Tuesday, 23 July 2013

'Society in the Anthropocene' - Reflections

A few weeks ago Martin and I attended the 'Society in the Anthropocene' conference at the University of Bristol, hosted by the Cabot Institute and the journal Economy and Society. More information about the conference, including recordings of many of the talks, can be found here. There is a forthcoming special issue in the journal Economy and Society which will feature many of the papers from the conference. It was a very interesting and enjoyable conference, with a line-up of top academics that read a little bit like an undergraduate geography syllabus - many of my formative academic heroes were there. In this post I will offer some reflections on the conference, following up on the posts that Martin and I wrote back in April.

Perhaps what was most striking about the conference was the diversity of accounts of the Anthropocene which were offered. The presenters chose variously to bring capitalism, modernity, the military, medicine, agriculture, climate change, politics, ethics, the urban, aid, technologies of environmental impact assessment and human reproduction into the frame in their accounts of the anthropocene. The top cited theorists at the conference were Arendt, Foucault and Latour, though they were rarely cited by the same people. Zizek, Sloterdijk and Haraway also garnered quite a few citations. But again, though I dare say such theorists have been cited together in the past, they are hardly natural bed fellows. There were also differences in the narratives of the Anthropocene offered, with huge variations in temporality (prehistoric to twentieth century), causality (industrialisation, to changes in awareness, to alterations in human biological processes) and focus.

Image credit. www.gambassa.com
One the most obvious fault lines between the different accounts offered of the Anthropocene centre around the relationship between the human and the non-human. Some speakers chose to emphasise the entanglement of the human and non-human (e.g. Gisli Palsson) and evoke the Latourian/Callonian collapsing of the nature/culture boundary (e.g. Erik Swyngedouw) as Martin discussed in his previous post. These speakers detailed numerous connections between humans and non-humans, from human involvement in global level environmental processes like climate change down to the micro-level organisms and objects which are implicated in the processes within our bodies which are necessary for human life. In contrast to this, other speakers felt it was important to retain the nature/culture distinction and to emphasise that the blurring of the human and non-human is not universal but rather highly contextual. For example, Nigel Clark (for a paper similar to his talk see here) argued for the need to accept the existence of deeply inhuman processes, such as geological processes.

Image credit: wordlesstech.com
Another clear point of disagreement at the conference concerned the role of social scientists and humanists in relation to natural scientists and engineers. The conference had been explicitly set up to give social scientists a space and a platform to discuss the concept of the Anthropocene on their own terms, and to develop distinctively social scientific concerns and approaches to its study. I suspect this resonated with a wider feeling that social scientists are all too often viewed as the junior partner in their collaborations with their natural scientist colleagues, and there were strong arguments made that social scientists should not be simply accepting and working with natural science framings of the Anthropocene. Whilst this was probably the dominant view at the conference, there was also a vocal minority who felt that this perspective was arrogant and counter-productive. I suspect that this view springs in part from an implicit acceptance of the natural science framings of the Anthropocene - i.e. "humans have irrevocably changed the environment, and now we need to do something about it". So following this argument, several people thought it was damaging to be excluding natural scientists and engineers from our discussions as they are the people who have the skills and expertise to deal with the problem under this framing (see Melissa Leach's discussion of the scientific framings here).

The conference presentations and discussions demonstrated well that in the social sciences and humanities at least there is still concern and anxiety about the relevance and usefulness of the term 'Anthropocene'. On the one hand, many acknowledged that it would have been difficult to get such a range of coverage of different topics and conceptual commitments at a conference organised around any other singular theme. And there were certainly points during the conference when we really felt that these different perspectives were starting to come into conversation with each other and clash in interesting ways. On the other hand, there was a sense with many of the presentations that they could easily have been given in the absence of any mention of the Anthropocene at all, without loosing any of their argument or content - indeed one or two of the presenters were quite open about this. So an important question to ask about future studies around the Anthropocene is: how can we avoid it becoming an umbrella-like term which only loosely encompasses existing work and approaches from climate politics to the political economy of genetic medicine? Or to put it more positively: (how) can humanists and social scientists develop novel and contexually appropriate conceptual resources for the study of the diverse contours of the Anthropocene? What, if anything, can the concept add to our existing analyses? And how can it be used to enrich our collaborations with scientists, artists, policy makers and others?


  1. What a fascinating post. I love the philosophical debate that this is generating – in particular the implications it has for modern society and natural resource management.

    The Anthropocene is quite an interesting concept. Although, even as a social scientist, I'm not sure how much I agree with naming an epoch after ourselves. I agree that human impact is far reaching, and the climate change has clearly been set in motion by our activities. More often than not, the correct management of most natural resources also boils down to the management and changing of human activity (although biological/ecological data is still necessary before we can decide what that change needs to be).

    While I appreciate the value of the concept of the "Anthropocene" and its value in forcing people to take responsibility for their actions, I guess I just disagree philosophically with naming an epoch after ourselves. We are part of the natural world, evolved as part of it and continue to live in it, change it and are correspondingly subjected to impacts from it. Sure, we might well have caused large enough climatic and ecological change to justify a new epoch, I just feel that naming it after ourselves is a bit vain. None of the other epochs were named after the ‘dominant’ species/species assemblages at the time. We are after all, not the only creatures inhabiting the planet at this time.

    I'll definitely continue to follow this blog. Very cool stuff.


    Owen Li

  2. Thanks for your kind and interesting comment, Owen!

    I didn't put it in this post but there was quite a lot of discussion at the conference about the 'hazard of epochalism', which I think is similar to what you are getting at. People were concerned that the concept of the Anthropocene somewhat over claims human importance in changing earth systems - 'are we not products of our environment after all?' - but also it forces us to use a narrative of dramatic and comprehensive change occurring, rather than recognising granularity, diversity and complexity. So there is the question of whether we gain any analytical or political benefits from aggregating all of these very different processes and effects under one label.


    1. RE: cancellation of places at Cabot Institute Anthoposcene: Fire etc to non members of staff

      FROM Stephen LAYLAND TO 1 recipient Stephen LAYLAND To amanda.woodman-hardy@bristol.ac.uk

      Amanda. I had indeed ovelooked the conditional rider in my rush to reserve places.

      I might observe - on leaving - that it would seem that the material grid of Earth, Fire, Water and Air measurements of the Anthropscene would seem oblivious to all that is beyond that sensible realm - akin to reflections on the spirit of emergent [differentlty-rational] qualities/apprehensions.

      “In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.”

      Joseph Beuys Artist.

      Thanks for letting me know. I will certainly take the hint.