Decolonising the Anthropocene

Last month I argued that a posthumanist orientation to colonization can help humans to face the challenges of the Anthropocene. And just last week, I read a fascinating article that offers new opportunities for developing this line of critique.

The piece, “Defining the Anthropocene” by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, assesses several of the possible ‘golden spikes’ (more accurately, Global Stratographic Section and Points, or GSSPs) that might mark the advent of the epoch. It engages with several of the better-known options: the beginning of agriculture; the start of the industrial revolution and the first detonation of nuclear weapons. But it also introduces a new candidate: the 1492 Columbian expedition that initiated the intensive European colonization of the Americas. In short, this paper puts forward the novel thesis that colonization is a driving, perhaps even defining, element of the Anthropocene.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick ( Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick ( Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Specifically, it foregrounds the decimation of the human population of the pre-Columbian Americas – the authors cite estimates of 54-61 million people in 1492, which was reduced to a minimum of about 6 million as a result of exposure to diseases, war, famine and enslavement. This period of mass death and killing, they explain, led to the almost comprehensive cessation of farming and a reduction in the use of fire to terraform landscapes. In turn, this sparked the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland, which vastly increased carbon uptake. Drawing on two sources from two Antarctic ice cores, the authors state that this resulted, by 1610, in what was probably the most significant dip in pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels of the past 2000 years. According to the Lewis and Maslin, this event can function as a GSSP because it constituted a global event and has several auxiliary markers (including pollen records showing regeneration, proxies indicating anomalous Arctic sea-ice extent, a reduction in coal deposits and others). The authors refer to this approach as the “Orbis hypothesis”, a name chosen to emphasize the globalization of trade and the modern world-system.

Moreover, the authors draw attention to the so-called Columbian exchange of biota endemic to the ‘new’ and ‘old’ worlds. According to their analysis, this inter-mingling led to a “swift, ongoing, radical reorganization of life on Earth without geological precedent” and, ultimately, has helped to produce the “unprecedented homogenization of the world’s biota”. The unique signature created by the transferral of species during this period, they contend, is “comparable to the appearance of new species as boundary markers in other epoch transitions”, and thus a suitable marker for the Anthropocene. In pointing this out, the authors make important connections between the European project of colonization and the current mass extinction event. This linkage demonstrates the tendency of colonial violence to resonate across species boundaries.

The Orbis hypothesis is a novel development in Anthropocene thinking, and not only because it adds another possible golden spike to the existing array. Crucially, it also makes links between the forms of agency, power and violence that have contributed to the Anthropocene.

One of the most striking contributions that Lewis and Maslin’s argument can make to critical discourses on the Anthropocene is that it introduces violence into the picture. In short, drawing on the Orbis hypothesis, one can reframe the ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene as a foundational moment of violence. For political philosophers from Arendt to Zizek identifying and confronting foundational moments of violence is crucial to understanding the relations of power, violence and oppression that constitute a society. This makes it possible not only to understand why and how a polity has arrived at a particular state of affairs, but also to confront the violence upon which it perhaps uncritically rests. For instance, numerous authors have highlighted the links between democratic lifestyles and the effaced histories of genocide and/or terror that gave rise to them (see, for example, the seminal work of Michael Mann).

In existing discourses of the Anthropocene, there little mention of violence, let alone of constitutive violence. Instead, these discourses tend to be preoccupied with the unintended adverse effects of human interventions into ‘natural’ processes. For instance, most discussions of climate change focus on the effects of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels in interaction with processes such as atmospheric change, ocean acidification and a rise in global temperature. These approaches draw attention to the political, economic and social relations and processes that help to produce these interactions – for instance, the adverse impacts of damaging levels of consumption. But in these cases, the relationship between the harm and the behavior in question is indirect, and sometimes extremely so. It is notoriously difficult to establish intention or responsibility in the case of climate change due to the number of actors involved and their distribution across time and space. On the contrary, colonialism involves direct modes of violence in a concrete historical context: the forms of killing, enslavement, war, rape, political oppression and other acts that constituted the European colonial toolkit. Lewis and Maslin’s argument draws a direct link between the constitutive violence of colonialism and the profound changes in the conditions of earthly life brought about by the Anthropocene. Indeed, both of the possible GSSPs that they suggest (the Orbis hypothesis and the onset of the nuclear age) are rooted specifically in the human capacity for violence. By establishing the relationship between concrete practices of violence and the onset of the Anthropocene, the authors open up a new register for critique.

