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.
I am interested in the concept of the anthropocene as an emerging object of and vehicle for practices of public reason. That is to say that, like Martin, I am much more concerned with anthropocene as cultural category and way of thinking, than I am about the empirical truth of the claim that we are in a new geological era. The notion of public reason is concerned with the relationship between citizens and the state, or other scales of governance. It seeks to explore how different nations and governance arrangements might be characterised by different modes of thought, with different standards of what makes governance decisions legitimate under conditions of increasing uncertainty and how institutions can be held accountable. The potentially radically destabilising notion of the anthropocene could have a role in reconfiguring prominent modes of public reason, or forging entirely new connections and possibilities for legitimacy at new scales and in new arenas of governance. We have already seen some of this around the creation of novel transnational institutional forms like the IPCC and (more recently) the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or through the governance dilemmas thrown up by emerging genetic technologies, or the possibility of geo-engineering.

I find it interesting and exciting that although the initial definition of the anthropocene can be traced neatly back to the initial claims made by scientists Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen, the concept has reached mainstream adoption and understanding through the advocacy and conceptual work both of scientists and environmentalists, often understanding and representing the matter from radically different perspectives. Furthermore, there are clear complementarities between the category-blurring notion of the anthropocene, and earlier branches of deep-green philosophy and thought which sought to challenge assumed divisions between nature and culture and to take a more holistic view of human activities in the world. Artists and writers, as well as social scientists, have also increasingly become involved in representing, debating and organising the meanings and politics of the anthropocene, entering the arena with diverse expectations and reasons for interest in the concept.

If, as Martin suggests, the anthropocene is ushering in a constitutional moment, with the potential for developing new understandings of the world and associated ways of governing and ordering, the existing involvement and commitments of diverse communities in the concept, seem to me to open up fascinating opportunities for exchange, collaboration and political action. As Martin mentioned in his post, there has been some concern that the notion of the anthropocene and related concepts like planetary boundaries could act simply to reinforce the legitimacy of science as the only authority equipped to both define and address the challenges that the anthropocene brings. Yet on the other hand,  the diverse cacophany of voices already involved in debates about the anthropocene means that this concept also has the potential to open up the definition of and engagement with societal challenges to new ways of knowing and being; in other words, to let new voices in.

The anthropocene has the potential to bring about new collaborations, debates and conditions of possibility in several ways. Firstly, this emergent concept can provide a focal point and a new language to transcend entrenched debates, from the nature and predictability of human behaviour to the science versus anti-science tenor of many debates around emerging technologies. This potential for transcendence is in part due to the relative novelty of the concept and its still loose definition in popular usage. Parallels could be drawn here to the emergence of the notion of sustainability in the early 1980s, again a term which, for a time, was able to unite seemingly disparate interests - what some have referred to as a 'discourse coalition'. Where I think the two concepts differ, is that whilst sustainability is an essentially reformist concept, which to the disappointment of many was readily swallowed into the service of powerful interests and existing discourses, the notion of the anthropocene, if we take it seriously, is an unavoidably radical one. At its very core the anthropocene implies a rethinking of the place of humans in nature, of old dualities and of our trusted sources of knowledge and political legitimacy. It is this radical and challenging character which may be productive: encouraging this new and diverse discourse coalition to go about producing something new, instead of relying on old certainties.
Secondly, and related to my first point, in its current emergent form the notion of the anthropocene has succeeded in accommodating radically different ideological, ontological, epistemological and perhaps even theological standpoints. For example, in my own area of environmental social sciences fantastic scholarly work on the anthropocene has emerged from disciplines as diverse as cultural geography, biogeography, earth systems governance and political ecology. All disciplinary groupings which could readily and intractably come to blows around any number of empirical and methodological issues, and which have had many such disagreements in the past. Yet now they are happily publishing in the same journals, attending the same conferences, even referencing each other or starting to collaborate. This of course doesn't mean that they agree with each other; but rather that they have a way to work together and develop their ideas without the need for agreement. Here I would very much agree with Jim Proctor's sentiments that there are and have always been multiple and hybrid ways of being in and understanding humans in nature. And it is precisely this diversity and multiplicity which the anthropocene both necessitates and thrives on.

