtrusively added, the adventure would be forever changing, and safe.

The spearhead of this intensive economic evolution, with its hope for biodiversity, is contained in the linkage of biology, nanotechnology, and robotics. Two ongoing enterprises within it, the creation of artificial life and artificial minds, seem destined to preoccupy a large part of science and high technology for the rest of the present century.

The creation of artificial life forms is already a reality. On 20 May 2010, a team of researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute in California announced the second genesis of life, this time by human rather than divine command. They had built live cells from the ground up. With simple chemical reagents off the shelf, they assembled the entire genetic code of a bacterial species, Mycoplasma mycoides, a double helix of 1.08 million DNA base pairs. During the process they modified the code sequence slightly, implanting a statement made by the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand,’ in order to detect daughters of the altered mother cells in future tests.

If our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology

The textbook example of elementary artificial selection of the past 10 millennia is the transformation of teosinte, a species of wild grass with three races in Mexico and Central America, into maize (corn). The food found in the ancestor was a meagre packet of hard kernels. Over centuries of selective breeding it was altered into its modern form. Today maize, after further selection and widespread hybridisation of inbred strains that display ‘hybrid vigour’ is the principal food of hundreds of millions.

The first decade of the present century thus saw the beginning of the next new major phase of genetic modification beyond hybridisation: artificial selection and even direct substitution in single organisms of one gene for another. If we use the trajectory of progress in molecular biology during the previous half century as a historical guide, it appears inevitable that scientists will begin routinely to build cells of wide variety from the ground up, then induce them to multiply into synthetic tissues, organs, and eventually entire independent organisms of considerable complexity.

If people are to live long and healthy lives in the sustainable Eden of our dreams, and our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology. The goal is practicable because scientists, being scientists, live with one uncompromising mandate: press discovery to the limit. There has already emerged a term for the manufacture of organisms and parts of organisms: synthetic biology. Its potential benefits, easily visualised as spreading through medicine and agriculture, are limited only by imagination. Synthetic biology will also bring onto centre stage the microbe-based increase of food and energy.

Each passing year sees advances in artificial intelligence and their multitudinous applications – advances that would have been thought distantly futuristic a decade earlier. Robots roll over the surface of Mars. They travel around boulders and up and down slopes while photographing, measuring minutiae of topography, analysing the chemical composition of soil and rocks, and scrutinising everything for signs of life.

In the early period of the digital revolution, innovators relied on machine design of computers without reference to the human brain, much as the earliest aeronautical engineers used mechanical principles and intuition to design aircraft instead of imitating the flight of birds. But with the swift growth of both fields, one-on-one comparisons are multiplying. The alliance of computer technology and brain science has given birth to whole brain emulation as one of the ultimate goals of science.

From the time of the ancient human-destined line of amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals, the neural pathways of every part of the brain were repeatedly altered by natural selection to adapt the organism to the environment in which it lived. Step-by-step, from the Paleozoic amphibians to the Cenozoic primates, the ancient centres were augmented by newer centres, chiefly in the growing cortex, that added to learning ability. All things being equal, the ability of organisms to function through seasons and across different habitats gave them an edge in the constant struggle to survive and reproduce.

Little wonder, then, that neurobiologists have found the human brain to be densely sprinkled with partially independent centres of unconscious operations, along with all of the operators of rational thought. Located through the cortex in what might look at first like random arrays are the headquarters of process variously for numbers, attention, face-recognition, meanings, reading, sounds, fears, values, and error detection. Decisions tend to be made by the brute force of unconscious choice in these centres prior to conscious comprehension.

Next in evolution came consciousness, a function of the human brain that, among other things, reduces an immense stream of sense data to a small set of carefully selected bite-size symbols. The sampled information can then be routed to another processing stage, allowing us to perform what are fully controlled chains of operations, much like a serial computer. This broadcasting function of consciousness is essential. In humans, it is greatly enhanced by language, which lets us distribute our conscious thoughts across the social network.

What has brain science to do with biodiversity? At first, human nature evolved along a zigzag path as a continually changing ensemble of genetic traits while the biosphere continue to evolve on its own. But the explosive growth of digital technology transformed every aspect of our lives and changed our self-perception, bringing the ‘bnr’ industries (biology, nanotechnology, robotics) to the forefront of the modern economy. These three have the potential either to favour biodiversity or to destroy it.

I believe they will favour it, by moving the economy away from fossil fuels to energy sources that are clean and sustainable, by radically improving agriculture with new crop species and ways to grow them, and by reducing the need or even the desire for distant travel. All are primary goals of the digital revolution. Through them the size of the ecological footprint will also be reduced. The average person can expect to enjoy a longer, healthier life of high quality yet with less energy extraction and raw demand put on the land and sea. If we are lucky (and smart), world population will peak at a little more than 10 billion people by the end of the century followed by the ecological footprint soon thereafter. The reason is that we are thinking organisms trying to understand how the world works. We will come awake.

Silicon Valley dreamers of a digitised humanity have failed to give much thought at all to the biosphere

That process is already under way, albeit still far too slowly – with the end in sight in the 23rd century. We and the rest of life with us are in the middle of a bottleneck of rising population, shrinking resources, and disappearing species. As its stewards we need to think of our species as being in a race to save the living environment. The primary goal is to make it through the bottleneck to a better, less perilous existence while carrying through as much of the rest of life as possible. If global biodiversity is given space and security, most of the large fraction of species now endangered will regain sustainability on their own. Furthermore, advances made in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, whole brain emulation, and other similar, mathematically based disciplines can be imported to create an authentic, predictive science of ecology. In it, the interrelations of species will be explored as fervently as we now search through our own bodies for health and longevity. It is often said that the human brain is the most complex system known to us in the universe. That is incorrect. The most complex is the individual natural ecosystem, and the collectivity of ecosystems comprising Earth’s species-level biodiversity. Each species of plant, animal, fungus, and microorganism is guided by sophisticated decision devices. Each is intricately programmed in its own way to pass with precision through its respective life cycle. It is instructed on when to grow, when to mate, when to disperse, and when to shy away from enemies. Even the single-celled Escherichia coli, living in the bacterial paradise of our intestines, moves toward food and away from toxins by spinning its tail cilium one way, then the other way, in response to chemosensory molecules within its microscopic body.

How minds and decision-making devices evolve, and how they interact with ecosystems is a vast area of biology that remains mostly uncharted – and still even undreamed by those scientists who devote their lives to it. The analytic techniques coming to bear on neuroscience, on Big Data theory, on simulations with robot avatars, and on other comparable enterprises will find applications in biodiversity studies. They are ecology’s sister disciplines.

It is past time to broaden the discussion of the human future and connect it to the rest of life. The Silicon Valley dreamers of a digitised humanity have not done that, not yet. They have failed to give much thought at all to the biosphere. With the human condition changing so swiftly, we are losing or degrading to uselessness ever more quickly the millions of species that have run the world independently of us and free of cost. If humanity continues its suicidal ways to change the global climate, eliminate ecosystems, and exhaust Earth’s natural resources, our species will very soon find itself forced into making a choice, this time engaging the conscious part of our brain. It is as follows: shall we be existential conservatives, keeping our genetically-based human nature while tapering off the activities inimical to ourselves and the rest of the biosphere? Or shall we use our new technology to accommodate the changes important solely to our own species, while letting the rest of life slip away? We have only a short time to decide.

The beautiful world our species inherited took the biosphere 3.8 billion years to build. The intricacy of its species we know only in part, and the way they work together to create a sustainable balance we have only recently begun to grasp. Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world. Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding. We have come a very long way through the barbaric period in which we still live, and now I believe we’ve learned enough to adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life.

Reprinted from ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O Wilson. Copyright © 2016 by Edward O Wilson. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.


Oxford’s Halley Professor on How the Climate Challenge Could Derail a Brilliant Human Destiny (Dot Earth/NYT)


FEBRUARY 15, 2016 9:04 AM February 15, 2016 9:04 am

Updated, 11:51 p.m. | Sustained large investments in fundamental science paid off in a big way last week, as Dennis Overbye so beautifully reported in The Times’s package on confirmation of Einstein’s 1916 conclusion that massive moving objects cause ripples in spacetime — gravitational waves.

Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist and the Halley Professor of Physics at Oxford University.

Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist and the Halley Professor of Physics at Oxford University. Credit Eva Dalin, Stockholm University

This finding, and the patient investments and effort through which it was produced, came up in the context of humanity’s global warming challenge in an email exchange a few days ago with Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a veteran climate scientist who was recently appointed the Halley Professor of Physics at Oxford University.*

The common context is the importance of sustained engagement on a big challenge — whether it is intellectual, as in revealing spacetime ripples, or potentially existential, as in pursuing ways to move beyond energy choices that are reshaping Earth for hundreds of generations to come.

I reached out to Pierrehumbert because he is one of many authors of “Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change,” an important new Nature Climate Change analysis reinforcing past work showing a very, very, very long impact (tens of millenniums) on the Earth system — climatic, coastal and otherwise — from the carbon dioxide buildup driven by the conversion, in our lifetimes, of vast amounts of fossil fuels into useful energy.

The core conclusion:

This long-term view shows that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far. [Read the Boston College news release for even more.]**

summary from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory captures the basic findings:

Humans have been burning fossil fuels for only about 150 years, yet that has started a cascade of profound changes that at their current pace will still be felt 10,000 years from now.

Here’s a snippet from a figure in the paper showing how arguments about the pace of coastal change between now and 2100 distract from a profoundly clear long-term reality — that there will be no new “normal” coastal for millenniums, even with aggressive action to curb emissions:


A detail from a figure in a new paper shows the projected possible rise in sea levels over the next 10,000 years from today under four levels of emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The highest blue line at right is 50 meters (164 feet) above today’s sea level. Even the lowest scenario eventually floods most of today’s coastal cities.<br /><br />The darker line to the left of today marks sea levels over the last 10,000 years — a geological epoch called the Holocene. The figures below show ice amounts on Greenland and Antarctica today and if humans burn most known fossil fuels. <a href="">The full figure and legend is here.</a>
A detail from a figure in a new paper shows the projected possible rise in sea levels over the next 10,000 years from today under four levels of emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The highest blue line at right is 50 meters (164 feet) above today’s sea level. Even the lowest scenario eventually floods most of today’s coastal cities.

The darker line to the left of today marks sea levels over the last 10,000 years — a geological epoch called the Holocene. The figures below show ice amounts on Greenland and Antarctica today and if humans burn most known fossil fuels. The full figure and legend is here.Credit Nature Climate Change

I’d asked Pierrrehumbert to reflect on the time-scale conundrum laid out in the Nature Climate Change paper in the context of another important and provocative proposal by Princeton’s Robert Socolow, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in December, proposing a new field of inquiry — Destiny Studies — to examine the tough intersection of ethics, risk perception and science. His essay is titled, “Climate change and Destiny Studies: Creating our near and far futures.” Here’s the abstract:

Climate change makes stringent demands on thinking about our future. We need two-sided reasoning to contend equitably with the risks of climate change and the risks of “solutions.” We need to differentiate the future 500 years from now and 50 years from now. This essay explores three pressing climate change issues, using both the 500-year and the 50-year time frames: sea level rise, the nuclear power “solution,” and fossil carbon abundance.

Here’s Pierrehumbert’s “Your Dot” contribution, tying together these elements:

The day of the release of the spectacular LIGO gravitational wave discovery is a good time to be pondering human destiny, the great things we can achieve as a species if only we don’t do ourselves in, and the responsibility to provide a home for future generations to flourish in. It is beyond awesome that we little lumps of protoplasm squinting out at the Universe from our shaky platform in the outskirts of an insignificant galaxy can, after four decades of indefatigable effort, detect and characterize a black hole merger over a billion light years away.

This is just one of the most dramatic examples of what we are capable of, given the chance to be our best selves. In science, I’d rate the revolution in detecting and characterizing exoplanets way up there as well. There’s no limit to what we can accomplish as a species.

But we have to make it through the next two hundred years first, and this will be a crucial time for humanity. This is where Destiny Studies and our paper on the Anthropocene come together. The question of why we should care about the way we set the climate of the Anthropocene is far better answered in terms of our vision for the destiny of our species than it is in terms of the broken calculus of economics and discounting.

For all we know, we may be the only sentience in the Galaxy, maybe even in the Universe. We may be the only ones able to bear witness to the beauty of our Universe, and it may be our destiny to explore the miracle of sentience down through billions of years of the future, whatever we may have turned into by that time. Even if we are not alone, it is virtually certain that every sentient species will bring its own unique and irreplaceable perspectives to creativity and the understanding of the Universe around us.

Thinking big about our destiny, think of this: the ultimate habitability catastrophe for Earth is when the Sun leaves the main sequence and turns into a Red Giant. That happens in about 4 billion years. However, long before that — in only about 500 million years — the Sun gets bright enough to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect and turn us into Venus, sterilizing all life on Earth. We waste half the main sequence lifetime of the Sun.

However, if we last long enough, technology will make it easy to block enough sunlight to save the Earth from a runaway, buying us another 4 billion years of habitability. That’s the only kind of albedo-modification geoengineering I could countenance, and by the time that is needed, presumably we’ll have the wisdom to deploy it safely and the technology to make it robust.

But we have to make it through the next 200 years first.

If we do what humanity has always done in the past, we’re likely to burn all the fossil fuels, and then have a hard landing at a time of high population, with an unbearable climate posing existential risks, at just the time when we’re facing the crisis fossil fuels running out. That will hardly make for ideal conditions under which to decarbonize, and there is a severe risk civilization will collapse, leaving our descendants with few resources to deal with the unbearable environment we will have bequeathed them.

It’s been pointed out that fossil fuels came in just about when we had run out of whale oil, but the whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction when that happened. If we do the same with coal, it’s not going to make for a pretty transition. With regard to the Anthropocene, it’s true that given a thousand years or so — if technological civilization survives — it becomes likely that we would develop ways to remover CO2 from the atmosphere and accelerate the recovery to more livable conditions. But if things get bad enough in the next two hundred years, we may never have that chance.

The alternative future is one where we decide to make the transition to a carbon-free economy before we’re forced into it by the depletion of fossil fuels. We’re going to run out anyway, and will need to learn to do without fossil fuels, so why not get weaned early, before we’ve trashed the climate? If we do that, we might not just buy ourselves a world, but a whole Universe.

Shorthand summary: Can we do better than bacteria smeared on agar?

This passage from a 2011 post, “Confronting the Anthropocene,” conveys my sense of the core focus of “destiny studies”:

We’re essentially in a race between our potency, our awareness of the expressed and potential ramifications of our actions and our growing awareness of the deeply embedded perceptual and behavioral traits that shape how we do, or don’t, address certain kinds of risks [or time scales].

Another author of the Nature Climate Change paper, Daniel Schrag of Harvard, gave a highly relevant talk at the Garrison Institute a couple of years ago in which he raised, but did not answer, a question I hope you’ll all ponder:

Is there a moral argument for some threshold of environmental conditions that we must preserve for future generations?

This would be a cornerstone question in destiny studies. I moderated a conversation on this question and the rest of the lecture with Schrag and Elke U. Weber of Columbia University. I hope you can spare some time to watch.

There are plenty of efforts to build such a field, including Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University and the Arizona State University effort I described in this post: “Building Visions of Humanity’s Climate Future – in Fiction and on Campus.”

Here are other relevant past pieces:

2015 – “Avoiding a Climate Inferno

2013 – “Could Climate Campaigners’ Focus on Current Events be Counterproductive?

2011 – “Pedal to the Metal

2010 – “Which Comes First – Peak Everything or Peak Us?

2009 – “Puberty on the Scale of a Planet

Updated, 11:50 p.m. | David Roberts at Vox today put the Nature Climate Change paper in political context when he wrote: “The U.S. presidential election will matter for 10,000 years.” Read the rest here.

Footnotes |

** This excerpt from the paper was added at 1:36 p.m.

*Pierrehumbert has contributed valuable insights here in the past, writes on Slate on occasion and is a fine accordion player. He contributed sensitively wrought parts on a song on my first album.

Impact of human activity on local climate mapped (Science Daily)

Date: January 20, 2016

Source: Concordia University

Summary: A new study pinpoints the temperature increases caused by carbon dioxide emissions in different regions around the world.

This is a map of climate change. Credit: Nature Climate Change

Earth’s temperature has increased by 1°C over the past century, and most of this warming has been caused by carbon dioxide emissions. But what does that mean locally?

A new study published in Nature Climate Change pinpoints the temperature increases caused by CO2 emissions in different regions around the world.

Using simulation results from 12 global climate models, Damon Matthews, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, along with post-doctoral researcher Martin Leduc, produced a map that shows how the climate changes in response to cumulative carbon emissions around the world.

They found that temperature increases in most parts of the world respond linearly to cumulative emissions.

“This provides a simple and powerful link between total global emissions of carbon dioxide and local climate warming,” says Matthews. “This approach can be used to show how much human emissions are to blame for local changes.”

Leduc and Matthews, along with co-author Ramon de Elia from Ouranos, a Montreal-based consortium on regional climatology, analyzed the results of simulations in which CO2 emissions caused the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase by 1 per cent each year until it reached four times the levels recorded prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Globally, the researchers saw an average temperature increase of 1.7 ±0.4°C per trillion tonnes of carbon in CO2 emissions (TtC), which is consistent with reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the scientists went beyond these globally averaged temperature rises, to calculate climate change at a local scale.

At a glance, here are the average increases per trillion tonnes of carbon that we emit, separated geographically:

  • Western North America 2.4 ± 0.6°C
  • Central North America 2.3 ± 0.4°C
  • Eastern North America 2.4 ± 0.5°C
  • Alaska 3.6 ± 1.4°C
  • Greenland and Northern Canada 3.1 ± 0.9°C
  • North Asia 3.1 ± 0.9°C
  • Southeast Asia 1.5 ± 0.3°C
  • Central America 1.8 ± 0.4°C
  • Eastern Africa 1.9 ± 0.4°C

“As these numbers show, equatorial regions warm the slowest, while the Arctic warms the fastest. Of course, this is what we’ve already seen happen — rapid changes in the Arctic are outpacing the rest of the planet,” says Matthews.

There are also marked differences between land and ocean, with the temperature increase for the oceans averaging 1.4 ± 0.3°C TtC, compared to 2.2 ± 0.5°C for land areas.

“To date, humans have emitted almost 600 billion tonnes of carbon,” says Matthews. “This means that land areas on average have already warmed by 1.3°C because of these emissions. At current emission rates, we will have emitted enough CO¬2 to warm land areas by 2°C within 3 decades.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Martin Leduc, H. Damon Matthews, Ramón de Elía. Regional estimates of the transient climate response to cumulative CO2 emissionsNature Climate Change, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2913

Populações pré-colombianas afetavam pouco a Amazônia, diz estudo (Estado de São Paulo)

Fábio de Castro

28 de outubro de 2015

Antes da chegada dos Europeus às Américas, uma grande população indígena habitava a Amazônia. Mas, ao contrário do que sustentam alguns cientistas, os impactos dessa ocupação humana sobre a floresta eram extremamente pequenos, segundo um novo estudo internacional realizado com participação brasileira.

pesquisa, publicada nesta quarta-feira, 28, na revista científica Journal of Biogeography, foi liderada por cientistas do Instituto de Tecnologia da Flórida, nos Estados Unidos e teve a participação de Carlos Peres, pesquisador do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi.

Imagem de satélite da Amazônia ocidental mostra mendros de rios com 'braços-mortos', onde viviam grandes populações antes da chegada dos europeus; o novo estudo mostra que o impacto desses povos na floresta era menor do que se pensava

Imagem de satélite da Amazônia ocidental mostra mendros de rios com ‘braços-mortos’, onde viviam grandes populações antes da chegada dos europeus; o novo estudo mostra que o impacto desses povos na floresta era menor do que se pensava

Segundo o novo estudo, as populações amazônicas pré-colombianas viviam em densos assentamentos perto dos rios, afetando profundamente essas áreas. Mas os impactos que elas produziam na floresta eram limitados a uma distância de um dia de caminhada a partir das margens – deixando intocada a maior parte da Bacia Amazônica.

A pesquisa foi realizada com o uso de plantas fósseis, estimativas de densidade de mamíferos, sensoriamento remoto e modelagens computacionais de populações humanas. Segundo os autores, os resultados indicam que as florestas amazônicas podem ser muito vulneráveis às perturbações provocadas por atividades madeireiras e de mineração.

O novo estudo refuta uma teoria emergente, sustentada por alguns arqueólogos e antropólogos, de que as florestas da Amazônia são resultado de modificações da paisagem produzidas por populações ancestrais. Essa teoria contradiz a noção de que as florestas são ecossistemas frágeis.

“Ninguém duvida da importância da ação humana ao longo das principais vias fluviais. Mas, na Amazônia ocidental, ainda não se sabe se os humanos tiveram sobre o ecossistema um impacto maior que qualquer outro grande mamífero”, disse o autor principal do estudo, Mark Bush, do Instituto de Tecnologia da Flórida.

Dolores Piperno, outra autora do estudo, arqueóloga do Museu Americano de História Natural, afirma que há exagero na ideia de que a Amazônia é uma paisagem fabricada e domesticada. “Estudos anteriores se basearam em poucos sítios arqueológicos próximos aos cursos de água, e extrapolaram os efeitos da ocupação humana pré-histórica para todo o bioma. Mas a Amazônia é heterogênea e essas extrapolações precisam ser revistas com dados empíricos”, disse ela.

“Esse não é apenas um debate sobre o que ocorreu há 500 anos, ele tem implicações muito relevantes para a sociedade moderna e para as iniciativas de conservação”, afirmou Bush.

De acordo com Bush, se as florestas tivessem sido pesadamente modificadas antes da chegada dos Europeus e tivessem se recuperado no período de uma só geração de árvores para adquirir um nível tão vasto de biodiversidade, essa capacidade de recuperação rápida poderia ser usada como justificativa para uma atividade madeireira agressiva.

Entretanto, se a influência dos humanos foi muito limitada, como mostra o novo estudo, a atividade madeireira e mineradora têm potencial para provocar na floresta consequências de longo prazo, possivelmente irreversíveis.

“Essa distinção se torna cada vez mais importante, à medida em que os gestores decidem se irão reforçar ou flexibilizar a proteção de áreas já designadas como parques de conservação”, afirmou Bush.

Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? (Savage Minds)

September 5, 2015, by Ryan.

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Up next for this issue we have Todd Sanders and Elizabeth F. Hall. Sanders is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has written extensively on African and Euro-American knowledge practices, and is currently collaborating with Elizabeth Hall on a project called ‘Knowing Climate Change.’ Hall is a physician-scientist and Research Associate at the Centre for Ethnography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She trained as a specialist in public health medicine and holds a PhD in epidemiology.  –R.A.

Global climate change is driving anthropologists in opposite directions. Some are enthusiastically adopting “the Anthropocene” – a “gift” from our friends in the natural sciences (Latour 2014) that might enable us to exit, at long last, our Modern world and its Holocene thinking (Hamilton, et al. 2015). The concept potentially dovetails with old and new concerns – networks, rhizomes and relational ontologies; more-than-human socialities; hybrids, nonhumans and the posthuman; multispecies, multinaturalisms and modes of existence – and promises critical purchase over today’s troubled times. For as we enter the Anthropocene, we’ll need new conceptual tools and ways of thinking to understand our new home. The familiar dualisms that have long dogged our discipline and world – Nature and Culture; local and global; Moderns and non-moderns; and so on – are not up to the task. Discard the Modern dualisms. Dwell on the emergent processes of their production. And reimagine worlds as partial and provisional, composed through multiple, heterogeneous entanglements. For many anthropologists, the time is ripe for such an Anthropocene Anthropology.

At the same time, climate change is leading other anthropologists right back to the Holocene. For them, this is not the time to abandon dualisms nor to theorise partial, emergent, hybrid worlds. Instead, we must entrench and purify the well-known anthropological categories of nature and culture, tradition and the local, and insist on the merits of holism. These anthropologists share theoretical affinities more with Julian Steward and Robert Netting than with, say, Latour or Tsing. Their scholarship is large and growing, and asks how climate change will impact local, traditional cultures. The story ordinarily goes like this: local, traditional cultures crucially depend on nature for their cultural, material and spiritual needs. They will therefore suffer first, worst and most directly from rapid climate change. These place-based peoples are somewhat resilient and adaptive, due to their local, indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge. Yet cultural adaptation has limits. Urgent anthropological interventions are thus required to mediate and translate between local and global worlds to help these cultures adapt. The Anthropocene figures here too: not as an opportunity to reconfigure and overcome Modern dualisms but as a way to underscore and holistically integrate them. Welcome to the Holocene!

While this approach is strongly endorsed by the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force (Fiske, et al. 2014), other anthropologists will insist that in today’s world, old ideas about local, traditional cultures are “obsolete from the outset” (Hastrup 2009: 23). For them, entrenching ourselves in the Holocene is not the obvious way to enter the Anthropocene. Still, it’s worth noting that obsolescence is a matter of perspective and is context-dependent. This pedestrian point is crucial because, when it comes to climate change, anthropology is not the only discipline in town. And because it isn’t, anthropologists may not get the last word on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices are useful, or useless, in the wider climate change arena.

In this vast, bustling arena, considerable efforts are being devoted to putting a human face on climate change. For many in the human sciences, this means supplementing and nuancing abstract, paternalistic, quantitative climate sciences with humanistic, qualitative data and values from real people (Hulme 2011; Jasanoff 2010). As we discuss elsewhere, this is one reason growing numbers of social and natural scientists are doing ethnographic research on “the human dimensions of climate change” (Hall and Sanders 2015). From geographers to geophysicists, ecologists to ethnobotanists, scholars from every alcove of the academy are joining the human dimensions enterprise. They travel to remote places on the planet to understand how local, traditional cultures will – or will not – adapt to climate change. And they tell familiar tales: the same tales, in fact, that some anthropologists tell about local, traditional, place-based cultures being done in by a changing climate. In this broader academic arena, such local, traditional peoples are fast becoming the human face of climate change. Figure 1, reproduced from a leading interdisciplinary climate change journal, is emblematic.



Figure 1. “Theo Ikummaq in the middle of Fury and Hecla Strait, between Igloolik and Baffin Island, explaining the challenges with spring ice conditions, while waiting at a seal hole (June 22, 2005).” (With kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media: Climatic Change, Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: assessing Inuit vulnerability to a sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut, 94, 2009, p. 375, Laidler GJ, Ford JD, Gough WA, Ikummaq T, Gagnon AS, Kowal S, Qrunnut K, Irngaut C, figure 2).

This scholarship shares affinities with salvage anthropology and cultural ecology, and while not unaware of the many critiques of such projects, remains mostly unfazed by them. These are urgent, real-world problems, after all, that require serious ethnographic attention. There’s no time for wiffle-waffle. But whatever one’s views on the matter, the point is that this multi- and interdisciplinary scholarship is large, and working hard to complement and complete the climate change puzzle: to serve up culture to nature, local to the global, traditional to the modern, values to facts, indigenous knowledge to Western Science. This is Holocene thinking replayed with a vengeance.

After decades of imploring social scientists to step up to the plate, to leave our ivory towers, to add the missing human piece to the climate change puzzle, “harder” natural scientists are welcoming such “soft” climate change scholars and scholarship. Of course economists got there first. But this new wave of human dimensions scholarship provides hope that, after decades of delay, important aspects of “the human” might finally be fleshed out and “integrated” into our understandings of climate change. These hopes are understandable, given the Modern metaphysics many in this arena share.

It all began with capital-n Nature, which natural and computational scientists reanimated decades ago. Today, this Nature takes the form of coupled Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models (OAGCMs) and Earth System Models (ESMs), which rely on formally-specified (i.e., mathematical) equations to model the Earth System’s natural components and the complex links among them. “The human” came later. Social scientists from many disciplines are now adding in the human, or trying to, and the calls for more such efforts continue.

One perpetual challenge in this arena has been how to combine the two, Nature and Culture, the Ecological and the Sociological. Thus funding streams like the NSF’s long-running Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program have been established for precisely this purpose. The research projects they support are often large, always interdisciplinary and “must include analyses of four different components: (1) the dynamics of a natural system; (2) the dynamics of a human system; (3) the processes through which the natural system affects the human system; and (4) the processes through which the human system affects the natural system.”

But however funded, efforts to “integrate” human and natural components of the system in the name of climate change are legion. Consider the tightly-coupled Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which aim quantitatively to bring diverse natural “scientific, economics and social science expertise together to provide analysis and advice that comprehensively addresses all or at least many aspects of the climate change issue” (Sarofim and Reilly 2011: 27). There are also many looser modelling efforts with telling titles – coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), human-environment systems (HES), social-ecological systems (SES) – that aim to couple human and natural components of the Earth System. Such holistic, Modern integrationist efforts stabilise “components” through the act of “coupling” them, and sometimes mistake models for the world. They are also widespread and flourishing.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre, for instance, funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) to the tune of 30 million US dollars, is well-known for developing complex social-ecological systems to aid decision-making around climate change. The Centre’s Science Director, Carl Folke, notes:

We want to build a unique transdisciplinary research environment where innovative ideas can flourish. By combining new forms of cooperation with a holistic perspective, we hope to generate the insights that are needed to strengthen societies’ and the ecosystems’ capacities to meet a world which spins faster and faster.

Folke is one of the Centre’s founders, and has devoted much of his distinguished career to theorising “resilience” and “social-ecological systems.” While Figure 2 is illustrative of some of his influential work on coupled systems, similar diagrams could be reproduced from countless other scholars.


Figure 2. A conceptual framework developed in relation to the resilience approach. (Republished with permission of Global Environmental Change, from “Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis,” Folke, C., vol. 16, 2006; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.).

Note how the all-embracing social-ecological system is composed of Latour’s modern constitution: a Great Divide between Nature (left) and Culture/Society (right), with feedback loops between the system’s component parts. Note, too, how scale works, also in a Modern register: each side is composed of “nested hierarchies,” the “larger” levels encompassing the “smaller.” (There’s obvious scope here to fill local slots with local knowledges and peoples). While Folke acknowledges that these are conceptual models, many others do not, leading to statements like “[c]oupled human and natural systems (CHANS) are systems in which humans and natural components interact” (Liu, et al. 2007: 639). Coupled systems scholarship may enable us to sort messy empirical worlds into tidy, Modern boxes, and to pretend we haven’t done so. But such purifying practices are of little interest to Anthropocene Anthropology, and do not create an environment in which Anthropocene thinking might flourish. Where to find such a place?

Last year, we attended Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, an innovative ArtScience collaboration at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The event was produced by a London-based charitable organisation whose mission is to bring together artists, scientists, journalists, media specialists and other publics “to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society” in the face of global climate change.

The four-month-long exhibition and festival was big, Canadian-flavoured, and guided by a single question, and answer, prominently printed on the catalogue cover: “What does Culture have to do with Climate Change? Everything.” The “culture” had two senses: as in the cultural arts (music, theatre, photography, etc.), which play a crucial role innovating and communicating to the public; and in the anthropological sense (more or less). The event featured a performance by Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq and a mock trial of Canadian broadcaster, environmentalist and scientist, David Suzuki, for his Carbon Manifesto; poetry slams and a performance art piece by Dene-Inuvialuit artist, Reneltta Arluk, that examined “the impacts of climate change on Northern peoples and explore[d] the artist’s personal cultural identity;” talks by journalists, artists and others on fossil fuel dependence and the health of the oceans, biodiversity, sustainability and extinction; workshops on provocative, environmental activist arts; public discussions, including one with University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the well-known Canadian Inuit cultural and human rights activist and author (Watt-Cloutier 2015). The event also featured visual arts and artists: videos produced with Inuit filmmakers on climate change and Inuit traditional knowledge, on everyday life in the far North, and others; photographs of majestic Nature; and awe-inspiring photos that the Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, took from outer space.

Climate is Culture was spectacular. Yet the event left us haunted by the thought that the sustainable, vibrant, dare we say “Anthropocene” future we had hoped to find looked strikingly like the present – or even the past. Nature had thoroughly bifurcated from Culture, while Culture had simultaneously split in two: planet destroyers (the global, modern, fossil-fuel-burning West) versus innocent victims (the local, traditional Rest). Modern dualisms ran amok, creating Nature and Culture, local and global, Moderns and non-moderns everywhere we turned. One prominently-displayed photo captured the mood most eloquently: a lone, Inuk elder standing on an ice flow, poised to harpoon an unsuspecting walrus poking its head out from beneath the sea (similar to Figure 1 above, add walrus). “Lukie, 70, prepares to harpoon a walrus while standing on moving ice in Foxe Basin,” read the caption. It continued: “This scene could have been from a thousand years ago, but it is today.” The photographer, a visual artist and Associate Professor of Geography at a major Canadian university, provided the perfect title: “1000 Years Ago Today.” Though the photo, caption and title said it all, a further plaque was provided, just in case:

The Arctic: A Place of Global Warming and Wisdom

Arctic climate change is a hot topic with surface air temperatures in the region warming at double the global average, and corresponding loss of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost being observed by both scientists and local people. In Canada’s North, Inuit are on the front lines, and traditional knowledge and experience indicate that climate change already affects travel routes and safety; wildlife, vegetation and habitat; human food security and health; and communities and coastal infrastructure. These cumulative impacts challenge cultural and social identity. However, with an ancient culture, persisting over millennia, Inuit show that human ingenuity, connectedness with the land, and respect for future generations are all-important teachings for the modern world as we collectively face climate change, the paramount issue of our time.

*   *   *

So, what should we think when so many cutting-edge scientists including anthropologists, avant-garde artists, activists, journalists, charitable foundations, non-profit and government funders from across the planet are living happily in the Holocene – as if our theoretical lexicons and social imagination were firmly fixed, if not 1000 years ago today, perhaps 100? Who in this world is ready for an Anthropocene Anthropology? Are there grounds for hope? Enthusiasm? We think so, but only with certain shifts in anthropological practice.

First of all, more critical reflections, debates and theorising of anthropological knowledge practices around climate change are required. Many anthropological writings on climate change imply that holistically integrating our discipline’s disparate questions and theoretical concerns, knowledges and knowledge practices is possible and desirable – a win-win scenario, as it were. This approach is seductive: it suggests that every anthropologist can contribute her or his crucial piece of the climate change puzzle. But it is also seriously undertheorised, and does not accord with current thinking in the social sciences – including in anthropology – about what knowledge is and how it works. Partial connections and incommensurabilities render puzzle metaphors suspect. Knowledges are not puzzle pieces, nor can they simply “add up” to create “the whole.” Focus is required. Choices are always made. Power is never absent. Such commonplaces hold within as well as beyond anthropology. For these reasons, sustained engagements with social theory and the anthropology of knowledge would prove productive. How should we understand climate change anthropologically? Which of our many competing analytics provide the most theoretical purchase over the problem at hand? What are their real-world consequences? Should we dwell on culture or “culture”? Local or “local”? Or something altogether different, of which many promising candidates exist? Forging a meaningful Anthropocene Anthropology will mean prioritising certain anthropological knowledges, analytics and concerns over others. We can’t have it all ways.

