The following is a guest post by Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. It follows the discussion begun here and in some AESS conference sessions, including Andy Revkin’s keynote talk (viewable here) and responses to it (such as Clive Hamilton’s).
In considering why the name “Anthropocene” has been proposed, why it has been embraced by many, and what might make a better alternative, it is instructive to look at how geologists have named previous epochs. From such a view, “Anthropocene” immediately stands out as an anomaly.
There are ten named epochs covering the last 145 million years. None are named for the cause of changes to the planet. Instead, all the names refer to the changed composition of species present in each epoch. (*See Note 1.)
For example, consider the epoch change caused by the meteor that drove the dinosaurs and vast number of other species extinct 65 million years ago. The resulting new epoch is not called the Meteorocene or Chicxulubocene. It does not refer to a causal agent at all. It is called the “Paleocene” which translates to “ancient recent” or “ancient new.” The reference is to the most ancient period in which the planet’s species composition was similar to its modern composition.
Cenozoic, the name for the era that began 65 million years ago with the Cretaceous Extinction event, means “new life” to indicate that, taken as a whole, the plants and animals in the fossil record (and alive today) changed after the K-T event. The Cenozoic is divided into seven epochs. (The Anthropocene would be the eighth.)
The current epoch, driven by the last global glaciation event and the relative stability since, is not called the “Glaceocene” or “Neoglaceocene”; it is the “Holocene,” which translates as “wholly” or “entirely” “new” (or “recent”). The reference is to the global species composition of the past 11,500 years in its difference from the Pleistocene epoch that preceded it.
So while many, including Andy Revkin, assume that a new epoch must necessarily be named for its causal agent, doing so would actually be anomalous and contrary to long-standing geological naming protocol.
This begs several questions: Why break from the naming protocol in the one and only instance where humans are thought to be the causal agent? Why do we take take this gesture so thoroughly for granted that we barely notice the change in protocol? What belief system(s) drive the shift from epoch names reflecting the global composition of millions of species, to a name based on the power of one species, a species that happens to be us?
If we were stick with the geologic tradition, we’d ask whether there has been a significant shift in species composition between the Holocene and the “present.” The answer is yes. On the one hand, the geologic record of the future will reflect the mass disappearance of species from the global fossil record due to extinction. On the other hand, the future fossil record will demonstrate the sudden arrival and proliferation of a small number of species around the world, such as sheep, pigs, cows, dogs, wheat, rice, cowbirds, starlings, and others.
Taken together, these two recent events will cause the fossil record to reveal a radical homogenization of the planet’s species between the Holocene (or perhaps the Pleistocene) and the current time. A name along the lines of the “Homogenocene” is fitting for such a period. In keeping with the geological naming tradition, it defines and names the epoch in terms of substantial changes in the global composition/distribution of plant and animals species.
If there has been more push back against the name from within the humanities than the sciences, it is likely because humanities scholars are more aware of the history of western anthropocentrism and efforts to move away from it in a diverse array of often intensely conflicting movements – such as post-structuralism, post-humanism, post-modernism, eco-criticism, deep ecology, biocentrism, et al. From this critical perspective, the term “Anthropocene” raises suspicions about the reinscription of anthropocentrism.
In distinction to Homogenocene (or a similar term), Anthropocene reflects this dominant Western paradigm. The same self-centered, providential belief in human exceptionalism that drove “us” to homogenize the planet’s species is now driving “us” to dismiss the planet’s species as the base geologic naming premise in favor of naming the planet after ourselves and our mighty power. Thus “Anthropocene” is not an anecdote to or struggle with anthropocentrism, it is its culmination.
Anthropocene is also suspect because — to the extent that “we” wish to name the new epoch after a force, it generically identifies that force as humanity as a whole, rather than the identifiable power structures most responsible for the geological Anthropocene traces: extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, creating/distributing nitrogen, etc. Whether one looks at the issue from a gender, race, economic, or geographic perspective, the genericizing of causality always benefits power by hiding power. (*See Note 2.)
From another angle, consider the assertion that the name “Anthropocene” breaks down the division of humans and nature by recognizing that humans are a geological force. There is a unity in this to be sure, but only at the cost of eradicating one of the binary terms: nature. Does it really make sense in any philosophical, political, emotive context to say we have accomplished the conceptual unification of humans and nature by denying the existence of nature, by proclaiming that we humans are now the sole, or at least most dominant “natural” force? How is it that we only got around to feeling at one with nature at the moment when we decided we were the most powerful force in nature? If the human/nature divide is fundamentally untenable at all times, why did we not embrace our naturalness at an earlier moment when we believed ourselves a species among species rather than the uber-species? It seems to me that “Anthropocene” does not signal a unity of humans and nature or a breaking down of conceptual barriers. It is the proclamation of dominance.
Finally, in thinking through the name “Anthropocene,” we must also note that in parallel to the formal geologic epochs, there have always been informal names. Buffon, in the late 1700s, was the first the posit a semi-modern, semi-scientific earth history, and his seventh and last historical stage was defined by humans governing nature. At no point from then to the present have geologists not informally named the current time something translatable as the “Age of Man.” From the very moment it became possible to imagine an Age of Man — from the moment we discovered that the Earth was old and humans young — geologists have informally named the current period as the Age of Man. Prior to that knowledge, there were no known ages preceding humans, thus no possibility of a human age.
The last incarnation before Anthropocene was Anthropogene (with a “g”). The term has been around since the early 20th century, but caught fire in the 1950s and 60s. To this day it is used in geology publications in Eastern Europe. So is Anthropozoic, the prior popular turn. Geology journals were even named after it as they are now named after Anthropocene. Other such terms have included Anthropolithic, Age of the Human Species, Psychozoic, Periode Anthropeian, Human Period, and Terrain Humain.
In this light, “Anthropocene” is more fundamentally the continuation of a long trend — a trend coextensive with modernity, colonialism, and geology as modern science — not a divergence or awakening. As such, the term “Anthropocene” is the latest incarnation of anthropocentric thinking.
Kieran Suckling is Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity. This article is taken by permission from a manuscript in progress and includes materials previously shared on Immanence and Ecology Without Nature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) The following epochs make up the Cenozoic era:
- Paleocene: oldest new fauna
- Eocene: dawning of new fauna
- Oligocene: few recent fauna (compared to today)
- Miocene: less recent fauna (appearing)
- Pliocene: more recent fauna (appearing)
- Pleistocene: most recent fauna (have appeared)
- Holocene: entirely recent fauna (are present)
(2) Editor’s note: For a strong case in favor of the term “Capitalocene” instead of the “Anthropocene,” see the work of historian Jason W. Moore. Moore’s theorization of capitalism as a “world-ecology” (as opposed to a world-economy) draws on a voluminous breadth of historical, economic, and ecological sources. The term is, however, subject to some of the same critiques as this article makes of Anthropocene — notably that it refers to the supposed cause of the change in biological conditions, not the nature of those conditions themselves.