Thirdly, the anthropocene represents an opening because it contains the potential for understanding our position in the world differently; indeed in multiple ways. It is a concept which is perhaps big enough to urge transformation on the level of values and ontology in a way that could never have happened in response to one singular societal or environmental challenge, from globalisation to climate change. As was discussed in Martin's post, the anthropocene both illustrates and motivates challenges to the increasingly untenable modernist settlement of science and politics. Following the realisation that scientific 'facts' may not be sufficient or even available for the legitimisation of political decisions and institutions, it follows that we need to find new ways of ensuring political legitimacy and democratic accountability. In other words, new forms and practices of public reason.

The work of the artist Edward Burtynsky - towards a new ethics and aesthetics of the anthropocene?
Furthermore, the anthropocene has implications for our ethical frameworks and environmentalisms. Simultaneously conceited (that humans have had the power to usher in a new geological era) and humbling (that there is nothing which fundamentally distinguishes us from or holds us above the category 'nature'), the anthropocene potentially renders useless conventional discourses of environmental care, such as conserving pristine natural environments from human interference. Yet the anthropocene is also freeing in this regard, as it can collapse what have previously been perceived tensions, such as the oft-discussed trade-off between caring for human needs and dignities and protecting natural systems.

So whilst there are many challenges and potential pitfalls associated with the emerging concept and age of the anthropocene, it might also lead to radical new openings and political possibilities. As an emergent mode of thinking and acting the anthropocene is a potentially productive concept which goes beyond old certainties, assumptions and forms of action. And it is precisely this potential productivity, the current diversity of perspectives, and the currently in-the-making  status of the concept, which excites me. 


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first
    comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.
    I will keep visiting this blog very often.
    flights to Umrah

  2. Hi,
    I read the two writings, Martin and your, and I think that it’s a very interested thing. When I have read Martin writing I left a little commentary about name and concept, but I like idea itself although the name dirty it and it can induce the same mistakes as always. I hope this brief and understandable even my pathetic English.
    I’m science one and I know that every classification has an arbitrary component, for example Quaternaries includes only 4 million years and Secudaries (Paleozoic) 3.000 million years, and this is due at quantity of information that we has. But Anthopocene even with a change of criteria in classification I think that it isn’t a geologic age, it would be a new thinking age or historical age; but it will be a new geological age Earth must has had a change, and this didn’t happen in human times. Next explain it.
    Humans and all species that have lived on earth have left their mark and humans have a very deep mark, but mark doesn’t mean a change. Earth dynamics is moving independently of what humans do. Well we change climate, as we can see lately, but climate change is a thing that make is something that it would do equally without our help. On other side climate change could be very dramatic for us and more species of the planet, but it’s only a little fluctuation inner climate of zenozoic that is a glaciation; humans can’t live in Cretaceous for example and this is a real geological change climate. In fact humans haven’t enough power to cause a real change in geologic (for luck) but if to kill all people (unfortunately).
    At this point there is the main point of my objection. If we begin a new thinking age and nominally it as a geological age means that we are changing the World. Our world yes, but not the Earth. It’s true that majority of species that humans found at beginning of his way are lost but number of species that lived in Earth and now don’t exist is several magnitudes greater that there was then. When humans disappear our constructions disappear in a few millennia, the main agent that modifies the Earth remains erosion. We changed our environment but essentially remain equal: there are the same mountains, continents are in the same site and if we see climate at great scale this is the same that last 22 million years. We are a little specie that makes little fluctuation and little changes can finish us. Talk about a change geological age is a usual human prepotency that shows how we don’t learn anything.
    If we want a real change first we must put us in our site: we are nothing by Earth and as it gives our life then it can takes (seems like a bit of priest and don’t be my intension). I think that our change must be honest with ourselves, and discuss our relationship with nature (or universe that you want) but not on an equal footing but conscious of our dependence on it.