Second, whatever our disciplinary response, we must recognise that anthropologists may not be the final arbiters on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices find favour in the wider world. Anthropology, after all, exists in a broader context. And as every anthropologist knows, context matters. The way forward is thus not to repeat, at higher volume, the truism that anthropology has lots to offer. It is to anthropologise the myriad Euro-American contexts in which climate change knowledge is produced and put to work. This means critically interrogating natural and social science knowledge practices surrounding climate change (e.g., interdisciplinarity, collaboration, producing “useful knowledge,” etc.), as well as the disparate policy and science policy realms through which scientific knowledges of climate change are institutionalised. Venerable traditions in political and legal anthropology, and in the anthropology of science and of policy, point the way. But whatever context we choose to study – there are many – Anthropocene Anthropology has its work cut out for it. For in today’s world, as Geertz might have said, it’s Holocene turtles all the way down.


Fiske, Shirley, J., Crate, Susan A., Crumley, Carole L., Galvin, Kathleen A., Lazrus, Heather, Luber, George, Lucero, Lisa, Oliver-Smith, Anthony, Orlove, Ben, Strauss, Sarah and Wilk, Richard R. 2014. Changing the atmosphere: anthropology and climate change. Final Report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Hall, Elizabeth F. and Sanders, Todd. 2015. Accountability and the academy: producing knowledge about the human dimensions of climate change. [link:] Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(2): 438-461.

Hamilton, Clive, Bonneuil, Christophe and Gemenne, François, eds. 2015. The Anthropocene and the global environmental crisis: rethinking modernity in a new epoch. London: Routledge.

Hastrup, Kirsten. 2009. Waterworlds: framing the question of social resilience. Pp. 11-30 in The question of resilience: social responses to climate change, ed. K. Hastrup. Copenhagen: Special-Trykkeriet Viborg a-s.

Hulme, Mike. 2011. Meet the humanities. Nature Climate Change 1: 177-79.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010. A new climate for society. Theory, Culture & Society 27(2-3): 233-53.

Latour, Bruno. 2014. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: a personal view of what is to be studied. 113th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Washington DC.

Liu, Jianguo, Dietz, Thomas, Carpenter, Stephen R., Folke, Carl, Alberti, Marina, Redman, Charles L., Schneider, Stephen H., Ostrom, Elinor, Pell, Alice N., Lubchenco, Jane, Taylor, William W., Ouyang, Zhiyun, Deadman, Peter, Kratz, Timothy and Provencher, William. 2007. Coupled human and natural systems. Ambio 36(8): 639-49.

Sarofim, Marcus C. and Reilly, John M. 2011. Applications of integrated assessment modeling to climate change. WIREs Climate Change 2: 27-44.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2015. The right to be cold: one woman’s story of protecting her culture, and the Arctic and the whole planet. Toronto: Allen Lane.

Naomi Klein’s Radical Guide to the Anthropocene (The New Republic)


OCTOBER 1, 2015

In the author’s new documentary, the climate crisis is tied to our rotten economic system.


Last year, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything laid bare the capitalist economic system’s dependence on environmental devastation. We can’t fight climate change until we properly understand capitalism’s culpability, she argued. And with her characteristic brand of activist-oriented problem solving, Klein suggested we could seize this moment of climate crisis to revamp our addled global economy. A documentary of the same name, directed by Klein’s husband Avi Lewis, was conceived as a parallel project to Klein’s book and had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. It trumpets the same battle cry: that fighting global warming effectively means overturning capitalism. As politicians keep bickering over absurdly modest measures like cap-and-trade programs and scientists continue to announce startling figures of shrinking glaciers, Lewis and Klein’s message feels as urgent as ever.

Klein is really good at making radical arguments like this one terrifically accessible. This Changes Everything is the third book in Klein’s anti-globalization trilogy, following 1999’s No Logo, which criticized brand-oriented consumer culture, and 2007’s The Shock Doctrine, which chronicled how corporations take advantage of disasters to implement free-market policies designed to enrich a small elite. The film This Changes Everything marks the second time that Klein and Lewis have collaborated on a documentary. Eleven years ago, the pair made The Take, a movie that followed a group of autoworkers in Argentina who took over their factory and turned it into a cooperative. Lewis and Klein’s new film is similar in its aim to promote grassroots anti-capitalist action.

“A book can’t help you from feeling isolated and alone. A film, I think, can,” said Klein when I caught up with her and Lewis in Toronto to talk about the documentary. This Friday, it will be released in select theaters in New York, and will roll out in Los Angeles and Canada soon afterward. In the film, Klein’s thesis—that the climate crisis is inextricably tied to our rotten economic system—is woven together with portraits of activists fighting against mining and energy projects everywhere from Canada to Greece to South India. Like the book, the film succeeds in making a rigorous argument intelligible to a wide audience. By mixing essayistic filmmaking with vérité documentary techniques that showcase the stories of regular people turned activists, This Changes Everything also communicates an emotional urgency perhaps best suited to the cinematic medium. The documentary connects the past and the present, historicizing the activist battle against new coal plants and oil wells.

Klein traces the ideological infrastructure our current petrochemical economy is founded on back to the Enlightenment period. “It’s a moment in history where you have the Scientific Revolution and you also have the colonial project overlapping temporarily. The idea of infinite growth begins and there’s the birth of the machine,” she said. “These are all happening in the very same century.” She thinks drawing attention to when and where these concepts came from is intrinsic to developing alternatives to them. “Calling it human nature erases that it comes from a place. There are other ideas and other ways of relating to the world.”

From the indigenous tribes affected by Tar Sands development in Alberta to the South Indian villagers protesting a proposed coal plant, the documentary shows communities that practice non-capitalist ways of relating to nature. They’re all suspicious of the narrow post-Enlightenment idea of progress that fossil-fuel development promises. They don’t see the industrial extraction of resources as a necessary pit-stop on the way to an advanced society, but are rather see polluting resources like water which sustain human life as backward.

Klein uses these communities as examples of alternative ways of relating to the environment. She refutes the idea that we are doomed because it’s human nature to live in an environmentally destructive manner. A tendency to generalize “human impact” is embedded in terms like the anthropocene, Klein noted, which is the scientific designation for our era—it refers to the epoch in which human activity from industrial farming to resource extraction has irreversibly changed the planet. Basically, you can read our impact in the rocks of Earth itself. “It being ‘the age of man’ diagnoses the problem as being something essential in humans and glosses over the fact it’s not all humans,” Klein said, noting an essay on the subject by Andreas Malm from Jacobin magazine. “[Malm] makes the argument that it’s only a very small subset of humans that came up with the idea of burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale, and it’s still a minority of humans who do so.” For example, the average American consumes 500 times more energy than the average person living in a country like Ethiopia or Afghanistan. And even within the U.S., there are inequalities.

Environmental issues are inextricable from issues of economic and racial justice. “Being in New York the week after Sandy, there were powerful and disturbing flashbacks to being in New Orleans a week after Katrina happened,” said Lewis. For them, they said, the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this year connected the racial justice movement and the climate movement for many. “I think that because Black Lives Matter has united that conversation in the U.S., and then having the Katrina anniversary, for a lot of people it was a bit of an ‘oh yeah’ moment,” Klein said. “If you have a system in which black lives are treated as if they don’t matter, when you layer climate change on top of that then you see the issue on the mass scale.”

Environmental issues are inextricable from issues of economic and racial justice.

While Lewis and Klein’s documentary doesn’t focus on Hurricane Katrina or the intersection of American racial justice and climate change in particular, it does outline how the current economic system values some lives more than others. Klein’s narration returns over and over again to the idea of “sacrifice zones”: A resource economy depends on certain areas being disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing—these places and the people in them are seen as worth sacrificing for some nebulous concept of the greater good. Populations in sacrifice zones have often been disproportionately poor and people of color, but in the film, we see that as the zones keep expanding middle-class white people from Montana to Greece are realizing they’re new targets of exploitation.

The emotional core of the film comes from individuals battling against being seen as disposable. Though as filmmakers Lewis and Klein unpack troubling realities, their film is cautiously optimistic, and focuses on the power and potential of these grassroots movements. We need a new system, in their view.

While the film concentrates its attention on citizen-driven actions, Klein also spearheaded the policy-focused Leap Manifesto, which was just released in mid-September in advance of the Canadian election, which takes place on October 19. “It’s basically a roadmap for Canada to get off fossil fuels,” explained Klein. Its signatories include public figures like environmentalist David Suzuki and folk-rock icon Neil Young.

Though Lewis and Klein are hopeful, they’re also realistic. Talking to them about the most recent price shocks—which happened since they wrapped shooting, and which have caused the price of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to fall to historic lows—Lewis notes that “it is not affecting oil company profits as much as you might think it is.” He continued. “There are projects that have been suspended, but there’s thousands of barrels of new capacity that’s going ahead in Alberta each day. It’s not expanding as fast as they want it to, but it’s still expanding.”

Still, Klein explained the price shock is an opportunity. “Here is a pause in the frenetic energy. That kind of money makes it really hard to think. It’s hard to think with oil at $100 a barrel,” she said. “But now we have a moment where we can look in the mirror, and ask is this the best way to run the economy?” Her answer? No.

Climate Debate Needs More Social Science, New Book Argues (Inside Science)

Image credit: Matt Jiggins via Flickr |

Physical scientists aren’t trained for all the political and moral issues.
Oct 2 2015 – 10:00am

By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) — The notion that Earth’s climate is changing—and that the threat to the world is serious—goes back to the 1980s, when a consensus began to form among climate scientists as temperatures began to rise noticeably. Thirty years later, that consensus is solid, yet climate change and the disruption it may cause remain divisive political issues, and millions of people remain unconvinced.

A new book argues that social scientists should play a greater role in helping natural scientists convince people of the reality of climate change and drive policy.

Climate Change and Society consists of 13 essays on why the debate needs the voices of social scientists, including political scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. It is edited by Riley E. Dunlap, professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and Robert J. Brulle, of Drexel University, professor of sociology and environmental science in Philadelphia.

Brulle said the physical scientists tend to frame climate change “as a technocratic and managerial problem.”

“Contrast that to the Pope,” he said.

Pope Francis sees it as a “political, moral issue that won’t be settled by a group of experts sitting in a room,” said Brulle, who emphasized that it will be settled by political process. Sociologists agree.

Sheila Jasanoff also agrees. She is the Pforzheimer professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and did not participate in the book.

She said that understanding how people behave differently depending on their belief system is important.

“Denial is a somewhat mystical thing in people’s heads,” Jasanoff said. “One can bring tools of sociology of knowledge and belief—or social studies—to understand how commitments to particular statements of nature are linked with understanding how you would feel compelled to behave if nature were that way.”

Parts of the world where climate change is considered a result of the colonial past may resist taking drastic action at the behest of the former colonial rulers. Jasanoff said that governments will have to convince these groups that climate change is a present danger and attention must be paid.

Some who agree there is a threat are reluctant to advocate for drastic economic changes because they believe the world will be rescued by innovation and technology, Jasanoff said. Even among industrialized countries, views about the potential of technology differ.

Understanding these attitudes is what social scientists do, the book’s authors maintain.

“One of the most pressing contributions our field can make is to legitimate big questions, especially the ability of the current global economic system to take the steps needed to avoid catastrophic climate change,” editors of the book wrote.

The issue also is deeply embedded in the social science of economics and in the problem of “have” and “have-not” societies in consumerism and the economy.

For example, Bangladesh sits at sea level, and if the seas rise enough, nearly the entire country could disappear in the waters. Hurricane Katrina brought hints of the consequences of that reality to New Orleans, a city that now sits below sea level. The heaviest burden of the storm’s effects fell on the poor neighborhoods, Brulle said.

“The people of Bangladesh will suffer more than the people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” Brulle said. He said they have to be treated differently, which is not something many physical scientists studying the processes behind sea level rise have to factor into their research.

“Those of us engaged in the climate fight need valuable insight from political scientists and sociologists and psychologists and economists just as surely as from physicists,” agreed Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author who is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It’s very clear carbon is warming the planet; it’s very unclear what mix of prods and preferences might nudge us to use much less.”

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore. He was former science writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Three Mile Island. He has nine published books and is working on a tenth. He has taught journalism at Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He tweets at @shurkin.

The Village That Will Be Swept Away (The Atlantic)

Residents of Newtok, Alaska, voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.

Andrew Burton / Getty


AUG 30, 2015

NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.

Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.

“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.

Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.

It wasn’t an easy decision, to leave behind the place where many of them were born, and where most have memories of following their parents and grandparents out on the tundra to hunt and fish. But villagers could see the water creeping closer to their homes and school, which the Army Corps of Engineers said could be underwater as soon as 2017.

Alana Semuels

Newtok is eroding in part because it sits on permafrost, a once-permanently frozen sublayer of soil found in Arctic region. As temperatures increase in Alaska, that permafrost is melting, leading to rapid erosion. Snow is melting earlier in the spring in Alaska, sea ice is disappearing and the ocean temperature is increasing. Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times faster than the mainland United States, and the average winter temperature has risen 6.3 degrees over the past 50 years.

Alaska sits on the front lines of climate change. But the rest of the nation is getting warmer, too, and so communities across the country may soon have to face some of the same problems. That’s one reason President Obama is visiting the region this week.

“What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action,” Obama said in a video previewing his visit. “It’s our wakeup call.”

But many of the nation’s climate change policies are focused on helping victims rebuild in place after a disaster. There’s little funding or political will to spend money on moving communities away from disaster-prone zones to prevent tragedies from happening, perhaps because policymakers don’t want to believe the dire predictions about what will happen to many of the nation’s coastal villages and towns.

But the experience of Alaska shows that failing to take action could be costly.A  2003 report from the Government Accountability Office found that most of Alaska’s 200-plus native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, and that four were in “imminent danger.” By 2009, the GAO said 31 villages were in imminent danger.

As of this year, though, only a few of those villages are making immediate plans to move. Newtok is the furthest along of these four villages in its relocation efforts, and the scariest part is that it isn’t very far along at all.

* * *

Newtok is an isolated village. There are no roads that lead there—the only way a visitor can get in or out is by a propeller plane that stops by a few times each day, except in inclement weather. There are no roads in Newtok, either— boardwalks run between the homes and the school and the post office, and just about every family has a small boat that is its primary mode of transportation.

It wasn’t that long ago that Yupik communities like this one were nomadic, traveling to the rivers to catch salmon and to higher ground when the waters rose. But between 1900 and 1950, as missionaries in Alaska tried to “civilize” native Alaskans, the Yupik began to settle in villages, in part because of legislation that required all children of a certain age to attend school. One group of people ended up in the place where Newtok now stands in part because a federal-government barge carrying a new school building could only reach this far up the Newtok River before getting stuck.

The river is fast approaching Newtok’s series of boardwalks. (Alana Semuels)

Villagers did not abandon their lifestyle just because they began living in a town with a post office and electricity. This is still a place built on a subsistence system, where residents survive off moose, seals, fish, berries, and other local plants all year round. The homes, small wooden boxes on stilts, often have pelts from a musk ox hanging on their porches, or moose antlers stacked alongside the snowmobiles and ATVs in the yard. As Canadian geese caw overhead, different breeds of dogs run throughout the village, a reminder of the dog teams that used to help villagers travel through snow. Just about every house has a small shelter out back where residents hang the moose, seal, and fish they’ve caught to dry.

As I wandered around town, I encountered Zenia Andy, who was watching her son Paiton disembowel a seal he had hunted. His hands stained red with blood, he gutted the creature with  an ulu, a sharp rounded blade attached to a handle. He separated the ribs, the heart, the flippers, the head, carefully saving every part.

The dedication to this subsistence lifestyle could have made it difficult for residents to pick up and move, since most Alaska Natives want to continue to be close to traditional hunting grounds but high enough off the land that the rising tides will not displace them ever again. Kivalina and Shismaref, two of the other threatened Alaska Native villages, have struggled to find a place to relocate that is within reach of their traditional hunting grounds and can also withstand decades of melting permafrost, Robin Bronen, the executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, told me.

But Newtok was lucky. Villagers had once spent summers nine miles from Newtok on a place called Nelson Island, part of a vast stretch of land on Alaska’s western coast that sits on volcanic bedrock elevated from the river. Villagers voted to move there, to a piece of land they call Mertarvik, which in Yupik means “getting water from the stream.”

In 1996, the Newtok Native Corporation, which was then the village’s governing body, passed a resolution allowing leaders to negotiate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which managed the land where Mertarvik sits. Newtok had to hire a lobbyist to prod Congress for eight years to get title to the land, Bronen said, and in exchange they offered to relent their claim to their current land and allow the government to turn it into a wildlife refuge. This shouldn’t have been a difficult swap—fly over Mertarvik or Newtok by plane, and all you can see is vast stretches of land and water with no development (or trees) whatsoever. The trade was finally approved in 2003.

But it’s been 12 years since then and not a whole lot has happened since, despite two massive flooding incidents in 2004 and 2005, one of which temporarily turned Newtok into an island. Three homes have been constructed in Mertarvik, but no one lives there year round. There’s a half-completed evacuation center next to piles of pipes and Dura-base flooring.

“We’ve been waiting so long. I don’t know. I’m beginning to lose a little bit of hope,” Newtok resident Jimmy Charles told me as he stopped by the one-room post office to pick up his mail.

The difficulty of relocating Newtok was evident from the beginning. Most villages can’t find funding for relocation projects because the costs often outweigh the expected benefits, according to the 2003 GAO report. Money to build new runways is usually only available after the old runways have been flooded or eroded, not to prevent such flooding from happening. It’s expensive to bring in materials and labor to remote villages, and the Army Corps of Engineers requires villages to pay up to half of the costs of these projects—“funding that many of them do not have,” according to the report. Dave Williams, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Alaska, told me his group had been approved to build a road and community building at the new site. Newtok would be required to pay 35 percent of the costs, but has not followed through on the necessary paperwork, he saidThe Corps estimated that moving Newtok could cost $130 million in total.

The whole effort to move a village feels a bit like a giant Catch-22: The school district won’t build a new school at the new site until 25 families live there, but no families want to live there without a school. The FAA won’t fund the design and construction of the Newtok airport until there is power generation at Mertarvik to provide runway lighting, but without an airport, it’s difficult to get a power source there. Mail service requires at least 25 families and regularly scheduled transportation to the community, which doesn’t exist without an airport.

Paiton Andy gets help from friends gutting a seal. (Alana Semuels)

Newtok’s experience demonstrates that decades after the nation first became familiar with climate change, Americans are still focused on responding to climate-related disasters, not preventing them.

“In almost every disaster event in America, from Hurricane Sandy to tornadoes in Oklahoma, the rally cry of ‘we will rebuild’ and FEMA’s support of rebuilding in place exemplifies the hazard-centric idea that disasters are one-off aberrations of normal conditions and that increased warning infrastructure, response plans, and technological interventions can prevent the next disaster,” writes Elizabeth Marino, an anthropologist who has studied Shismaref and has a book coming out about the town’s efforts to move. “Rebuilding in the same way, in the same place leaves no space for reconsidering our relationship with the environment.”

In Kivalina, for example, the U.S. government completed a $2.5 million sea wall to protect the village from the sea in 2006 to great fanfare. The wall was partially destroyed in a storm surge the same year, according to Bronen. In 1900, Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by a hurricane that killed 6,000 people, but the city rebuilt, only to be damaged repeatedly by storms, including Hurricane Ike in 2008. The city is now considering building an “Ike Dike,” which would cost billions.

Still, no matter how compelling it might be to try and move Newtok, neither the state nor federal government has the authority or the funding to spearhead the move.

“There has not been any formal direction on how to proceed on all of this,” Sally Russell Cox, a planner with Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, told me. “While I can advise and assist and provide resources, it’s really the community that’s supposed to be relocating themselves.”

I was referred to Cox by a number of different governmental agencies when I asked for a name of a point person on the move. Yet Cox told me she was never asked to formally lead any sort of relocation project, it’s just fallen to her because she’s in her department’s division of community and rural affairs.

To be sure, there are problems inherent in having a state or federal agency step in and move a Native community, but the village voted to move itself, and needs assistance and funding to carry out those plans. Yet there is nowhere the village could apply on the state level to get the funding they need to move, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“To my knowledge, there is no mechanism within any of the departments of state government that could wholly fund the move of Newtok to Mertarvik,” he told me.

Funds are even tighter now that Alaska is facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit because of the declining price of oil. The state gets almost 90 percent of its revenues from oil taxes and royalties.

The river is eroding whole chunks of land near homes. (Alana Semuels)

While it has waited for funding, erosion has made Newtok even more isolated.  In 1996, the Newtok river was captured by the Ninglick River, creating more powerful tides on the smaller river, and in 2005, a raging storm temporarily turned the village into an island. A 2013 storm destroyed the barge landing where the town gets most of its supplies. The barge now drops off goods at a makeshift landing on ground that is continuing to erode.

“It’s getting closer each year,” Zenia Andy told me, as her son gutted the seal. She glanced up at the river, which is now just a few hundred feet from her house. “It used to be so far away.”

The community members in 2006 partnered with state and federal agencies to create the Newtok Planning Group, which meets a few times a year to coordinate efforts. But the group comes with no funding mandate, nor does it have much authority. Four homes close to the Ninglick River need to be moved, but when the group asked the Natural Resources Conservation Service for funding to do so, they were told the move would not meet the program’s criteria. Funds designated by Congress to move communities like Newtok were instead used to study the feasibility of a move, Bronen told me.

The villagers’ biggest hope for funding is now FEMA, thanks to the 2013 storm and the subsequent flooding, which allowed Newtok to apply for $4 million of FEMA funds through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. That money, if it is approved, will be used to relocate 12 homes and buy out five homeowners in Newtok, who can use that money to build a new house in Mertarvik. But that application was submitted in July and funds won’t be available for another year.

The two decades the village has been trying to move seem especially long when compared to the amount of time it took the village of Pattonsburg, Missouri, to move after the Great Flood of 1993. The community had experienced floods for years, but the Great Flood buried homes and businesses under 20 feet of water. That year, the village voted to move, and by 1994, the town of New Pattonsburg had been established on higher ground. All it took was a disaster.

* * *

Nine miles may sound close to people accustomed to paved roads, highways, and dense cities. But the nine-mile-long ride from Newtok to Mertarvik is 50 minutes on a bumpy boat across a river so wide it looks like the sea. In the winter, villagers go back and forth by snowmobile once the river freezes up, and they say that freeze-up is happening later and later. Boat and snowmobile are the only way to get between the two sites.

I visited Mertarvik with Tom John, a tribal administrator, and his wife Bernice, on a recent August afternoon. We had to wait for high tide, since the Newtok river is now too shallow during low tide for boats. As the motor coughed up mud, we headed out to the wider waters of the Ninglick River. We passed land sloughing off into the sea and signs of erosion everywhere, as if someone had taken a guillotine and chopped the Earth away. Though it was summer, typically an easy time to get across, the air was cold and the water bumpy, and the journey felt long.

Andrew Burton / Getty

We arrived in Mertarvik, parked the boat at a small dirt beach there, and walked up a steep ramp of road made from Dura-base—mats that are easier and faster to install than roads—laid by the military as part of the Defense Department’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which seeks to deploy military personnel to help civilian communities as part of war preparation. (The soldiers have since left.)

In addition to the Dura-base road and three tan houses on the hillside, there are the beginnings of a massive evacuation center, funded by Alaska’s state legislature, but so far, only the foundation has been completed. Nails are falling out of the stairway leading to the elevated evacuation center, which had been considered a top priority because the village needs somewhere to house families while their homes are being transported between the two sites. (A 2013 audit of the evacuation center found that the group in charge of building the center, the Newtok Traditional Council, failed to inspect the workmanship and the materials. That council has been replaced by the Newtok Village Council, which employs Tom John.)

It was spitting rain and windy the day we visited Mertarvik, weather that will become more common through the fall months, the Johns told me. The wet weather only made the urgency of the move more evident to them as they stood on this high mountain, looking out over the water towards their village, which this fall will be threatened with floods every time it rains.

“We have to get it right this time,” Tom John told me, standing on the platform of the rickety evaluation center as his grandson played on nearby abandoned construction vehicles.

“The whole world is watching us,” Bernice added, and then she headed off to a nearby field to pick salmon berries and blackberries.

Bernice and Tom John in the half-completed evacuation center in Mertarvik. (Alana Semuels)

Much of the move is out of their hands, though. Without a major influx of new homes and an airport it will be difficult to convince anyone to live in Mertarvik. And without more money—a lot more money—the town can’t build anything.

Lisa and Jeff Charles and their five children moved to one of the three new homes in Mertarvik in the summer of 2012. There was no electricity or running water, so the experience felt like camping, but they enjoyed the quiet, Lisa Charles told me. But their children needed to go to school, so the family couldn’t stay in Mertarvik during the school year.

When Lisa got pregnant, she didn’t want to be a 50-minute boat ride from medical care. Though they could survive on the food they caught, the Charles’ have loans to pay, for the snowmobiles and ATV that allow them to subsistence hunt. To pay those loans, they needed jobs back in the village. After the summer, they returned home to Newtok, and the tribal council gave the Mertarvik home to someone else.

* * *

While the village waits to move to Mertarvik, Newtok is falling apart. State agencies have been hesitant to invest in the town, since it is supposed to be moving soon. The boardwalks connecting the homes are rotted, their nails falling out, pieces of wood surrendered to the mud. A small spit of land runs between the air strip and the village, but the boardwalk connecting the two has gaping holes, making the ride over it in a four-wheeler harrowing.

Without running water or toilets, villagers use “honey buckets” for waste, which they dump into the river, but high waters sometimes bring waste back into the village. The dump site was lost to erosion, and the new dump is only accessible during high tide by boat. “Do not burn your trash here,” one sign reads on the banks of the Ninglick River.

The village’s water supply, a freshwater lake, is just a few hundred feet from the saltwater river—in a severe storm, it could be compromised by the saltwater. A rickety series of pipes, held up on stilts, connects the lake to a shed where villagers collect tap water, where the boardwalk is nearly always covered in mud and trash.

The deterioration is taking a toll on public health. Between 1994 and 2009, more than one-quarter of infants in Newtok were hospitalized with lower respiratory tract infections, which meant Newtok had one of the highest rates of infection in the state. Public health professionals in 2006 found that inadequate levels of drinking water and high levels of contamination from honey bucket waste could be contributing to the infections.

Lisa Charles raised two of her children in Anchorage, and the rest in Newtok. Her infants had no health problems in Anchorage, but in Newtok, two of her babies came down with fevers and respiratory infections, she told me.

With little progress on Mertarvik and the water continuing to rise, it’s unclear how much longer the villagers will wait. If they leave and head to a bigger city, the centuries-old traditions and culture that they’ve preserved could disappear.

“My kids’ education comes first,” Zenia Andy told me, when I asked her whether she planned to move. If the school begins to lose teachers and students, she may move her family somewhere else.

The waters could reach Newtok’s school by 2017. (Alana Semuels)

Another resident, Jimmy Charles, told me that his children didn’t want to stay in Newtok because of the frequent floods.

Lisa and Jeff Charles have stuck around despite the floods and the health scares because they think Newtok is a good place to raise their children, and they want their kids to have the same experiences they did, trapping muskrats in the winter and fishing in the summer for survival. But Lisa Charles is beginning to worry for their safety. During the 2013 storm, she and her family watched as the water got higher and higher, eventually reaching 20 feet from their house. Charles eventually evacuated her grandmother and children to the school to be safe.

She wants to stay and relocate the nine miles across the water to Mertarvik, but she’s been waiting a long time.

“If it gets too dangerous, I have to get my kids out,” she told me.

Over the past few weeks, the fall rains have started, once again threatening to flood her hometown.


Alaska’s Climate Refugees 

An Astrobiologist Asks a Sci-fi Novelist How to Survive the Anthropocene (Nautilus)


Humans will have a chance to prove their adaptability as the Earth undergoes unprecedented challenges in the Anthropocene, an era named after our impact on the biosphere. To learn what it takes to survive far into the future, astrobiologist David Grinspoon interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer regarded as one of the most important science fiction and political novelists alive today. Robinson’s recent book, 2312, permits humans to survive near-extinction and populate the solar system over the course of 300 years.

We decided to kick off the conversation with a 2312 excerpt from the chapter, “Earth, The Planet of Sadness:”

“Clean tech came too late to save Earth from the catastrophes of the early Anthropocene. It was one of the ironies of their time that they could radically change the surfaces of the other planets, but not Earth. The methods they employed in space were almost all too crude and violent. Only with the utmost caution could they tinker with anything on Earth, because everything there was so tightly balanced and interwoven.”


David Grinspoon: Humans in 2312 can transverse the universe, but they could not save the Earth from environmental devastation. Do you think our intelligence just isn’t adaptive enough to learn how to live sustainably?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Human intelligence is adaptive. It’s given us enormous powers in the physical world thus far. With it, we’ve augmented our senses by way of technologies like microscopes, telescopes, and sensors, such that we have seen things many magnitudes smaller and larger than we could see with unaided senses, as well as things outside of our natural sensory ranges.

But our intelligence has also led to unprecedented problems as our planet reaches its carrying capacity. Is intelligence adaptive enough to adjust to the calamities of its own success? This situation is a completely new thing in history—which means that no one can answer the question now.

DG: What do you think it would take for us to persist?

KSR: I think we can make it through this current, calamitous time period. I envision a two-part process. First, we need to learn what to do in ecological terms. That sounds tricky, but the biosphere is robust and we know a lot about it, so really it’s a matter of refining our parameters; i.e. deciding how many of us constitutes a carrying capacity given our consumption, and then figuring out the technologies and lifestyles that would allow for that carrying capacity while also allowing ecosystems to thrive. We have a rough sense of these parameters now.

The second step is the political question: It’s a matter of self-governance. We’d need to act globally, and that’s obviously problematic. But the challenge is not really one of intellect. It’s the ability to enforce a set of laws that the majority would have to agree on and live by, and those who don’t agree would have to follow.

So this isn’t a question of reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics, or perceiving the strings of string theory. Instead it involves other aspects of intelligence, like sociability, long-range planning, law, and politics. Maybe these kinds of intelligence are even more difficult to develop, but in any case, they are well within our adaptive powers.

DG: Do you think the spread of Internet access can help us forge a multi-generational global identity that might drive change? It wouldn’t be the first time that technological advancements massively transformed humankind’s history.

KSR: The Internet may be helpful but we’ll need more than global awareness. We need a global economic system that is designed specifically for sustainability. We already have a global economic system in the form of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Together, their agreements make up a comprehensive system. But right now, this system cheats future generations by systematically underpricing the true costs of our exploitation of the biosphere. It sets the prices of the Earth’s natural resources by establishing what is basically the aggregation of supplies and demands. But this process is biased toward pricing things lower and lower, because of pressure from buyers and the need for sellers to stay in business. As a result, sellers sell their products for less than they cost to make, which should lead to bankruptcy for the seller, but it doesn’t because parts of the costs have been shifted onto future generations to pay. When practiced systematically it becomes a kind of multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and leads to the mass extinction event of the early Anthropocene, which we have already started.

What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

Measurements used by the Global Footprint Network and a famous study led by Robert Costanza have shown that the “natural services” we use can be assigned a dollar amount that is much greater than the entire human economy, and that we overdraw these resources and destroy their function. So in effect, we are eating our future.

And I think it’s going to be hard to change the global economic system quickly. There’s a term for that among economists called path dependence. For example, we have a path dependency on carbon that we could shift over to a cleaner and cheaper—cheaper, if you take into account the true costs to the planet—power and transport system. But the pace of technological change for something that big might be up to a century because we’re constrained by path dependence. And I don’t think we have that much time.

DG: So, are we talking evolution or revolution? Do we need to escape from path dependence and start anew? 

KSR: No, we have to alter the system we already have, because like an animal with evolutionary constraints, we can’t change everything and start from scratch. But what we could do is reconstruct regulations on the existing global economic system. For this, we would need to wrench capitalism so that the global rules of the World Bank, etc., required ecological sustainability as their main criterion. That way, prices would shift to match their true costs. Burning carbon would cost more than it does now, and clean energy would become cheaper than burning carbon. This would address the most pressing part of our crisis, but finding a replacement for the market to allocate goods and price them is not easy.

As we enter this new mass extinction event, at some point there is going to be a global civilization response that will try to deal with it: try to cope, survive, and repair landscapes and ecosystems. The scientific method and democratic politics are going to be the crucial tools, I’d say. For them to work, we need universal justice and education because we need active and well-educated citizens who are empowered and live at adequacy.

From where we are now, this looks pretty hard, but I think that’s because capitalism as we know it is represented as natural, entrenched, and immutable. None of that is true. It’s a political order and political orders change. What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

DG: I often wonder if civilizations elsewhere in the universe have made it through times like the ones we’re facing now. Astrobiologists think the likelihood of there being extraterrestrial intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is high. Our next question is if they’re out there, why haven’t they made themselves obvious to us? One recently suggested answer to this puzzle, known as the Fermi Paradox, is that unsustainable growth is an unavoidable property of civilizations, so they self-destruct. 

KSR: The Fermi Paradox poses a really interesting question, but I think it’s unanswerable. My feeling is, the universe is too big, and life too planet-specific for intelligent life forms to communicate with each other, except for by accident and very rarely. So perhaps they’re out there, and perhaps they’ve made it through something like our current era, but we wouldn’t know. I am just making assumptions based on the data, and telling a science fiction story. But so is everyone else talking about this issue.

DG: If you don’t want to speculate on outer space, do you think civilizations in science fiction offer any examples of long-lived societies?

KSR: I like to think so. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a planetary society runs as a kind of giant anarchist collective. Decisions are made in long, consensus-building sessions, and the economy appears to be a matter of voluntary contributions of work. It’s a culture of minimal need and use, such that everyone lives at adequacy and no one consumes very much, as this is regarded as gross behavior.

Iain Banks’s Culture series describes a far-future, post-scarcity society in which the technological power available to civilization is such that basic needs are always more than satisfied. However, they have other sorts of problems that have to do with the interactions between different societies.

In my novel, 2312, the economy is in some ways a funhouse mirror portrayal of our world. One of the civilizations—called the Mondragon after the Basque city in Spain that runs its economy as a set of nested co-ops—provides for everyone’s basic needs as a kind of public utility district service. Then there is a more free-market capitalist world of exchange of luxuries; these arrangements are loosely grouped as “above and beyonds.” That’s one image of a possible future, sustainable economy. However, if you include all the civilizations on Earth and in space in 2312, there remains a steep inequality gradient with most of the poor on Earth.

DG: So you’re saying that even if we learn to live sustainably, we may still have serious poverty?

KSR: Actually, 2312 is not so much a prediction of a future but rather a symbolic portrait of now. Poverty is mostly political in nature because the technological ability to create adequacy for all living humans exists in 2312 (as it does now) but it has never been made the “civilizational project.” In the symbolic sense, people have already begun a process of speciation, in that the most prosperous on Earth live on average decades longer than the poorest people, and can change gender to an extent. Instead, the main division between people is height. By dividing people into the “shorts” and the “talls,” I was alluding to the idea that we are becoming separate sub-species based on class. And by describing how the “shorts” have many advantages, I was trying to point out that the assumption that bigger is better is false in many situations.


DG: Another interesting detail in 2312 is that biomes can be made from scratch on asteroids, according to a set of directions that reads like a recipe. But you warn of a potential danger at an early stage in the process: “Once you get your marsh going, you may fall in love with it.” Why is that a risk?

KSR: It’s a bit of a joke. Some of the ecologists I spoke to when I was writing the book told me that marshes were their favorite biomes because of their fecundity. As someone who likes the high Sierra I was surprised by this, and learned to look at the landscape differently. It also made me consider how all biomes are beautiful, depending on how you look at them. So being urged to move on to drier biomes is then part of that idea, but it’s not a very serious one. I have to admit that a lot of what is in 2312 is me fooling around. I think this is one thing that has made the book attractive to people, the sense of play, and that our landscapes and cities as artworks with aesthetic pleasures.

