Friday, 19 April 2013

The Anthropocene - reflections on a concept, part 2

From the artist David Thomas Smith's series
'Anthropocene'. Three Gorges Dam. 
Following on from this post by Martin last week, here are a few reflections of my own on the concept of the anthropocene, and its potential to stimulate new debates and new forms of political action.

I must admit to having, until recently, reacted with scepticism and disinterest to the conversations and (as I saw it) hyped-up claims about this new geological era, which were being bandied about by some deep-green activist-type friends and some of more offbeat natural scientists. This feeling remained unchanged whilst the concept began to garner more mainstream interest and prominence. Why are we getting distracted with impossible to answer questions about large-scale earth system changes, I thought? Does this really help us to tackle important environmental and social challenges in the here and now? Isn't this all a little vague and naively romantic to be going about trying to claim that humanity's relationship with the natural world has undergone a fundamental physical and metaphysical shift? And how narcissistic of us to start making such vast claims about our importance and influence!

I can't put my finger on exactly what has changed my view. It probably has something to do with attrition, and it is also linked to the increasing number of highly imaginative and thoughtful academic and artistic projects related to the concept which I've become aware of. Whatever it is, I have started to move away from seeing the anthropocene as a difficult to prove and potentially calamitously distracting concept, towards being more aware of the potential openings and opportunities that can come from this increasingly prominent way of thinking.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Anthropocene - reflections on a concept, part I

Illustration: (c) Benedikt Rugar 2012
The idea that we now inhabit the 'Anthropocene' has really taken off. Even though I had to teach the word to my web browser's in-built dictionary in writing that last sentence, a Google search for 'Anthropocene' yields over half a million results. There is now an academic journal bearing the name, numerous research programmes take the idea as a starting point, and an increasing number of events and conferences are using the idea to stage interdisciplinary exchange between physical and social scientists (see for example the forthcoming conference in Bristol on 'Society in the Anthropocene', and the ongoing project in Germany led by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt).

Source: The Economist
The notion that the widespread impacts of human activities on the environment have led us into a new geological era was first formulated by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. For them, human activities are having such a profound effect on the functioning of the earth's natural systems that changes are occurring at a pace which is unprecedented in geological history.

In this post, I want to explore a little of the relevance of the concept 'Anthropocene' to our understandings of  how knowledge and politics, and nature and culture, are related to each other. In a later post, Helen will offer some reflections on the deliberative openings which the concept offers. The Anthropocene is already becoming a site of exciting interdisciplinary conversations. Here, I will reflect a little on what scholars in science and technology studies (STS) and geography might have to contribute to these debates.