Looking to become less self-centred and more reflective about the harm you do to the world? Interested in adopting a broader perspective, considering the well-being of others and maybe even gaining some humility about your place in the universe? What better way than to name an entire geological era after yourself?
The concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a warning to humans that they must acknowledge and mitigate their destructive effects on the Earth. Its coiner, Paul Crutzen, has used it to draw attention to how human action has shaped the planet and its complex systems in ways that are unpredictable, long-lasting (in geological timescales), and potentially threatening to humans as well as many other kinds of beings.
‘Anthropocene’ is not just a descriptive term. It is meant to function as a mirror held up to humanity, enabling it to reflect on the long-term damage our species has wrought. So, it should be a valuable concept for anyone interested in critiquing human dominance and its effects.
But in fact, the existing concept of the ‘anthropocene’ magnifies and sometimes even valorizes radical anthropocentrism, reverence of human agency and the desire to gain mastery over nature. In fact, instead of calling for an end to the logics that have created potentially irreversible change, it expresses an anxiety that humans have not yet made the world in their own image. In other words, it does not so much reflect an appeal to move beyond a world shaped by human agency, but rather to achieve one.
Although the concept is hotly debated, a scan of the literature suggests that much of the controversy surrounds when it can be said to have started (see some recent contributions to this debate, for instance here , here and here ), how it can be measured, or whether it exists at all (the position of climate change deniers). I think that the concept itself should be controversial, not for the empirical claims that it makes, but rather for the ontological assumptions it entrenches – and for the fears and desires it projects.
First, as scholars like Bruno Latour and Phillippe Descola have pointed out, the dominant concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is rooted in a radical dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘the human’. This is evident in Crutzen’s claim that the major marker of the anthropocene is the deviation of the climate from ‘natural behaviour’ as a result of human actions. Indeed, Crutzen and Steffen argue that, although the Earth’s climate is subject to variations, human activity has shifted it “well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over the last half million years”. In a similar vein, scholars concerned with restoring ecosystems to correct for these changes aim to return to a ‘natural state’ (for these researchers this is problematically defined as the states existing before European colonization). In each of these cases, human activity is treated as an independent force that acts on (rather than in, or as part of) the Earth and its complex systems, glossed as ‘nature’.
Aside from its ontological and ethical implications, this divide it is also a powerful source of securitization. ‘Nature’, in these discourses, is often treated as a threatening force that is at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, towards human flourishing. For instance, Zalasiewicz et al claim that if human terraforming stopped entirely, that “nature would soon take over these constructions, reducing them to ruins in a matter of centuries. After a few millennia, perhaps only a patchy layer of concrete and building rubble would remain”. A similar argument is made by Alan Weisman in his fascinating counterfactual book, The World Without Us. Weisman argues that, if a human-specific virus wiped humanity from the planet tomorrow, everything from houses to subway systems may be destroyed in a matter of decades by the ‘return’ of nature. Likewise, James Lovelock claims that, when the energy crisis he predicts for the next couple of decades occurs, cities will not only be destroyed, but also consumed. As he puts it, “within a week, all that was alive is dead. The corpses are slowly repossessed by the natural world” (89)
In these cases, ‘nature’ is presented as a quasi-hostile force that would destroy humans if they were to relax their grip on the controls. In fact, these narratives draw on a notion of malevolence that echoes the animism that is so often maligned by Western secular science.
At least, however, this understanding of malevolent ‘nature’ nods at the agency of nonhumans, but it does so in a very limited way. Weisman’s book teems with beings that crowd, thrust, crack, wind, pound and burn their way through human-made artefacts. In this one sense, it is very attuned to the ‘actancy’ of beings other than humans. But, oddly, Weisman focuses almost exclusively on their destructive potential vis a vis human civilization. He doesn’t mention that, or how, their actancy was just as crucial in processes of worldmaking – including those in which humans are not a significant presence. As a result, the causal force of most other beings is treated as largely hostile.
It’s no coincidence that many of these discourses predict a future in which humans are gone, decimated or severely reduced in capabilities. The upshot of all this is that future counterfactuals about the anthropocene often reflect a deathly fear of the end of the anthropocene. This is often linked, however subtly, to the demise of the human, which suggests that humans must control the planet in order to survive in it.