DG: Even though the Earth is a mess in 2312, the heroine of the book falls in love with the sky as seen on Earth, and the wolves that have been re-introduced. Do you think that people will always retain a connection to this planet despite its flaws? 

KSR: Yes, this was a point I was trying to make. I have this intuition that because we evolved on Earth, and are, as individuals, part of a complex network of living and natural forces, that we are biomes in effect. The result is that we will never be able to stay healthy if away from Earth for long. We carry the Earth within us, and by the same measure, I think we’ll always need the Earth around us to replenish ourselves.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist working with several interplanetary spacecrafts. In 2013, he was named the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. He tweets at @DrFunkySpoon.

This article was originally published in our “Turbulence” issue in July, 2014.

Anthropologies #21: Annual Review of Anthropology, Climate Change, Anthropocene (Savage Minds)

August 31, 2015 / 

To kick off this issue, we begin with Sean Seary’s excellent overview of recent literature about anthropology’s engagement with climate. This review originally appeared on Anthropology Report, has been reproduced here to give us a solid foundation for moving forward. Seary, a recent graduate from Hartwick College, currently lives in Brunswick, Maine. His research interests focus on the convergence of anthropology and climate change. Seary’s work has also been featured on PopAnth. –R.A.

Introduction: Anthropological Interventions

Since the 1960s, global climate and environmental change have been important topics of contemporary scientific research. Growing concerns about climate change have introduced a (relatively) new variable in climate change research: the anthropogenic causes of local-global climate and environmental change. Despite archaeologists providing some of the first research and commentary on climate change–a point that is explored in Daniel Sandweiss and Alice Kelley’s Archaeological Contributions to Climate Change Research: The Archaeological Record as a Paleoclimatic and Paleoenvironmental Archive–the field of climate and environmental change research has been predominantly studied by “natural scientists.” This is where Susan Crate’s Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change in the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology intervenes. Crate calls for anthropological engagement with the natural sciences (and vice versa) on global climate change discourse, with the intention of creating new multidisciplinary ethnographies that reflect all the contributors to global environmental change.

Crate’s review begins by stating that the earliest anthropological research on climate change was associated with archaeologists: most of whom studied how climate change had an impact on cultural dynamics, societal resilience and decline, and social structure. Anthropological and archaeological engagement with climate change revolved around how cultures attributed meaning and value to their interpretations of weather and climate. Archaeology has long been working on understanding the relationship between climate, environment, and culture. Historically, archaeologists have worked with “natural” scientists in the recovery of climate and environmental data pulled from archaeological strata (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372). Such works include Environment and Archaeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (Butzer 1964), Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective (Waters 1992) and Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice(Dincauze 2000). The archaeological record incorporates not only stratigraphic data, but also proxy records. These records contributed to much larger paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental studies, including publications in general science literature like ScienceNature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372; see also the 2013 article in NatureContribution of anthropology to the study of climate change). Conversely, the work of “natural” scientists has also appeared in archaeological literature. Contemporarily, archaeologists have studied the impacts that water (or lack thereof) can have on human-environment interactions, through the study of soil and settlements drawing from case studies in Coastal Peru, Northern Mesopotamia, the Penobscot Valley in Maine, or Shetland Island.

Contemporary anthropological analysis of climate change usually focuses on adaptations towards local climate, temperature, flooding, rainfall, and drought (Crate 2011:178). Climate change impacts the cultural framework in which people perceive, understand, experience, and respond to the world in which they live. Crate believes that because of anthropologists’ ability to “be there,” anthropologists are well-suited to interpret, facilitate, translate, communicate, advocate, and act in response to the cultural implications of global (and local) climate change. Understanding the role that people and culture play in understanding land use changes is crucial to defining anthropology’s engagement with climate change. Anthropologists, as well as scientists from allied disciplines must engage in vigorous cross-scale, local-global approaches in order to understand the implications of climate change (Crate 2011:176).

Crate urges that anthropology use its experience in place-based community research and apply it to a global scale, while focusing on ethnoclimatology, resilience, disasters, displacement, and resource management. By studying people living in “climate-sensitive” areas, anthropologists can document how people observe, perceive, and respond to the local effects of global climate change, which at times can compromise not only their physical livelihood, but also undermine their cultural orientations and frameworks (Crate 2011:179). Anthropology is well positioned to understand the “second disaster,” or sociocultural displacement which follows the first disaster (physical displacement), as a result local environmental and climate change. Some of these “second disasters” include shifts in local governance, resource rights, and domestic and international politics (Crate 2011:180). These “second disasters” present yet another challenge to anthropology’s involvement with global climate change: that global climate change is a human rights issue. Therefore, anthropologists should take the initiative in being active and empowering local populations, regions, and even nation-states to seek redress for the damage done by climate change (Crate 2011:182) It is the responsibility of anthropologists working in the field of climate change to link the local and lived realities of environmental change with national and international policies.

In order to accommodate to the rapidly changing (human) ecology, anthropology is in need of new ethnographies that show how the “global” envelops the local, and the subsequent imbalance (environmental injustice/racism) that it creates during this process. Crate urgently calls for anthropologists to become actors in the policy process, utilizing a multidisciplinary, multi-sited collaboration between organizations, foundations, associations, as well as political think tanks and other scientific disciplines. Anthropology’s task at hand is to bridge what is known about climate change to those who are not aware of its impacts, in order to facilitate a global understanding of climate change and its reach (Crate 2011:184).

Crate’s “Climate and Culture” may not have been the first Annual Review article regarding climate change and anthropology, but it is certainly one of the most urgent and pressing. Crate became a member of the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force. Their report released in January 2015 sets an ambitious agenda for anthropology and climate change. Crate’s article also became foundational for a thematic emphasis of the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, which featured seven additional articles on anthropology and climate change.

Politics of the Anthropogenic

Nathan Sayre’s Politics of the Anthropogenic continues where Crate’s Climate and Culture left off: at the advent of a new form of anthropology, one that utilizes an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the human ecology in relation to global climate change. Sayre invokes a term which Crate did not use in her review article, but that seems to have increasing salience to anthropology: The Anthropocene. Notably, the idea of the Anthropocene and its relationship to anthropology was also the subject of Bruno Latour’s keynote lecture to the American Anthropological Association in 2014: Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene.

Sayre describes the Anthropocene as the moment in history when humanity began to dominate, rather than coexist with the “natural” world (Sayre 2012:58). What defines the Anthropocene as a distinct epoch or era is when human activities rapidly shifted (most often considered the Industrial Revolution) from merely influencing the environment in some ways to dominating it in many ways. This is evident in population growth, urbanization, dams, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and the overexploitation of natural resources. The adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change can be measured on nearly every corner of the earth. As a result of local environmental change and global climate change, humans, climate, soil, and nonhuman biota have begun to collapse into one another; in this scenario, it is impossible to disentangle the “social” from the “natural” (Sayre 2012:62). Sayre states that anthropology’s role, together with other sciences, in analyzing climate change in the Anthropocene is to understand that there is no dichotomy between what is considered natural and cultural. Understanding the fluctuations in the earth’s ecosystems cannot be accounted for without dispelling the ideological separation between the natural and the cultural. By adopting conceptual models of “climate justice” and earth system science, anthropologists and biophysical scientists can further dispel the archaic dichotomy of humanity and nature.

The atmosphere, the earth, the oceans, are genuinely global commons. However, environmental climate change and the subsequent effects are profoundly and unevenly distributed throughout space and time (Sayre 2012:65). Biophysically and socioeconomically, the areas that have contributed most to global climate change are the least likely to suffer from its consequences. Those who have contributed the least suffer the most. Anthropologists can play an important role in utilizing climate-based ethnography to help explain and understand the institutions that are most responsible for anthropogenic global warming–oil, coal, electricity, automobiles–and the misinformation, lobbying, and public relations behind “climate denialism” in the Anthropocene. This is the first step in seeking redress for the atrocities of environmental injustice.

Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory

Understanding climate change in the Anthropocene is no easy task, but as Richard Potts argues in Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory, humans have been influencing their environments and their environments have been influencing them well before the era that is considered the “Anthropocene.” Throughout the last several million years the earth has experienced one of its most dramatic eras of climate change, which consequently coincided with the origin of hominins. Homo sapiens represent a turning point in the history of protohuman and human life, because of their capacity to modify habitats and transform ecosystems. Now, approximately 50% of today’s land surface is reserved for human energy flow, and a further 83% of all the viable land on the planet has either been occupied or altered to some extent (Potts 2012:152).

Vrba’s turnover-pulse hypothesis (TPH) and Potts’s variability selection hypothesis (VSH) both serve as explanations for the correlation between environmental and evolutionary change. Vrba’s TPH focused on the origination and extinction of lineages coinciding with environmental change, particularly the rate of species turnovers following major dry periods across equatorial Africa. Potts’s VSH focused on the inherited traits that arose in times of habitat variability, and the selection/favoring of traits that were more adaptively versatile to unstable environments (Potts 2012:154-5). There are three ways in which environmental change and human evolution can potentially be linked. First, evolutionary events may be concentrated in periods of directional environmental change. Second, evolution may be elicited during times of rising environmental variability and resource uncertainty. Finally, evolution may be independent of environmental trend or variability (Potts 2012:155). The aforementioned hypotheses and subsequent links between evolution and environmental change help shed light on the origins and adaptations of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals. The anatomical, behavioral, and environmental differences between neanderthals and modern humans suggests that their distinct fates reflect their differing abilities to adjusting to diverse and fluctuating habitats (Potts 2012:160). Potts does an excellent job of stating that before the Anthropocene, early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals not only impacted and manipulate their surrounding environments, but were (genetically) impacted by their environments.

Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change

Heather Lazrus’s Annual Review article Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change returns to climate change in the more recent Anthropocene. For island communities, climate change is an immediate and lived reality in already environmentally fragile areas. These island communities, despite their seeming isolation and impoverishment, are often deeply globally connected in ways that go beyond simplistic descriptions of “poverty” and “isolated” (Lazrus 2012:286). Globally, islands are home to one-tenth of the world’s population, and much of the world’s population tends to be concentrated along coasts. Therefore both are subject to very similar changes in climate and extreme weather events. Islands tend to be regarded as the planet’s “barometers of change” because of their sensitivity to climate change (Lazrus 2012:287). Not only are islands environmentally dynamic areas, consisting of a variety of plants and animal species, but they also have the potential to be areas of significant social, economic, and political interest.

Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next

Madagascar is a fascinating example of sociopolitical and ecological convergence, and is explored by Robert Dewar and Alison Richard in their Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next. Madagascar has an extremely diverse system of human ecology that is nearly as diverse the island’s topography, environments, and climate. As a product of its physical diversity, the human ecology of Madagascar has a dynamic social and cultural history. In the Southwest, the Mikea derive significant portions of their food from foraging in the dry forest. Outside of most urban areas, hunting and collecting wild plants is common. Along the west coast, fishing is crucial as a central focus of the economy, but also as a supplement to farming. Farmers in Madagascar have a wide range of varieties and species to choose from including maize, sweet potatoes, coffee, cacao, pepper, cloves, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and turkeys (Dewar and Richard 2012:505). Throughout the island, rice and cattle are the two most culturally and economically important domesticates, and are subsequently adapted to growing under the local conditions of the microclimates of Madagascar. Semi-nomadic cattle pastoralism takes place in the drier regions of Madagascar. Whatever the environmental, climatic, social, or economic surroundings may be, Madagascar (as well as other islands) serve as local microcosms for climate change on the global scale. This relates to Crate’s call for an anthropology that brings forth the global array of connections (“natural”/ sociocultural) portraying local issues of climate change to the global sphere.

Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface

Agustin Fuentes’s main arguments in Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface focus on human-induced climate change and how it affects a vast amount of species, including the other primates (Fuentes 2012:110). By getting rid of the ideology that humans are separate from natural ecosystems and the animals within them, then anthropology can better grasp inquiries relating to global climate change within the Anthropocene. Fuentes then goes on to say (similarly to Crate and Sayre) that by freeing anthropological (and other scientific discourse) from the dichotomy of nature and culture, people will fully understand their relationship in the order of primates, but also their place within the environment. Our human capacity to build vast urban areas, transportation systems, and the deforestation of woodland all impact the local environments in which we live, and consequently gives humans an aura of dominance over nature. As Fuentes states, “at the global level, humans are ecosystem engineers on the largest of scales, and these altered ecologies are inherited not only by subsequent generations of humans but by all the sympatric species residing within them. The ways in which humans and other organisms coexist (and/or conflict) within these anthropogenic ecologies shape the perceptions, interactions, histories, and futures of the inhabitants” (Fuentes 2012:110). Essentially, Fuentes points out that humans have dominated ecosystems on a global scale; however, this has impacted not only human populations but also various plant and animals species, as well as entire ecosystems. It is only within the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between human/plants/animals/ecosystems that people will realize their impact on the environment on a global scale.

Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations

In Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations, Rebecca Cassidy ties together Fuentes’s arguments with Crate’s by demonstrating how climate change not only impacts people’s physical livelihood, but also their sociocultural lives. Cassidy states that people with animal-centered livelihoods experience climate change on many different levels, and subsequently, climate change may see those animals (or plants) become incapable of fulfilling their existing functions. Societies that are most frequently geopolitically marginalized often are left reeling from the impacts that climate change has on their social, political, economic, and environmental lives (Cassidy 2012:24). The impacts that climate change has on marginalized societies often affects their ability to live symbiotically and sustainably with other species. Human/animal “persons” are conceived to be reciprocal and equal, living in a symbiotic world system, in which their sustenance, reproduction, life, and death are all equally important. The extinction of particular species of animals and plants can cause cosmological crises, as well as disrupt the potential for future adaptability.

Cassidy’s claim that humans, animals, plants, and their environments are reciprocal and symbiotic ties in with Crate’s plea for an anthropology that rids itself of the old dichotomy of the natural and cultural. Crate’s idea for new ethnographies that consider the human ecology of climate change begin by utilizing what Lazrus calls Traditional Environmental Knowledge, or TEK. TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Lazrus 2012:290). TEK utilizes the spiritual, cosmological, and moral practices that condition human relationships with their surrounding physical environments. Such ethnographies should reflect all of the potential contributors to climate change in the Anthropocene, but they should also infuse new urgency to anthropological approaches. As Crate states “anthropologists need to become more globalized agents for change by being more active as public servants and engaging more with nonanthropological approaches regarding climate change” (Crate 2011: 183).

As made evident by the work of Sandweiss and Kelley, anthropology has early roots in climate change research dating back to the 1960s. Since then, anthropology’s contribution to climate change research has been significant, and is now sparking a new generation of engaged anthropology in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene debate: Why is such a useful concept starting to fall apart? (Entitle Blog)

July 7, 2015

by Aaron Vansintjan*

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).

In order to keep the ‘bad’ Anthropocene in check, scientists have proposed using airborne particles to deflect sunlight, intentionally altering the atmosphere. Source:

The word “Anthropocene” has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. The question now is whether we should keep using it.

‘Good’ Anthropocene or ‘Bad’ Anthropocene?

The types of opinions that cluster around the Anthropocene vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. He argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene is often used to justify massive geo-engineering schemes, leading to an attitude that Richard Heinberg calls “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it.”. Source:

Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by more energy, not less.

Somewhat surprisingly, the term has been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. Bruno Latour often likes to use the term as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Recently, he pushed back against the eco-modernist manifesto, complaining that “to add ‘good’ to Anthropocene was a ridiculous thing to do”. According to Latour, there is only a ‘bad’ Anthropocene. But there is no doubt that there is an Anthropocene.

Prominent political ecology scholars Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organisations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. In another article on this blog, Robbins and Sarah A. Moore suggest that while political ecologists and eco-moderns may have differing views, they are both reactions to the reality of the Anthropocene. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropocene, and the scientists that propose it, make us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to their environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that everyone (the colonisers and the colonised, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.

I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialise in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word so uncritically is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.

One geo-engineering proposal would see expensive mirrors launched into space to reflect sunlight. Source:

The politics of climate science

Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.

The first key issue is scientific.

Since Paul Crutzen first proposed the term (he suggested it started with the industrial revolution, but then changed his mind claiming that it started with the testing of atomic bombs) scientists have struggled to define what it is exactly and when it started. There is currently no consensus.

The vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. Leading scientists have posed the question whether the Anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.

Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.

Blaming humans, erasing history

But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.

First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.

At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ of humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and they are intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, between human desires and natural forces.

But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.

It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism.

In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organisation that led to the global alterations we are seeing today.

It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate. Many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth. This idea is endorsed by, for example, Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and John R. McNeill.

But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another. Many Anthropocene proponents tend to reduce complex social and historical processes to simple, reductive explanations. But climate change is not just a matter of humans vs. earth.

Neither is the Anthropocene ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg point out, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats.

In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal levelling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.

Climate change won’t affect everyone equally. More likely, it will mean that some get lifeboats and others do not. Source:

This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.

But depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Ian Angus from Climate and Capitalism argues, ecomodernists have hijacked the term for their own uses. But perhaps it’s the concepts own vagueness that has allowed it to be co-opted in the first place. It’s likely that this vagueness has played at least a small part in both the struggles of scientists to define the term and its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.

Is the term still useful?

It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.

Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.

But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).

You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowthclimate justiceecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.

Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.

*Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

A version of this article originally appeared on Uneven Earth.

“A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” (Inhabiting the Anthropocene Blog)

Posted on July 21, 2015

Rosemary-Claire Collard, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg. 2015. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 105, No. 2, pp. 322-330.
The concept of the Anthropocene is creating new openings around the question of how humans ought to intervene in the environment. In this article, we address one arena in which the Anthropocene is prompting a sea change: conservation. The path emerging in mainstream conservation is, we argue, neoliberal and postnatural. We propose an alternative path for multispecies abundance. By abundance we mean more diverse and autonomous forms of life and ways of living together. In considering how to enact multispecies worlds, we take inspiration from Indigenous and peasant movements across the globe as well as decolonial and postcolonial scholars. With decolonization as our principal political sensibility, we offer a manifesto for abundance and outline political strategies to reckon with colonial-capitalist ruins, enact pluriversality rather than universality, and recognize animal autonomy. We advance these strategies to support abundant socioecological futures.

What becomes of conservation—a field that has long defined itself as protecting nature from humanity—in a time when human impacts reach every corner of the planet?

Many conservationists, it seems, would argue that the defense of natural spaces has never been more urgent than it is now.  As Michael Soulé puts it, “The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.”  Others, however, are disillusioned with the notion of pristine nature and have instead embraced the idea that we live in a “postnatural” world.  “Conservationists,” they argue, “will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness […] and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision. […] [We] need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition.”

No single factor can account for the emergence of postnatural conservation—resilience theory, postequilibrium ecology, ecosystems services, climate change, and the Anthropocene proposal itself all come readily to mind.  But, whatever its causes, the postnatural turn suggests the prospect of new common ground with environmental social scientists, philosophers, and historians for whom nature has always been a problematic category.  This is, after all, similar to what we’ve been saying all along.

But is the “new” conservation really what we had in mind?  In their new article, “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” geographers Collard, Dempsey, and Sundberg raise several important concerns about conservation’s postnatural turn and offer an alternative set of conservation principles.  What I’d like to do here is very briefly highlight their concerns before commenting (again briefly) on their proposed alternatives.

Collard and her colleagues’ concerns about postnatural conservation revolve around its close connection to neoliberal managerialism.  Postnatural approaches to conservation, they explain, usually propose on the use of economic incentives to promote environmentally sustainable practices.  Under this model, human wellbeing is the tide that raises all ecological ships, and economic optimization the standard according to which competing tradeoffs are weighed.  Meanwhile, postnatural conservation breaks with traditional conservation by orienting itself toward the future rather than the past.  Its focus is not on restoring degraded landscapes to a past condition or addressing the historical roots of contemporary problems, but rather on looking hopefully toward a prosperous, globally integrated future.

This combination of anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, futurism, and globalism make postnatural conservation an excellent fit for neoliberal managerialism, not for critical environmental studies.  As a result, “new” conservation may actually reinforce the “old” political-economic system at the root of our global ecological crisis.  These concerns strongly resonate with those I have raised in prior posts.

What, then, is the alternative Collard and her colleagues envision?  I will not attempt a full summary here—the article itself is a great read!  Instead, I will offer a few comments on how their vision of conservation fits into the themes that emerged through our recent Habitation in the Anthropocene project.

History: As a corrective to the ahistorical futurism and market triumphalism of postnatural conservation, the authors center their approach on addressing the accumulated experiences of social and ecological suffering that characterize the Anthropocene.  Instead of bracketing ecocide, they propose looking back to past nonhuman abundance as an aspirational benchmark for the future.  Likewise, they cite work being done by a host of social and environmental justice movements and call for “political struggle grounded in decolonizing” (p. 326).  Not unlike Asa’s post about the “multitemporal” nature of human-environment interactions, the “Manifesto” conditions future habitability on dealing with the complex inheritances of the past.

Future: Like postnatural conservation, Collard and her colleagues seek to foster a sense of hope that the future will be abundant (as per the definition in their abstract).  Their hope, however, is not for a future dominated by economic rationality, but for a plurality of futures where less instrumental and anthropocentric standards for good living have a chance to define abundance in new ways.  In particular, they highlight Leanne Simpson’s work on the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which denotes “promoting life” or “continuous rebirth” and suggests an “alternative to worlds that are enacted through utilitarianism and extraction” (p. 328).  Finally, they do not look to managerial, market-based solutions within the current global system, but instead insist that “creating conditions for abundance necessitates enacting alternatives to imperial capitalism” (p. 323).

Agency: Against the human exceptionalism of postnatural conservation, they make “multispecies entanglements” foundational to their approach.  They tie the wellbeing of humans to that of nonhumans and, in so many words, propose a relational ethics for multispecies cohabitation.  Although they join postnatural conservation in rejecting the concept of wilderness, they seek to preserve that of wildness so as to recognize “animal autonomy,” meaning “the fullest expression of animal life, including capacity for movement, for social and familial association, and for work and play” (p. 328).  Finally, they advocate “acting pluriversally”—an ontological orientation that aims for radical openness to different ways of bringing the world into being.  In this way, their vision leaves open possibilities for multiple, self-determined futures in a way that postnatural conservation does not.

Limits: The authors acknowledge the material limits to habitability—and in particular how these have been reached as a result of capitalist imperialism and experienced most acutely by politically marginalized humans and nonhumans.  However, as my comments above should make clear, their vision focuses mostly on moral limits to habitability, particularly those involving social justice, animal autonomy, and self-determination.

I hope that “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” will be read widely.  I share with its authors the sense that the Anthropocene is at best “a spark that will light a fire in our imaginaries” (p. 326) and their hope that we can again achieve “a world literally filled to the brim with different creatures” (p. 321).

William Cronon. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., pp. 69-90. This highly influential essay historicizes the concept of “wilderness” in the US context and explains why tropes of “pristine nature” are not only empirically misleading but also politically damaging.
Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, Robert Lalasz. 2012. “Conservation in the Anthropocene.” Breakthrough Journal. Winter issue. Here Kareiva and colleagues lay out a vision for what is referred to above as postnatural conservation.
Michael Soulé. 2013. “The ‘New Conservation’.” Conservation Biology. Vol. 27., No. 5., pp. 895-897. In this op-ed, Soulé, who is considered one of the founders of conservation science, makes a case against postnatural conservation.

James Lovelock: ‘Saving the planet is a foolish, romantic extravagance’ (Newsweek)

By    5/31/15 at 12:22 PM

Scientist James Lovelock

Harry Borden for Newsweek

Jim Lovelock, environmentalist, scientist, and celebrated proposer of the Gaia hypothesis, has always taken the long view of Earth’s future. So it feels appropriate that he should have retired to a coastguard’s cottage perched above Chesil Beach on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast – so called because 180 million years of geological history lie exposed along its cliffs and coves.

This shoreline is constantly eroding. In the winter storms of 2013, Lovelock’s cottage was cut off for four days when the road leading to it was washed into the sea – not that Lovelock, whose latest book is entitled A Rough Ride to the Future, needed any reminder of the precariousness of our world. A decade ago, he predicted that billions would be wiped out by floods, drought and famine by 2040. He is more circumspect about that date these days, but he has not changed his underlying belief that the consequences of global warming will catch up with us eventually. His conviction that humans are incapable of reversing them – and that it is in any case too late to try – is also unaltered. In the week when the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change reported that the world is still miles off meeting its 2030 carbon emission targets, Lovelock cannot easily be dismissed.

There are other doomsayers. What makes this one so unusual is his confounding cheerfulness about the approaching apocalypse. His optimism rests on his faith in Gaia – his revolutionary theory, first formulated in the 1970s, that our planet is not just a rock but a complex, self-regulating organism geared to the long-term sustenance of life. This means, among other things, that if there are too many people for the Earth to support, Gaia – Earth – will find a way to get rid of the excess, and carry on.

Lovelock’s concern is less with the survival of humanity than with the continuation of life itself. Against that imperative, the decimation of nations is almost inconsequential to him. “You know, I look with a great deal of equanimity on some sort of happening – not too rapid – that reduces our population down to about a billion,” he says, five minutes into our meeting. “I think the Earth would be happier … A population in England of five or 10 million? Yes, I think that sounds about right.” To him, even the prospect of nuclear holocaust has its upside. “The civilisations of the northern hemisphere would be utterly destroyed, no doubt about it,” he says, “but it would give life elsewhere a chance to recover. I think actually that Gaia might heave a sigh of relief.”

He is driven, at least in part, by a deep affinity for the English countryside. When he warns that sea levels are rising three times faster than the first climatology models predicted, and that this threatens “an awful lot of land north of Cambridge that is one or two meters below sea level”, you sense that he really cares about that landscape’s fate. No doubt he inherited this affection, along perhaps with a certain independence of spirit and thought, from his father. Born in West Berkshire in 1872, Lovelock senior grew up as a “hunter-gatherer” in support of his impoverished family, until, aged 14, he was caught poaching and imprisoned in Reading for six months. “I am very proud of that first part of my father’s life,” he says.

Like others of his generation, Lovelock mourns the changes to the countryside wrought by the post-War agricultural revolution. As a young man in the 1930s, he recalls, he cycled from Kent to the West Country, when England was “unbelievably beautiful”. “It all looks very green and pleasant around here,” he adds, waving at the gentle downland beyond his kitchen window, “but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be”.

Like Gaia, he has evidently developed certain stratagems for the sustenance of life. One would not guess from his appearance that he will be 96 this year. With his American wife Sandy, who is 20 years his junior, he still walks to the village shops each Saturday, a round-trip of six miles; and his intellectual vigour is so unimpaired that conversing with him soon makes the head spin.

Japan Earthquake and tsunami 2011

While the 2011 Japan earthquake caused devastation, Lovelock observes that “zero” have died of radiation from FukushimaThe Asahi Shimbun via Getty

He contends that the end of the world as we know it began in 1712, the year the Devonshire blacksmith Thomas Newcomen invented the coal-powered steam engine. It was the first time that stored solar energy had been harnessed in any serious way, with effects that now “grip us and our world in a series of unstoppable events. We are like the sorcerer’s apprentice, trapped in the consequences of our meddling”. Newcomen’s discovery set in train more than just the era of industrial development. It also marked the start of a new geological epoch, the “Anthropocene”, the most significant characteristic of which, Lovelock believes, has been the emergence of “an entirely new form of evolution” that is one million times faster than the old process of Darwinian natural selection.

He points out that for half a century now, computing power has roughly doubled every two years – a trajectory of growth known as Moore’s Law – and that computers are already capable of many actions far beyond what humans can do. In his scariest scenario, which sounds disturbingly close to the premise of the Arnie Schwarzenegger Terminator movies, he warns that computers could morph into an autarkic life form powerful enough to “destroy us, our carbon life forms, and inherit the Earth”. Luckily he thinks this outcome unlikely, and in the end has no fear of the Rise of the Machines. “Computers are entirely rational creations. But true intelligence, the ability to create and to invent, is intuitive – and you can’t do rational intuition.”

On the other hand, his preferred prediction for humanity is scarcely less disturbing. He foresees the evolution of a man-machine hybrid by a process of endosymbiosis that, he argues, has already begun. “I am already endosymbiotic. I’m fitted with a pacemaker. It runs on a 10-year lithium battery, but the next generation will have its own power supply drawn from the body. I’m already worried about being hacked … Fairly soon, I think, the internet is going to be fully embedded in our bodies.”

Looking further still into the future, he says that life on Earth, based as it presently is on carbon, cannot last beyond 100 million years, because by then it will be too hot. The evolution of a different life form based on some more heat-resistant element – such as electronic silicon – could potentially extend life by another 500 million or even a billion years.

But first, of course, mankind has to survive the immediate global warming crisis. Lovelock is a famously outspoken critic of the green energy revolution, especially wind power, which he describes as “an absolute scam. A great big German scam”. The purveyors of wind turbines and solar panels, he says, are like 18th-century doctors trying to cure serious diseases with leeches and mercury. Instead he wants us to embrace nuclear fission, a completely clean energy source that he regards as a “gift”. The Western world’s prejudice against nuclear – underscored earlier this year when the number of reactors in the US dipped below a hundred for the first time in decades – is “tragic”.

German windmills, Dessau

Lovelock says wind power is a “great big German scam”Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

“What gets my goat are the lies peddled about Fukushima [the Japanese nuclear reactor disaster of 2011]. Do you know how many people died of radiation? Zero. Not one – although there were 50-odd suicides among people driven to it by fear. Nuclear energy is actually 10 times safer, per GigaWatt hour of production, than wind power. Yet France and Germany responded to Fukushima by temporarily shutting down their entire nuclear industries. It makes no sense.” The reason, he thinks, is public ignorance, combined with a form of green politics that amounts to a “new religion – the same force that drives jihadists in Syria”. It is, he agrees, a paradox that the new accessibility of information brought about by the internet revolution has intensified, not diminished, the old battle between science and superstition. “There’s a campaign in our village to stop a new mobile phone mast. The electromagnetic radiation it will emit is trivial. It’s comparable to a household television. Yet the campaigners say it can give you cancer. This is about fear – not facts.”

With one or two exceptions such as Margaret Thatcher and Germany’s Angela Merkel, both of whom studied chemistry, he thinks our leaders are just as bad. “If you talk to any politician, American or British or European, they are absolutely blind on matters of science,” he says. He reserves special ire for Tony Blair, “the really mad prime minister” who, swayed by green ideology and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, passed legislation subsidising the renewable energy sector, which made fresh investment in the nuclear industry almost impossible. (This, he argues, is one reason why the heating costs of an average house in the UK are up to 10 times greater than in America, which, overall, has a colder climate. For many years, he asserts, the Lovelocks wintered in St Louis, Missouri, purely in order to avoid British heating bills.)

But even a wholesale switch to nuclear power, in his view, would come too late to solve humanity’s principal problem, which is overpopulation. The old post-war goal of sustainable development, he says, has become an oxymoron and should be abandoned in favour of a strategy of sustainable retreat. He is scathing about the very idea of “saving the planet”, which he calls “the foolish extravagance of romantic Northern ideologues”. The vast sums of money being invested in renewable energy would be much better spent on strategies designed to help us survive and adapt, such as flood defences.

Above all, he thinks that we should embrace the ongoing global shift towards urban living. It would, he insists, be far easier and more economic to regulate the climate of cities than our current strategy of attempting to control the temperature of an entire planet. The regions beyond the cities would then be left to Gaia to regulate for herself. It seems a sci-fi fantasy, rather like Mega-City One from the pages of Judge Dredd, a post-apocalypse megalopolis shielded from the “Cursed Earth” beyond by massive boundary walls. But, in fact, the concept is not so futuristic. Noah, arguably, had a similar idea when he built the ark.

It is certainly not a new concept to Lovelock, who wrote a paper for the oil multinational, Shell, as far back as 1966 in which he predicted that the cities of the future would become much denser, and that Shell would be making plenty of money out of “the avoidance of ecological disaster”. The fictional Mega-City One held 800 million citizens, and incorporated the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. Lovelock points that the average population density of England is higher than that of greater Boston. His 1966 paper, which was recently reprinted by Shell, no longer looks as fantastical as it once did.

Singapore, he suggests, shows us how a city can succeed in an overheated climate. The trend there for building underground, as well as in places like Japan and even London (albeit for different reasons), might be part of the same process of adaptation. Architectural practices from the past might also offer clues to a sustainable retreat in the future. The streets of the medieval Dalmatian island town of Korcula, for instance, follow a unique herringbone plan designed to capture and channel the prevailing, cooling sea breeze.

Nature offers models for future city architecture, too. Lovelock is much taken at the moment with termites. Their mounds, he says, are built like the cities of the future might be. Like Korcula, they are oriented towards the prevailing wind. They also tend to lean towards the zenith of the sun, to minimise exposure to its rays at the hottest time of the day – a stratagem that perhaps has its analogue in a recent suggestion by the Scottish nationalist politician Rob Gibson, who wants all new housing estates to be orientated towards the south in order to maximise the efficiency of rooftop solar panels.

(In London, meanwhile, the architects NBBJ recently proposed building the world’s first “shadowless skyscraper” by building two towers – one to block out the sun, the other to reflect light down into the shadow of the first).

More interesting still, a recent paper in Science magazine has shown that termite mounds, once thought to be a sign of encroaching desertification, may actually have the ability to stabilise or even reverse the effects of climate change by trapping rainfall. “Termites are very Gaian,” Lovelock enthuses. “There are these wonderful pictures of little plants growing up between the termite cities. You could look at that as a nice future for humans.”

So does Lovelock really think that humanity could end up mimicking social insects? A dumbed-down world inhabited by worker drones might be environmentally efficient, but what about the surrender of privacy that would imply; isn’t the sublimation of individuality too high a price to pay? How could such a society ever throw up a Beethoven, a Shakespeare, or an Einstein? “That’s true, and of course it depends how far down this track we choose to go,” says Lovelock, “but do you think that evolution, as a process, gives two hoots about any of that?”

This is, to be sure, a reductive view of human existence. A man in the twilight of his years, as Lovelock is, might feel a sense of futility. Instead he maintains a steady wonder at what he calls “the ineffable: a lovely word, don’t you think?” while apparently seeking no earthly legacy beyond a modest hope that he will be remembered as having been consistent in his arguments.

As a man of science, he remains agnostic on the subject of God. And yet, he says, “I am beginning to swing round, to think more and more, that there’s something in Barrow and Tipler’s cosmic-anthropic principle – the idea that the universe was set up in such a way that the formation of intelligent life on some planet somewhere was inevitable … The more you look at the universe, the more puzzling it is that all the figures are just right for the appearance on this planet of people like us.”

For the time being our species may be, as he has written, “scared and confused, like a colony of red ants exposed when we lift the garden slab that is the lid of their nest”. But he is also content to be one of those ants, because he sees a kind of beauty in that confusion – and perhaps even some sort of grand design. “Humanity may be as important to Earth, to Gaia, as the first photo-synthesisers,” he thinks. “We are the first species to harvest information … that is something very special.”

Above all he is convinced that mankind can recover itself – and in this he may be a product of his vanishing generation. Some years ago, at a lecture in Edinburgh, I heard him reminisce how marvellously the British nation had pulled together when threatened by Nazi invasion, but that it had taken that existential threat to make them do so. When the climate crisis finally breaks, he believes, the world’s differences will again be put aside – and our species, for all its present idiocies, will pull together in a way that will astonish the cynics among us.

