This is not the Anthropocene

No social scientist could have coined a term as vainglorious and as catchy as the ‘Anthropocene’. No, that honour, as most people probably know, goes to the late Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist, and his publicist, the chemistry Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen. It means, simply, that we have entered an epoch in which humanity has become a force that is altering all earth systems. The term’s supposed moral message is that we are both perpetrators and witnesses of a vast planetary eco-crime, as well as our own judge, jury and perhaps executioner (not even Columbo could disentangle that mess). Since our consciousness has elevated us to writers and readers of planetary history we know longer have the luxury of denial: the Anthropocene is our red pill.

I’m writing here because I’m fed up with the term. That humanity is now altering the planet on a geological scale seems so obvious and seductive that it has become a lazy commonplace; instead of a grand ethical game-changer, it is already sounding like homespun homily. The term reminds me of a Jean Luc Picard “moral message” at the end of a bad episode of Star Trek TNG. Patrick Stewart never even had the grace to look pained at his terrible script, he just went all Shakespearean and grandiose, trotting out Federation dogma for the Captain’s Log, with an eye to posterity – his anthropocene sermon would go something like, “Look, history, upon the juncture where our ancestors finally woke up from their sad delusion!”

The Anthropocene is an attractive hook, certainly. Elsevier thinks it might make them some money (red alert, shields to maximum). I’ve deployed it myself in a job presentation (I did feel a bit dirty, but I think the geoscience bods liked it). But here are three reasons why this is not the Anthropocene:

1. Reports of nature’s death tend to be greatly exaggerated, and are certainly nothing new.

1989: Bill McKibben lamenting how climate change left no part of the planet untouched. 1962: Carson’s silent spring held up the ‘grotesque silencing’ of nature in small-town America as synecdoche for all the world. 1948: Fairfield Osborn wrote in Our Plundered Planet how ‘human-kind is now for the first time becoming a large-scale geological force’ (p29). Sound familiar? Or Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘closing of the frontier’ thesis, where, as manifestly destined civilisation made sea-fall at the Pacific ocean, the wild was finally enclosed, tamed and began to recede into the past: 1893.

My point is simply that such pronouncements have a long history. Their function is complex, no doubt, but their form seems stubbornly persistent: caught on a Freudian double-edge between an invitation to mourn for a lost Nature on one hand, and a more manically energetic injunction to act on the other hand. Talk of the final enclosure of Nature is one way in which a quite specifically North American anxiety comes to encompass the whole world.

2. If great changes have been wrought on the planet, it has not been done by solely by ‘us’ humans.

The great hubris of the Anthropocene is thinking that we have elevated ourselves to planetary stewards with the power to make or break the world. Wrong, wrong, wrong. For a start, fossil fuel modernity and carbon democracy is a multi-species project, relying on the dead labour of trees and sea critters. Hence what has been dubbed the ‘geologic turn’ in critical humanities, wherein the geological has made us, as well as ‘we’ becoming agents of geology (this seminar was fun; here’s free in-tray fodder for rock lovers).

Going back to the green, ecosystems are not just ‘destroyed’ – they are hollowed out, changed, made anew, but not just by ‘us’. A couple of years ago I travelled up through peninsular Malaysia. After a skiff ride across from Singapore (our eager anticipation was not shared by the boat load of tired workers commuting home – Singapore’s ugly graduated sovereignty in action), we cycled through palm plantations for five days. Nothing but palms (and trucks, and nasi goreng, and more trucks). These monocultural bio-factories produce the oily stabiliser found in all sort of processed foods; they were immense, quiet and depressing. My point, though, is that it is palm trees as well as the margarine-on-toast-peddling food industries which have done for the Malay rainforest. Thus, the supposed anthropocene is the result of much non-human, as well as human, labour; which is to say, done ‘with’ as well as ‘to’ the non-human world.

I think maybe we could call it the: “More-than-human activities that appear dangerously and regrettably to have eroded to some important but fuzzy threshold the systems which give vitality, joy and enable flourishing of life-ocene.” Oslo here we come. Anyway, Nigel Clark has said this all pretty well. There will also no doubt be much more on this line in this session, which is on my list to attend at the AAG in April.

3. There is no ‘us’ anyway.

The idea of a unified Anthropos is politically vacuous, or – better – it evacuates nature of its politics. Hasn’t someone else been banging on that ‘we are all in this together’ recently? The parallel is instructive. Extending the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene radically in time and space, as Morton would have it, sounds awfully like the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ in climate change discourse – and look how successful that has been. If the Anthropocene is about eco-crit on a grand scale, then why not look to how processes of capitalism produce and distribute nature unevenly? Or to how crisis capital latches on to radical environmental instability, or how shadow solutions like geo-engineering creep to the front stage under the anthropocene umbrella. Hold on, don’t we do that already – isn’t that, like, Geography?

So why the detour around a post-political concept like species being? I’m deeply suspicious (I’m not alone). Maybe I’m wrong and the critical re-reading and re-writing the Anthropocene can be as productive as, say, companion species. Maybe ‘thinking bigger than big’ is more than just another academic gravity well. Maybe.