This highlights a paradox at the centre of the concept of the ‘anthropocene’: although the concept is supposed to help us to critique human dominance, it does not encourage humans to relinquish their grip on the control panel. On the contrary, it offers images that make it seem all the more necessary and urgent for humans to redouble their control over ‘nature’ in order to avoid being destroyed. This places the desire to gain control – that is, to self-consciously bring an ‘anthropocene’ age into being – at the heart of this concept.
This desire has produced conflicting images of nature as a piece of inert matter for humans to control (an image which is not at all new). Indeed, the powerful idea behind anthropocene thinking is that humans have made their own geological epoch, turning our ‘redesigned atmosphere’ into a ‘human artifact’ (Weisman, 2008).
Proponents of the concept offer different images of human planetary craftsmanship. For some authors, ‘nature’ is shaped like raw materials by human tools (Zaliewicz et al, 2011 – see above), while for others, human activity is akin to a natural force – but not actually counted as one (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003 – see above). Steffen et al cite Vladimir Vernadsky’s treatise Geochemistry, in which it was claimed that the Earth had entered a ‘psychozoic era’, in which human consciousness and reason had reshaped ‘living matter and inert matter’. Similarly, Lovelock has called humans the ‘nervous system’ of the planet, as if mind were a unique property of humans, which they project onto other beings.
From this perspective, nonhuman beings are either dead matter to be hewn, or living matter to be manipulated. Indeed, Steffen et al go on to claim that one of the key features of the anthropocene in the 21st century is the human mastery of ‘living matter’, or ‘life itself’, through the engineering (or commandeering) of its molecular and genetic bases. The idea that ‘nature’ is inert suggests that humans are the only source of agency or force acting on a motionless, dead Earth, ignoring the multiple sources of agency to which Latour (amongst others) draws our attention.
This raises another red flag with the current concept of the anthropocene: it vastly overestimates, and valorizes, human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, the crux of Crutzen’s argument is that human activity has usurped ‘natural’ forces as the primary determinant of the Earth’s future. Simon Dalby argues that “the much-quoted line from Genesis about humanity as having dominion over nature…can now simply be read as a statement of fact – that is the point of the Anthropocene” (p. 164).
The idea of dominion is key. As in other narratives focused on human exceptionalism, the point is not simply that humans can change the planet on a massive scale, but also that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Smith and Zeder acknowledge that other animals can engage in niche construction, but humans are the only beings to make the entire planet their ‘niche’. The upshot is that human agency is treated as unique, as a form of meta-agency that supercedes – or at least can match – all other forms of causality and force.
This, in turn, effaces the role that other beings play in the emergence of the phenomena in question. Millions of processes – chemical reactions, the adaptation of species in relation other living and non-living beings, geological processes and so on – have interacted with human agency to produce them. Of course, scientific discourses of the anthropocene mention these processes, but they treat them as features of nature, rather than co-actants in the formation of worlds.
Dalby’s reference to the Biblical notion of human dominance also reflects a powerful idea: that humans have literally usurped roles once assigned to deities or higher powers. Donna Haraway suggests that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a secular version of the old Christian story in which all of the Earth labours to give birth to humanity, its ultimate destroyer. I would argue that the Western secular transformation of this story has also added something new to the mix. Elsewhere, I have argued that a hallmark of Western secular belief is the transferral to humans of tasks and capabilities once assigned to the divine. This includes the duty to intervene in the lives of humans and other beings, and even to define their forms of being.
This belief is reflected clearly in notions of geo-engineering – one of the proposed solutions to the threats faced by humans in the ‘anthropocene’ – which elevate human agency to a deity-like status. As Stephen Schneider puts it, “in literature and myth, only gods and magicians had access to controls over the elements” (p.3844), but geo-engineering places this task squarely in human hands. This is a textbook example of the Western secular belief that divine agency has been transferred to human hands.
Geo-engineering takes the basic idea of the anthropocene – the alteration of the planetary system by humans – and packages it as a virtue, perhaps even a necessity for human survival. Whether schemes to artificially whiten clouds, create massive algae blooms to sink carbon or even implement a massive sunshade in space to deflect solar radiation, these mega-projects all rely on concentrated, magnified human domination of other beings to sustain anthropocene conditions. Many scientists have raised doubts about geo-engineering, but they focus primarily on the uncertainty surrounding its effectiveness or its effects. Very few, if any, have raised questions about the wisdom of accentuating anthropocentric logics in order to solve the problems they have helped to create.