Schizoanalysis as Anthro-Ecology (Synthetic Zero)

May 31, 2015

WILD ECOLOGIES - Featured Post #3: Edmund Berger with an in-depth 
analysis of Guattari's 'ecosophy' and possible points of connection, 
overlap and divergence from anarchist thought.  


How does one begin to broach the question of linkage, passage, and reflexivity to be found in the theories and practices of anarchism, the radical post-psychoanalysis of Felix Guattari, and the ontological framework that has been ushered in the necessity of acknowledging the forces that we label “the Anthropocene”? The overlaps between each are undeniable: in was ecological concerns that late in his life Guattari turned his mind to; the field that his work is commonly situated – the school of post-structuralism – is often affiliated with anarchism of the so-called “post-left” variety. That Guattari was closely aligned with the Italian Autonomia, which the post-left anarchists owe much of their discourse to, is no passing coincidence. We can also note the presence of “green anarchism” under the post-left label, alongside the controversial, anti-civilizational stance espoused by anarcho-primitivism. Yet we can see clearly that this triad of eco-ontology, Guattari, and anarchism have yet to really have the dialogue that they deserve.

On even a surface level reading the commonalities between each point is immediately clear: none points to a resolving synthesis in thought or being. The Anthropocene has brought us full circle and pried open what was also present but shunted aside by the progress of the West – that civilization and nature are not separate, and that civilization and culture exist entangled in the complex web of the ecology itself, defined as it is by various states of emergence. Anarchism, regardless of which of the many monikers it adapts, is at its core a program that is constantly evading and contesting the centralizing and homogenizing forms of the state itself. Guattari, meanwhile, shifts these focuses to the levels of individuals and group’s subjecthood, looking to move from fixed and stable states to ones far from equilibrium. Keeping in tune with the manner in which each point in this triad presents itself as an ongoing unfolding, this essay will attempt no resolute synthesis. I am more concerned in this moment with simply tracing out a constellation of convergences and patterns, looking for possibilities of a minor politics for the Anthropocene.


From beginning to end, Guattari’s work centered on the problems of psychology, even if his approach appeared – and continues to appear – utterly alien to the orthodox scriptures put forth by the orthodoxy of psychoanalysis. He can best be understood as playing the role not of a psychoanalytic atheist (denouncing the whole paradigm, as those of anti-psychiatry are oft to appear), or the agnostic, undecided and wavering back and forth, but the heretic, positioning himself within the discourse but enacting a virulent rebellion against the limitations and interpretations of the primary institutions. While psychoanalysis enacts a practice of steering, moving the divergent subjectivity back into the confines deemed acceptable by civilization (that is, the body as laboring force for productivity), Guattari offers instead a schizoanalysis that renounces steering and searches for ways to unleash the subjectivity in a way that moves against civilization and its regime of production. Each step in his work covers a different region in which outside forces are capable of opening up subjectivity. In Anti-Oedipus (co-authored with Gilles Deleuze in 1972) this took the form of a revolt against Freud psychoanalysis and capitalism, curtesy of Marx, Nietzsche, and a radicalized anthropology. In A Thousand Plateaus (co-authored again with Deleuze, in 1980) a schizoanalytic framework is shown that denies the difference between scales, disciplines, arts and sciences. After his encounter with the Autonomia and their pirate radio programs, media became situated front and center. In 1989 he published the Three Ecologies, turning to the complexity of nature and the cosmos to illustrate the full scope of his project. Much of this work is a natural progression from his work on media technologies, as clear in the book’s opening line: “The Earth is undergoing a period of intense techno-scientific transformations. If no remedy is found, the ecological disequilibrium this has generated will ultimately threaten the continuation of life on the planet’s surface.”[1]


For Guattari the remedy to this state of affairs is not to be found in the technocratic solutions offered by the state and the monoliths of capitalism. It will be found instead in what he calls a practice of ecosophy, that is, a shifting mediation between three intertwining registers: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity.”[2] This affair, however, is not as simple as it initially appears. Each of these ecological registers, in turn, is largely contingent upon relations with the others. We can read of this entanglement right at the outset of his earliest work with Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus:

…we make no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man… man and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting one another… rather, they are one and the same essential reality producer-product.[3]

Human subjectivity and the social too work in the manner of relationity and encounter. In what he would later call his schizoanalytic cartographies, Guattari maps out the way that subjectivity comes into being, through a series of becomings that emerge from assemblages and states of flows: the territories in which the bodies exist and their own relations to nature, the codification of these territories by state form and cultural constructs, the intimate interactions between bodies, media and technology, architecture and aesthetics, the flows of capital, so on and so forth. As Foucault would so eloquently illustrate, the state of the subject itself is a composition that is molded and enforced by the apparatuses of state and industry; the subject itself can operate as confinement, reproducing through the activities of daily life the demands of regimented production itself. The schizoanalytic cartographies themselves are designed to model (or better, meta-model), these assemblages and apparatuses that work upon the subject in order to find a point of exit, towards other ways of articulating life and existence.  In other words, this particular heresy becomes one of mutation, in which subjectivity transforms into something revolutionary and imperceptible.

cartographies-schizoanalytiques (1)

In his last work, Chaosmosis (1992), Guattari alludes to the schizoanalytic cartographies as an “ecosophic object”, illustrating that the two approaches (the three ecologies and the cartographies) are inseparable entities. This is further compounded by the fact that The Three Ecologies was originally slated to be a chapter in the book titled Schizoanalytic Cartographies, and was published separately at the urging of Paul Virilio.[4] While the prudent thing to do here might be to stop and look at the cartographies themselves,[5] and look at their alignment with the processes laid out within The Three Cartographies, I would like to stop and examine the way in which the schizoanalytic program itself developed at different stages in Guattari’s oeuvre, looking at the way in which it unfolded in different historic moments and terrains of leftist struggle.

Revolutionary Science

Schizoanalytic Cartographies, The Three Ecologies debuted against the escalation of what Guattari described as “integrated world capitalism”, a total planetary marketization that “tends increasingly to decentre its sites of power, moving away from structures producing goods and services towards structures producing signs, syntax and – in particular, through the control which it exercises over the media, advertising, opinion polls, etc. – subjectivity.”[6]  Integrated world capitalism goes by many different names to be applied in different contexts: for the spread of markets, it is “globalization,” to describe the particularities of its govermentality the term “neoliberalism” is preferred. For the transnationalization of production itself, it is “post-Fordism”, for the role of signs, it is “semiocapitalism”. For the ascendancy of intellectual labor through the growth of the so-called ‘white collar’ jobs (primarily finance and I.T. work), it is “cognitive capitalism”. From the perspective of civil societies made global through information technologies, it is the rather ambiguous “network society”.

It is Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus that is the great text of the network society, written right at the point in which this particular mode of production was first coming into existence. The schema of the network itself is found in the figure of the rhizome, which anticipates not only the eventual structuring of the internet but the way the social itself operates on a globalized level: “any point of the rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be… a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”[7] While this is the most commonly remember aspect of the book, it is, all in all, one of the lesser moments; the real purpose of A Thousand Plateaus is to show the central role of new technologies and cutting-edge sciences in bringing this science into fruition, and the ways in which these sciences and technologies can be repurposed towards revolutionary ends.

Looking backwards, we can find this same effort at work in Anti-Oedipus as well. As the title of the work implies, the target of attack here is Oedipus, understood as what Lacan would call the “symbolic order” – the rule of language and law, the ‘orderly conduct’ of civilizational affairs that becomes internalized within the subject and conflated with the state of nature. Elsewhere they remark that Oedipus is the operation of the double-bind, a theory of schizophrenia first identified by Gregory Bateson. As Deleuze and Guattari summarize:

Double bind is the term used by Gregory Bateson to describe the simultaneous transmission of two kinds of messages, one of which contradicts the other, for example the father who says to his son: go ahead, criticize me, but strongly hints that all effective criticism – at least a certain type of criticism – will be very unwelcome. Bateson sees in this phenomena a particularly schizophrenizing situation…[8]


Deleuze and Guattari hold Bateson up as an example of deterritorialization, a flight of becoming from the enforced territories of being and thought. Indeed, Bateson not only finds a theory of schizophrenia in the double-bind, but also a remarkable congruence with the Zen koans given to the pupil by the master. If the double-bind in Western civilization leads to psychosis, in the East it leads to Enlightenment: “We feel that the schizophrenic finds himself continually in the same situation as the pupil but he achieves something like disorientation rather than enlightenment.”[9] Bateson would go to find a variety of overlaps between experiences of madness and schizophrenia with initiation rites in other societies; following in these footsteps, R.D. Laing would build a differing school of psychoanalysis that points away the confines of civilization, indicating the direction that schizoanalysis would eventually take.

Through Deleuze and Guattari’s usage of Bateson we can discern in their text a reaction to a specific mode of machinic configuration or arrangement. The machine in question here is less a literal machine and more of a metaphor for systems: that of cybernetics, a sciences of feedback loops, first identified by Norbert Wiener but quickly applied throughout the military, industry, and governance. For Bateson, however, the realization that action derives from interacting agents in a system opened an ontological horizon that could only be described in cosmological terms: systems now could be understood as self-regulating, utilizing the dynamics of positive and negative feedback to reach homeostatic states, as well self-organizing, capable of shifting homeostatic states towards “new patterns” and complexity. An ecology, he reasons, acts as an aggregate of many subsystems bound up in interaction operating across a variety of scales. We shouldn’t think of this ecology strictly in terms of the environment, for the environment itself is one of these parts; it also includes culture, social bodies, and importantly for Bateson, the mind itself. The Cartesian foundation of Western thought, which posits the separation of the physical body from its essence – the mind or soul – becomes unglued in these systems. While the state sought to deploy systems thinking to reinforce its governmental apparatuses and capital looked to streamline its profit producing capabilities, Bateson was charting far-out territories where the boundaries between the human and the non-human dissolve, right down to the molecular level.

Bateson’s so-called “second-order cybernetics” foreshadowed a whole realm of scientific theorizing that would emerge across the 1970s and 80s, going by names such as chaos theory, complexity theory, and emergence. Returning to Deleuze and Guattari, we can draw a resemblance between his ecology of aggregates and the machinic ecologies of flows discussed in Anti-Oedipus: Oedipus, the symbolic order, is a force that blocks the flows, framing them in a way to produce the subject. As a double bind, it assumes the function of the homeostat and prevents or wards off attempts to organize to patterns different from this equilibrium. The openings towards complexity and emergence, however, provided schizoanalytic praxis will a new scientific vocabulary to draw upon, expressed most clearly in A Thousand Plateaus.


This influence is found primarily in the chapters of the book focusing on the war machine, that is, minotorian or nomadic bands that can be defined by their degrees of separation from the state. This, incidentally, is also the point in which Deleuze and Guattari appear at their most anarchist. These two points convergence on the acknowledgement that absolute control is an impossibility; as long as there are states, there will be war machines that flee from it. The state here, that Oedipal function, seeks homeostasis but the war machine can disrupt equilibria, triggering processes of self-organization towards new states. “From turba to turbo: in other words, from bands or packs of atoms to the great vortical organizations. The model is a vortical one; it operates in an open space throughout which things-flows are distributed, rather than plotting out a closed space for linear and solid things.”[10]

To further draw out their point, Deleuze and Guattari plot out a dialectic of royal sciences and nomad sciences. We can see how the developments from cybernetics onward can easily reflect both paradigms: for the military looking to maximize its command and control over an environment, managing feedback between movements on the territory and weaponry became paramount. For the government, cybernetics allowed new means to articulate the organizations of power and the constituency, while in the market, feedback systems allowed rapid developments in everything from pricing stock market options and derivatives to the management of logistics for global production chains. These royal applications find their nomadic compliment in cybernetic’s application in all sorts of far-off territories: Stafford Beer’s holism and the Chilean CyberSyn experiment, “cybernetic guerrilla warfare”, R.D. Laing and Gregory Bateson… “What we have… are two formally different conceptions of science, and, ontologically, a single field of interaction in which royal science continually appropriates the contents of vague or nomad science while nomad science continually cuts the contents of royal science loose. At the limit, all that counts is the constantly shifting borderlands.”[11]

Cosmos against Civilization

I must confess a strong suspicion for political discourse that relies heavily on a rhetoric of self-organization. It appears, particularly in the wake of the developments in the economy from the 1990s onward,that such discourse closely to the spectacular logic of neoliberal capitalism itself, which in the technological evolution of integrated world capitalism strives to be an ontological horizon in its own right – a self-organizing system of human interaction that corresponds to the activities of nature. This trajectory can trace its origins back to the economic theories of F.A. Hayek (if not earlier) and his extensive borrowings from early systems thinking. In his methodological individualism, Hayek conflates the self-organizing principles with an atomist understanding of the individual, where agency emerges from not only as a radical force from within (as opposed agency emerging from relations within assemblages and aggregates), but from a Cartesian split between the human and non-human, civilization and nature.

Another problem from a differing perspective is that Guattari seems to take the possibilities inherent in information technology a little too strongly at their face value, seeing the inevitably of critical mutations of subjectivity riding the wave of their development. He guiding points in this techno-optimism were the experiences of Radio Alice in Italy, the usage of the French Minitel system by activist networks, and the growth of online community message boards spring up around groups and interests that appeared marginal against the greater cultural backdrop. Such things were evident, he argued, that minotorian groups could shape the future deployment of media technologies in a way free from statecraft, unleashing a thousand subaltern subjectivities.

This techno-optimism was, however, a cautious one, as he expressed only several times over the course of his later books: “The post-mediatic revolution to come will have to be guided to an unprecedented degree by those minority groups which are still the only ones to have realized the mortal risk for humanity of questions such as: the nuclear arms race; world famine; irreversible ecological degradation; mass-mediatic pollution of collective subjectivities.”[12] Part of this minotorian becoming, he insisted, could come from within movements of capitalism across the globe. In this regard Japan’s unique culture, a collision of the archaic and the hypermodern, was held up as an exemplar of mutant subjectivity that contrasted sharply the capitalist vision of the west. “Might Japanese capitalism,” he posed, “be a mutation resulting from the monstrous crossing of animist powers inherited from feudalism during the ‘Baku-han’ and the machinic powers of modernity to which it appears everything here must revert?”[13]


While there much to say on this idiosyncratic fascination with Japan, it is on this broader point of animism that I now wish to focus. Guattari’s late writings are peppered with references to the possibility of machinic subjectivities that have more in common with those of archaic societies than the contemporary postmodern malaise. He maintained a strong interest in the cosmological belief systems of the Australian Aborigines, which had developed at the time he was preparing the materials for Schizoanalytic Cartographies. To quote anthropologist Barbara Glowczewski at length,

The message that I brought back from Australia after my first field trips in 1979 and 1980 related to the ancestral connections with the land, which Aboriginal people experienced as a moving network: a real ontology in which humans, animals, plants, water and the whole of social life are thought of as the actualization of virtualities that are constantly in feedback with the space-time of Jukurrpa, the itineraries of ancestral travelers called Kangaroo, Plum or Digging-Stick Dreaming. These beings and the tracks of their voyages are effectively defined as being in becoming: sleeping in hundreds of places, springs, rocks, and interacting with humans in their own dreams and rituals, which aim to reinforce the links between all living things. Dreaming was practised as a means of regenerating life. My 1981 thesis Le rapport au temps et à l’espace des Aborigènes d’Australie (The Relation of Australian Aborigines to Time and Space) aimed to demonstrate that this dynamic process – mistakenly described by most anthropologists as ‘out of time’ – was intrinsic to the traditional vision of the world. I also demonstrated the active role of women – whose power had been denied (and continues to be denied) – in these societies. I utilized Guattari’s conception of the flux of desires to account for the mythic networks and to analyse numerous rituals: including the circulation among allies of hair strings as women’s non-alienable possessions, or a secret cult which, dreamed following the wrecking of a ship (Koombanah) deporting Aboriginal people in 1912, had journeyed among different languages groups as a symbolic form of economic transformation producing a double law, including that of the White men. Two years after I defended my thesis, I received a surprise phone call from Guattari, whom I hadn’t yet met. He invited me to his seminar to discuss my thesis, a copy of which he had received from his friend the video-maker François Pain and which he had just read in one sitting.[14]

Shortly thereafter Glowczewski arrived at the La Borde clinic to present her thesis before the patients, who, she recounted, had “a surprisingly intuitive understanding of the Aboriginal aims and workings of these social games and rituals.”[15] For the Aboriginals, all things radiate from the Dreamtime; all social structure, by extension, becomes articulated in terms of a singular family – extremely different from the nuclear family so savagely critiqued all the way back in Anti-Oedipus. This unique form of animism indicates as well that the binary division between the human and the nonhuman elements that compose the territory are largely inseparable, since they come from and will return to the same place.

SYDNEY OLYMPICS -- Sept. 15, 2000 -- Performers during the

Glowczewski not only mentions that Guattari’s interest in the” Aborigines would foreshadow the politics of intertwining described in The Three Ecologies, but that his enthusiasm for the totemic paths and the use of dreams by the Warlpiri was stimulated, by, among other things, the fact that the kinship system – which extends to all the totems (Dreamings) and their associated places – seems to favour social strategies that prevent centralized structures of domination”[16] What Glowczewski is describing here is the influence of anthropologist Pierre Clastres, whose work on ‘primitive’ societies had greatly influenced Deleuze and Guattari. Focusing primarily on Amerindians and particularly those of Amazonia, Clastres illustrates that through kinship structures, the subpolitics of chieftanship, and war as social force the formal organization of the state is prevented at every point in which it could emerge. In his words these societies are, in fact, societies without states.

Using anthropological study to elucidate several key aspects in anarchist theory, Clastres argues that the state-form itself is indistinguishable, particularly where the Western state is involved, from ethnocidal practices of colonization: ethnocide, which is the elimination of the Other or difference to protection the interest of the same, “is clearly a part of the essence of the State…”[17] The state for Clastres is an extension of ethnocentric culture, formed with this culture becomes a property unto itself. It intrinsically forms itself against the Other, assembling itself higher on a hierarchical ladder and grants itself the enlightened goal of managing and correcting the Other’s perceived primitivism. In the case of Western civilization, the rapid expansion and deployment of both ethnocide and genocide under the colonialist banner is directly tied to the growth necessary for the reproduction of capitalist production, as so many Marxist theories of imperialism have waged. Clastres: “What differentiates the West is capitalism, as the impossibility of remaining within a frontier, as the passing beyond of all frontiers… Industrial society, the most formidable machines of production, is for that very reason the most terrifying machine of destruction. Races, societies, individuals; space, nature, forests, subsoils: everything is useful, everything must be used, everything must be productive, with productivity pushed to its maximum rate of intentsity.”[18]

In Anti-Oedipus (a book praised by Clastres), Deleuze and Guattari link this colonialist mentality to the relationship between capitalist production, the state, and Oedipus:

The colonizer… abolishes the chieftainship, or uses it to further his own ends (and he uses many other things besides: the chieftainship is only the beginning). The colonizer says: your father is your father and nothing else, or your maternal grandfather – don’t mistake them for chiefs; you can go have yourself triangulated in your corner, and place your house between those of your paternal and maternal kin; your family is your family and nothing else; sexual reproduction no longer passes through those points, although we rightly need your family to furnish a material that will be subjected to a new order of reproduction. Yes, then, an Oedipal framework is outlined for the dispossessed primitives: a shantytown Oedipus.[19]

Furthermore, they assert, the colonized continually resist Oedipus, fighting back at each turn, either in large, collective movements such as the anti-colonialist revolts of the 1960s, or the private moments of rebellion, as analyzed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Just as the schizo can retreat from the civilizing double-bind while the psychoanalyst attempts to ‘(re)colonize his or her mind, the resistance to the state on the part of the Others is “schizoanalysis in action.”[20]

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In A Thousand Plateaus, the two take up again the question of Clastres’ anthropology in their discussion of the war machine. This time, archaic societies ability to evade the state composes the actions of the war machines themselves, nomad movements that constantly overflow the limits but are also sought to be captured by the state. “War machines take shape against the apparatuses that appropriate the war machine and make war their affair and their object: the bring connections to bear against the great conjunction of the apparatuses of capture and domination.”[21] We can now grasp the unification of the archaic and the (post)modern machinic in Guattari’s later work – in A Thousand Plateaus we see two functions of the war machine. On one hand, it is their relationship to these anarchic functions of the anti-state social formations, constantly deterritorializing away from centralization. On the other hand, it is the relationship (which we must acknowledge is only partly a metaphor) between the war machine and nomad science – the sciences of self-organization and emergence, particularly in the contexts in which they break through the boundaries that the apparatuses of Western civilization seek to impose on them. In the era of media-information technologies, intricately bound to these sciences as they are, it is the minor groups that act of the war machine, becoming visible and communicable through the powers of the network. All too unfortunately, the apparatus of capture has appeared to be wildly successful.

The reader might ask, what then of animism? What is the relationship between animist subjectivity and the societies that reject the state, the war machine? Here the writings of Guattari, with or without Deleue, cease to be as instructive as they have to do this point. This is by no means the end of our constellation – the way forward is by looking now to the thinkers who probe these similar areas, pushing thought into new divergent directions by drawing in equal measures the ontological ecologies generated by the nomad sciences and the perspectives articulated by non-Western societies, who to this day exist in extreme danger of disappearance from both capitalism’s insatiable thirst for resources for growth and the ecological reactions to this megamachine.

It is Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, an expert on Amerindians, who insists that “animism is the ontology of societies without a state.”[22] does he mean by this? The state, he holds, can be defined by interiority. For capitalism, all things can be made to be interior to its complex assemblages, while the modern liberal stateform, which seeks to pluralistically manage differences, seeks to act as the universal mediator of social relations within its territories, while seeking to make its outside assimilate to its scripture – in other words, following the spatial expansion of capital, the state too wants to bring the outside into its interior. On the molecular, the self too is defined as interiority, interior to the body in accordance with the Cartesian rationalization that separates body and mind. This molecular rendering, in turn, is plugged into the state-capitalist machine: it is the source of the atomist thought, retained by Hayek, that transformed the subjectivity into a rational actor, primed for the permanent utopia of the market.


In animism, however, this interior exists nowhere – all things are outside, or more properly, in the relationship between things in the outside. In Amerindian belief bodies “are not thought as given but rather as made.”[23] The primordial stuff in which the body and its soul – of which there is zero division – is the stuff of the world itself, limited not only to the physicality of matter but also to the substance of the spiritual. Here too we find zero lines demarcating the division of matter from spirit, as all things are forever being made – the body, culture, nature, all are perfomative and unfolding in a process of worlding. Neither subject nor object, but entanglement and unfolding.

Phillipe Descola argues that this worldview emerges precisely because of these cultures emergence from spaces of complex ecosystems – “Might the apparent inability to objectivize nature of many Amazonian peoples be a consequence of the properties of their environment?”[24] What’s at stake in this observation is representationalism, which aims to separate all things, make them objects, quantifiable, and subject to control via discursive practices. The linguistic turn in critical theory, which took aim at the power of discursivity, managed only to muddy these waters by trapping discourse at the level of the signifier. This turn, however, connects the discursive to matter, making matter matter. Maurizio Lazzarrato: “we must move beyond both language and semiotics.”[25]

de Castro insists that “Not only would Amerindians put a wide birth between themselves and the Great Cartesian Divide which seperates humanity from animality, but their views anticipate the fundamental lessons of ecology which we are now only in a position to assimilate.”[26] Furthermore, their eco-cosmological perspective “reveals itself as the universal admixture of subject and objects, humans and non-humans against modern hubris, the primitive and postmodern ‘hybrids’, to borrow a term from Latour. Next to Latour we could make a list of thinkers that either anticipated or are fully engaged with this posthuman, perfomative turn: Deleuze and Guattari, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, Karen Barad, Timothy Morton, so on and so forth – in short, a roster of the new ontologies that have informed and shaped much critical contemporary critical debate. The key becomes, however, not isolating this debate away into the halls of the academy, which will simply serve to ‘Oedipalize’ and regulate their function at the level of circulating signs. Instead, it becomes imperative not to simply think of these texts, and debate it. The purpose is think alongside action, to see where they meet the infrastructural systems forming in the era of late neoliberalism.

For de Castro, the translation of performativity into anthropology goes by the label “perspectivism”, which he describes as a “cosmology against the state”.[27] While perspectivism is a practice of knowing the subaltern or those operating on what appears to us to be an outside, it also performs a dual political role by bringing to us realizations of being and becoming utterly foreign to our perception. It provides, in its own way, a blueprint for living in a way that differs from capitalist realism. For this reason perspectivist anthropology, in de Castro’s own words, is a nomad science, as described in A Thousand Plateaus. And like schizoanalysis, the purpose is one of decolonization, of restarting the flows that have been blocked in the name of civilized progress.

For me, anthropology is in fact the theory—to sound a bit like Trotsky—the theory of a permanent decolonization. A permanent decolonization of thought. That is anthropology for me. It is not a question of decolonizing society, but of decolonizing thought. How to decolonize thought? And how to do it permanently? Because thinking is constantly recolonized and reterritorialized… What does it mean to live in a society without a state, against the state? We don’t have any idea. You have to live there to see how things happen in a world without a state. In a society that is not only lacking the state but, as Clastres thought, is against the state because it is constituted precisely on the absence of the state. Not because of the lack of a state, but upon the absence of the state, so that the state cannot come into existence. And animism has to do with that.[28]

[1] Felix Guattari The Three Ecologies Athlone Press, 2000, pg. 27

[2] Ibid

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin Classics, 2009, pgs. 4-5

[4] Francois Dosse Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives Columbia University Press, 2010, pg. 391

[5] See Brian Holmes “Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies (or, the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics)” Three Crises; as well as my own “How Does Schizoanalysis Work? (or, “how do you make a class function like a work of art?”) Deterritorial Investigations Unit,

[6] Guattari The Three Ecologies pg. 47

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pg. 6-7

[8] Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus pg. 76

[9] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” Behavioral Science, 1956, pg. 5

[10] A Thousand Plateaus pg. 361

[11] Ibid, pg. 367

[12] quoted in Gary Genosko “The Promise of Post-Media” in Clemens Apprich, Josephine Berry Slater, Anthony Iles and Oliver Lerone Schultz (eds.) Provocative Alloys: A Post-Media Anthology Mute, 2013, pg. 20

[13] quoted in “Japanese Singularity”, in Gary Genosko Felix Guattari: An Aberrant Introduction Continuum, 2002, pg. 142

[14] Barbara Glowczewski “Guattari and Anthropology: Existential Territories among Indigenous Australians” in Eric Alliez and Andrew Goffey (eds.) The Guattari Effect Bloomsbury, 2011, pg. 102

[15] Ibid, pg. 103

[16] Ibid, pg. 102

[17] Pierre Clastres “On Ethnocide” in Archeology of Violence Semiotext(e), 2010, pg. 111

[18] Ibid, pg. 112

[19] Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus pg. 169

[20] Ibid, pg. 167

[21] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

[22] Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato “Assemblages: Felix Guattari and Machinic Animism” e-Flux July, 2012

[23] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere: Four lectures given in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, February-March 1998 Hau-Net, 2012, pg. 123

[24] Phillipe Descola Beyond Nature and Culture University of Chicago Press, 2013, pg. 11

[25] Maurizio Lazzarato Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of SubjectivitySemiotext(e), 2014, pg. 17

[26] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro “Cosmological Deixis and the Amerindian Perspectivism” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pg. 475

[27] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro “The Untimely, Again” introduction to Clastres Archeology of Violencepg. 48

[28] Melitopouos and Lazzarato “Assemblages”

Previsão do clima: terremotos intermitentes (Folha de S.Paulo)

Marcelo Leite, 03/05/2015  01h57

Depois de Katmandu, o terremoto no Nepal sacudiu também uma noção preconcebida comum entre jornalistas de ciência – esta coluna, por exemplo, foi abalada por um tuíte de Matthew Shirts, que levava para uma reportagem da revista “Newsweek”.

A leitura do texto, “Mais Terremotos Fatais Virão, Alertam Cientistas da Mudança do Clima”, trouxe à memória um momento constrangedor. Que o relato sirva para desencorajar nossa tendência a acreditar em verdades estabelecidas.

Certa vez um colega de redação perguntou se eu poderia escrever para explicar por que tsunamis estavam se tornando mais frequentes e qual era a relação disso com o aquecimento global. Segurei a vontade de rir e expliquei, condescendente, que processos climáticos não tinham o poder de desencadear eventos geológicos.

Não é bem assim. Há pesquisadores respeitáveis investigando a hipótese de que a mudança climática deflagrada pelo aquecimento global possa, sim, tornar terremotos e erupções vulcânicas mais frequentes.

Não seria nada inédito na história da Terra. Um exemplo recentíssimo na escala geológica (o planeta tem mais de 4 bilhões de anos) ocorreu entre 20 mil e 12 mil anos atrás, ao término do último período glacial.

A retração de geleiras continentais com quilômetros de espessura aliviou a pressão sobre a crosta terrestre o bastante para desencadear intensa atividade vulcânica. Há boas evidências disso em lugares como a Islândia.

O geólogo britânico Bill McGuire tem uma teoria ainda mais preocupante. Ele acha que a elevação dos mares em 100 m, causada pelo derretimento das calotas de gelo, teria deflagrado também terremotos e tsunamis (o que poderia repetir-se a partir de agora, com o aquecimento da atmosfera).

O imenso volume de água adicionado aos oceanos, ao pressionar suas bordas, teria desestabilizado as falhas geológicas próximas da costa, causando os tremores e colapsos submarinos que levantam ondas colossais. Mas a hipótese de McGuire, detalhada no livro “Acordando o Gigante”, ainda carece de medições e dados para ser aceita.

No caso do terremoto de Katmandu, o mecanismo pressuposto para pôr a culpa no clima é outro: chuva. Não uma pancada qualquer, mas as poderosas monções que castigam Índia e Nepal de junho a agosto.

Tamanho volume de água, que perde só para o movimentado na bacia Amazônica, seria capaz de alterar o balanço do estresse entre as placas Indo-Australiana e Asiática. O geólogo argelino Pierre Bettinelli, então no CalTech, mostrou que a atividade sísmica nos Himalaias é duas vezes mais intensa no inverno e atribuiu isso à gangorra de pressões entre os dois lados da falha tectônica.

Falta provar, claro. Mas que é instigante, isso é.

Quanto a terremotos causados pelo aquecimento global, ninguém precisa sair comprando kits de sobrevivência. O degelo da última glaciação demorou milhares de anos, e as piores previsões para a subida no nível dos oceanos indicam não muito mais que 1 m ou 2 m até o final deste século.

Ninguém está a salvo de tsunamis, porém. Há alguma chance – uma vez a cada 10 mil anos, talvez – de que o litoral brasileiro seja atingido por um deles, como pode ter ocorrido com São Vicente em 1541, após cataclisma nalgum ponto do Atlântico.

The Anthropocene as Fetishism (Mediations)

Daniel Cunha

“A society that is always sicker, but always stronger, has everywhere concretely re-created the world as the environment and decor of its illness, a sick planet.”1

The “Anthropocene” has become a fashionable concept in the natural and social sciences.2 It is defined as the “human-dominated geologic epoch,” because in this period of natural history it is Man who is in control of the biogeochemical cycles of the planet.3The result, though, is catastrophic: the disruption of the carbon cycle, for example, leads to a global warming that approaches tipping points that might be irreversible.4 The exponential growth of our freedom and power, that is, of our ability to transform nature, is now translated into a limitation to our freedom, including the destabilization of the very framework of life. It reaches its highest degree with the problem of global warming.5 In this context, it becomes clear that the Anthropocene is a contradictory concept. If the “human-dominated geologic epoch” is leading to a situation in which the existence of humans might be at stake, there is something very problematic with this sort of domination of Nature that reduces it to a “substrate of domination” that should be investigated.6 Its very basic premise, that it is human-dominated, should be challenged — after all there should be something inhuman or objectified in a sort of domination whose outcome might be human extinction.

What is claimed here is that, exactly as for freedom, the Anthropocene is an unfulfilled promise. The same way that freedom in capitalism is constrained by fetishism and class relations — capitalist dynamics are law-bound and beyond the control of individuals; the workers are “free” in the sense that they are not “owned” as slaves, but also in the sense that they are “free” from the means of production, they are deprived of their conditions of existence; the capitalists are “free” insofar as they follow the objectified rules of capital accumulation, otherwise they go bankrupt — so is the social metabolism with Nature. Therefore, I claim that the Anthropocene is the fetishized form of interchange between Man and Nature historically specific to capitalism, the same way as the “invisible hand” is the fetishized form of “freedom” of interchange between men.

Since primitive accumulation, capital caused a metabolic rift between Man and Nature. It was empirically observable at least since the impoverishment of soils caused by the separation between city and countryside in nineteenth-century Great Britain.7 In the twenty-first century, though, this rift is globalized, including critical disruptions of the carbon cycle (global warming), the nitrogen cycle, and the rate of biodiversity loss that implies that humanity is already outside of a “safe operating space” of global environmental conditions.8 The Anthropocene, appears, then, as the globalized disruption of global natural cycles — and, most importantly, not as a (for whatever reason) planned, intentional, and controlled disruption, but as an unintended side effect of social metabolism with Nature that seems to be progressively out of control. It can easily be illustrated with examples. In the case of the carbon cycle, the burning of fossil fuels is carried out as an energy source for industrial and transport systems. Massive coal extraction began in England during the Industrial Revolution so that, with this new mobile energy source, industries could move from near dams to the cities where cheap labor was.9

There was no intention to manipulate the carbon cycle or to cause global warming, or any consciousness of it. The result, though, is that, in the twenty-first century, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is already beyond the safe boundary of 350 ppm for long-term human development. As for the nitrogen cycle, it was disrupted by the industrialization of agriculture and fertilizer production, including the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen with the Haber-Bosch process. Again, there was no intention or plan to control the nitrogen cycle, to cause eutrophication of lakes, or to induce the collapse of ecosystems. Once again, the boundary of sixty-two million tons of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere per year is by far already surpassed, with 150 million tons in 2014.10 A similar story could be told about the rate of biodiversity loss, and the phosphorous cycle and ocean acidification are following the same pattern. The “human-dominated” geologic epoch, in this regard, seems much more a product of chance and unconsciousness than of a proper control of the global material cycles, in spite of Crutzen’s reference to Vernadsky’s and Chardin’s “increasing consciousness and thought” and “world of thought” (noösphere). “They do not know it, but they do it” — this is what Marx said about the fetishized social activity mediated by commodities, and this is the key to a critical understanding of the Anthropocene.11

In fact, Crutzen locates the beginning of the Anthropocene in the design of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution.12 However, instead of seeing it as a mere empirical observation, the determinants of the “human-dominated” geologic epoch should be conceptually investigated in the capitalist form of social relations. With his analysis of fetishism, Marx showed that capitalism is a social formation in which there is a prevalence of “material relations between persons and social relations between things,” in which “the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself.”13 Capital is the inversion where exchange value directs use, abstract labor directs concrete labor: a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite,” and its circulation as money and commodities for the sake of accumulation constitutes the “automatic subject,” “self-valorizing value.”14 Locating the Anthropocene in capitalism, therefore, implies an investigation into the relation between the Anthropocene and alienation, or, as further developed by the late Marx, fetishism.15 This is the core of the contradictions of the “human-dominated” geologic epoch. According to Marx, the labor-mediated form of social relations of capitalism acquires a life of its own, independent of the individuals that participate in its constitution, developing into a sort of objective system over and against individuals, and increasingly determines the goals and means of human activity. Alienated labor constitutes a social structure of abstract domination that alienates social ties, in which “starting out as the condottiere of use value, exchange value ended up waging a war that was entirely its own.”16 This structure, though, does not appear to be socially constituted, but natural.17 Value, whose phenomenic form of appearance is money, becomes in itself a form of social organization, a perverted community. This is the opposite of what could be called “social control.”18 A system that becomes quasi-automatic, beyond the conscious control of those involved, and is driven by the compulsion of limitless accumulation as an end-in-itself, necessarily has as a consequence the disruption of the material cycles of the Earth. Calling this “Anthropocene,” though, is clearly imprecise, on one hand, because it is the outcome of a historically specific form of metabolism with Nature, and not of a generic ontological being (antropo), and, on the other hand, because capitalism constitutes a “domination without subject,” that is, in which the subject is not Man (not even a ruling class), but capital.19

It is important to note that fetishism is not a mere illusion that should be deciphered, so that the “real” class and environmental exploitation could be grasped. As Marx himself pointed out, “to the producers…the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e., as material relations between persons and social relations between things”; “commodity fetishism…is not located in our minds, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself.”20 That is why not even all scientific evidence of the ecological disruption, always collected post festum, is able to stop the destructive dynamic of capital, showing to a caricatural degree the uselessness of knowledge without use.21The fact that now “they know very well what they are doing, yet they are doing it” does not refute, but rather confirms that the form of social relations is beyond social control, and merely changing the name of the “Anthropocene” (to “Capitolocene” or whatever) would not solve the underlying social and material contradictions.22 Value-directed social production, that is, production determined by the minimization of socially necessary labor time, results in an objectified mode of material production and social life that can be described by “objective” laws. Time, space, and technology are objectified by the law of value. Of course the agents of the “valorization of value” are human beings, but they perform their social activity as “character [masks],” “personifications of economic relations”: the capitalist is personified capital and the worker is personified labor.23 The fetishistic, self-referential valorization of value through the exploitation of labor (M-C-M’) with its characteristics of limitless expansion and abstraction of material content implies the ecologically disruptive character of capitalism, that is, that in capitalism “the development of productive forces is simultaneously the development of destructive forces.”24 Self-expanding value creates an “industrial snowball system” that is not consciously controlled, “a force independent of any human volition.”25 In this context, it is not a surprise that the disruption of global ecological cycles is presented as the “Anthropocene,” that is, as a concept allusive to a natural process. That Man is presented as a blind geologic force, such as volcanic eruptions or variations in solar radiation, is an expression of the naturalized or fetishized form of social relations that is prevalent in capitalism.

