The following are the comments I prepared for the roundtable “The Arts and Humanities Respond to the Anthropocene.” They follow in the line of critical thinking on the Anthropocene initiated by gatherings like the Anthropocene Project (see here, here, and here, and some of the posts at A(S)CENE) and journals like Environmental Humanities.
As a cultural theorist, I come to the topic naturally asking what the different theoretical paradigms in cultural and environmental theory can say about this term “Anthropocene.” These paradigms stretch across a spectrum that can be very loosely grouped into “realist” approaches and “constructivist” approaches.
The first set (realism) considers a term like “the Anthropocene” as a way of naming something that exists. Specifically, it originates as the naming of a geological stratum defined by its relationship to human activities (i.e. to activities undertaken by the Anthropos, the species Homo Sapiens considered as a single unit). In turn, it raises questions over the character and significance of the “something that exists.”
The second (constructivism) considers the term as a way of naming something into existence, such that having been named it becomes a fact of which we can speak, a discursive reality. It then raises questions about how and why it is brought into existence, by whom and through what means, bringing what opportunities and presenting what risks, to whose benefit and at whose expense, and as opposed to what alternatives.
The Anthropocene can be compared in these respects to other terms that have been brought into existence and that have carried out various kinds of work. Some examples:
Epochal: Renaissance, Enlightenment, modernity, postmodernity, globalization
Sociopolitical: democracy, liberalism, socialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization
Movemental: environmentalism, “tree hugger,” green politics, sustainability, environmental justice, climate justice, Creation Care, posthumanism
Ecological: ecosystem, biodiversity, global warming, climate change, sustainability, resilience
From a more constructivist perspective, here are some of the things the naming of the Anthropocene does:
1. It provokes thought, generates attention, brings other terms/groups/discourses together in ways that facilitate communication, exchange, and growth (funding, etc.).
Specifically, it brings the Human and the Natural together into a single temporal and spatial unit: the planet as defined by human activity (and interactivity with it). It is, in this sense, like “globalization” but larger, with ecology now woven into this global frame. For environmental humanists (among others) it lends the credibility of science (geology!). For earth scientists, it expands their purview to include the human. These are all clear gains and make the term worth supporting and working with. Any effort to bridge the “two cultures” divide in a way that recognizes both human agency and material reality is a good thing.
2. At the same time, it continues a certain trend of rendering humanity singular in a way that blurs differences between differently situated human groups — differentiated according to race, class, gender, social group, worldview, technical means, ecological livelihood, centrality or peripherality within political and economic systems, and so on. This means it blurs differences between different socio-ecological orders, that is, the very things that neo-materialist and post-constructivist approaches in the humanities and social sciences — like actor-network theory and others — are specifically attempting to focus on. In this sense, it does not particularly help us think through the ways we live on this earth, interacting with its other inhabitants, components, and flows.
It is in this sense empirically inaccurate, or at least reductionist. Humanity has (arguably) never acted — willfully, consciously — as a single unit, even if it can be described analytically as a single unit. Humans have been around for a long time and lived in many different ways, so “Anthropocene” is not really reducible to humans or humanity per se. Instead, it involves tools (and far from all tools) and ways of engaging those tools in relations with landscapes, ecosystems, and so on. It’s these that we need to get a better handle on. To what extent “Anthropocene” helps with this is debatable.
In his keynote address last night, Andy Revkin challenged the audience to come up with a better term.
Let’s think about some of the alternatives that have been proposed for capturing the current planetary era in ways that allow us to critically assess it and envision alternatives to it. Here we are acknowledging that the point of “the Anthropocene” is to name an epoch in a pragmatically useful way, a way that allows us to understand its historical-geological novelty, but also to understand our positioning within it and the possibilities we have for shifting it in different directions.
- Anthropozoic, homogenocene, et al.: proposed to do the same work as “Anthropocene.” I like “homegenocene” because it suggests that it’s not simply the Anthropos — all humanity — that is central to the current era, but that it’s the process of global biological homogenization that was launched in particular through European colonization of the world. Neither of these have particularly caught on.
- Capitalism (with its many variations, such as late capitalism, et al.) or “capitalocene“: proposed by Marxists and socialists, these have the virtue of identifying the particular political-economic system that is agentially more central (if not exclusive) to the processes denoted by the Anthropocene.
- Patriarchy: proposed by feminists, identify an important trajectory of social and gender relations, but undervalue other links (such as social hierarchy, emphasized by anarchists, capitalism, et al.).
- Anthropocentrism: proposed by environmental thinkers who focus on ideas and worldviews; same problems as ‘Anthropocene’ but arguably without the benefits. Too idealist (sociologically), not materialist enough.
- Modernity/coloniality: proposed by postcolonial and indigenist theorists; clearly recognizes the global socio-historical processes that have dramatically rearranged human societies over the last 5 centuries, but arguably undervalue the ecological and certain other links.
- Industrialism, fossil fuel era, modern world system, carbon capitalism: These terms have the virtue of focusing on systemic relations that are missed in “Anthropocene.” Each ignores some of the other links referred to above. (And “carbon capitalism” would too easily get confused with ecological economists’ and others’ carbon-market initiatives.)
- Unsustainability / sustainability: This still captures something about the ongoing relationship between humans and the nonhuman in a way that the other terms do not; but its many uses, and criticisms of some of these, are well known.
Which, if any, of these terms best encompasses the condition we (planetary humanity) are in and the challenges we face?
Terms like “homogenocene” and “carbon capitalocene” arguably capture more of the important links — economic, technological, political, ecological — that need to be captured in a nomenclature for the present condition than “Anthropocene.” None of them captures the ethical-philosophical particularly well. But perhaps there is virtue in simplicity, and the latter term may be provocative enough for certain purposes.
Then there are terms that point to what can be done, or to a vision of a future beyond the Anthropocene, or a “good Anthropocene,” as Andy Revkin called it last night. Thomas Berry’s “Ecozoic” is intended to do just that. (Earlier terms like “New Age” meant to do the same, but were too vague to be useful.) “Ecotopia” is perhaps a friendlier term. These indicate the direction I’d like to see developed more by eco-humanists and artists.
Some artists are going there, and are doing so in ways that capture the complexities of the Anthropo/carbon capitalocene and its Ecozoic alternatives (see, for instance, those profiled in Linda Weintraub’s To Life: Eco-Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, or the international work of Betsy Damon, who presented this morning).
Where to with the Anthropocene and its alternatives?