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What is the Anthropocene?


The increased consensus around the modern impacts humans have made upon the planet is to call it the “Anthropocene,” which correctly demonstrates that in a blink of an eye, humans have changed the planet as much as millions of years of slow geological and biological change. But does that term in fact obscure as much as it reveals? This is something of a literary piece for me to link to, but I think it does some interesting work on this. After all, has the recent transformation been about humans? Or has it been about white humans? Or capitalist humans? How do we assign blame for the destruction of the planet’s ecological foundation, especially if this is going to be a scientific term?

However, two other short Anthropocenes should give us pause.

They both begin in the 1400s and are so profoundly interrelated that they are probably just different ways of looking at the same conjuncture.

The European “discovery,” exploitation, extraction, and colonization of the Americas devastated indigenous populations through disease, conquest, enslavement, resettlement, and other forms of colonial violence. And since the Atlantic slave trade developed to replace indigenous forced labor in the looting of the “New World,” it also devastated African populations. Indigenous Americans had no immunity to smallpox and other diseases that leapt ahead of the European invaders, sometimes eradicating entire peoples before there was any direct contact. In the 150 years after Columbus landed, colonizers wiped out probably 50 million indigenous people, and the jungle reclaimed agricultural land so quickly that its increased uptake of atmospheric CO2 is discernible in early seventeenth-century ice cores.

Intertwined with this violent collision of worlds—which also brought together plant and animal species that had evolved on separate continents for millions of years—is the early modern development of capitalism as a world system, beginning with the Dutch and British agricultural revolutions. As historian Jason W. Moore notes, this otherwise well-established early history of capitalism is obscured in—and by—accounts that prefer to start a short Anthropocene with the industrial revolution in eighteenth-century Britain, and thus to shift the blame, consciously or not, onto “industrialization” rather than capitalism and colonialism.

Yet some would rather stick with the Anthropocene.

For example, in Anthropocene Fictions (2015), Adam Trexler argues that the term avoids such “politically contentious” phrases as “climate change” and “global warming”—for which it is now effectively a euphemism—and moves discussions away from prognosticating outcomes to asserting “a phenomenon that has already been measured and verified across scientific disciplines and conclusively linked to human emissions of fossil fuels”. It refocuses us on a geological process that far exceeds any solution to be found in individual consumer choices, and emphasizes “larger, nonhuman aspects of climate,” such as “the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere,” that “will continue to act” independently of us.

Adopting the aura of scientific authority is not without risk. It appeals to science’s own ideals of objectivism, universalism, skepticism, and disinterestedness, at the same time obscuring the extent to which science is not only a human and social practice but one that is increasingly dominated, directed, and shaped by corporate and state interests, often in direct contradiction of those ideals. And it is not at all clear how effective this borrowed mantle can be when capital’s ideologues, sponsors, and bagmen conceal scientific findings that might undermine profit margins. When they spend decades and dollars muddying the waters. When their manufactured uncertainty is misreported by the media as conflict between equally valid, equally scientific viewpoints. And when, in the crazy dance of illiberalism and undemocracy, ascendant populisms deride expertise and throw out the baby of scientific consensus with the bathwater of technocratic governance.

Furthermore, talking about a geological epoch invites awestruck recoil at sublime magnitudes, which is not necessarily a bad thing, since hubris should be clobbered once in a while, but also risks evasion and complacency.

Yes, as Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (2013) argues, the climate is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” and thus functions on “profoundly different” scales and temporalities than those we are used to. It is so vast as to be “almost impossible to hold in mind.” It showers us with effects and affects, even as it withdraws from our comprehension: we can see rain, but not climate; a banknote, but not the economy. The weather or the dollar bill is but “a flimsy, superficial appearance,” a “mere local representation” of a phenomenon so massive, so extended in space-time, that it finally shatters idiot illusions of linear cause and effect.

But in the face of such debilitating immensity, we cannot merely shrug and take a selfie. We cannot allow the scale of the crises we are already living through, and of those to come, to trump their urgency.

To do so is to condone the impoverishment, immiseration, and deaths of untold billions, human and otherwise.

A lot to chew on there.

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