Therefore, the technical structures with which Man carries out its metabolism with Nature is logically marked by fetishism. As Marx noted, “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”29 In capitalism, production processes are not designed according to the desires and needs of the producers, ecological or social considerations, but according to the law of value. Taking as an example the world energy systems, it has been demonstrated that there is no technical constraint to a complete solar transition in two or three decades if we consider the use-value of fossil and renewable energies (their energy return and material requirements), that is, it is technically feasible to use fossil energy to build a solar infrastructure to provide world energy in a quantity and quality sufficient for human development.27 This transition, which from the point of view of use-value or material wealth is desirable, necessary, and urgent (due to global warming) is not being carried out, though, because fossil energy is still more prone to capital accumulation, to the valorization of value: capital went to China to exploit cheap labor and cheap coal, causing a strong spike in carbon emissions on the eve of a climate emergency, in a clear display of fetishistic irrationality.28 More generally, the American ecologist Barry Commoner showed that in the twentieth century many synthetic products were developed (such as plastics and fertilizers) that took the place of natural and biodegradable products. However, the new products were not better than the old ones; the transition was only carried out because it was more lucrative to produce them, although they were much more polluting and environmentally harmful — in fact it is shown that these new technologies were the main factor for the increase of pollution in the United States, more than the increase in population or consumption.26

Of course the law of value does not determine only the final products, but also the production processes, which must be constantly intensified both in terms of rhythms and material efficiency, if not in terms of the extension of the working day. Already, in his day, Marx highlighted the “fanaticism that the capitalist shows for economizing on means of production” as they seek the “refuse of production” for reuse and recycling.30 However, under the capitalist form of social production, productivity gains result in a smaller amount of value created per material unit, so that it fosters enlarged material consumption.31 This general tendency is empirically observable in the so-called Jevons Paradox, when efficiency gains eventually result in a rebound effect, increased material production.32 It was first shown by William Stanley Jevons, who presented data that demonstrate that the economy of coal in steam engines during the Industrial Revolution resulted in increased coal consumption.33 What in a conscious social production would be ecologically beneficial (increased efficiency in resource use), in capitalism increases relative surplus-value, and therefore reinforces the destructive limitless accumulation of capital and a technological system that is inappropriate in the first place. It is astonishing that many environmentalists still preach efficiency as an ecological fix, without noticing that the capitalist social form of wealth (value) turns productivity into a destructive force.

Even the way capitalism deals with the problem of pollution is configured by alienation: everything can be discussed, but the mode of production based on commodification and maximization of profits. As production is carried out in competing isolated private production units, socio-technical control is limited to external control, through state regulations that enforce end-of-pipe technologies and market mechanisms. The Kyoto Protocol is the best example of market mechanism. It represents the commodification of the carbon cycle, establishing the equivalence principle, the very form of commodity fetishism, in a sort of stock exchange of carbon. Therefore, it implies a whole process of abstraction of ecological, social, and material qualities to make possible the equivalence of carbon emissions, offsets, and carbon sinks located in very different ecological and social contexts. The abstraction process includes the equalization of emission reductions in different social and ecological contexts, of emissions reductions carried out with different technologies, of carbon of fossil origin and biotic origin, the equalization of different molecules through the concept of “carbon equivalent” and a definition of “forest” that does not include any requirement of biodiversity.34

However, as with any commodity in capitalism, use-value (carbon emissions reductions) is governed by exchange-value. The fetishistic inversion of use-value and exchange-value that characterizes capitalism implies that the effective goal of the whole process of emissions trading comes to be money, not emissions reduction. Empirical examples abound. The trading scheme does not present any incentive for long-term technology transition, but only for short-term financial earnings (time is money). Offsets in practice allow polluters to postpone a technological transition, while the corresponding Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project probably generates a rebound effect that will foster fossil fuel deployment in developing countries.35 Easy technological reductions, such as burning methane in landfills, allow the continuation of carbon emissions by big corporations. Some industries earned more profits mitigating emissions of HFC-23 than with the commodities they produced, while generating huge amounts of offsets that again allow polluters to keep up with their emissions.36 And the comparison of projects with baseline “would be” scenarios even tragically allows the direct increase of emissions, for example, by financing coal mines that mitigate methane emissions. And more examples could be cited. The fact that global warming is determined by cumulative emissions in any meaningful human time-scale reveals the perverse effects of this exchange-value−driven scheme: delays in emissions reductions today constrain the possibilities of the future.37Again, as could be grasped beforehand with a simple theoretical Marxian critique, exchange-value becomes dominant over use-value, as the allocation of carbon emissions is determined not by socio-ecological criteria, but according to the valorization requirements or by “the optimized allocation of resources” — when the global carbon market hit the record market value of 176 billion dollars in 2011, the World Bank said that “a considerable portion of the trades is primarily motivated by hedging, portfolio adjustments, profit taking, and arbitrage,” typical jargon of financial speculators.38 Kyoto, with its quantitative approach, does not address, and hampers, the qualitative transition that is necessary to avoid a catastrophic climate change, that is, the solar transition. Even though substantial amounts of capital are mobilized with the trading schemes, global carbon emissions continue to increase.

In this scenario, it is increasingly likely that the application of an end-of-pipe technology might be necessary. With the rise of the Welfare State and ecological regulation, a myriad of such technologies were used to mitigate industrial emissions to water, air, and soil — air filters, wastewater treatment plants, etc. The problem is that these technologies can only be applied in particular corporate units if it is feasible in the context of value-driven production, that is, only if it does not jeopardize the profitability of corporations. It happens, though, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is still too expensive to be used in production units or transport systems. Therefore, what comes to the fore is geoengineering, the ultimate end-of-pipe technology, the technological mitigation of the effects of carbon emissions on a planetary scale, the direct manipulation of world climate itself — with the use of processes such as the emission of aerosols to the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation, or the fertilization of oceans with iron to induce the growth of carbon-sequestering algae.39 Its origins can be traced back to the Vietnam War and Stalinist projects, and one of its first proponents was Edward Teller, the father of the atomic bomb.40 There are huge risks involved in this approach, as the climate system and its subsystems are not fully understood and are subject to non-linearities, tipping points, sudden transitions, and chaos. Besides, climate system inertia implies that global warming is irreversible in the time scale of a millennium, so that such geoengineering techniques would have to be applied for an equal amount of time, what would be a burden for dozens of future generations.41 In case of technological failure of the application of geoengineering, the outcome could be catastrophic, with a sudden climate change.42

Considering its relatively low cost, though, it is likely that capitalism assumes the risk of business as usual in order to preserve its fetishistic quest for profits, keeping geoengineering as a sort of silver bullet of global warming.43 Of course there is the frightening possibility of combining geoengineering and trading schemes, so that geoengineering projects could generate carbon credits in a competitive market. That was the idea of Planktos Inc. in a controversial experiment of ocean fertilization, that alludes to a dystopian future in which world climate is manipulated according to the interests of corporate profits.44 It is clear that capitalist control of pollution, either through market mechanisms or state regulations, resembles the Hegelian Minerva’s Owl: it only (re)acts after the alienated process of production and the general process of social alienation. However, if the core of destructiveness is the fetishistic process itself that is reproduced by trading schemes, and end-of-pipe technologies are subject to failure and complex dynamics that are not rationally accessible to the time scales of human institutions (at least in their current forms), both market and state mechanisms might fail in avoiding a catastrophic climate change.

Future projections of global warming by neoclassical economists reveal the alienated core of the Anthropocene in its very essence. In integrated climate-economic models such as the ones developed by William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern, the interest rate ultimately determines what is acceptable in terms of atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and its related impacts (coastal inundations, biodiversity loss, agricultural disruption, epidemic outbreaks, etc.), as “cost-benefit analyses” discount future impacts and compound present earnings.45 But as shown by Marx, the interest is the part of the profit that the industrial capitalist pays to the financial capitalist that lent him money-capital in the first place, after the successful valorization process.46 Interest-bearing capital is value that possesses the use-value of creating surplus-value or profit. Therefore, “in interest-bearing capital the capital relationship reaches its most superficial and fetishized form,” “money that produces money,” “self-valorizing value.”47 Interest-bearing capital is the perfect fetishistic representation of capital, as the automatic geometric progression of surplus-value production, a “pure automaton.”48Correspondingly, the determination of future social metabolism with Nature by the interest rate is the ultimate expression of the fetishistic character of this historical form of social metabolism with Nature, that is, of the fetishistic core of the so-called Anthropocene, no matter the magnitude of the interest rate. In capitalism the interest rate is determinant of investments and allocation of resources, and overcoming this is not a matter of moralistically (and irrealistically) using a lower magnitude for the interest rate as Stern does, but of overcoming the capitalist mode of production itself.49

Future scenarios determined by the interest rate ultimately negate history, since only in capitalism the interest rate is socially determining, as it is capital in its purest form. While in capitalism interest-bearing capital becomes totally adapted to the conditions of capitalist production, and fosters it with the development of the credit system, in pre-capitalist social formations, “usury impoverishes the mode of production, cripples the productive forces.”50This is so because in capitalism credit is given in the expectation that it will function as capital, that the borrowed capital will be used to valorize value, to appropriate unpaid “free” labor, while in the Middle Ages the usurer exploited petty producers and peasants working for themselves.51 The determination of future social metabolic relation with Nature by the interest rate is thus an extrapolation of the capitalist mode of production and all of its categories (value, surplus-value, abstract labor, etc.) into the future, the fetishization of history — again, this is in line with the term Anthropocene, that makes reference to an ahistorical Man.

Besides, the sort of cost-benefit analysis that Nordhaus and Stern carry out tends to negate not only history, but matter itself, as the trade-off of the degradation of material resources with the abstract growth implies the absolute exchangeability between different material resources, and hence between abstract wealth (capital) and material wealth, which in practice is a false assumption. For example, the most basic natural synthetic process necessary for life as we know on Earth, photosynthesis, is not technologically substitutable, that is, no amount of exchange-value could replace it.52 Besides, synthesizing the complex interactions and material and energy fluxes that constitute ecosystems of different characteristics and scales, with their own path-dependent natural histories, is not at all a trivial task — material interactions and specificity are exactly what exchange-value abstracts from. What this sort of analysis takes for granted is commodity-form itself, with its common substance (value) that allows the exchange between different material resources in definite amounts, detached from their material and ecological contexts. But it is this very detachment or abstraction that leads to destructiveness. “The dream implied by the capital form is one of utter boundlessness, a fantasy of freedom as the complete liberation from matter, from nature. This ‘dream of capital’ is becoming the nightmare of that from which it strives to free itself — the planet and its inhabitants.”53

Last but not least, capital is also trying to increase its profits exploiting the very anxiety caused by the prospect of the ecological catastrophe, as an extension of the production of subjectivity by the culture industry.54 For example, Starbucks cafés offer their customers a coffee that is a bit more expensive, but claim that part of the money goes to the forest of Congo, poor children in Guatemala, etc. This way, political consciousness is depoliticized in what is called the “Starbucks effect.”55 It can also be seen in commercial advertisements. In one of them, after scenes depicting some kind of undefined natural catastrophe intercalated with scenes of a carpenter building an undefined wooden structure and women in what seems to be a fashion show, the real context is revealed: the models are going to a sort of Noah’s Arc built by the carpenter, so that they can survive the ecological catastrophe. The purpose of the advertisement is finally disclosed: to sell deodorant — “the final fragrance.” The slogan — “Happy end of the world!” — explicitly exploits the ecological collapse to sell commodities.56 Opposition and political will themselves are being seduced to fit into the commodity form, even pervading climate science itself. Some scientists seem to notice this pervasive pressure of economic fetishism over science when they state: “liberate the science from the economics, finance, and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable” or “geoengineering is like a heroin addict finding a new way of cheating his children out of money.”57Decarbonization is always challenged to be “economically feasible.” What is necessary, though, is that a more radical critique come to the fore in the public debate, an explicitly anticapitalist stance that refuses the requirements of capital accumulation in the definition of socio-environmental policies — not the least because it seems it is already impossible to reconcile the limitation of global warming to two degrees Celsius and simultaneously keep “economic growth.”58

It must be highlighted that the fetishization here described and its ecological destructiveness are a historical development, specific to capitalism, and that is why it can be overcome: the social metabolism with nature is not necessarily destructive. Commodity fetishism and labor as the social-mediating category (abstract labor) are historically specific to capitalism, and began with primitive accumulation.59 The Anthropocene as the globalized disruption of Nature is the externalization of alienated labor, its logical material conclusion.60 Overcoming it requires the reappropriation of what has been constituted in alienated form, that is, the decommodification of human social activity or the overcoming of capitalism.61 Technology so reconfigured and socialized would no longer be determined by profitability, but would be the technical translation of new values, and would tend to become art.62 Instead of being determined by the unidimensional valorization of value, social production would be the outcome of a multiplicity of commonly discussed criteria, ranging from social, ecological, aesthetic, and ethical considerations, and beyond — in other words, material wealth should be freed from the value-form. Technologies such as solar energy, microelectronics, and agroecology, for example, could be used to shape a world of abundant material wealth and a conscious social metabolism with Nature — a world with abundant clean renewable energy, abundant free social time due to the highly automated productive forces, and abundant food ecologically produced, under social control.63

Then and only then Man could be in conscious control of planetary material cycles and could use this control for human ends (even if deciding to keep them in their “natural” state). In fact, this means taking the promise of the Anthropocene very seriously, that is, Man should take conscious control of planetary material cycles, extend the terrain of the political hitherto left to the blind mechanics of nature and, in capitalism, to commodity fetishism.64 And this not only because the productive forces developed by capitalism allow it — although up to now we do it without conscious social control — but also because it might be necessary. Civilization is adapted to the Holocenic conditions that prevailed in the last ten thousand years, and we should be prepared to act to preserve these conditions that allow human development, or mitigate sudden changes, because they could be challenged not only by human (fetishized) activity, but also by natural causes, what already occurred many times in natural history (such as in the case of glacial-interglacial cycles triggered by perturbations in Earth’s orbit, or the catastrophic extinction of dinosaurs due to a meteor impact).65 The (fetishized) “invisible hand” and the (fetishized) “Anthropocene” are two faces of the same coin, of the same unconscious socialization, and should both be overcome with the communalization of social activity, that is, the real control of planetary material cycles depends on conscious social control of world production.

It should be emphasized that what is here criticized as “fetishism” is not merely the imprecise naming of the “Anthropocene,” but the form of material interchange itself. And yet what emerges here is a truly utopian perspective, the promise of the realization of the Anthropocene, not as an anthropological constant or a “natural” force, but as a fully historical species-being that consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet. If, as put by the young Marx, alienated labor alienates Man’s species-being, the liberatory reorganization of social-material interchange would unleash the species potential that is embedded, though socially negated, in the “Anthropocene.”66Geoengineering and advanced technology in general freed from value-form and instrumental reason could be used not only to solve the climate problem, but also, as Adorno wrote, to “help nature to open its eyes,” to help it “on the poor earth to become what perhaps it would like to be.”67 Advanced forces of production imply that Fourier’s poetic utopian vision recalled by Walter Benjamin could be materialized:

cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that lie dormant in her womb.68

Even the elimination of brutality in nature (predation) and the abolition of slaughterhouses through the production of synthetic meat nowadays seem within theoretical reach with “genetic reprogramming” and stem-cell technology. That goes beyond the wildest Marcusean utopian dreams.69 Of course, this requires a social struggle that subverts the production determined by the valorization of value and frees, first of all, human potential. On the other hand, with business as usual, we are likely to see our material future on Earth being determined by the interest rate, emergency geoengineering, and chance.

  1. Guy Debord, The Sick Planet, trans. Not Bored (2006 [1971])
  2. I would like to thank Cláudio R. Duarte, Raphael F. Alvarenga, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, and the anonymous reviewers for the valuable suggestions.BACK
  3. Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002) 23.BACK
  4. David Archer, The Global Carbon Cycle (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), and James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). BACK
  5. Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010) 333.BACK
  6. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: PhilosophicalFragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002 [1947]) 6.BACK
  7. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1991 [1894]) 949, and John Bellamy-Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review, 2000). BACK
  8. Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (2009): 472-75, and Will Steffen et al. (2015), “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347: 6223 (13 February 2015).BACK
  9. Andreas Malm, “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Historical Materialism 21:1 (2013): 15-68. BACK
  10. Steffen et al., “Planetary Boundaries.”BACK
  11. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, as per first German edition, trans. Albert Dragstedt (n. d. [1867]).BACK
  12. Crutzen, “Geology.” BACK
  13. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. (London: Penguin, 1990 [1867]) 166, 253. BACK
  14. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 175, 255.BACK
  15. For a discussion of the continuity between the Marxian concepts of alienation and fetishism, see Lucio Colletti’s introduction in Karl Marx, Marx’s Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992 [1844]).BACK
  16. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1994 [1967]) 46. See also Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), and Anselm Jappe, Les aventures de la marchandise: Pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur (Paris: Denoël, 2003): 25-86.BACK
  17. Postone, Time 158-60. BACK
  18. Jappe, Les aventures 25-86. BACK
  19. Robert Kurz, Subjektlose Herrschaft: zur Aufhebung einer verkürzten Gesellschaftskritik, EXIT! (1993).BACK
  20. Capital, Volume I 166 (emphasis added), and Žižek, End Times 190. BACK
  21. Debord, Sick PlanetBACK
  22. Slavoj Žižek, Mapping Ideology (New York: Verso, 1994) 8.BACK
  23. Capital, Volume I 179, 989. BACK
  24. Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999) 79-98, and Robert Kurz, Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 2009 [1999]) 10. BACK
  25. Kurz, Schwarzbuch 218, and John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (New York: Pluto, 2010) 146.BACK
  26. Capital, Volume I 493n4. BACK
  27. Peter D. Schwartzman and David W. Schwartzman, A Solar Transition Is Possible(London: IPRD, 2011), and Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American (Nov. 2009): 58-65BACK
  28. Andreas Malm, “China as Chimney of the World: The Fossil Capital Hypothesis,” Organization and Environment 25:2 (2012): 146-77, and Daniel Cunha, “A todo vapor rumo à catástrofe?” Sinal de Menos 9 (2013): 109-33. BACK
  29. Barry Commoner, “Chapter 8: Population and Affluence” and “Chapter 9: The Technological Flaw,” The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York: Knopf, 1971).  BACK
  30. Capital, Volume III 176.BACK
  31. Claus Peter Ortlieb, “A Contradiction between Matter and Form,” Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown (Chicago: MCM’, 2014 [2008]) 77-121.BACK
  32. John Bellamy-Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review, 2010): 169-182. BACK
  33. William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (n. d. [1865])
  34. Larry Lohmann, “The Endless Algebra of Climate Markets,” Capitalism Nature Socialism22:4 (2011): 93-116, and Maria Gutiérrez, “Making Markets Out of Thin Air: A Case of Capital Involution,” Antipode 43:3 (2011): 639-61.BACK
  35. Kevin Anderson, “The Inconvenient Truth of Carbon Offsets,” Nature 484 (2012) 7. BACK
  36. Lohmann, “Endless Algebra.”BACK
  37. Damon Matthews, Nathan Gillet, Peter Stott, and Kirsten Zickfeld, “The Proportionality of Global Warming to Cumulative Carbon Emissions,” Nature 459 (2009): 829-33.BACK
  38. Jeff Coelho, “Global Carbon Market Value Hits Record $176 Billion,” Reuters (30 May 2012).BACK
  39. ETC Group, Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering (Manila: ETC Group, 2010).BACK
  40. Eli Kintisch, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2010): 77-102. BACK
  41. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedglinstein, “Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” PNAS 106:6 (2009): 1704-9. BACK
  42. Victor Brovkin, Vladimir Petoukhov, Martin Claussen, Eva Bauer, David Archer, and Carlo Jaeger, “Geoengineering Climate by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: Earth System Vulnerability to Technological Failure,” Climatic Change 92 (2009): 243-59. BACK
  43. Scott Barrett, “The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering,” Environmental and Resource Economics 39:1 (2007): 45-54.BACK
  44. Martin Lukacs, “World’s Biggest Geoengineering Experiment ‘Violates’ UN Rules,” The Guardian (15 October 2012).BACK
  45. William Nordhaus, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), and Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (London: HM Treasury, 2007). BACK
  46. Capital, Volume III 459-524. BACK
  47. Capital, Volume III 515. BACK
  48. Capital, Volume III 523. BACK
  49. Stern, Economics.BACK
  50. Capital, Volume III 731-32.BACK
  51. Capital, Volume III 736.BACK
  52. Robert Ayres, “On the Practical Limits to Substitution,” Ecological Economics 61 (2007): 115-28.BACK
  53. Postone, Time 383. BACK
  54. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic. BACK
  55. Slavoj Žižek, Catastrophic But Not Serious. Lecture video (2011).BACK
  56. Axe, “Happy End of the World!” Advertisement video (2012).BACK
  57. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “A New Paradigm for Climate Change: How Climate Change Science Is Conducted, Communicated and Translated into Policy Must Be Radically Transformed If ‘Dangerous’ Climate Change Is to Be Averted,” Nature Climate Change 2 (Sept. 2012): 639-40, and Kintisch, Hack 57. BACK
  58. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘Dangerous’ Climate Change: Emission Scenarios for a New World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011): 20-44.BACK
  59. Postone, Time; Holloway, Crack Capitalism; Krisis Group, Manifesto Against Labour(1999).BACK
  60. Sick Planet.BACK
  61. Time.BACK
  62. Commoner, Closing Circle; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon, 1964); Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1969). BACK
  63. Robert Kurz, Antiökonomie und Antipolitik. Zur Reformulierung der sozialen Emanzipation nach dem Ende des “Marxismus” (1997); Schwartzman and Schartzman, Solar Transition;Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (Boulder: Westview, 1995).BACK
  64. Eric Swyngedouw, “Apocalypse now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures,” Capitalism NatureSocialism 24:1 (2013): 9-17. BACK
  65. Hansen, Storms, and Rockström et al., “Safe Operating Space.”BACK
  66. Marx, Marx’s Early Writings. BACK
  67. Cited in Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon, 1972) 66.BACK
  68. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003) 394.BACK
  69. See David Pierce, Reprogramming Predators (2009), and BBC, World’s First Lab-Grown Burger Is Eaten in London (5 Aug. 2013). Marcuse’s skepticism about the “pacification of nature” is expressed in Counterrevolution and Revolt 68.BACK

Slamming the Anthropocene: Performing climate change in museums (reCollections)

reCollections / Issues / Volume 10 number 1 / Papers / Slamming the Anthropocene

by Libby Robin and Cameron Muir – April 2015

The Anthropocene

Today’s museums are generally expected to use their objects and collections in ways that extend beyond exhibitions. Theatrical events, for example, can provide important complementary activities. This particularly applies to public issues such as climate change and nature conservation, which are often framed in scientific and technical terms. An exhibition is expensive to mount and demands long lead times, but a public program is ‘light on its feet’; it can respond to a topical moment such as a sudden disaster, and it can incorporate new scientific findings where relevant.

One way to make such debates inclusive and non-technical is to explore through performance the cultural and emotional dimensions of living with environmental change. Violent Ends: The Arts of Environmental Anxiety, staged at the National Museum of Australia in 2011,is an example of a one-day event that used art, film and performance to explore anxieties and public concerns about climate change. The event opened with the Chorus of Women, who sang a ‘Lament for Gaia’, and it concluded with ‘Reconciliation’, both works excerpted from The Gifts of the Furies(composed by Glenda Cloughly, 2009).[1] The performance presented  issues that are often rendered as ‘dry science’ in a way that enabled emotional responses to be included in discussions about global warming. A legacy of this event is a ‘web exhibition’ that includes podcasts, recordings and some of the art, including that of a leading Australian environmental artist, Mandy Martin, whose more recent work we discuss further below.[2] The curators of the event, Carolyn Strange (Australian National University), Libby Robin (National Museum of Australia and Australian National University), William L Fox (Director of the Center for Art+Environment, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno) and Tom Griffiths (Director of the Centre for Environmental History, Australian National University), are all scholars  with active partnerships in the arts and the museum sector. Violent Ends explored climate change through a variety of environmental arts. Since 2011, we have seen many comparable programs, in Australia and beyond.

banner image for the Violent Ends website

Thunderstorm over Paestum, after Turner, Wanderers in the Desert of the Real, 2008, used in the banner for the Violent Ends website ©Mandy Martin

In this paper, we review some recent international museum and events-based ideas emerging around the concept of the Anthropocene, the proposition that the Earth has now left the Holocene and entered a new epoch: The Anthropocene (or Age of Humans). The Anthropocene is defined by changes in natural systems that have occurred because of the activities of humans. It is an idea that emerges from earth sciences, but it is also cultural: indeed the geological epoch of the Holocene (the last 11,700 years) marks the period in which most of the world’s major civilisations and cultures have emerged; it includes both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions. To assert that the planet has moved ‘beyond the Holocene’ is to assert that humanity (indeed all life) has entered a new cultural and physical space that has not been previously experienced. Questions of how humans live in a planet with changed atmosphere, oceans, land systems, cities and climates are moral as well as physical. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described climate change as the greatest human rights issue of our times.[3]

The Anthropocene epoch is defined by material evidence of human activities that have affected the way biophysical systems work. The stratigraphers (geologists) who decide if the new epoch should be formalised are seeking evidence of human activities in the crust of the earth, in rock strata, as this is the way boundaries between geological eras, epochs and ages have been traditionally defined.[4] Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-Prize-winning atmospheric chemist and the author of the original proposal to name the new epoch the ‘Anthropocene’, has focused on global systems, particularly evidence such as CO2 levels in the atmosphere (showing the burning of fossil fuels) and pH factors in the oceans (showing acidification caused by agricultural outfalls).[5]

Perhaps the most important question is not whether the Holocene has ended but, if it has, how are people (and the cultural systems that have evolved in the Holocene years) to live with such change? The idea of an uncharted new Age of Humans has attracted considerable attention from creative artists, museum curators and scholars in the environmental humanities.[6] Even as the stratigraphers debate the end of the Holocene, global change is upon us, and the creative sector has tackled these questions in its own way. One art and ethnographic museum, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, hosted the most recent scientific meeting of the International Commission on Stratigraphy in October 2014.[7] HKW, with its mission to represent ‘all the cultures of the world’, recognises that the ‘people’ focus of the Anthropocene demands debate that is both cultural and scientific, and that is concerned with more than just the people of the West. The HKW Anthropocene Project and Anthropocene Curriculum have a strong artistic and museum sector focus, which we discuss further below.[8]

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, October 2014 – photograph by Libby Robin

Environmental humanities scholars of the Anthropocene emphasise the questions of justice (and injustice) embedded in planetary changes. Changes to climate, air quality and oceans, and loss of biodiversity are caused by subsets of humans (not all humanity) and their effects are felt by different people, and of course ultimately all life on Earth. The challenge for the humanities is to enable the voices of the people who suffer from the changes, or advocate on behalf of other creatures, to be part of the conversations that contribute to adapting cultural practices in response. People are already living with rapid change: the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’ of changes since the 1950s includes sharp growths in population, wealth and global financial systems, as well as biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, atmospheric carbon dioxide and inequalities between rich and poor.[9] All these changes together are unsettling, yet people are seeking positive, resilient futures in the face of ‘strange change’. This is a debate where the creative sector – design, architecture, museums and humanistic scholarship – is well-poised to make contributions to ideas for living in a changed world of the future. Artists and scientists alike want a broad-based future, not just one that simply ‘reduces the future to climate’, in the apt phrase of Mike Hulme, one of the world’s leading climate scientists.[10]

The Anthropocene is defined by its materiality. The fossil systems that trace its onset and evolution may be buried under layers of rock, lava or sea, as were the traces of earlier epochs. Stratigraphers seeking ‘markers’ for this epoch look for material that might survive the end of an age of Earth. For example, in the case of the mass extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, footprints in the mud and bones remain, even after the collision of the Earth with a huge meteorite. The ‘markers of the era’ are material, and particularly well preserved if the disaster is sudden and buries them (rather than slow and eroding).  University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and his Anthropocene stratigraphy committee are looking for things that might become ‘buried treasure’, surviving as markers of humanity, after humanity is long gone. They are considering various forms of ‘artificial rock’ – bricks and concrete, for example, are long lasting, human-made and in vast quantities. The group is also considering plastics (manufactured polymers) as ideal for forming fossils that would date this epoch as different from all before it.[11]

The materiality of the Anthropocene makes it of interest to museums, but on a very different scale from that considered by the stratigraphers. One of the alternatives to looking for material change in rock strata is to create cabinets of curiosities in our museums, spaces where objects enable conversations about what is strange change. People now have more ‘stuff’ than ever before and there is ever more waste – what does a gyre of plastic the size of a continent floating in the Pacific ocean (‘the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’), say about the Age of Humans?[12] How could it be embodied as an object or set of objects in a Museum? What are the material objects that complement abstract representations of strata, atmospheric chemical analysis, and graphs trending upwards? The challenge for museums and cultural institutions with a stake in valuing objects is to tell their stories well, and to give them rich context. If we are interested in how objects can entertain, inform and inspire, we need to present them as more than mere ‘stuff’.

The slam

In November 2014, the University of Wisconsin hosted an Anthropocene slam, an object-inspired event that brought together artists, filmmakers, scholars and performers at its campus in the state capital, Madison. The university has, since its inception, avowed a commitment to public intellectual life and the community of Wisconsin state. ‘The Wisconsin Idea’, as expressed by the university’s president, Charles Van Hise, in 1904, is quoted today in the words on the wall of the Wisconsin Seminar Room and on a centenary public memorial on the highest hill on the Madison campus: ‘I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every home in the state’.

‘The Wisconsin Idea’ centenary public memorial

‘The Wisconsin Idea’ centenary public memorial – photograph by Libby Robin

The Wisconsin Idea expresses an aspiration that university work can inform and enrich the ‘public good’ including cultural institutions. The University of Wisconsin takes as its brief to benefit all the citizens of Wisconsin, not just those who have the privilege to be its students. As well as repaying the investment of the state in its university, the public good aspiration has come to hold strong appeal for the state’s benefactors and donors. The Chazen Art Museum in the University of Wisconsin at Madison combines an outstanding collection of modern art and a strong teaching program in art history, including curatorial education, research and leadership programs.

The Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) initiative at the university has also used the support of private donors to develop a range of ambitious programs under the banner ‘Environmental futures’. The film festival Tales from Planet Earth, which has since 2007 successfully screened all over Madison and beyond in a range of venues, including Centro Hispano, a community centre serving Madison’s Latino population, has drawn new local audiences to the university’s programs and has helped to increase diversity within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. In November 2014, the CHE team, Gregg Mitman, William Cronon and Rob Nixon, among others, hosted a new venture, a very different sort of public event, The Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities.

The ‘slam’ is a concept that originated with poetry, performance and a competitive spirit. The first poetry slam in 1984 was a poetry reading in the Get Me High lounge in Chicago. Poets performed their words and audiences voted with acclamation for the winners. The community audience was essential. The slams were noisy, theatrical and democratic – very different from ‘high art’ poetry recitation. The Anthropocene Slam borrowed the performance and entertainment idea, asking contributors to ‘pitch in a public fishbowl setting’ an object that might represent the Anthropocene in a cabinet of curiosities. From a large field of applicants, 25 objects appeared in five sessions, involving a total of 32 presenters (several objects were presented by teams). The sessions (held across three days from 8-10 November 2014) were grouped into intriguing themes:

  1. nightmares/dreams
  2. Anthropocene fossils
  3. tales and projections
  4. trespass
  5. resistance/persistence.

The aim was to find objects that might help humanity rethink ‘its relationship to time, place, and the agency of things that shape planetary change’.[13] This innovative scholarly method was designed from the start to be inclusive of scientific, artistic and practical ideas, extending what is usually possible in academic settings. One of its public outcomes was the performance event in Madison.