Another important contribution of this approach is that it expands notions of the violent legacy of colonization, offering evidence that it has altered the entire Earth system. From this perspective, the wounds inflicted by colonization do not pass away with the human bodies it directly enslaves; they are engrained in, and integral to, very lively Earth systems that persist today and will continue far into the future. Moreover, the hypothesis suggests that this legacy of violence has produced global conditions which ultimately encompass and affect all life-forms on Earth. This calls for a re-thinking of the argument developed by Aime Césaire and Frantz Fanon that colonial violence rebounds back to the colonizer. In this interpretation of the Anthropocene, the violent legacy of colonization redounds not directly on the original colonizers, but on the global, interspecies populations of generations that followed the moment of colonization. In other words, the ‘boomerang effect’ of colonial violence appears not so much as a dynamic that ricochets between subject and object, but rather a feedback loop that amplifies as it expands through space and time. And of course, it bears emphasizing that the communities hardest hit by current effects of Anthropocene climate change are those already shaped by a legacy of colonial violence.

Moreover, the article opens up scope for exploring the diachronic relationship between potential markers of the Anthropocene. Most attempts to identify a ‘golden spike’ tend to focus on the synchronic: that is, they isolate a particular ‘moment’ in which the epoch began. In contrast, by arguing that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene”, Lewis and Maslin point out that the annexation of the Americas made the European Industrial Revolution possible. Specifically, this colonial project allowed European states to expand beyond their existing resource base and to develop economically, freeing up labour for industrialization. Highlighting the causal and temporal relations between pivotal moments in the emergence of the Anthropocene can help to illuminate the continuities between forms of power, technology, violence and politics that create seemingly disparate results. For instance, the line drawn by Lewis and Maslin can of course be extended further: the Industrial Revolution made possible the developments in nuclear technology and the ‘Great Acceleration’ that have also been mooted as possible ‘golden spikes’. This, in turn, allows for a more coherent analysis of the driving forces of Anthropocene conditions, their sources and their transmuting manifestations.

For these reasons, Lewis and Maslin’s article offers important opportunities for enhancing and bolstering the important claims of critical theory, and particularly the posthumanist/postcolonial ethos I am proposing. Lewis and Maslin’s hypothesis can help to expand the understanding of the impacts of colonization and its victims, both spatially and temporally. Moreover, it opens up new interpretations of the manifestations of violence, which can help add to the ethical repertoire available to those seeking to understand the causes and effects of the Anthropocene.

Crucially, this approach also suggests that it is crucial to criticize and resist proposed ‘solutions’ to the Anthropocene that involve overtly colonial logics, including many forms of geo-engineering and the colonization of space. It stands to reason that if colonial violence is a major driver of the Anthropocene and its more deadly effects, it is foolhardy to reproduce this logic. The implication is not that such projects should be ruled out, but rather that careful reflection is needed to ensure that they do not reproduce colonial violence, but rather focus on alternative forms of (in)habitation.

However, the article is equally significant because it points to the contribution that postcolonialism, posthumanism and other key critical debates can make to discourses of the Anthropocene, particularly those surrounding its definition. Lewis and Maslin dangle an important idea:

“The Orbis spike implies that colonialism, global trade and coal brought  about the Anthropocene. Broadly, this highlights social concerns, particularly the unequal power relationships between different groups of people, economic growth, the impacts of globalized trade, and our current reliance on fossil fuels”

I say ‘dangle’ because the article points to the co-constitution of political, social, economic, cultural, atmospheric, mineral and many other processes, but does not develop it fully. Fair enough – this is a paper that focuses on the stratigraphic evidence for the temporal definition of the Anthropocene. However, the article hints at ample opportunities for more robust and fruitful collaboration between postcolonial (and other critical) theorists and scientists researching and defining the epoch. Indeed, viewing the argument through a postcolonial lens can help to identify some of its potential drawbacks.

