Consuming the Anthropocene

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by guest contributor Alexis Rider

April 22 was Earth Day: an annual, global, day of mobilization to push for environmental reform. Often painted as the origin story of the environmental movement, Earth Day, which began in 1970, was originally about regulation and education, centering around issues like the ozone hole, oil spills, and pesticide use. 49 years later, in 2019, Earth Day is tinged with greater urgency: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act against the climate crisis, the hottest 20 years in recorded history have occurred in the past 22, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) has announced a million species are at risk of extinction, and extreme weather is increasing as frozen and remote parts of the globe melt at an alarming rate. In response, Extinction Rebellion shut down central London, a teen more savvy than global political leaders leads weekly strikes for climate, and glaciers have Twitter feeds that articulate their own demise. Still, though, political inaction is palpable.

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Extinction Rebellion protesters in London, April 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons

Recently, and with fervor, the concept of the Anthropocene has been deployed within academia to articulate the extent and urgency of the global environmental crisis. Originally articulated by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer at the turn of the millennium, the ‘Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geologic epoch, one which aims “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). In the logic of Anthropocene, humanity has become a forcing mechanism in global natural processes, producing a clash between ‘human’ or ‘shallow’ time, and ‘deep’ or ‘natural’ time. The ‘Anthropocene’ is an acknowledgement that human activities are changing the world at temporal scales far beyond the histories, lifetimes, or political terms humans normally operate within and imagine.

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Graphic of the deep temporal history of the planet. Image: Wiki Commons

In the basic conception of the Anthropocene, there are two actors: mankind and the environment. This sweeping and seemingly compelling divide at once highlights the separation of the two categories and collapses it: if humans are geologic force, we can no longer imagine ourselves outside of nature. Thus, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the Anthropocene brings to an end “the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” which have underpinned Western notions of modernity (Chakrabarty, 2009). In academia, it also challenges traditional divisions of intellectual production—humanities on the one hand, the sciences on the other—that C.P. Snow famously, if problematically, diagnosed as The Two Cultures (Snow, 1959). So, by revealing the inherent interactions of this purported dualism, the Anthropocene is a powerful concept, one that has been gobbled up by the academic world as a new and innovative way to articulate environmental crises, and to revolutionize traditional siloes of thinking and learning. But perhaps the voracious consumption of the Anthropocene should give us pause. If consumption has been the central engine of producing the Anthropocene—for centuries humanity has rapidly exploited the planet for commodification—what of such a rapid and uncritical consumption of the idea itself? What, exactly, are we doing as we ingest and reproduce Anthropocenic thinking?

Critics of the Anthropocene have rightly pointed out what the concept obfuscates: the long and entangled colonial, patriarchal, capitalist histories of environmental exploitation in which humans were not understood as a homogenous group, or as naturally equal. Such critiques are eloquently laid out in, for example, Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (2017). On top of this, far from the revolutionary concept it is purported to be, Anthropocene-thinking is rather familiar: a species-level framework can be found in the environmentalism of Earth Day and it’s more bureaucratic iterations: the IPCC reports and the historic efforts to develop global responses to climate change, from Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) to the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and beyond. History has therefore shown us that this logic, appealing as it may be, doesn’t hold: in Kyoto, for example, efforts to flatten humans into a monolith were led by developed nations—the main burners of fossil fuels—who deployed a claim to a unified planet to shirk their greater responsibility. The end result of these deliberations is, as argued in ‘Carbon tax: Challenging Neoliberal Solutions to Climate Change,’ a neoliberal model of carbon credits, allowing capitalism and consumption to persist, transforming the air itself into a commodity (Andrew et al., 2010). Conceptually, politically, and pragmatically, then, the simplistic version of the Anthropocene is neither new or revolutionary, nor, it seems, effective. Can the idea of humans as geologic agents in any way help us imagine and do more?

While the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene is overly simplistic and rife with problems, the concept’s attention to temporal diversity could perhaps be its redemption. The collision of shallow and deep time begs the question: How can we make sense of, articulate, or engage with an ancient planet in our fleeting moment with it? In trying to hold multiple timescales in our hands at once, the Anthropocene can help push us to different sources, like natural archives; different timelines, like those traced by plastics or corals; different knowledges, particularly indigenous; different framings, such as a position of care; and fundamentally different definitions of what ‘freedom’ should look like. These shifts invert the equation of the Anthropocene by demanding immediate and sustained attention to the structures that have obscured these different ways of being or knowing, those same structures which have helped shape the dominant narratives of environmental action and political and social change.

 

To explore one example briefly. Ice is a productive illustration of the alternative spatial, temporal, and relational modes of thinking possible in a less anthropocentric Anthropocene. Today, as vast chunks of ice detach from Antarctica and high mountain glaciers rapidly retreat, ice is the fragile icon of the climate crisis. But ice also gives us access to an unparalleled natural archive, both in the form of ice cores and in the form of icebergs, which as natural chronometers have recorded the deep history of the planet. These archives remind us that the ebb and flow of ice has shaped the surface of the earth as we know it, and that as interglacial beings, we are subject to the whims of a mass of matter that not only moves, but changes state. But to understand all the facets of the frozen material, Western scientific knowledge-production is not enough. As Julie Cruikshank recounts in Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, to the three First Nation women who are her interlocutors, glaciers “are wilful, sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses” (8). How and why glaciers move, and the natural and social stories they tell, are multiple, entangled and complex: we should treat them, and all matter, human or nonhuman, as such.

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Liliehöökbreen Glacier, Svalbard. Photo by Author.

By rethinking the meaning of ice, by considering existence at conflicting and complex timescales, and by privileging and being attentive to non-Western epistemologies—which, as Zoe Todd notes, are founded on relationalities that are too often touted as ‘new’ by the West—the Anthropocene can open up to ontological reform, to new systems of governance, and revolutionized modes of knowing (Todd, 2016). The result is a radically different relationship with self, others, and place than that which has underpinned so much of Western thought and society—and justified violent modes of extraction, colonization, and consumption—since the Enlightenment. If freedom, long defined as the liberation of humans from nature, is reconceptualized, the Anthropos of the Anthropocene could be diminished. In humble and thoughtful ways, with an eye to moderation, the idea of the Anthropocene can and should still be consumed.

Alexis Rider is a Ph.D Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “A Melting Fossil: Ice, Life, and Time in the Cryosphere, 1840-1970,” asks how ice, an ephemeral and ubiquitous substance, has been deployed by diverse scientific disciplines to understand geologic timescales. Alexis completed her MA at the New School for Social Research, and her B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, which is where she is originally from.

 

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