The slam presentations were complemented by a major public lecture from journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, drawing on her bestselling book, The Sixth Extinction.[14] An audience of more than 500 people from all over Wisconsin came out on a chilly night to hear this fluent and well-known communicator of big ideas explain the thesis that the loss of biodiversity today is on a scale equivalent to the mass extinctions evident in geological strata. The last (fifth) mass extinction ended the era of dinosaurs. The slam created a context for this important lecture.[15]

Another aspect of the slam was the building of a travelling cabinet of curiosities,to exhibit the most popular objects and stories, and to take them to local communities. Like the original Wunderkammer from the 16th and 17th centuries, the cabinet created out of the slam is as much a cabinet of conversations and global connections as one of objects.[16] The purpose of the slam was to discover objects that might travel to a cabinet in another context: the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, the largest science and technology museum in the world. One item from the cabinet even made it to opening night on 4 December 2014 of Willkommen im Anthropozän, the world’s first gallery exhibition of the Anthropocene.[17]

There will be a more formal reception for the cabinet and its objects in July 2015, in an Anthropocene Objects and Environmental Futures workshop, a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin, the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), the Deutsches Museum and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm.[18] The cabinet will also be available to travel elsewhere, including to Sweden, where the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory hosted an international variation on the Tales from Planet Earth film festival in 2014.[19]

The ‘call for objects’ drafted by Gregg Mitman and Rob Nixon was rather different from a standard conference or workshop ‘call’:

We are in the midst of a great reawakening to questions of time – across the spans of geological, ecological, evolutionary, and human history. It is a reawakening precipitated, not by a nostalgia for the past, but by a sense of urgency about the future. The Anthropocene, coined in 2000 by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and popularized by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, is one of the most resonant examples of how the urgency of the future has prompted scientists, artists, humanities scholars and social scientists to engage creatively with the emerging legacy of our geomorphic and biomorphic powers. The advent of this new scientific object – the Anthropocene – is altering how we conceptualize, imagine and inhabit time. The Anthropocene encourages us to re-envisage (in Nigel Clark’s phrase) future and past relations between ‘earthly volatility and bodily vulnerability’. What images and stories can we create that speak with conceptual richness and emotional energy to our rapidly changing visions of future possibility? For in a world deluged with data, arresting stories and images matter immeasurably, playing a critical role in the making of environmental publics and the shaping of environmental policy.

The Anthropocene is just one among many moments in time when new scientific objects have altered humanity’s relationship to the past, present, and future. The coming-into-being of scientific objects such as fossils, radioactivity, genetic mutations, toxic pesticides, and ice cores, to name a few, have precipitated different narratives and imaginings of the human past and the human future. What might a cabinet of curiosities for the age of the Anthropocene look like? What objects might jolt us into reimagining environmental time across diverse scales, from the recent past to deep history? How might certain kinds of objects make visible the differential impacts – past, present, and future – that have come to shape the relationships among human and non-human beings, living in an era of extreme hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather events, and extreme economic disparity?

… How is the appearance and impact of homo sapiensas a geomorphic force registered in the sediments of history, the objects around us, and the things yet to be? What emotionally layered Anthropocene objects can surprise, disturb, startle or delight us into new ways of thinking and feeling? What objects speak to resilience or adaptation, to vanishing biota or emerging morphologies?[20]

The cabinet also explored ‘future imaginaries’, both ‘utopian and apocalyptic’, considering the ideas of art and science, literature and film, history and policy. This wider Environmental Futures project opened a transnational and interdisciplinary conversation, with a focus on material objects and on the emotional responses (for example, hopes and fears) that they invoked. The challenge for the objects and their presenters was to:

… comprehend and portray environmental change that occurs imperceptibly and over eons of time – and that inflicts slow violence upon future generations – when media, corporate, and political cultures thrive on the short-term.[21]

Cabinets of curiosities

The Wunderkammer started life in German as a ‘room of wonder’, rather than the English ‘curiosity’. The cabinet of curiosities evoked awe. Rather than evoking rational curiosity, a cabinet should enable enchantment, according to political ecologist Jane Bennett:

Thirteenth-century writer Albertus Magnus described wonder as, like fear, ‘shocked surprise’ … but fear cannot dominate if enchantment is to be … it is a state of interactive fascination, not fall to your knees awe.’[22]

‘Awe’ was a word laden with moral and religious overtones in pre-Enlightenment times. In the 21st century, the objects of a cabinet stir questions about the ‘ethical relevance of human affect’.[23]

The rarity of objects in the era of the Wunderkammer added much to their value. In 1500, the average Middle European household had just 30 objects. By 1900, such households contained 400 objects. The proliferation of objects continued throughout the 20th century, rising to 12,000 objects per household in 2010.[24] The sheer number of objects in modern life changes them: they are no longer precious but rather just ‘stuff’, too many to count or care about. An Anthropocene-era cabinet of curiosities rediscovers objects that can stir wonder, curiosity and care, even for a jaded 21st-century viewer, whose home is burdened with an excess of objects. Each object’s story needs to be evocative, remarkable, perhaps even luminous. Even a prosaic object can carry a big story. This can be assisted by a great ‘pitch’ or performance that breathes life into the story.

When objects have lost their stories and their place in the lives of their owners, they are just stuff. When the stories are remembered and embraced with the object, they stimulate memories and reflection. These can even have clinical value for those suffering from memory loss. Keeping the context of the object simple and clear is often better for stimulating memory than cluttering it with high-tech apps.[25]

Restoring enchantment to objects demands retelling their stories, making individual objects special and important to identity again. The slam was a deliberate strategy to foster engagement and to enliven and reinvigorate objects, to sponsor a ‘sense of play’. It was a technique that could ‘hone sensory receptivity to the marvellous specificity of things’ and, above all, that could ‘resist the story of the disenchantment of modernity’, in Jane Bennett’s words.[26] The challenge of the Anthropocene is its scale. It may seem so large and frightening that it makes people feel they can do nothing about it. The performance event is a strategy for keeping open possibilities for adaptive strategies in the face of rapid change, allowing objects to explore facets of a bigger story in smaller, playful ways.

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects is one attempt to tell human history ‘from out of Africa to the credit card’. He argues for the levelling power of objects: not all societies have text to tell their stories, but objects may survive to speak from cultures beyond the written word. A history created from objects can include the 95 per cent of human history that is only told in stone. [27] While organic objects cannot survive indefinitely, and fragile objects are more likely to be lost than robust ones, the survival of an object is not just physical: it is also testimony to a cultural context where someone cared enough to protect this object – perhaps in a grave, perhaps in a pocket. Small objects may survive better than large. Edmund de Waal’s imaginative memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, told through his global family’s netsuke collection, shows just how powerful a small and special object can become. Netsuke are tiny Japanese ceramic, wood and ivory carvings (originally merely a functional addendum that enabled men to carry a tobacco pouch on a kimono). The de Waal collection of netsuke moved through generations and over a century of extraordinary international events, holding the family memories across time and space, and encapsulating his family’s history.[28]

If we follow Neil MacGregor’s notion of a museum as a place that enables ‘the study of things [which] can lead to a truer understanding of the world’[29], then we have a particular new challenge to find the poignancy of objects in a time when there are too many of them. Which objects might enchant audiences and museum visitors in a world marked by the proliferation of things? How can we learn to wonder or be curious about ‘stuff’? The answer, in Mitman’s vision, is that we select and perform or present just a few objects, juxtaposed with others that can carry the Anthropocene story in quirky ways. When the idea of global change is too big and abstract for human comprehension, a small cabinet can act as a microcosm to enable an imaginative and active response. Each object is there for its own story. Together in a cabinet they become a chorus of stories.

The object

One of the 25 objects ‘performed’ at the Anthropene Slam and subsequently selected for the Deutsches Museum’s Anthropocene Wunderkammer was a domestic pesticide applicator. The familiar bike-pump-sized pesticide sprayer was a popular household item from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the United States the Standard Oil Company’s ‘Flit’ brand of insecticide became synonymous with the spray pump. Other countries had their own brands: in Australia it was Mortein.

‘Flit’ branded handheld pesticide spray pump

‘Flit’ branded handheld pesticide spray pump, 1928 – Hamburg Museum

The pesticide pump sprayer speaks of a faith in science to improve lifestyles, and the hubris of humanity’s desire to control nature. The sprayer’s genealogy links to both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, each a break in time that has been argued to mark the Anthropocene.[30] It is an object born of the demographic shift towards large urban populations, and the demands for greater intensification and efficiencies in food growing that make that shift possible. Until the mid-20th century (the likely date stratigraphers will use for the dawn of the Anthropocene[31]), most older-generation pesticides had been available for hundreds of years. Soaps, oils, salt, sulphur, and more toxic substances, such as those derived from arsenic, lead and mercury, were applied in all manner of ways. It was the social and economic changes of the 19th century, however, that drove sprayer development, as growers sought to cover plants and trees on a larger scale, with more efficiency.

Bellows syringe sprayer

Bellows syringe sprayer, 1874 – The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser

As early as the 1870s, American Agriculturalist reported a French horticulturalist using bellows across a nozzle to disperse insecticide. The article explains that the device and its production of ‘liquid dust’ use the same principles of fluid dynamics as a perfume sprinkler or medical atomiser.[32] A fine spray could cover all of a tree more easily, quickly and without wasting pouring liquid or dusting. By the 1890s the use of portable and horsedrawn pesticide sprayers was so common that the New South Wales Minister for Mines and Agriculture held a field competition in December 1890 at Parramatta to determine the best and most efficient commercial insecticide sprayer. The Australian-made ‘Farrington’ machine was fitted on a cart and could spray 500 gallons per day. Some needed two operators but others could be used by a single person, pumping with one hand and holding the sprayer with the other. The Lowe’s machine had a three-in-one action: it could spray, fumigate and expel a hot vapour of sulphur and steam near its nozzle. Observers noted that cross-winds often wasted the fumigant, so some orchardists proposed enveloping trees in tents that could ensure the expensive fumes were trapped where they were needed. On the day, the most impressive sprayer was a new machine from the United States. It was compact and used compressed air rather than a hand pump to create the hydraulic pressure, so ‘all that the orchardist has to do is stand at the nozzle and blaze away at pest and disease’.[33] It was the fastest of the sprayers in the competition, dressing a tree in just two-and-a-half minutes.

At the same time that chemical companies were advertising pesticide formulas to landholders in the late 19th century, they were adapting agricultural sprayers to deliver chemicals for domestic gardens and inside the home.[34] From the 1920s, when better sprayer design and pervasive chemical industry advertising combined with higher household incomes and campaigns for improved domestic hygiene and ‘mothercraft’, the familiar home pump sprayer became widely used. After the Second World War, the sprayer formulas became longer lasting and more effective, with new synthetic chemicals. Less than two decades later, the public began to discover that the miracle chemicals were not as safe as they had been led to believe.

Performing the object

A ten-minute ‘slam’ format presents a challenge to historians in particular, who by their nature and training, are dedicated to providing context. How much story, information and reflection is possible in ten minutes? The format shaped the form and selection of story – the performance had to provoke and begin a conversation. It would not be possible to explain everything. The invited presenters, Michelle Mart and Cameron Muir, opened their performance by playing characters, two archetypes associated with the use of chemicals in different contexts – domestic, urban, wealthy on the one hand, and industrial, rural and poor on the other.[35]

An immaculate housewife waits at the door to greet her husband

An immaculate housewife waits at the door to greet her husband, 1953 – H Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Corbis

Michelle Mart appeared as a 1950s housewife, a stereotype from the period’s advertising posters come to life, complete with lipstick, pearls and twin-set. She advocated the convenience and virtues of a bug-free household, as images projected in the background showed advertising and stylised scenes of the suburban ideal. Successful domestic management, or orderliness, cleanliness, and wholesomeness: perfect weed-free lawns, insect-free kitchens, and unblemished fruit and vegetables. Mart was the woman who stood on the veranda of a neat, architecturally designed house to welcome her husband home from work. Her home was managed with a pump spray that dispersed DDT through the kitchen cupboards, just like in the military, where officers were photographed spraying DDT down a fellow serviceman’s shirt. Some of the men came home from being sprayed in wartime service to the new peacetime spraying on the suburban frontier.

A US soldier is demonstrating DDT hand-spraying equipment while applying the insecticide

A US soldier is demonstrating DDT hand-spraying equipment while applying the insecticide – Centres for Disease Control Public Health Image Library

Advertising urged homeowners to use chemicals for the sake of the family’s health (some thought polio was spread by the housefly), while another has fruit and vegetables singing, ‘DDT is good for me-e-e!’ Mart’s 1950s character proclaimed she is ‘lucky to live at a time when the wonders of modern technology and chemistry have transformed our lives’, and best of all, the new chemicals are ‘safe for everybody’.[36]

‘DDT is good for m-e-e’ advertisement, Penn Salt Chemicals

‘DDT is good for m-e-e’ advertisement, Penn Salt Chemicals, 1947 – Collector’s Weekly

At this point the second character entered: Cameron Muir was an agricultural worker in a white, full-body chemical hazmat suit, including hood, gloves, goggles and face mask, and carrying a large knapsack pump sprayer adorned with lurid red-and-black warnings about its toxicity. We have moved beyond the innocence of postwar hubris in scientific and industrial expertise, but users are exposed to more chemicals than ever. The agricultural worker character speaks of his brother, who blames the pesticides for illnesses and behavioural problems in his children. He wants to leave the job of spraying but he can’t find work elsewhere. The worker fears local complaints about the chemicals will endanger their relationship with the company employing them.

Woman in Metema community, Ethiopia, using knapsack sprayer

Woman in Metema community, Ethiopia, using knapsack sprayer, 2010 – International Livestock Research Institute

The images projected in the background show the faces of individual agricultural works in developing countries, some of them disfigured by pesticide exposure and light aircraft spraying vast fields. Amidst health concerns and well-informed anxiety about spraying pesticides, industrial agriculture has scaled up again in the 21st century.

Crop duster plane flying over Imperial Valley farms

Crop duster plane flying over Imperial Valley farms, May 1972 – Charles O’Rear/The US National Archives

The object and performance as provocateur

Who owns the story of pesticides? The narrative of triumphant technological progress and control of nature continues to hold influence even in the face of startling costs and unintended consequences. Social and political commentators still attempt to discredit Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 50 years later, while the chemical and seed industries sell promises of control, simplicity and safety to farmers wracked by the reality of an unpredictable nature and markets. More powerful than earnestness and statistics, Mart and Muir’s performance gave the voice to the Flit spray can and used it to retell the stereotypical narrative of technological progress. Humour, irony and juxtaposition can be more effective than numbers in exposing hubris in the failed narrative. The presentation made its point not just by telling, but by showing. It is a human story. The archetypal characters, images and objects spoke for themselves; each member of the audience actively made their own interpretations and connections.

Towards the end of the presentation, Mart and Muir stepped out of character and spoke to the audience directly, personally. The ‘pitch’ or telling mode was reserved until the object story and its historical frames had been performed beforehand. The background or hypertext for the performance included the bigger scale, Anthropocene stories: since the Second World War humans have released more than 80,000 chemical compounds that no organism had previously encountered in the 3.5-billion-year history of life on earth.[37] This profound change will persist in the geological record and in our genetic legacies. Everyone is still exposed to this chemical soup. Researchers in the Lancet Neurology have declared we are in the midst of a ‘global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity’.[38] It’s even worse for those who farm or who live in the world’s most polluted places. The presentation ended with a provocative set of images. In the 1990s anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette asked children from the Yaqui Valley in Mexico to draw simple pictures – one group was from the agricultural lowlands, the other from the pesticide-free highlands. The children from the agricultural region could barely form shapes.[39] The difference in the drawings was a striking visualisation of what is largely an invisible agent of harm. It was also an illustration of the geographic inequality of toxic burdens.

The chorus

The domestic pesticide applicator object was one of 25 performed in the Madison Chorus. It has now been chosen to travel on to the Deutsches Museum, where a new cabinet of curiosities will be re-assembled in July 2015 with some of the Madison objects and some new, locally chosen Anthropocene objects. Global changes are everywhere, but human responses are personal, local, and the slam was an event for Madison. Munich is another context: another language, a science and technology museum, and the juxtaposition of the cabinet with a whole gallery of ideas and objects for the Anthropocene.[40] What the Madison cabinet brings is an event and a set of objects that can interrogate the gallery project for the Deutsches Museum and its university partner, the Rachel Carson Center. It also invites local content – objects that have resonance in Munich. The slam-style event works to collect together the object stories and to draw out patterns and sympathies between them.

The Anthropocene Slam created a chorus of objects that worked together in Madison, juxtaposed with each other and the performances of their presenters. In fact, the audience was reluctant to vote for ‘best object’ in each section; these were not solo objects or voices, but rather notes that together created chords of global change stories, stories that were layered together with others. It didn’t make sense to pick out the ‘tenor’ or ‘soprano’ line for special attention. The poetry slam is usually a competition with a cash prize. The Anthropocene Slam resisted the competitive framework. Rather, it invited scholarly collaboration in a playful context. The shift from competition to chorus was its great success, enabling collaboration and partnerships and the reflections arising from some very different objects.

The global and the local

The Anthropocene Slam suggested one way to scale the abstract and global through personal objects. It created an object-conversation that worked for all ages and in intergenerational contexts. Educating citizens about living with global change is not a task for schools alone. This story affects every generation. As the Deutsches Museum has already realised, museums can be partners in this global education, and are ideally suited to intergenerational conversations: grandchildren and grandparents already often visit a museum together.

HKW took the scholarly mission to educate people about the Anthropocene as its focus, as part of a two-year Anthropocene Project. For 11 days in November 2014, HKW created an international ‘Anthropocene Campus’, where its galleries showcased the exhibitions, video documentaries and artworks developed through its Anthropocene Project. Campus participants worked to develop a ‘curriculum’, including textbook and online teaching materials, through seminars and workshops on approaches to the ideas of the Anthropocene. Nearly 30 presenters worked with more than 100 interested participants, doctoral and postdoctoral scholars and practising artists.[41] Most of the presenters came from scientific disciplines leading Anthropocene discussions (especially earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences). Participants included a significant number of designers, museum specialists and visual artists, as well as scholars of earth sciences and environmental humanities. The boundaries between science and humanities dissolved in the intense program; the need to communicate and to teach and learn demanded clear, non-technical language and strong images. The overwhelming thrust of the curriculum materials was to develop human and emotional responses to the Anthropocene, as well as ways to converse beyond disciplinary silos to work together to solve problems and engage audiences.

Thinking with museums

How can we slow down the future to enable a sense of control? What is globally curious? What will we ‘wonder’ at in future? What sort of objects should we collect now for museums of the future? These are all urgent present problems as we imagine how museums will work in the changing circumstances of the Anthropocene. For Collecting the Future, a museum event at the American Museum of Natural History in October 2013, Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner specifically investigated what communities might collect for community museums of the future in local places that are changing fastest. What objects and stories can travel from depopulating Pacific Islands (where people are confronted with salinising ground water and rising seas) to their new communities in New Zealand or New York? These practical questions about living with climate change can bring communities into museums to use their collections in new ways. Community museums, national museums, science museums and art museums are all members of the Museums and Climate Change network of exchange that emerged from this event.[42]

In Australia, as elsewhere, the arts have been engaging with ideas for imaginative futures through local museums and events. Climarte is one such group that ‘harnesses the creative power of the Arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change’.[43] It is an arts-led partnership including prominent artists, Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty and directors of key galleries, Maudie Palmer (founding director of Heide Museum of Modern Art and TarraWarra Museum of Art) and Stuart Purves (director of Australian Galleries, Australia’s longest and most established commercial art gallery). Australian Galleries will host the 2015 Climarte Festival’s opening exhibition, The Warming, curated by Mandy Martin, who was one of the international artists attending the Wisconsin Anthropocene Slam. The exhibition brings together eight artists from Australian Galleries with 17 additional artists who have been invited to contribute an ‘Anthropocene cabinet of curiosities’, a plinth of objects at the heart of the show. Some of the artists will also pitch their ‘curious object’ briefly at a special event on 3 May 2015, and there will be responses from moderators, Peter Christoff (from the University of Melbourne and formerly Victorian Commissioner for the Future), William L Fox and Libby Robin. The aim is to create an event to inspire new thinking about what the arts can do in a future beyond the Holocene.

The future is often constructed through the lens of economic expertise. For example, the Australian Treasury has issued a 2015 Intergenerational Report that focuses exclusively on the economic burdens that the present generation places on those living in 2055.[44] Sometimes it is earth system scientists, or climate modellers who describe futures – for example, under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios of 2 or 4 or 6 degrees of warming. Yet the future is also about cultural and moral choices, not just economics and environment. The worlds of 2055 and beyond will be more than just climate spaces and economies. The museum sector is poised to treat the future as a ‘cultural fact’, in Arjun Appadurai’s terms. Appadurai writes of a future that includes ‘imagination, anticipation and aspiration’.[45] The future is not just about imagining nature or anticipating economic conditions, it is also about aspiration. While ‘probable’ futures are generated by mathematical models of nature and economics, such models often offer little hope. An alternative is to look to museums, to objects and to the creative dialogues of personal visits and performance events to foster qualitative possible futures. The future is not just a technical or neutral space: it is ‘shot through with affect and sensation’.[46] Science and scholarship alone often lack important sensations for imagining the future: ‘awe, vertigo, excitement, disorientation’. Rather than just measuring change in our world – or denying that there is any – we can take a third way that acknowledges change, including, but not only, climate change. Cultural institutions have an important role in enabling communities to get on with living positively with the changes of the Anthropocene. Culture works through ‘the traction of the imagination’, expanding the possibilities for ways to live with the future as it unfolds.[47]

This paper has been independently peer-reviewed.



2 Violent Ends: The Arts of Environmental Anxiety.


4 Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N Waters, Mark Williams et al., ‘When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal’, Quaternary International, 12 January 2015,

5 PJ Crutzen, ‘Geology of mankind’, Nature, vol. 415, no. 6867, 2002, 23.

6 Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes the Planet, Synergetic Press, Santa Fe/London, 2014; Luke Keogh & Nina Möllers, ‘Pushing the boundaries: Curating the Anthropocene at the Deutsches Museum’, in Fiona Cameron & Brett Neilson (eds), Climate Change, Museum Futures: The Roles and Agencies of Museums and Science Centers, Routledge, London, 2014, pp. 78–89.

7 Currently chaired by Jan Zalasiewicz, who has worked extensively with humanities scholars (at the University of Chicago and the University of Sydney), and has supervised art projects such as the French artist Yesenia Thibault-Picazo’s Cabinet of Future Geology, currently showing at the Deutsches Museum, Munich, until 2016. In 2015 another version of Thibault-Picazo’s work will be part of the Globale Festival in the New Media Museum, Karlsruhe, Germany.

8 Bernd Scherer (ed.), The Anthropocene Project: A Report, HKW, Berlin, 2014; Libby Robin, Dag Avango, Luke Keogh, Nina Möllers, Bernd Scherer & Helmuth Trischler, ‘Three galleries of the Anthropocene’, Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 3,  207–24.

9 W Steffen, J Grinevald, P Crutzen & J McNeill, ‘The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A,vol. 369, 2011, 842–67.

10 Mike Hulme, ‘Reducing the future to climate: A story of climate determinism and reductionism’, Osiris, vol. 26, 2011, 245–66, p. 245.

11 Jan Zalasiewicz, ‘Buried treasure’, in Geoff Manaugh (ed.), Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, Nevada Museum of Art and Actar, Reno, 2013, pp. 258–61.

12 Susan L Dautel, ‘Transoceanic trash: International and United States strategies for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009, 181–208. This sort of global phenomenon (which grew and changed shape dramatically after the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011) has been very effectively illustrated in museums through ‘Science on a Sphere’ technology created by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Alaska State Museum, Juneau,

13 From the ‘Call for objects’ (distributed through H-Net online 2013),

14 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.

15 Crutzen, ‘Geology of mankind’ (p. 23).

16 Oliver Impey & Arthur MacGregor (eds) The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985.

17 Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands (in English). The exhibition gallery opened 4 December 2014, and will run till 2016; Nina Möllers, Christian Schwägerl & Helmuth Trischler (eds) Willkommen im Anthropozän: Unsere Verantwortung für die Zukunft der Erde, Deutsches Museum, Munich, 2014; see also Libby Robin, Dag Avango, Luke Keogh, Nina Möllers, Bernd Scherer & Helmuth Trischler, ‘Three galleries of the Anthropocene’, Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 3, 2014, 207–24, doi:10.1177/2053019614550533.

18 Munich, 5–7 July 2015,



21 From Environmental Futures unpublished prospectus (‘Call for papers’), 2013; see also Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2011.

22 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2001, p. 5, emphasis added.

23 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke UP, Durham, 2010, p. xi.

24 Christof Mauch, ‘The Great Acceleration of Objects’, Plenary panel, Anthropocene Slam, UW Madison, 10 November 2014.

25 Charles Leadbeater, ‘The disremembered’, Aeon Magazine, March 2015,

26 Bennett, Enchantment,p. 4.

27 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Penguin, London, 2012 (1st edn 2010), p. xix.

28 Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, Vintage, London, 2011.

29 MacGregor, History of the World, p. xxv.

30 William F Ruddiman, ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era began thousands of years ago’, Climatic Change, vol. 61, no. 3, 2003; Crutzen, ‘Geology of mankind’.

31 Zalasiewicz, Waters, Williams et al., ‘When did the Anthropocene begin?’.

32 ‘Destroying insects – Bellows-Syringe’, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 March 1874.

33 ‘Death to fruit pests and diseases: Experiments with appliances’, Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW), 13 December 1890.

34 Will Allen, The War on Bugs, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vt, 2008.

35 Michelle Mart (Pennsylvania State University) and Cameron Muir (Australian National University), both former fellows of the Rachel Carson Center, Munich, independently suggested the sprayer. They were both among the group selected to present at the slam, and since they had the same object, they were asked to work together on it.

36 Michelle Mart & Cameron Muir, ‘Flit sprayer’, Anthropocene Slam presentation, 8 November 2014, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

37 Mariann Lloyd-Smith & Bro Sheffield-Brotherton, ‘Children’s environmental health: Intergenerational equity in action – a civil society perspective’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 11, no. 1140, 2008, 190–200.

38 Philippe Grandjean & Philip J Landrigan, ‘Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity’, Lancet Neurology, vol. 13, no. 3, 2014, 330–8.

39 Elizabeth A Guillette, Maria Mercedes Meza, Maria Guadalupe Aquilar, Alma Delia Soto & Idalia Enedina Garcia, ‘An anthropological approach to the evaluation of preschool children exposed to pesticides in Mexico’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 106, 1998, 347–53.

40 Robin et al., ‘Three galleries’.

41 Scherer et al., The Anthropocene Project; see also Robin et al., ‘Three galleries’, esp. p. 215, doi:10.1177/2053019614550533.

42 Museums and Climate Change; Collecting the Future event,; Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin & Kirsten Wehner (eds), Curating the Future,University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii, forthcoming.



45 Arjun Appadurai, The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, Verso, London, 2013, p. 286.

46 ibid.

47 ibid.

Flavorwire Exclusive: Civilization Is Doomed! McKenzie Wark Takes on the Anthropocene (Flavorwire)

By Jonathon Sturgeon – Apr 29, 2015 12:00pm

In the below excerpt, drawn from the conclusion of his energizing new book Molecular Red, McKenzie Wark confesses that “we all know this civilization can’t last.” Nevertheless! Wark asserts that our imaginations are up to the standard of describing a new and better world, and so he sets out to consider what metaphors we might use to define a future that will “undo the workings of the Anthropocene.” The industriousness and intellectual range you see here defines Molecular Red, a brilliant and persistently entertaining book that considers everything from cyborgs to Russian intellectuals and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Marstrilogy.

From the conclusion to Molecular Red:

There is still some low theory work to do, to transmit the metaphor of the Anthropocene between domains, but in that process, those labor processes will change it. Rather than “interrogate” Crutzen’s Anthropocene—and where did that metaphor come from?—perhaps it is better to see it as what it is: a brilliant hack. The Anthropocene introduces the labor point of view—in the broadest possible sense—into geology. Perhaps the challenge is then to find analogous but different ways to hack other specialized domains of knowledge, to orient them to the situation and the tasks at hand.

Let’s invent new metaphors! Personally, I like the #misanthropocene, but don’t expect it to catch on. Jason Moore prefers the Capitalocene, Jussi Parikka the Anthrobscene. Kate Raworth suggests Manthropocene, given the gender make-up of the Anthropocene Working Group considering it as a name for a geological era. Donna Haraway offers to name it the Chthulucene, a more chthonic version of Cthulhu, the octopoid monster of H. P. Lovecraft’s weird stories. “Chthulucene does not close in on itself; it does not round off; its contact zones are ubiquitous and continuously spin out loopy tendrils.”

Haraway notes the strikingly parallel evolution of new meta- phorical tools in both humanities and biologies, where competitive individualism is no longer a given. In Bogdanovite terms, perhaps it is because in both domains, producing knowledge got strangely complex, collaborative, and mediated by apparatuses. A new breed of basic metaphor is at least partly at work and in play, one which in the biologies could be described as a “multi-species becoming-with.”

Haraway wants to both “justify and trouble” the language of the Anthropocene. As Edwards does with climate science, she insists on the embeddedness in an infrastructure that makes the global appear as a work-object to those natural scientists for whom the Anthropocene makes sense as a metaphor. She points to the limits of its basic metaphors, which still think one-sidedly of competition between populations or genes, where success equals reproduction. More symbiotic—dare we say comradely?—kinds of life hardly figure in such metaphors. But perhaps, as Haraway says, “we are all lichens now”—cyborg lichens.

After Robinson, the task is not debating names or trading stories, but making comradely alliances. Is not Crutzen one of those curious scientist-intellectuals that Robinson’s fiction trains us to look out for? Crutzen and his colleagues in the earth sciences have flagged something that needs to shape the agenda for knowledge, culture, and organization. For those of us seeking to respond from the left, I think the authors presented in Molecular Red offer some of the best ways of processing that information. Bogdanov and Platonov would not really be surprised by the Anthropocene. They were vulgar enough to think aspects of it already.

So let’s pop the following tools into the dillybag for future use:

Something like an empirio-monism has its uses, because it is a way of doing theory that directs the tendency to spin out webs of metaphoric language to the task at hand. It steers the language arts toward agendas arising out of working processes, including those of sciences. It is agnostic about which metaphors best explain the real, but it sees all of them as substitutions which derive from the forms of labor and apparatus of the time.

Something like proletkult has its uses, as the project for the self-organization of the labor point of view. It filters research into past culture and knowledge through the organizational needs of the present. Those needs put pressure on the traditional category of labor, opening it toward feminist standpoints, not to mention our queer cyborg entanglements.

Something like a tektology has its uses, as a way of coordinating labor other than through exchange or hierarchy, or the new infra- structure of corporatized “networks.” It communicates between labor processes poetically and qualitatively. It is a training of the metaphoric wiliness of language toward particular applications which correspond to and with advances in labor technique.

Lastly, something like the utopia of Red Star has its uses, in motivating those working in separate fields to think beyond the fetishistic habits of the local and toward comradely goals. In the absence of a single counter-hegemonic ideology, perhaps something like a meta-utopia might be more useful, and more fun. Meta-utopia offers not so much an imaginary solution to real problems as a real problematizing of how to navigate the differences between the imaginal that corresponds to each particular labor points of view.

And so, to conclude with the slogan with which we began. It might be the slogan of a Cyborg International. One which already possesses in imagination the means and the will to undo the workings of the Anthropocene. One with nothing for it but to build the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilization can’t last. Let’s make another.


Media files on the Anthropocene

Confronting the ‘Anthropocene’ (Dot Earth, New York Times)

London from orbit

NASA Donald R. Pettit, an astronaut, took this photograph of London while living in the International Space Station.

LONDON — I’m participating in a one-day meeting at the Geological Society of London exploring the evidence for, and meaning of, the Anthropocene. This is the proposed epoch of Earth history that, proponents say, has begun with the rise of the human species as a globally potent biogeophysical force, capable of leaving a durable imprint in the geological record.

This recent TEDx video presentation by Will Steffen, the executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, lays out the basic idea:

There’s more on the basic concept in National Geographic and from the BBC. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate in chemistry who, with others, proposed the term in 2000, and Christian Schwägerl, the author of “The Age of Man” (German), described the value of this new framing for current Earth history in January in Yale Environment 360:

Students in school are still taught that we are living in the Holocence, an era that began roughly 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help. Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future. [Read the rest.]

I’m attending because of a quirky role I played almost 20 years ago in laying the groundwork for this concept of humans as a geological force. A new paper from Steffen and three coauthors reviewing the conceptual and historic basis for the Anthropocene includes an appropriately amusing description of my role:

Biologist Eugene F. Stoermer wrote: ‘I began using the term “anthropocene” in the 1980s, but never formalized it until Paul [Crutzen] contacted me’. About this time other authors were exploring the concept of the Anthropocene, although not using the term. More curiously, a popular book about Global Warming, published in 1992 by Andrew C. Revkin, contained the following prophetic words: ‘Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene period for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene [sic]. After all, it is a geological age of our own making’. Perhaps many readers ignored the minor linguistic difference and have read the new term as Anthro(po)cene!

If you’ve been tracking my work for a while, you’re aware of my focus on the extraordinary nature of this moment in both Earth and human history. As far as science can tell, there’s never, until now, been a point when a species became a planetary powerhouse and also became aware of that situation.

As I first wrote in 1992, cyanobacteria are credited with oxygenating the atmosphere some 2 billion years ago. That was clearly a more profound influence on a central component of the planetary system than humans raising the concentration of carbon dioxide 40 percent since the start of the industrial revolution. But, as far as we know, cyanobacteria (let alone any other life form from that period) were neither bemoaning nor celebrating that achievement.

It was easier to be in a teen-style resource binge before science began to delineate an edge to our petri dish.

We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.

We’re essentially in a race between our potency, our awareness of the expressed and potential ramifications of our actions and our growing awareness of the deeply embedded perceptual and behavioral traits that shape how we do, or don’t, address certain kinds of risks. (Explore “Boombustology” and “Disasters by Design” to be reminded how this habit is not restricted to environmental risks.)

This meeting in London is two-pronged. It is in part focused on deepening basic inquiry into stratigraphy and other branches of earth science and clarifying how this human era could qualify as a formal chapter in Earth’s physical biography. As Erle C. Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, put it in his talk, it’s unclear for the moment whether humanity’s impact will be long enough to represent an epoch, or will more resemble “an event.” Ellis’s presentation was a mesmerizing tour of the planet’s profoundly humanized ecosystems, which he said would be better described as “anthromes” than “biomes.”

Ellis said it was important to approach this reality not as a woeful situation, but an opportunity to foster a new appreciation of the lack of separation of people and their planet and a bright prospect for enriching that relationship. In this his views resonate powerfully with those of Rene Dubos, someone I’ll be writing about here again soon.

Through the talks by Ellis and others, it was clear that the scientific effort to define a new geological epoch, while important, paled beside the broader significance of this juncture in human history.

In my opening comments at the meeting, I stressed the need to expand the discussion from the physical and environmental sciences into disciplines ranging from sociology to history, philosophy to the arts.

I noted that while the “great acceleration” described by Steffen and others is already well under way, it’s entirely possible for humans to design their future, at least in a soft way, boosting odds that the geological record will have two phases — perhaps a “lesser” and “greater” Anthropocene, as someone in the audience for my recent talk with Brad Allenby at Arizona State University put it.

I also noted that the term “Anthropocene,” like phrases such as “global warming,” is sufficiently vague to guarantee it will be interpreted in profoundly different ways by people with different world views. (As I explained, this is as true for Nobel laureates in physics as it is for the rest of us.)

Some will see this period as a “shame on us” moment. Others will deride this effort as a hubristic overstatement of human powers. Some will argue for the importance of living smaller and leaving no scars. Others will revel in human dominion as a normal and natural part of our journey as a species.

A useful trait will be to get comfortable with that diversity.

Before the day is done I also plan on pushing Randy Olson’s notion of moving beyond the “nerd loop” and making sure this conversation spills across all disciplinary and cultural boundaries from the get-go.

There’s much more to explore of course, and I’ll post updates as time allows. You might track the meeting hash tag, #anthrop11, on Twitter.

*   *   *

8/16/2014 @ 1:05PM – James Conca

The Anthropocene Part 1: Tracking Human-Induced Catastrophe On A Planetary Scale (Forbes)

For almost 30 years, we geologists have been having a debate about what Geologic Epoch we find ourselves in right now. It is presently called the Holocene, but some want to add another epoch and call it the Anthropocene.