Indeed, the idea of geo-engineering prescribes one of its most potent sources of the ‘anthropocene’ crisis as a cure. That is, they almost invariably call for more, and more massive, anthro-instrumental action, the bottom line of which is keeping the Earth comfortably habitable for humans. Granted, Lovelock argues in his typically controversial way that one way of responding to climate crisis is to, like a 19th century doctor who knows little about the disease with which his patient is grappling, ‘let nature take its course’. But in the same breath, he argues that large-scale geo-engineering projects may be necessary to ensure the survival of the human and many other species. In either case, these discourses return to the deep anxiety that the conditions for human life will end, and the powerful desire to create an era in which they can be preserved.
A major alternative response to the problems of the ‘anthropocene’, the ‘planetary boundaries approach’ reflects a wariness about placing too much faith in god-like projects whose outcomes we can’t confidently predict. Instead, it seeks to return human beings to the conditions of the Holocene. Proponents of this approach argue that this is possible if we can find thresholds ‘intrinsic to nature’ (for instance, freshwater use or oceanic acidification), and either return below them or refuse to cross them. This, they claim, will “offe[r] a safe operating space in which humanity can pursue its further development and evolution” (Steffen et al, 2011, 860 – see above). The planetary boundaries approach seems to avoid the worst anthropocentric excesses of geo-engineering. But ultimately, its goals are the same: to ‘return’ to – or perhaps to create for the first time conditions – that are ideal for humans. Again, the single-bottom line of anthro-instrumental thinking lies at that heart of this approach.
In sum, existing discourses of the anthropocene promote a quite strident form of anthropocen( e) trism. This means that adopting and using the concept is problematic for anyone who wants to challenge the major pillars of human dominance and exceptionalism: the human/nature divide, the notion of an inert and/or hostile ‘nature’, and the deification of human agency. In its current form, the term ‘anthropocene’ is also problematic for those who want to see a movement away from the deification of human agency.
So should weak or non-anthropocentrists boycott the concept of the anthropocene? On the contrary, we should struggle to shape it. Most importantly, we should try to expose the fear and desire that drive the current calls to amplify human control and to complete the human domination of the cosmos.
Crucially, its emphasis could shift toward a kind of ‘multiple-bottom line’ in which human survival (or comfort) was one amongst many considerations. Yes, this might involve contemplating – and I don’t mean welcoming, let alone celebrating – the idea that the human population might take a big hit or even disappear. This, in turn, would mean accepting that the planet would not, in fact, end as a result of our demise. Thinking about these scenarios is a good way of exploring the outer boundaries imposed by human fear and desire. But there are also many less extreme scenarios, which might involve emphasizing the needs of other species when thinking about ideal planetary ‘conditions’ and understanding that change does not affect all forms of being uniformly.
To explore the possibility that humans could live and even thrive in a geological era they don’t dominate is not necessarily to call for a return to a pre-industrial or ‘primitive’ form of human life. On the contrary, it involves distinguishing between the concept of flourishing and that of domination, and finding ways of life that reflect the former.
Finally, a re-jigged concept of the anthropocene might challenge the dictum that the efforts of humans to (re)shape the world are uniformly ‘bad’ for ‘nature’ (a notion which is even reflected in critics of geo-engineering). As Rosi Braidotti points out, terraforming (or directed world-building) is one way in which humans intersect with other beings and, in Deleuzian language, ‘become-Earth’. It might be that the best way forward is to look for forms of terra-forming that are more aware and respectful of the other beings with which humans co-constitute worlds, that acknowledge and draw on various forms of agency, actancy and complex causality.
Most people who use the term ‘anthropocene’ want to see an end to the enormous damage that may result from human interventions in the Earth system. But do they call for an end to an era of human domination? Not very often. While the conditions associated witht he anthropocene are treated as deeply undesirable, the image of an anthropocene – an age controlled by humans – is the subject of desire lying beneath this discourses . To make this argument is not to deny the catastrophic events and phenomena described by those who subscribe to the concept of the ‘anthropocene’. Rather, it is to contest the ontological and affective underpinnings of the concept, and the subtle ways in which it pushes us into highly damaging logics and beliefs. We should not assume that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ automatically performs a critical function. It needs to be appropriated – perhaps even subverted – in order to do this.