First, the ‘flip side’ of marking European colonization as a driving force of the Anthropocene is that the former may become naturalized. More generally, the risk of equating human forms of agency with ‘natural forces’ is that they come to be seen as inevitable, determinate and less contestible than ‘political forces’. As discussed above, one of the most promising aspects of this article is that it opens up a new arena for the ethico-political critique of the Anthropocene: attention to the role of violence and its fusion with planetary processes. However, it is important to maintain the tension between recognition of the fusion of forces traditionally treated as ‘human’ and ‘natural’ and the political contestation of their ‘naturalness’. This is essential if the Anthropocene is not to become another shorthand for deterministic depoliticization.

Second, while marking a key moment of European colonization as the golden spike of the Anthropocene draws crucial attention to the links between these phenomena, it is important to temper the potential Euro-centrism that such a view might promote. On the one hand, it helps to underscore the idea that the Anthropocene is not the product of ‘humanity’, but rather particular segments of it, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornberg perceptively point out. On the other hand, it may entrench the notion that Europe is the primary mover and originary source of the more expansive forms of power associated with the Anthropocene. In other words, interpreted in an uncritical way, it may suggest that the hyper-magnified form of agency associated with the Anthropocene is another expression of the power and dominance of Europe and its colonial legacies. In a similar sense, the proposed approach might give the impression that colonization is the marker of the ‘human’ and its manifestation in the Anthropocene. The many statues of Christopher Columbus, including the one pictured above, emblematize this image of colonial agency quite literally inscribed into the stone. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the concept of the Anthropocene is not always employed as a tool for critique or reflection. Indeed, it is often lauded as the condition for a hyper-inflated notion of human agency and enhanced control over the planet. For this reason, it is necessary to temper claims about the colonial origins of the Anthropocene with a pluralistic understanding of the other significant, if less dominant, forces and current that shape the planet and social life.

The promise – and the challenge – raised by this article is that this power, and the narratives that surround it, be engaged with critically. Indeed, Maslin and Lewis argue that “the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified”. While this statement tends to attribute more autonomy and objectivity to human agency than is likely to be the case in the conditions of the Anthropocene, it makes an important point. Namely, if adopted and elaborated in a critical and pluralistic way, the Orbis hypothesis can contribute to the important task of decolonizing the Anthropocene – as a discourse, a set of present conditions, and a source of possible futures.


5 responses to “Decolonising the Anthropocene

  • Jonathan Ferguson

    Speaking of posthumanism, do you think that the recent discussions of “ecocentrism” risk replacing the wanton abstractions of humanism with a new vacuous abstraction?

    Do you think that a reified “ecosystem” or “nature” (for example) could risk repeating the process whereby humanism, the god that failed, could not transcend the particularisms it was presented as resolving and assimilating into a higher order?

    Sorry if that sounds really metaphysical., I’m just wondering how a posthumanist ethic might respond to ecocentrism. I’m worried about the risk of a new “God” (as it were).

    I mean, humanism promised to go beyond racial, cultural, national and religious chauvinism; and its record in this regard is not necessarily as good as some would assert or imply.

    • draudramitchell

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for the comment. I agree with what you’ve suggested. It’s really important not to reify ‘nature’ or to frame it as part of a transcendent realm. My take on post-humanism doesn’t involve replacing humanism with another rigid, transcendent category, but rather working on an immanent register to critique these categories and make their boundaries more porous. For that reason, I think it’s better to eschew ‘centric’ arguments in general.

  • Noah Theriault

    Thanks for this excellent post!

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