Anthropocene combines the Greek words for humanand recent time period, to denote the period of time since human activity went global and we became an important geologic process in our own right (In These Times; see also UN video

In other words, what should we call this period of time when we started trashing the planet? And when did it begin?

You might know some of the big Geologic Ages, Epochs, Periods, Eras and Eons. The dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago in the Maastrichtian Age in the Late Epoch of the Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon.

The sum of Earth’s history, divided up into these different sections, is called the Geologic Time Scale and geologists have been defining and refining it for about 150 years (Geologic Society of America). The latest deliberation concerns the epoch from the present stretching back to about 12,000 years.  The term Anthropocene was popularized fourteen years ago by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, to more decisively focus discussion on human global effects to the whole planet.

The Geologic Time Scale - the sectioning up of 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history into manageable time periods bounded by significant geological events. The present debate is - do we want to call the present epoch we are in the Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s global effect on the planet? Click on the link in the text for the full image. Source: The Geological Society of America

To Judith Wright, a chemostratigrapher, this is not just an academic exercise for the Ivory Tower (Ocean Redox Variations Through Time). There are obvious political and social implications, not the least being the role of human activities in climate change, wholesale extinctions of species unlike anytime in history, and the accelerating environmental destruction on a planetary scale that could spell our own doom.

What we call something matters. It sets the scale of importance and pushes the discussion in the direction that we need these debates to go.

The scientific decision on whether to incorporate the term Anthropocene into the geologic lexicon falls to a carefully deliberative group called the International Commission on Stratigraphy, particularly its Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy which has formed an Anthropocene Working Group. There is a rumor they may arrive at a decision after only several years of debate, making this deliberation downright hasty.

This discussion concerns not just what to name it, but when it started. There is always some defining characteristic to one of these epochs or periods. Often a huge extinction event marks the end of an epoch, like the end of the Triassic Period 200 million years ago when half of all life perished. Or the appearance of something new in evolution, like the beginning of the Cambrian Period when organisms learned how to grow shells, bones, teeth and other hard parts from the increased dissolved minerals in seawater, providing huge survival advantages.

Sometimes there is a chemical marker, or layer, that is unique to that time or process, like the iridium layer that is one of the singular markers of the huge meteorite impact that finally stressed the dinosaurs’ environment to the point of extinction.

But why do stratigraphers get to decide this question? In the geologic sciences, stratigraphy is the study of rock layers on the Earth – how they relate to each other and to relative and absolute time, how they got there, and what they tell us about Earth history. Stratigraphy can be traced to the beginnings of modern geology in the 17th century with Nicholas Steno and his three stratigraphic rules:

–   the law of superposition (younger rocks lay on top of older ones)

–   the principle of original horizontality (all sedimentary and volcanic layers are originally laid down horizontally, or normal to the Earth’s gravitational field)

–   the principle of lateral continuity (sedimentary layers generally continue for a long distance as most were laid down in the ocean, and an abrupt edge indicates that something happened to break it off, like a fault or surface erosion).

These were profound observations and fundamentally changed how we understood time and geologic processes like flooding and earthquakes. In fact, the unique perspective that geology brings to humans is the understanding of time at all levels.

According to Patricia Corcoran and co-workers (GSA), material being laid down across the Earth in our present time is the most bizarre mix of chemicals and materials the Earth has ever seen, some compounds of which have never occurred in nature. Maybe compounds that could not have been produced naturally would make a good marker for the Anthropocene.

But defining a geologic time period requires a sufficiently large, clear and distinctive set of geologic characteristics to be useful as a global geologic boundary and that will also survive throughout geologic time.

We presently find ourselves in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period in the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, defined as starting from the end of the last glacial retreat, an obvious event that led to our present global range in climate and other characteristics we define as the Earth today. The problem is, humans have dominated this entire epoch in many ways, from the dawn of agriculture, to smelting of iron and lead, burning of forests and finally the effects of the industrial revolution.

As in all environmental issues, it’s the number of people on Earth that’s the problem. For over 100,000 years, the global human population was steady at about 10 million. Then civilization appeared, fueled by the many significant developments that humans had begun to apply en masse including agriculture, domesticated animals, tools, serious engineering, and various uses of fire, fibers and the wheel.

Our population began to increase about 2000 years ago, at the beginning of the Common Era, rising to 300 million during the Middle Ages and to a billion at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Then 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. This exponential rise is textbook for a bacterial colony in a petri dish, right before it dies from outpacing its food sources and generating too much waste. It’s also eerily analogous for people on the petri dish of Earth.

Humans now comprise the largest mass of vertebrate matter on land on the entire Earth. The rest is almost all our food and friends, mainly the animals we domesticated over the last 50,000 years, plus a bunch of xenobiotics we’ve transported far from their habitats (Cornell University). Only a small percentage of all vertebrate mass on land is wild or natural (In These Times).

Let that sink in for a minute. Most of what people see in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel or in movies about animals, IS ALMOST ALL GONE. Humans have dammed a third of the world’s rivers, have covered, destroyed or altered almost half of the world’s land surface. We use up most of the fresh water faster than it can be replenished. And we extinct about 30,000 species every year.

Whether from deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, roads, mining activities, aquatic farming, moving xenobiotic species around the world that destroy native species, dumping huge amounts of waste on land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere, and all other human activities, we have decimated the natural environment without thinking about what effect it has on global ecosystems and what it takes for our own species to survive.

There is a point where humans, our pets, our food animals and our food crops cannot survive without some aspects of a wild nature. Much of our crops need pollinators. The oxygen on this planet comes mainly from organisms in the top 300 feet of the ocean. Biodiversity is not just an environmental catch-phrase, it’s a necessity for survival.

So when did the Anthropocene begin?

Was it when agriculture began, when we started burning forests to clear land? Was it during the Iron Age when we clear-cut the northern forests to smelt iron ore?

Was it the advent of civilization, particularly the rise in agriculture and mining activities around the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, signified by a rise in environmental Pb levels (Shotyk et al, 1998) that continued until just recently?

Was it the 19th century when our population passed a billion and we began burning fossil fuels that has made carbon itself a global marker? Was it the 20thcentury when humans passed plate tectonics as the primary mechanism for moving rock and dirt on this planet?

Access to huge amounts of chemical energy trapped in fossil fuels allowed human populations to explode and allowed human effects to really go global. This is why most researchers point to the mid-19th century as the obvious time to start the Anthropocene.

One popular idea for the start of the Anthropocene is the beginning of the atomic age. Above-ground nuclear tests spread unique radionuclides like Pu around the world, elements that have not been seen in our solar nebula for six billion years, but now show up in surface sediments and ice cores, albeit in minute concentrations.

Crutzen recently gave his support for this point in time. However, the atomic age is just another aspect of the modern age of humans not associated with a particular change in a global characteristic. It cannot be seen in the field and marks no special geologic event, and would be more of a political or sociological marker than a geological one.

Perhaps we should wait until the end of this century when the worst effects will be upon us and the world will barely be recognizable to anyone living today. We might be able to just point to the time “when there used to be forests.”

In the end, this debate might be shear hubris since when we are gone, future geologists, of whatever species, will decide for themselves where they want to place the beginning of this particular catastrophe.

So…what’s your vote for when we start the Anthropocene?

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2/29/2012 @ 11:55PM 487 views – Jayne Jung

On The Anthropocene Age (Forbes)

Original caption from NASA: "S103-E-5037 ...

Image via Wikipedia

The term, the Anthropocene Age, is now common. It represents the time since the early 1800s when man began to have an impact on the Earth’s climate. There is still some debate about its use though. Scientists have traditionally called the current period the Holocene Age, meaning entirely new. The Holocene Age started around 10,000 BC, after the last glacial period when there was significant glacier movement.

From the German newspaper Spiegel Online, interview with British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The idea of mankind as the owner of Earth — is that not disconcerting?

Zalasiewicz: While we now may be said to “own” the planet, that is not the same as controlling it. Our global experiment with CO2 is something that virtually every government would like to see brought under control, and yet collectively we are, at present, unable to do so. That seems to call for feelings of something other than hubris.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see more to Anthropocene than just a geological term? Is it a new way of thinking about mankind’s role on Earth?

Zalasiewicz: That is almost certainly part of the attraction of the term for the wider public. The term does encapsulate and integrate a wide range of phenomena that are often considered separately. It also provides a sense of the scale and significance of anthropogenic global change. It emphasizes the importance of the Earth’s long geological history as a context within which to better understand what is happening today.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl

From the New York Times‘ editorial “The Anthropocene”:

Other species are embedded in the fossil record of the epochs they belong to. Some species, like ammonites and brachiopods, even serve as guides — or index fossils — to the age of the rocks they’re embedded in. But we are the only species to have defined a geological period by our activity — something usually performed by major glaciations, mass extinction and the colossal impact of objects from outer space, like the one that defines the upper boundary of the Cretaceous.

Humans were inevitably going to be part of the fossil record. But the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment — from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.

From Yale’s website “The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact” by Elizabeth Kobert:

One argument against the idea that a new human-dominated epoch has recently begun is that humans have been changing the planet for a long time already, indeed practically since the start of the Holocene. People have been farming for 8,000 or 9,000 years, and some scientists — most notably William Ruddiman, of the University of Virginia — have proposed that this development already represents an impact on a geological scale. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Anthropocene has not yet arrived because human impacts on the planet are destined to be even greater 50 or a hundred years from now.

“We’re still now debating whether we’ve actually got to the event horizon, because potentially what’s going to happen in the 21st century could be even more significant,” observed Mark Williams, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group who is also a geologist at the University of Leicester.

I personally do not want to know what that “event horizon” is.

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The Dawning of the Age of Anthropocene (In These Times)

By altering the earth, have humans ushered in a new epoch?


By inviting awe rather than—or along with—terror, the Anthropocene may offer a way to grapple with climate change rather than deny it.

Scientists have been clanging the alarm about human-caused climate change, trying to bring around the 33 percent of Americans who don’t believe the earth is warming and the 18 percent of believers in global warming who think the process is “natural.” But as climate scientists race against time to convince the resisters, another branch of science, geology, is taking the tortoise approach. For more than a decade, geologists have been debating whether to officially declare the existence of a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,”to acknowledge that humans are radically reshaping the earth’s surface. Some geologists see the Anthropocene model as a way to widen the lens on human impact on the earth and cut through both the alarmism and the resistance to spur concrete policy solutions.

Geologists divide the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history into eons, which are subdivided into eras, periods and epochs. Each division is marked by a discernable change in the earth’s strata, such as a new type of fossil representing a major evolutionary shift. On this global scale, humans are relative infants, just 200,000 years old. Civilization has sprung up only during the most recent epoch, the relatively warm interglacial Holocene, spanning the past 11,700 years.

But the Holocene’s days may be numbered. In 2000, the late biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen made a radical proposal in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme newsletter: that the Industrial Revolution’s explosion of carbon emissions had ushered in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, marked by human impact. In 2009, the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Subcommission of Quaternary Stratigraphy assembled an Anthropocene Working Group, which in 2016 will issue a recommendation on whether to formally adopt the term.

For stratigraphers, this is “breakneck speed,” says University of Leicester paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, the head of the working group. The geological time scale is as fundamental to the discipline as the periodic table is to chemistry. The last official change, when the Ediacaran Period supplanted the Vendian in 2004, came after 20 years of debate and shook up a scale that had been static for 120 years.

Whether or not the term is formalized, Zalasiewicz believes in the Anthropocene’s potential to alter perception, for geologists and non-geologists alike. “ ‘Anthropocene’ places our environmental situation in a different perspective,” he says. “You look at it sideways, as it were.”

Certainly, you look at it from a broader perspective. Zooming out to an aeonic scale is a sober way to assess the significance of climate change. Overall, human emissions have driven up global temperatures about 0.85 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Deniers are fond of noting that Earth’s current temperatures are not the highest they’ve been, and that the earth cyclically warms and cools. That’s true. There have been several “hyperthermal” events when carbon dioxide has been released by the ton from the ground or the ocean, and the earth’s temperature has spiked. However, as Zalasiewicz and colleague Mark Williams note in a recent paper in the Italian journal Rendiconti Lincei, carbon is being released today more than 10 times faster than during any of these events. And when the other hyperthermal events began, the earth was already relatively warm, without today’s ice-capped poles that threaten to melt and pump up sea levels. Already, warming has eroded Arctic sea ice and altered the territory of climate-sensitive species—effects potentially stark enough by themselves to declare an Anthropocene.

But even if we set aside climate change, there are still plenty of arguments for an Anthropocene, says Zalasiewicz. Take mineral traces: He calculates that humans have purified a half-billion tons of aluminum, enough to cover the United States in tinfoil. We’ve also made never-before-seen alloys, like the boron carbide used in bullet-proof vests and the tungsten carbide that forms the balls in ballpoint pens. And then there are plastics—more than 250 million tons are now produced annually. Zalasiewicz and his colleagues term these various human-made objects “technofossils.”

Technofossils aren’t the only things that humans scatter; we’ve also spread germs, seaweed, strawberries, sparrows, rats, jicama, cholera … the list goes on. You might see us as bees pollinating the earth or, less flatteringly, dung beetles scuttling our shit around. Today, according to a 1999 Cornell study, 98 percent of U.S. food—both animal-and plant-derived—is non-native.

Then there’s the population explosion. Humans now make up nearly one-fourth of total land vertebrate biomass, and most of the rest is our food animals, with wild animals—the lions, tigers and bears—making up a mere 3 percent. Those proliferating people suck up resources: According to calculations by Stanford geology PhD student Miles Traer, humans use the equivalent of 13 barrels of oil per person every year, and the United States consumes 345 billion gallons of fresh water a day, enough to drain all of Lake Michigan every 10 years.

In the face of all this, few geologists deny that stratigraphers a billion years from now (either human or alien, depending on your level of optimism) will see our current period as a major shift in the geological record. So the main question facing the Anthropocene Working Group is when the Anthropocene began, or in geological parlance, where to plant “the golden spike.” Four possibilities are under consideration.

One camp favors the 1800s, when megacities began to emerge and form unique strata of compressed rubble and trash heaps. London was the first, with a population of 3 million in 1850. With megacities came industrialization and a sudden escalation in CO2 emissions that began to push up global temperatures.

A second group, including many archeologists, argues for an earlier date. University of Virginia paleoclimatology professor William F. Ruddiman calculates that the first Agricultural Revolution, which began some 12,000 years ago, caused greater climate effects than have yet to be seen from the Industrial Revolution. Due to the widespread preindustrial use of fire to clear forests, Ruddiman believes that emissions of greenhouse gases, coupled with the loss of forests’ cooling effect, caused the earth’s temperature to be 1.3 to 1.4 degrees Celsius higher than if humans had never existed, warding off an overdue Ice Age.

However, where to plant the golden spike in this model isn’t entirely clear, since the changes happened over thousands of years. One option would be the mass extinction of large animals in the Americas some 12,500 years ago, believed to be caused by humans. In that case, the Anthropocene would supplant the Holocene.

A third school believes the Anthropocene should be dated to the mid-20th century, when the “Great Acceleration” began and population, urbanization, globalization and CO2 emissions took off. The past 60-odd years have seen a doubling of the human population and the release of three-quarters of all human-caused CO2 emissions. Zalasiewicz favors this hypothesis because of the sharpness of the acceleration and the synchronicity of the changes. The automobile, for instance, proliferated worldwide in less than a century, the blink of a geologic eye. This time period contains a dramatic option for the “golden spike”: the first A-bomb tests of the 1940s, which left radionuclidic traces across the earth that are readily detectable in ice core samples pulled from the poles. Astrobiologist David Grinspoon, a proponent of the nuclear-testing golden spike, writes, “The symbolism is so potent—the moment we grasped that terrible Promethean fire that, uncontrolled, could consume the world.”

The fourth and final camp is made up of the “not yets,” who point out that everything is still accelerating—population, technofossil production, CO2 emissions—with no reason to believe things will stabilize and some reason to expect dramatic upheavals. Many geologists predict that the next two centuries will bring a mass extinction event of a magnitude seen only five times before (e.g., the dinosaur die-off ). A number of drastic changes triggered by climate change may lie in store, according to an IPCC report released March 31—not only extinctions, but also food and water shortages, irreversible loss of coral reefs and Arctic ice, and “abrupt or drastic changes” like Greenland melting or the Amazon rainforest drying.

It’s here that the conversation veers from the scientific into the panicked, which does not sit well with Mike Osborne, a Stanford Ph.D student in earth sciences and the creator of the “Generation Anthropocene” podcast. More comfortable with data and description than prediction, Osborne eschews apocalyptic thinking, and he doesn’t like the vitriol and politicization of the climate-change debate.

But of course, the issue is political, because it’s inseparable from human choices. A forthcoming peer-reviewed study funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center warns of the potential for “irreversible” collapse of civilization in the next few decades and stresses that the key factors are both environmental and social. The study says that the enormous consumption of resources is dangerous specifically because it is paired with “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]”—noting that these two features were common to the toppling of numerous empires, from Han to Roman, over the last 5,000 years.

The issue is also emotional. One side calls the other “alarmist” and “hysterical,” which may be code for “I can’t handle hearing this.” Even for believers, there seems to be a gap between apprehending the problem and believing in a solution. Pew found that 62 percent of Americans understand that climate change is happening and 44 percent believe it’s human-caused, but when Pew asked Americans in another survey what our government’s top priority should be, climate change ranked 19th of 20 issues, just above global trade.

Osborne says he “hesitate[s] to be overly optimistic or pessimistic,” even though, with his first child just born, the earth’s future weighs on his mind. “The Anthropocene’s great utility for me in terms of imagination,” he says, “is that at its best, it comes with a sense of awe: Holy cow, the world is freaking huge and amazing and beautiful and scary.”

By inviting awe rather than—or along with—terror, the Anthropocene may offer a way to grapple with climate change rather than deny it.“The pace of change seems to be ever accelerating, but so does the response. I am loathe to underestimate human ingenuity,” says Osborne. Zalasiewicz and Osborne both think that certain effects of the Anthropocene, like warming and biodiversity loss, warrant environmentalist solutions, such as measures to curb CO2 emissions, and wildlife preserves on both land and sea.

Whatever the working group proposes in 2016—which must then be affirmed by three higher bodies—Zalasiewicz believes the concept of the Anthropocene is here to stay. “If it wasn’t useful, if it was a catchphrase, it would have quite quickly fallen by the wayside,” he says. “It packages up a whole range of different isolated phenomena—ocean acidification, landscape change, biodiversity loss—and integrates them into a common signal or trend or pattern.”

Perhaps the data-driven, methodical approach of geology is what this debate needs. To Osborne, the Anthropocene is exciting because it forces us to look closely at what’s really happening and challenges our tendency to think in a nature/human divide. In the Anthropocene model, the earth’s workings and fate are intertwined with our own. Indeed, science theorist Bruno Latour goes so far as to say that the Anthropocene could mark “the final rejection of the separation between Nature and Human that has paralyzed science and politics since the dawn of modernism.”

*   *   *

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? (The Guardian)

Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system

This NASA Earth Observatory released on

This Nasa Earth Observatory image shows a storm system circling around an area of extreme low pressure in 2010, which many scientists attribute to climate change. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The independent research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The HANDY model was created using a minor Nasa grant, but the study based on it was conducted independently. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharrei and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:

“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”

Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”

In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”

Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:

“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.

Although the study based on HANDY is largely theoretical – a ‘thought-experiment’ – a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed

  • This article was amended on 26 March 2014 to reflect the nature of the study and Nasa’s relationship to it more clearly.

Imagining the Anthropocene (AEON)

The Anthropocene idea has been embraced by Earth scientists and English professors alike. But how useful is it?

Jedediah Purdy is Professor of Law at Duke University in North Carolina. His forthcoming book is After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.

Edited by Ross Andersen

Officially, for the past 11,700 years we have been living in the Holocene epoch. From the Greek for ‘totally new’, the Holocene is an eyeblink in geological time. In its nearly 12,000 years, plate tectonics has driven the continents a little more than half a mile: a reasonably fit person could cover the scale of planetary change in a brisk eight-minute walk. It has been a warm time, when temperature has mattered as much as tectonics. Sea levels rose 115 feet from ice melt, and northern landscapes rose almost 600 feet, as they shrugged off the weight of their glaciers.

But the real news in the Holocene has been people. Estimates put the global human population between 1 million and 10 million at the start of the Holocene, and keep it in that range until after the agricultural revolution, some 5,000 years ago. Since then, we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the Earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and industrial waste, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction. Rising sea levels are now our doing. As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.

This is why, from the earth sciences to English departments, there’s a veritable academic stampede to declare that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans. Coined by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and brought to public attention in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, the term remains officially under consideration at the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London.

The lack of an official decision has set up the Anthropocene as a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal change in the human/nature relationship. The rise of agriculture in China and the Middle East? The industrial revolution and worldwide spread of farming in the Age of Empire? The Atomic bomb? From methane levels to carbon concentration, from pollen residue to fallout, each of these changes leaves its mark in the Earth’s geological record. Each is also a symbol of a new set of human powers and a new way of living on Earth.

The most radical thought identified with the Anthropocene is this: the familiar contrast between people and the natural world no longer holds. There is no more nature that stands apart from human beings. There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed. Our mark is on the cycle of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA that organises matter into life. The question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.

The discovery that nature is henceforth partly a human creation makes the Anthropocene the latest of three great revolutions: three kinds of order once thought to be given and self-sustaining have proved instead to be fragile human creations. The first to fall was politics. Long seen as part of divine design, with kings serving as the human equivalents of eagles in the sky and oaks in the forest, politics proved instead a dangerous but inescapable form of architecture – a blueprint for peaceful co‑existence, built with crooked materials. Second came economics. Once presented as a gift of providence or an outgrowth of human nature, economic life, like politics, turned out to be a deliberate and artificial achievement. (We are still debating the range of shapes it can take, from Washington to Greece to China.) Now, in the Anthropocene, nature itself has joined the list of those things that are not natural. The world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.

The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents is rooted in hundreds of eminently practical problems. The conversation about climate change has shifted from whether we can keep greenhouse-gas concentrations below key thresholds to how we are going to adapt when they cross those thresholds. Geo‑engineering, deliberately intervening in planetary systems, used to be the unspeakable proposal in climate policy. Now it is in the mix and almost sure to grow more prominent. As climate change shifts ecological boundaries, issues such as habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; they need landscape-scale corridors and other help in migrating as their habitats move. There is open talk in law-and-policy circles about triage in species preservation – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save.

What work is this idea of the Anthropocene doing in culture and politics? As much as a scientific concept, the Anthropocene is a political and ethical gambit. Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making. So far so good. The trouble starts when this charismatic, all-encompassing idea of the Anthropocene becomes an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for one’s preferred version of ‘taking responsibility for the planet’.

Peter Kareiva, the controversial chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, uses the theme ‘Conservation in the Anthropocene’ to trash environmentalism as philosophically naïve and politically backward. Kareiva urges conservationists to give up on wilderness and embrace what the writer Emma Marris calls the ‘rambunctious garden’. Specifically, Kareiva wants to rank ecosystems by the quality of ‘ecosystem services’ they provide for human beings instead of ‘pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake’. He wants a pro‑development stance that assumes that ‘nature is resilient rather than fragile’. He insists that: ‘Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.’ In other words, the end of nature is the signal to carry on with green-branded business as usual, and the business of business is business, as the Nature Conservancy’s partnerships with Dow, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, J P Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the mining giant Rio Tinto remind us.

Kareiva is a favourite of Andrew Revkin, the roving environmental maven of The New York Times Magazine, who touts him as a paragon of responsibility-taking, a leader among ‘scholars and doers who see that new models for thinking and acting are required in this time of the Anthropocene’. This pair and their friends at the Breakthrough Institute in California can be read as making a persistent effort to ‘rebrand’ environmentalism as humanitarian and development-friendly (and capture speaking and consultancy fees, which often seem to be the major ecosystem services of the Anthropocene). This is itself a branding strategy, an opportunity to slosh around old plonk in an ostentatiously shiny bottle.

Elsewhere in The New York Times Magazine, you can enjoy the other end of the Anthropocene projection screen, from business-as-usual to this-changes-everything. In his essay ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’ (2013), the Princeton scholar and former soldier Roy Scranton writes: ‘this civilisation is already dead’ (emphasis original) and insists that the only way forward is ‘to realise there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves’ and therefore ‘get down to the hard work … without attachment or fear’. He concludes: ‘If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.’

Other humanists bring their own preoccupations to a sense of gathering apocalypse. In his influential essay ‘The Climate of History’ (2008), Dipesh Chakrabarty, a theory-minded historian at the University of Chicago, proposes that the Anthropocene throws into question all received accounts of human history, from Whiggish optimism to his own post-colonial postmodernism. He asks anxiously: ‘Has the period from 1750 to the present been one of freedom or that of the Anthropocene?’ and concludes that the age requires a new paradigm of thought, a ‘negative universal history’.

In their introduction to Ecocriticism (2012), a special issue of American Literature, the English scholars Monique Allewaert of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michael Ziser of the University of California Davis describe the Anthropocene as best captured in ‘a snapshot of the anxious affect of the modern world as it destroys itself – and denies even its own traces’.

The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds. But it does turn them up to 11

All of these people (except for the branding opportunists) are trying, with more or less success, to ask how the Anthropocene changes the projects to which they’ve given chunks of their lives. Some far-ranging speculation and sweeping summaries are to be expected, and forgiven. Nonetheless, something in the Anthropocene idea seems to provoke heroic thinking, a mood and rhetoric of high stakes, of the human mind pressed up against the wall of apocalypse or arrived at the end of nature and history.

In this provocative defect, Anthropocene talk is a discourse of responsibility, to borrow a term from Mark Greif’s study of mid-20th-century American thought, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015). Greif argues that a high-minded (but often middle-brow) strain of rhetoric responded to the horrors of the world wars and the global struggles thereafter with a blend of urgent language and sweeping concepts (or pseudo-concepts): responsibility, the fate of man, the urgency of now. Greif describes discourses of responsibility as attempts to turn words and thoughts, uttered in tones of utmost seriousness, into a high form of action. All of this is recognisable in Anthropocene talk. The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds, strictly speaking, on point of their cherished convictions. But it does turn them up to 11.

On the whole, this is the inevitable and often productive messiness that accompanies a new way of seeing, one that unites many disparate events into a single pattern. As an offer to unify what might seem unrelated, ‘the Anthropocene’ is an attempt to do the same work that ‘the environment’ did in the 1960s and early ’70s: meld problems as far-flung as extinction, sprawl, litter, national parks policy, and the atom bomb into a single phenomenon called ‘the ecological crisis’. Such a classification is always somewhat arbitrary, though often only in the trivial sense that there are many ways to carve up the world. However arbitrary, it becomes real if people treat it as real, by forming movements, proposing changes, and passing laws aimed at ‘the environment’.

We know what the concept ‘the environment’ has wrought but what will the Anthropocene be like? To put this over-dramatised idea in the least heroic garb possible, what will the weather be like in the Anthropocene? And how will we talk about the weather there?

For all the talk of crisis that swirls around the Anthropocene, it is unlikely that a changing Earth will feel catastrophic or apocalyptic. Some environmentalists still warn of apocalypse to motivate could-be, should-be activists; but geologic time remains far slower than political time, even when human powers add a wobble to the planet. Instead, the Anthropocene will be like today, only more so: many systems, from weather to soil to your local ecosystem, will be in a slow-perennial crisis. And where apocalyptic change is a rupture in time, a slow crisis feels normal. It feels, in fact, natural.

So the Anthropocene will feel natural. I say this not so much because of the controversial empirics-cum-mathematics of the climate-forecasting models as because of a basic insight of modernity that goes back to Rousseau: humanity is the adaptable species. What would have been unimaginable or seemed all but unintelligible 100 years ago, let alone 500 (a sliver of time in the evolutionary life of a species), can become ordinary in a generation. That is how long it took to produce ‘digital natives’, to accustom people to electricity and television, and so on for each revolution in our material and technological world. It takes a great deal of change to break through this kind of adaptability.

This is all the more so because rich-country humanity already lives in a constant technological wrestling match with exogenous shocks, which are going to get more frequent and more intense in the Anthropocene. Large parts of North America regularly experience droughts and heat waves that would devastate a simpler society than today’s US. Because the continent is thoroughly engineered, from the water canals of the West to the irrigation systems of the Great Plains to air conditioning nearly everywhere, these are experienced as inconvenience, as mere ‘news’. The same events, in poorer places, are catastrophes.

Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce. Are enslaved people kept illiterate and punished brutally when they are not servile? Then ignorance and servility must be in their nature, an idea that goes back in a continuous line to Aristotle. The same goes for women, with some edits to their nature: docile, nurturing, delicate, hysterical, etc. It was not until Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill worked together on The Subjection of Women (published under his name alone in 1869), that English-language philosophy produced a basic challenge to millennia of nature-talk about sexual difference.

The expulsion of Native Americans was ‘justified’ on several versions of nature. Maybe they were racially different. Maybe their climate made them weak and irrational, unable to cultivate the land or resist European settlement. (Colonists briefly embraced this idea, then grew uneasy when they realised that the North American climate was now theirs; by the time of American independence, they raced to reject climatic theories of racial character.) Maybe Native Americans had simply failed to fulfil the natural duty of all mankind, to clear and plant the wilderness and make it bloom like an English garden, an idea that many theorists of natural law advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries. One way or another, nature was a kind of ontological insurance policy for human injustice.

And now? Well, it’s common wisdom that rising sea levels will first affect some of the world’s poorest people, notably in Bangladesh and coastal India. But it’s much worse than that grim geographic coincidence. Wealth has always meant some protection from nature’s cruel measures. In fact, that is the first spur to technology and development of all kinds: not to be killed. Tropical diseases with changing range will find some populations well-equipped with vaccination and medicine, others struggling with bad government and derelict health systems. When seas rise fast, even the feckless but rich US will begin adapting fast, and coastal flooding will be classified in the rich-world mind as a catastrophe of the poor.

So will starvation. A legal regime of unequal Anthropocene vulnerability is well underway. Take the vast, long-term leases that Chinese companies have entered into for some of Africa’s richest farmland. When drought, soil exhaustion or crop crisis puts a pinch on global food supply, contracts and commerce will pull trillions of calories to fat-and-happy Beijing. This is, of course, only the latest chapter in centuries of imperialism and post-imperial, officially voluntary global inequality. But it is the chapter that we the living are writing.

Neoliberal environmentalism aims to bring nature fully into the market, merging ecology and economy

For the moment, Anthropocene inequality has a special affinity with neoliberalism, the global extension of a dogmatic market logic and increasingly homogenous market forms, along with an accompanying ideology insisting that, if the market is not beyond reproach, it is at least beyond reform: there is no alternative. Where previous episodes of global ecological inequality took place under direct imperial administration – witness the Indian famines of the late 19th century, suffered under British rule – ours is emerging under the sign of free contract. Anthropocene inequality is thus being doubly laundered: first as natural, second as the voluntary (and presumptively efficient) product of markets. Because human activity now shapes the ‘natural’ world at every point, it is especially convenient for that world-shaping activity to proceed in its own pseudo-natural market.

But Anthropocene problems also put pressure on the authority of economics. Much of environmental economics has been built on the concept of the externality, economist-speak for a side-effect, a harm or benefit that has no price tag, and so is ignored in market decisions. Air pollution – free to the polluter – is the classic bad side-effect, or ‘negative externality’. Wetlands – not valued on the real-estate market, but great sources of filtration, purification and fertility, which would otherwise cost a lot to replicate – are the model positive externality. So neoliberal environmentalism, which Kareiva’s Nature Conservancy has been cultivating, aims to bring nature fully into the market, finding a place in the bottom line for all former side-effects, and fully merging ecology and economy.

In a climate-changed Anthropocene, the side-effects overwhelm the ‘regular’ market in scale and consequence. And there is no ‘neutral’, purely market-based way to put a value on side-effects. Take the example of carbon emissions. It is possible to create a market for emissions, as Europe, California and other jurisdictions have done; but at the base of that market is a political decision about how to value the economic activity that emits carbon against all the (uncertain and even speculative) effects of the emissions. The same point holds for every (post-)natural system on an Anthropocene planet. Ultimately, the question is the value of life, and ways of life. There is no correct technocratic answer.

The shape of the Anthropocene is a political, ethical and aesthetic question. It will answer questions about what life is worth, what people owe one another, and what in the world is awesome or beautiful enough to preserve or (re)create. Either the answers will reproduce and amplify existing inequality or they will set in motion a different logic of power. Either the Anthropocene will be democratic or it will be horrible.

A democratic Anthropocene would start from a famous observation of the economics Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen: no minimally democratic society has ever suffered a famine. Natural catastrophes are the joint products of natural and human systems. Your vulnerability to disaster is often a direct expression of your standing in a political (and economic) order. The Anthropocene stands for the intensifying merger of ecology, economics and politics, and one’s standing in those systems will increasingly be a single question.

But talk of democracy here is – like much about the Anthropocene – in danger of becoming abstract and moralising. Reflecting on a democratic Anthropocene becomes an inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent – a state, or even a movement – that could act on the scale of the problem. Indeed, it reveals that there is no agent that could even define the problem. If the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the planet, well, there is no ‘humanity’ that agrees on any particular meaning and imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc. To think about the Anthropocene is to think about being able to do nothing about everything. No wonder the topic inspires compensatory fantasies that the solution lies in refining the bottom line or honing personal enlightenment – always, to be sure, in the name of some fictive ‘we’.

This returns us to the basic problem that the Anthropocene drives home: as Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the idea of human rights – such as the right to democratic standing in planetary change – is a chimera and a cruel taunt without a political community that can make it good through robust institutions and practices. The Anthropocene shows how far the world is from being such a polity, or a federation of such polities, and how much is at stake in that absence. The world is too much with us. Worse, there is no ‘we’ to be with it.

In the face of all these barriers, what could all this talk about the Anthropocene possibly accomplish? Ironically, a useful comparison lies in Arendt’s target, the mere idea of human rights. While mere ideas are in fact sorry comforts in an unmanageable situation, they can be the beginning of demands, projects, even utopias, that enable people to organise in new ways to pursue them. The idea of human rights has gained much of its force this way, as a prism through which many efforts are focused and/or refracted.

A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.

31 March 2015

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Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy (Nature)

David Victor

01 April 2015

David G. Victor calls for the IPCC process to be extended to include insights into controversial social and behavioural issues.

Illustration by David Parkins

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is becoming irrelevant to climate policy. By seeking consensus and avoiding controversy, the organization is suffering from the streetlight effect — focusing ever more attention on a well-lit pool of the brightest climate science. But the insights that matter are out in the darkness, far from the places that the natural sciences alone can illuminate.

With the ink barely dry on the IPCC’s latest reports, scientists and governments are planning reforms for the next big assessment12. Streamlining the review and writing processes could, indeed, make the IPCC more nimble and relevant. But decisions made at February’s IPCC meeting in Nairobi showed that governments have little appetite for change.

The basic report-making process and timing will remain intact. Minor adjustments such as greater coverage of cross-cutting topics and more administration may make the IPCC slower. Similar soul searching, disagreement, indecision and trivial procedural tweaks have followed each of the five IPCC assessments over the past 25 years3.

This time needs to be different. The IPCC must overhaul how it engages with the social sciences in particular (see Fields such as sociology, political science and anthropology are central to understanding how people and societies comprehend and respond to environmental changes, and are pivotal in making effective policies to cut emissions and collaborate across the globe.

The IPCC has engaged only a narrow slice of social-sciences disciplines. Just one branch — economics — has had a major voice in the assessment process. In Working Group III, which assesses climate-change mitigation and policy, nearly two-thirds of 35 coordinating lead authors hailed from the field, and from resource economics in particular. The other social sciences were mostly absent. There was one political scientist: me. Among the few bright spots in that report compared with earlier ones is greater coverage of behavioural economics and risk analysis. In Working Group II, which assesses impacts and adaptation, less than one-third of the 64 coordinating lead authors were social scientists, and about half of those were economists.

Bringing the broader social sciences into the IPCC will be difficult, but it is achievable with a strategy that reflects how the fields are organized and which policy-relevant questions these disciplines know well. It will require big reforms in the IPCC, and the panel will have to relinquish part of the assessment process to other organizations that are less prone to paralysis in the face of controversy.

Tunnel vision

The IPCC walks a wavering line between science, which requires independence, and diplomacy, which demands responsiveness to government preference. Although scientists supply and hone the material for reports, governments have a say in all stages of assessment: they adopt the outline for each chapter, review drafts and approve the final reports.

“Insights such as which policies work (or fail) in practice are skirted.”

Such tight oversight creates incentives for scientists to stick to the agreed scope and strip out controversial topics. These pressures are especially acute in the social sciences because governments want to control statements about social behaviour, which implicate policy. This domain covers questions such as which countries will bear the costs of climate change; schemes for allocating the burden of cutting emissions; the design of international agreements; how voters respond to information about climate policy; and whether countries will go to war over climate-related stress. The social sciences can help to provide answers to these questions, key for effective climate policy. In practice, few of these insights are explored much by the IPCC.

The narrowness of what governments will allow the IPCC to publish is particularly evident in the summary for policy-makers produced at the end of each assessment. Governments approve this document line-by-line with consensus. Disagreements range from those over how to phrase concepts such as a ‘global commons’ that requires collective action to those about whole graphs, which might present data in ways that some governments find inconvenient.

For example, during the approval of the summary from Working Group III last April, a small group of nations vetoed graphs that showed countries’ emissions grouped according to economic growth. Although this format is good science — economic growth is the main driver of emissions — it is politically toxic because it could imply that some countries that are developing rapidly need to do more to control emissions4.

Context dependent

The big problem with the IPCC’s output is not the widely levelled charge that it has become too policy prescriptive or is captivated by special interests5. Its main affliction is pabulum — a surfeit of bland statements that have no practical value for policy. Abstract, global numbers from stylized, replicable models get approved because they do not implicate any country or action. Insights such as which policies work (or fail) in practice are skirted. Caveats are buried or mangled.

Readers of the Working Group III summary for policy-makers might learn, for instance, that annual economic growth might decrease by just 0.06 percentage points by 2050 if governments were to adopt policies that cut emissions in line with the widely discussed goal of 2 °C above pre-industrial levels6. They would have to wade through dense tables to realize that only a fraction of the models say that the goal is achievable, and through the main report to learn that the small cost arises only under simplified assumptions that are far from messy reality.

Source: Ref. 6

That said, the social sciences are equally culpable. Because societies are complex and are in many ways harder to study than cells in a petri dish, the intellectual paradigms across most of the social sciences are weak. Beyond a few exceptions — such as mainstream economics — the major debates in social science are between paradigms rather than within them.

Consider the role of international law. Some social scientists treat law like a contract; others believe that it works mainly through social pressures. The first set would advise policy-makers to word climate deals precisely — to include targets and timetables for emissions cuts — and to apply mechanisms to ensure that countries honour their agreements. The second group would favour bold legal norms with clear focal points — striving for zero net emissions, for example7. Each approach could be useful in the right context.

Multiple competing paradigms make it hard to organize social-science knowledge or to determine which questions and methods are legitimate. Moreover, the incentives within the social sciences discourage focusing on particular substantive topics such as climate change — especially when they require interdisciplinary collaboration. In political science, for example, research on political mobilization, administrative control and international cooperation among other specialities are relevant. Yet no leading political-science department has a tenured professor who works mainly on climate change8.

The paradigm problem need not be paralysing. Social scientists should articulate why different intellectual perspectives and contexts lead to different conclusions. Leading researchers in each area can map out disagreement points and their relevance.

Climate scientists and policy-makers should talk more about how disputes are rooted in different values and assumptions — such as about whether government institutions are capable of directing mitigation. Such disputes help to explain why there are so many disagreements in climate policy, even in areas in which the facts seem clear9.

Unfortunately, the current IPCC report structure discourages that kind of candour about assumptions, values and paradigms. It focuses on known knowns and known unknowns rather than on deeper and wider uncertainties. The bias is revealed in how the organization uses official language to describe findings — half of the statements in the Working Group III summary were given a ‘high confidence’ rating (see ‘Confidence bias’).

Wider vista

Building the social sciences into the IPCC and the climate-change debate more generally is feasible over the next assessment cycle, which starts in October and runs to 2022, with efforts on the following three fronts.

First, the IPCC must ask questions that social scientists can answer. If the panel looks to the social-sciences literature on climate change, it will find little. But if it engages the fields on their own terms it will find a wealth of relevant knowledge — for example, about how societies organize, how individuals and groups perceive threats and respond to catastrophic stresses, and how collective action works best.

Dieter Telemans/Panos

The solar-powered Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India, trains rural villagers in how to install, build and repair solar technologies.

As soon as the new IPCC leadership is chosen later this year, the team should invite major social-sciences societies such as the American Political Science Association, the American and European societies of international law, the American Sociological Association and the Society for Risk Analysis to propose relevant topics that they can assess and questions they can answer. Multidisciplinary scientific organizations in diverse countries — such as the Royal Society in London and the Third World Academy of Sciences — would round out the picture, because social-sciences societies tend to be national and heavily US-based.

These questions should guide how the IPCC scopes its next reports. The agency should also ask such societies to organize what they know about climate by discipline — how sociology examines issues related to the topic, for example — and feed that into the assessment.

Second, the IPCC must become a more attractive place for social-science and humanities scholars who are not usually involved in the climate field and might find IPCC involvement daunting. The IPCC process is dominated by insiders who move from assessment to assessment and are tolerant of the crushing rounds of review and layers of oversight that consume hundreds of hours and require travel to the corners of the globe. Practically nothing else in science service has such a high ratio of input to output. The IPCC must use volunteers’ time more efficiently.

Third, all parties must recognize that a consensus process cannot handle controversial topics such as how best to design international agreements or how to govern the use of geoengineering technologies. For these, a parallel process will be needed to address the most controversial policy-relevant questions.

This supporting process should begin with a small list of the most important questions that the IPCC cannot handle on its own. A network of science academies or foundations sympathetic to the UN’s mission could organize short reports — drawing from IPCC assessments and other literature — and manage a review process that is truly independent of government meddling. Oversight from prominent social scientists, including those drawn from the IPCC process, could give the effort credibility as well as the right links to the IPCC itself.

The list of topics to cover in this parallel mechanism includes how to group countries in international agreements — beyond the crude kettling adopted in 1992 that split the world into industrialized nations and the rest. The list also includes which kinds of policies have had the biggest impact on emissions, and how different concepts of justice and ethics could guide new international agreements that balance the burdens of mitigation and adaptation. There will also need to be a sober re-assessment of policy goals when it becomes clear that stopping warming at 2 °C is no longer feasible10.

The IPCC has proved to be important — it is the most legitimate body that assesses the climate-related sciences. But it is too narrow and must not monopolize climate assessment. Helping the organization to reform itself while moving contentious work into other forums is long overdue.

Nature 520, 27–29 (02 April 2015), doi:10.1038/520027a


  1. IPCC. Future Work of the IPCC: Chairman’s Vision Paper on the Future of the IPCC (IPCC, 2015).
  2. IPCC. Future Work of the IPCC: Consideration of the Recommendations by the Task Group on Future Work of the IPCC (IPCC, 2015).
  3. Committee to Review the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeClimate Change Assessments: Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCC (InterAcademy Council, 2010).
  4. Victor, D. G.Gerlagh, R. & Baiocchi, G. Science 3453436 (2014).
  5. Hulme, M. et alNature 463730732 (2010).
  6. IPCCSummary for Policymakers in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
  7. Hafner-Burton, E. M.Victor, D. G. & Lupu, Y. Am. J. Intl Law 1064797 (2012).
  8. Keohane, R. O. PS: Political Sci. & Politics 481926 (2015).
  9. Hulme, M. Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).
  10. Victor, D. G. & Kennel C. F. Nature 5143031 (2014).

Anthropocene: The human age (Nature)

Momentum is building to establish a new geological epoch that recognizes humanity’s impact on the planet. But there is fierce debate behind the scenes.

Richard Monastersky

11 March 2015

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Almost all the dinosaurs have vanished from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. The fossil hall is now mostly empty and painted in deep shadows as palaeobiologist Scott Wing wanders through the cavernous room.

Wing is part of a team carrying out a radical, US$45-million redesign of the exhibition space, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. And when it opens again in 2019, the hall will do more than revisit Earth’s distant past. Alongside the typical displays of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, there will be a new section that forces visitors to consider the species that is currently dominating the planet.

“We want to help people imagine their role in the world, which is maybe more important than many of them realize,” says Wing.

This provocative exhibit will focus on the Anthropocene — the slice of Earth’s history during which people have become a major geological force. Through mining activities alone, humans move more sediment than all the world’s rivers combined. Homo sapiens has also warmed the planet, raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.

Given the magnitude of these changes, many researchers propose that the Anthropocene represents a new division of geological time. The concept has gained traction, especially in the past few years — and not just among geoscientists. The word has been invoked by archaeologists, historians and even gender-studies researchers; several museums around the world have exhibited art inspired by the Anthropocene; and the media have heartily adopted the idea. “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” The Economist announced in 2011.

The greeting was a tad premature. Although the term is trending, the Anthropocene is still an amorphous notion — an unofficial name that has yet to be accepted as part of the geological timescale. That may change soon. A committee of researchers is currently hashing out whether to codify the Anthropocene as a formal geological unit, and when to define its starting point.

But critics worry that important arguments against the proposal have been drowned out by popular enthusiasm, driven in part by environmentally minded researchers who want to highlight how destructive humans have become. Some supporters of the Anthropocene idea have even been likened to zealots. “There’s a similarity to certain religious groups who are extremely keen on their religion — to the extent that they think everybody who doesn’t practise their religion is some kind of barbarian,” says one geologist who asked not to be named.

The debate has shone a spotlight on the typically unnoticed process by which geologists carve up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history. Normally, decisions about the geological timescale are made solely on the basis of stratigraphy — the evidence contained in layers of rock, ocean sediments, ice cores and other geological deposits. But the issue of the Anthropocene “is an order of magnitude more complicated than the stratigraphy”, says Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester, UK, and the chair of the Anthropocene Working Group that is evaluating the issue for the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).

Written in stone

For geoscientists, the timescale of Earth’s history rivals the periodic table in terms of scientific importance. It has taken centuries of painstaking stratigraphic work — matching up major rock units around the world and placing them in order of formation — to provide an organizing scaffold that supports all studies of the planet’s past. “The geologic timescale, in my view, is one of the great achievements of humanity,” says Michael Walker, a Quaternary scientist at the University of Wales Trinity St David in Lampeter, UK.

Walker’s work sits at the top of the timescale. He led a group that helped to define the most recent unit of geological time, the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago.

Sources: Dams/Water/Fertilizer, IGBP; Fallout, Ref. 5; Map, E. C. Ellis Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369, 1010–1035 (2011); Methane, Ref. 4

The decision to formalize the Holocene in 2008 was one of the most recent major actions by the ICS, which oversees the timescale. The commission has segmented Earth’s history into a series of nested blocks, much like the years, months and days of a calendar. In geological time, the 66 million years since the death of the dinosaurs is known as the Cenozoic era. Within that, the Quaternary period occupies the past 2.58 million years — during which Earth has cycled in and out of a few dozen ice ages. The vast bulk of the Quaternary consists of the Pleistocene epoch, with the Holocene occupying the thin sliver of time since the end of the last ice age.

When Walker and his group defined the beginning of the Holocene, they had to pick a spot on the planet that had a signal to mark that boundary. Most geological units are identified by a specific change recorded in rocks — often the first appearance of a ubiquitous fossil. But the Holocene is so young, geologically speaking, that it permits an unusual level of precision. Walker and his colleagues selected a climatic change — the end of the last ice age’s final cold snap — and identified a chemical signature of that warming at a depth of 1,492.45 metres in a core of ice drilled near the centre of Greenland1. A similar fingerprint of warming can be seen in lake and marine sediments around the world, allowing geologists to precisely identify the start of the Holocene elsewhere.

“The geologic timescale, in my view, is one of the great achievements of humanity.”

Even as the ICS was finalizing its decision on the start of the Holocene, discussion was already building about whether it was time to end that epoch and replace it with the Anthropocene. This idea has a long history. In the mid-nineteenth century, several geologists sought to recognize the growing power of humankind by referring to the present as the ‘anthropozoic era’, and others have since made similar proposals, sometimes with different names. The idea has gained traction only in the past few years, however, in part because of rapid changes in the environment, as well as the influence of Paul Crutzen, a chemist at the Max Plank Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

Crutzen has first-hand experience of how human actions are altering the planet. In the 1970s and 1980s, he made major discoveries about the ozone layer and how pollution from humans could damage it — work that eventually earned him a share of a Nobel prize. In 2000, he and Eugene Stoermer of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor argued that the global population has gained so much influence over planetary processes that the current geological epoch should be called the Anthropocene2. As an atmospheric chemist, Crutzen was not part of the community that adjudicates changes to the geological timescale. But the idea inspired many geologists, particularly Zalasiewicz and other members of the Geological Society of London. In 2008, they wrote a position paper urging their community to consider the idea3.

Those authors had the power to make things happen. Zalasiewicz happened to be a member of the Quaternary subcommission of the ICS, the body that would be responsible for officially considering the suggestion. One of his co-authors, geologist Phil Gibbard of the University of Cambridge, UK, chaired the subcommission at the time.

Although sceptical of the idea, Gibbard says, “I could see it was important, something we should not be turning our backs on.” The next year, he tasked Zalasiewicz with forming the Anthropocene Working Group to look into the matter.

A new beginning

Since then, the working group has been busy. It has published two large reports (“They would each hurt you if they dropped on your toe,” says Zalasiewicz) and dozens of other papers.

The group has several issues to tackle: whether it makes sense to establish the Anthropocene as a formal part of the geological timescale; when to start it; and what status it should have in the hierarchy of the geological time — if it is adopted.

When Crutzen proposed the term Anthropocene, he gave it the suffix appropriate for an epoch and argued for a starting date in the late eighteenth century, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Between then and the start of the new millennium, he noted, humans had chewed a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, doubled the amount of methane in the atmosphere and driven up carbon dioxide concentrations by 30%, to a level not seen in 400,000 years.

When the Anthropocene Working Group started investigating, it compiled a much longer long list of the changes wrought by humans. Agriculture, construction and the damming of rivers is stripping away sediment at least ten times as fast as the natural forces of erosion. Along some coastlines, the flood of nutrients from fertilizers has created oxygen-poor ‘dead zones’, and the extra CO2 from fossil-fuel burning has acidified the surface waters of the ocean by 0.1 pH units. The fingerprint of humans is clear in global temperatures, the rate of species extinctions and the loss of Arctic ice.

The group, which includes Crutzen, initially leaned towards his idea of choosing the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of the Anthropocene. But other options were on the table.

Some researchers have argued for a starting time that coincides with an expansion of agriculture and livestock cultivation more than 5,000 years ago4, or a surge in mining more than 3,000 years ago (see ‘Humans at the helm’). But neither the Industrial Revolution nor those earlier changes have left unambiguous geological signals of human activity that are synchronous around the globe (see ‘Landscape architecture’).

This week in Nature, two researchers propose that a potential marker for the start of the Anthropocene could be a noticeable drop in atmospheric CO2 concentrations between 1570 and 1620, which is recorded in ice cores (see page 171). They link this change to the deaths of some 50 million indigenous people in the Americas, triggered by the arrival of Europeans. In the aftermath, forests took over 65 million hectares of abandoned agricultural fields — a surge of regrowth that reduced global CO2.

Landscape architecture

A model of land use, based on human-population estimates, suggests that people modified substantial parts of the continents even thousands of years ago.

Land used intensively by humans.

8,000 years before present (bp)

8,000 years before present (bp)

1,000 years before present (bp)




Source: E. C. Ellis Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369, 1010–1035 (2011).

In the working group, Zalasiewicz and others have been talking increasingly about another option — using the geological marks left by the atomic age. Between 1945 and 1963, when the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty took effect, nations conducted some 500 above-ground nuclear blasts. Debris from those explosions circled the globe and created an identifiable layer of radioactive elements in sediments. At the same time, humans were making geological impressions in a number of other ways — all part of what has been called the Great Acceleration of the modern world. Plastics started flooding the environment, along with aluminium, artificial fertilizers, concrete and leaded petrol, all of which have left signals in the sedimentary record.

In January, the majority of the 37-person working group offered its first tentative conclusion. Zalasiewicz and 25 other members reported5 that the geological markers available from the mid-twentieth century make this time “stratigraphically optimal” for picking the start of the Anthropocene, whether or not it is formally defined. Zalasiewicz calls it “a candidate for the least-worst boundary”.

The group even proposed a precise date: 16 July 1945, the day of the first atomic-bomb blast. Geologists thousands of years in the future would be able to identify the boundary by looking in the sediments for the signature of long-lived plutonium from mid-century bomb blasts or many of the other global markers from that time.

A many-layered debate

The push to formalize the Anthropocene upsets some stratigraphers. In 2012, a commentary published by the Geological Society of America6 asked: “Is the Anthropocene an issue of stratigraphy or pop culture?” Some complain that the working group has generated a stream of publicity in support of the concept. “I’m frustrated because any time they do anything, there are newspaper articles,” says Stan Finney, a stratigraphic palaeontologist at California State University in Long Beach and the chair of the ICS, which would eventually vote on any proposal put forward by the working group. “What you see here is, it’s become a political statement. That’s what so many people want.”

Finney laid out some of his concerns in a paper7 published in 2013. One major question is whether there really are significant records of the Anthropocene in global stratigraphy. In the deep sea, he notes, the layer of sediments representing the past 70 years would be thinner than 1 millimetre. An even larger issue, he says, is whether it is appropriate to name something that exists mainly in the present and the future as part of the geological timescale.

“It’s become a political statement. That’s what so many people want.”

Some researchers argue that it is too soon to make a decision — it will take centuries or longer to know what lasting impact humans are having on the planet. One member of the working group, Erle Ellis, a geographer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that he raised the idea of holding off with fellow members of the group. “We should set a time, perhaps 1,000 years from now, in which we would officially investigate this,” he says. “Making a decision before that would be premature.”

That does not seem likely, given that the working group plans to present initial recommendations by 2016.

Some members with different views from the majority have dropped out of the discussion. Walker and others contend that human activities have already been recognized in the geological timescale: the only difference between the current warm period, the Holocene, and all the interglacial times during the Pleistocene is the presence of human societies in the modern one. “You’ve played the human card in defining the Holocene. It’s very difficult to play the human card again,” he says.

Walker resigned from the group a year ago, when it became clear that he had little to add. He has nothing but respect for its members, he says, but he has heard concern that the Anthropocene movement is picking up speed. “There’s a sense in some quarters that this is something of a juggernaut,” he says. “Within the geologic community, particularly within the stratigraphic community, there is a sense of disquiet.”

Zalasiewicz takes pains to make it clear that the working group has not yet reached any firm conclusions.“We need to discuss the utility of the Anthropocene. If one is to formalize it, who would that help, and to whom it might be a nuisance?” he says. “There is lots of work still to do.”

Any proposal that the group did make would still need to pass a series of hurdles. First, it would need to receive a supermajority — 60% support — in a vote by members of the Quaternary subcommission. Then it would need to reach the same margin in a second vote by the leadership of the full ICS, which includes chairs from groups that study the major time blocks. Finally, the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences must approve the request.

At each step, proposals are often sent back for revision, and they sometimes die altogether. It is an inherently conservative process, says Martin Head, a marine stratigrapher at Brock University in St Catharines, Canada, and the current head of the Quaternary subcommission. “You are messing around with a timescale that is used by millions of people around the world. So if you’re making changes, they have to be made on the basis of something for which there is overwhelming support.”

Some voting members of the Quaternary subcommission have told Nature that they have not been persuaded by the arguments raised so far in favour of the Anthropocene. Gibbard, a friend of Zalasiewicz’s, says that defining this new epoch will not help most Quaternary geologists, especially those working in the Holocene, because they tend not to study material from the past few decades or centuries. But, he adds: “I don’t want to be the person who ruins the party, because a lot of useful stuff is coming out as a consequence of people thinking about this in a systematic way.”

If a proposal does not pass, researchers could continue to use the name Anthropocene on an informal basis, in much the same way as archaeological terms such as the Neolithic era and the Bronze Age are used today. Regardless of the outcome, the Anthropocene has already taken on a life of its own. Three Anthropocene journals have started up in the past two years, and the number of papers on the topic is rising sharply, with more than 200 published in 2014.

By 2019, when the new fossil hall opens at the Smithsonian’s natural history museum, it will probably be clear whether the Anthropocene exhibition depicts an official time unit or not. Wing, a member of the working group, says that he does not want the stratigraphic debate to overshadow the bigger issues. “There is certainly a broader point about human effects on Earth systems, which is way more important and also more scientifically interesting.”

As he walks through the closed palaeontology hall, he points out how much work has yet to be done to refashion the exhibits and modernize the museum, which opened more than a century ago. A hundred years is a heartbeat to a geologist. But in that span, the human population has more than tripled. Wing wants museum visitors to think, however briefly, about the planetary power that people now wield, and how that fits into the context of Earth’s history. “If you look back from 10 million years in the future,” he says, “you’ll be able to see what we were doing today.”

Nature 519, 144–147 (12 March 2015), doi:10.1038/519144a


  1. Walker, M. et alJ. Quat. Sci. 24317 (2009).
  2. Crutzen, P. J. & Stoermer, E. F. IGBP Newsletter 411718 (2000).
  3. Zalasiewicz. J. et alGSA Today 18(2), 48 (2008).
  4. Ruddiman, W. F. Ann. Rev. Earth. Planet. Sci. 414568 (2013).
  5. Zalasiewicz, J. et alQuatern. Int. (2015).
  6. Autin, W. J. & Holbrook, J. M. GSA Today 22(7), 6061 (2012).
  7. Finney, S. C. Geol. Soc. Spec. Publ. 3952328 (2013).

Michael Lewis: Our Appetite for Apocalypse (Radio Open Source)


m lewis redoMichael Lewis is the non-fiction novelist of our apocalyptic American mindset in 2010. The heroes of The Big Short, as he puts it in conversation “were betting on the end of the world… The only characters you can really trust are the people who are delivering a very, very dark message.”

Michael Lewis, remember, was never really a sportswriter, despite MoneyballCoach and The Blind Side. Nor was he ever a finance guy, despite the prescience of Liar’s Poker and his sure touch now with the Wall Street collapse of 2007-2008. Michael Lewis’s real business and his genius instinct is for resonant social fables that just happen to play out on ballfields and bond markets.

The Big Short is a high literary feat, complete with a real-life “unreliable narrator,” a particularly despised contrarian bond dealer, Greg Lippmann, who was betting brazenly against his own market. “The guy selling the best ideas is a completely untrustworthy character,” the author remarks. The true center of The Big Short is an atmosphere of anxiety that has developed a taste for the catastrophic. Lewis’s short-selling characters resonate because they’re acting out our common sense of “the probability of extreme change” in financial markets and in real life. It’s an anxiety that envelops Tea Baggers and Greenpeaceniks in the same cloud of anger.

ML: The broader thing about all these characters to me is that their attitudes, their approach to life, their ability to hear the data, was something that was marginalized in the system itself. They didn’t belong, none of them belonged, and they should have belonged. What is it about the system that doesn’t want them as a part of it? And it’s terrifying when all the people who were wrong are in charge, and all the people who are right are on the outside.

CL: It sure is. To me there’s a direct analogy to be drawn with the war in Iraq. The Congress signed off “oh well, he must know something.” Tony Blair embraced it. The media by and large encouraged it. A very, very few people said “are you kidding?” And yet the ones that warned against the war in Iraq got the same prize that your guys got for warning of the meltdown.

ML: Yes. Ostracism.

CL: Exactly, and they’re still ostracized.

ML: It’s funny. There is an analogy. And the analogy is there’s a kind of a blind faith in leadership that is the result in both cases of ordinary people feeling they can’t evaluate the situation because it’s too complicated. The financial system got so complicated, and the complexity became opacity. When Alan Greenspan stands up and says something, no one understands what he’s saying. But they think that’s a good thing, because it’s all so complicated they shouldn’t understand what he’s saying. And the fact is they should. The fact is, if things aren’t being explained in a way you and I can understand them, it should be a bad sign, not a good sign. But the complexity was turned on its head. It was used as a way to mask bad things that were happening.

There’s a joke in it all. The joke is that the financial system, and there are analogies to the political system, but the financial system wanted to do something it really shouldn’t do. It wanted to make lots of loans that it shouldn’t make. They created all this risk that was going to blow up the system. In order to do that they needed to disguise the risk. So to disguise the risk it used all this complexity, which served as a smokescreen. And the joke is that it ended up disguising the risk from itself. That the very people who created the smokescreen were engulfed in it, and they couldn’t parse the system they created.

Michael Lewis with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 7, 2010.

The Anthropocene Myth (Jacobin)


Blaming all of humanity for climate change lets capitalism off the hook.

by Andreas Malm

A coal-cleaning plant near Pittsburgh. John Collier / Library of Congress

A coal-cleaning plant near Pittsburgh. John Collier / Library of Congress

Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. And yet, the latest figures show that in 2013 the source that provided the most new energy to the world economy wasn’t solar, wind power, or even natural gas or oil, but coal.

The growth in global emissions — from 1 percent a year in the 1990s to 3 percent so far this millennium — is striking. It’s an increase that’s paralleled our growing knowledge of the terrible consequences of fossil fuel usage.

Who’s driving us toward disaster? A radical answer would be the reliance of capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy. Some, however, would rather identify other culprits.

The earth has now, we are told, entered “the Anthropocene”: the epoch of humanity. Enormously popular — and accepted even by many Marxist scholars — the Anthropocene concept suggests that humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.

According to these scholars, such degradation is the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s “business-as-usual.” Indeed, the proponents cannot argue otherwise, for if the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to defend.

Their story centers on a classic element: fire. The human species alone can manipulate fire, and therefore it is the one that destroys the climate; when our ancestors learned how to set things ablaze, they lit the fuse of business-as-usual. Here, write prominent climate scientists Michael Raupach and Josep Canadell, was “the essential evolutionary trigger for the Anthropocene,” taking humanity straight to “the discovery that energy could be derived not only from detrital biotic carbon but also from detrital fossil carbon, at first from coal.”

The “primary reason” for current combustion of fossil fuels is that “long before the industrial era, a particular primate species learned how to tap the energy reserves stored in detrital carbon.” My learning to walk at the age of one is the reason for me dancing salsa today; when humanity ignited its first dead tree, it could only lead, one million years later, to burning a barrel of oil.

Or, in the words of Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill: “The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.” In this narrative, the fossil economy is the creation precisely of humankind, or “the fire-ape, Homo pyrophilus,” as in Mark Lynas’s popularization of Anthropocene thinking, aptly titled The God Species.

Now, the ability to manipulate fire was surely a necessary condition for the commencement of large-scale fossil fuel combustion in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Was it also the cause of it?

The important thing to note here is the logical structure of the Anthropocene narrative: some universal trait of the species must be driving the geological epoch that is its own, or else it would be a matter of some subset of the species. But the story of human nature can come in many forms, both in the Anthropocene genre and in other parts of climate change discourse.

In an essay in the anthology Engaging with Climate Change, psychoanalyst John Keene offers an original explanation for why humans pollute the planet and refuse to stop. In infancy, the human being discharges waste matter without limits and learns that the caring mother will take away the poo and the wee and clean up the crotch.

As a result, human beings are accustomed to the practice of spoiling their surroundings: “I believe that these repeated encounters contribute to the complementary belief that the planet is an unlimited ‘toilet-mother’, capable of absorbing our toxic products to infinity.”

But where is the evidence for any sort of causal connection between fossil fuel combustion and infant defecation? What about all those generations of people who, up to the nineteenth century, mastered both arts but never voided the carbon deposits of the earth and dumped them into the atmosphere: were they shitters and burners just waiting to realize their full potentials?

It’s easy to poke fun at certain forms of psychoanalysis, but attempts to attribute business-as-usual to the properties of the human species are doomed to vacuity. That which exists always and everywhere cannot explain why a society diverges from all others and develop something new – such as the fossil economy that only emerged some two centuries ago but now has become so entrenched that we recognize it as the only ways human can produce.

As it happens, however, mainstream climate discourse is positively drenched in references to humanity as such, human nature, the human enterprise, humankind as one big villain driving the train. In The God Species, we read: “God’s power is now increasingly being exercised by us. We are the creators of life, but we are also its destroyers.” This is one of the most common tropes in the discourse: we, all of us, you and I, have created this mess together and make it worse each day.

Enter Naomi Klein, who in This Changes Everything expertly lays bare the myriad ways in which capital accumulation, in general, and its neoliberal variant, in particular, pour fuel on the fire now consuming the earth system. Giving short shrift to all the talk of a universal human evildoer, she writes, “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

So how do the critics respond? “Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet,” philosopher John Gray counters in the Guardian. “It would be be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world.”

Gray isn’t alone. This schism is emerging as the great ideological divide in the climate debate, and proponents of the mainstream consensus are fighting back.

In the London Review of Books, Paul Kingsnorth, a British writer who has long argued that the environmental movement should disband and accept total collapse as our destiny, retorts: “Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us”; “in the end, we are all implicated.” This, Kingsnorth argues, “is a less palatable message than one which sees a brutal 1 per cent screwing the planet and a noble 99 per cent opposing them, but it is closer to reality.”

Is it closer to reality? Six simple facts demonstrate the opposite.

First, the steam engine is widely, and correctly, seen as the original locomotive of business-as-usual, by which the combustion of coal was first linked to the ever-expanding spiral of capitalist commodity production.

While it is admittedly banal to point out, steam engines were not adopted by some natural-born deputies of the human species. The choice of a prime mover in commodity production could not possibly have been the prerogative of that species, since it presupposed, for a start, the institution of wage labor. It was the owners of the means of production who installed the novel prime mover. A tiny minority even in Britain — all-male, all-white — this class of people comprised an infinitesimal fraction of humanity in the early nineteenth century.

Second, when British imperialists penetrated into northern India around the same time, they stumbled on coal seams that were, to their great amazement, already known to the natives — indeed, the Indians had the basic knowledge of how to dig, burn, and generate heat from coal. And yet they cared nothing for the fuel.

The British, on the other hand, desperately wanted the coal out of the ground — to propel the steamboats by which they transported the treasure and raw materials extracted from the Indian peasants towards the metropolis, and their own surplus of cotton goods towards the inland markets. The problem was, no workers volunteered to step into the mines. Hence the British had to organize a system of indentured labor, forcing farmers into the pits so as to acquire the fuel for the exploitation of India.

Third, most of the twenty-first century emissions explosion originates from the People’s Republic of China. The driver of that explosion is apparent: it is not the growth of the Chinese population, nor its household consumption, nor its public expenditures, but the tremendous expansion of manufacturing industry, implanted in China by foreign capital to extract surplus value out of local labor, perceived around the turn of the millennium as extraordinarily cheap and disciplined.

That shift was part of a global assault on wages and working conditions — workers all over the world being weighed down by the threat of capital’s relocation to their Chinese substitutes, who could only be exploited by means of fossil energy as a necessary material substratum. The ensuing emissions explosion is the atmospheric legacy of class warfare.

Fourth, there is probably no other industry that encounters so much popular opposition wherever it wants to set up shop as the oil and gas industry. As Klein chronicles so well, local communities are in revolt against fracking and pipelines and exploration from Alaska to the Niger Delta, from Greece to Ecuador. But against them stands an interest recently expressed with exemplary clarity by Rex Tillerson, president and CEO of ExxonMobil: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.” This is the spirit of fossil capital incarnate.

Fifth, advanced capitalist states continue relentlessly to enlarge and deepen their fossil infrastructures — building new highways, new airports, new coal-fired power-plants — always attuned to the interests of capital, hardly ever consulting their people on these matters. Only the truly blind intellectual, of the Paul Kingsnorth-type, can believe that “we are all implicated” in such policies.

How many Americans are involved in the decisions to give coal a larger share in the electric power sector, so that the carbon intensity of the US economy rose in 2013? How many Swedes should be blamed for the ramming through of a new highway around Stockholm — the greatest infrastructure project in modern Swedish history — or their government’s assistance to coal power plants in South Africa?

The most extreme illusions about the perfect democracy of the market are required to maintain the notion of “us all” driving the train.

Sixth, and perhaps most obvious: few resources are so unequally consumed as energy. The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold — and that is an average Canadian, not the owner of five houses, three SUVs, and a private airplane.

A single average US citizen emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi; how much an average US millionaire emits — and how much more than an average US or Cambodian worker — remains to be counted. But a person’s imprint on the atmosphere varies tremendously depending on where she is born. Humanity, as a result, is far too slender an abstraction to carry the burden of culpability.

Ours is the geological epoch not of humanity, but of capital. Of course, a fossil economy does not necessarily have to be capitalist: the Soviet Union and its satellite states had their own growth mechanisms connected to coal, oil, and gas. They were no less dirty, sooty, or emissions-intensive — perhaps rather more — than their Cold War adversaries. So why focus on capital? What reason is there to delve into the destructiveness of capital, when the Communist states performed at least as abysmally?

In medicine, a similar question would perhaps be, why concentrate research efforts on cancer rather than smallpox? Both can be fatal! But only one still exists. History has closed the parenthesis around the Soviet system, and so we are back at the beginning, where the fossil economy is coextensive with the capitalist mode of production — only now on a global scale.

The Stalinist version deserves its own investigations, and on its own terms (the mechanisms of growth being of their own kind). But we do not live in the Vorkuta coal-mining gulag of the 1930s. Our ecological reality, encompassing us all, is the world founded by steam-powered capital, and there are alternative courses that an environmentally responsible socialism could take. Hence capital, not humanity as such.

Naomi Klein’s success and recent street mobilizations notwithstanding, this remains a fringe view. Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.

To portray certain social relations as the natural properties of the species is nothing new. Dehistoricizing, universalizing, eternalizing, and naturalizing a mode of production specific to a certain time and place — these are the classic strategies of ideological legitimation.

They block off any prospect for change. If business-as-usual is the outcome of human nature, how can we even imagine something different? It is perfectly logical that advocates of the Anthropocene and associated ways of thinking either champion false solutions that steer clear of challenging fossil capital — such as geoengineering in the case of Mark Lynas and Paul Crutzen, the inventor of the Anthropocene concept — or preach defeat and despair, as in the case of Kingsnorth.

According to the latter, “it is now clear that stopping climate change is impossible” — and, by the way, building a wind farm is just as bad as opening another coal mine, for both desecrate the landscape.

Without antagonism, there can never be any change in human societies. Species-thinking on climate change only induces paralysis. If everyone is to blame, then no one is.