Further orientations (continued)

Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

1. Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature. Environmental Humanities 3 (2013), 129-147.

In last week’s class we discussed the traditional separation of human and natural history for reasons such as the ontological distinction between Society and Nature, but also for the different time scales in which each take place.  Eileen Crist, however, believes that in recognizing our hybridity, or the permanent intertwinement of humans and nonhumans, the Anthropocene, as both a scientific term and a social construct, promotes an anthropocentric view that buries the historical contradiction between human beings and “the entire breadth of Life” (129).  Since the geological impact of human beings is incontrovertible, the term Anthropocene is being more widely and positively heralded as a symbol of the final realization that human beings are integrated with broader ecologies.  Moreover, because scientists have supported naming our current geological epoch the Anthropocene, this only further solidifies it as a ‘proper’ name.  Crist warns that by equating the force of human beings to the scale of Earth’s processes, human impact is seen as “natural”, and not what she refers to as a “human species-supremacist planetary politics” (130).  Crist writes, “The Anthropocene discourse veers away from environmentalism’s dark idiom of destruction, depredation, rape, loss, devastation, deterioration, and so forth of the natural world into the tame vocabulary that humans are changing, shaping transforming, or altering the biosphere, and, in the process, creating novel ecosystems and anthropogenic biomes” (133).

Does the Anthropocene underrate the true destruction by normalizing human impacts on Earth?  Would we rather construct an epoch based on our freedom and agency instead of giving into the truth of our limits on this planet?  Crist argues yes, that like a kind of “Promethean self-portrait,” calling our current period the Anthropocene gives us the prerogative to continue tampering with nature on large scales, rather than question our very relationship and engagement with the natural environment.  “The very concept of the Anthropocene crystallizes human dominion, corralling the already-pliable-in-that-direction human mind into viewing our master identity as manifestly destined, quasi-natural, and sort of awesome” (141).  The Anthropocene might be the “obvious” choice for our current geological epoch, but Crist hopes for a nomenclature that steps beyond the mere ‘scientific construction’ of the term and for a name that presents a “higher calling we must rise to meet” (142).  She calls for a term, perhaps like the ecotheologian Thomas Berry’s “Ecozoic’, that challenges us to integrate with nonhumans, wild nature, and ecological limits.  Engaging with this wild nature, she hopes, means “catching “a sideways glance of a vast nonhuman world that has been denigrated by the concepts, institutions, and practices associated with the ‘human’” (143).

What Crist seems to be suggesting is that the Anthropocene manifests this social tendency to think of technical solutions, rather than questioning the necessity to engage with the planet in the first place.  Instead of viewing Earth as “an assortment of “resources” (or “natural capital,” “ecological services,” “working landscapes,” and the like),” we should strive for “a cosmic and truer vision of Earth as a wild planet overflowing in abundance and creativity” (144).  Crist’s view could perhaps be seen as romantic, or even seeking a state of nature that Bruno Latour would argue never existed, but her point is well taken that we have come to think of ourselves as the prime agent, sole proprietor, and main caretaker of the planet, when in fact we are only a small piece of a vast and diverse biosphere.

2. Ben Dibley, ” ‘The Shape of Things to Come’: Seven Theses on the Anthropocene and Attachment.” Australian Humanities Review 52 (2012).

  1. Anthropocene is both a geological epoch and a socially constructed discourse: the human species as a geologic force is an “emergence that is simultaneously an emergency.”  Not only is it a geologic term to signal a new era in earth’s course, but a term that has firmly entered discourse across the social sciences and humanities.
  2. The Anthropocene bridges time scales that had previously kept geological and human history separate.  Because the former was previously thought to be too slow moving to impinge on social processes, the rupture presented by the Anthropocene allows us to see this “acceleration” of change and this “folding of geological time and the time of capital.”
  3. The Anthropocene on the one hand is a discourse of limits, that is awareness of market externalities, the ecological price of freedom, and its significance not as a resource but as our “very life support system.”  On the other hand, there is another very distinct camp that sees the Anthropocene as a treatable condition: markets alone, with their engenderment of technoscientific fixes, geoengineering solutions, and liberal freedoms, are capable of moving us out of the crisis.
  4. The modern distinction between society and nature is now dead, even though it was never the case to begin with.  Neither the romantic ‘we must leave the nonhumans alone’ perspective, nor the enlightenment ‘we can control Nature’ framework will function to avoid this dualism any longer.  We are made aware of the ‘entanglements’, ‘naturecultures’, and ‘global hybrids’ that Latour, Haraway, and others have identified.
  5. Rather than characterizing our responsibility as that of retreating (avoiding further tampering) or mastery (technoscience will come up with a solution), we must realize our ‘attachment, dependency and responsibility’ to Earth.  There is, at least in the near future, no other planet for us to migrate, and thus the Anthropocene hails us ‘Earthlings’.  This is congruent with Eileen Crist’s argument.
  6. ‘The emerging apparatus of the Anthropocene signals an increasingly thorough folding of ecology and economy, to which the financialization of the earth system is central’.  Not only do we have this emerging financial speculation and hedging against Earth’s catastrophes and processes, but also capital now dictates biological, geological, and molecular solutions.  Bioengineering of plants, optimizing the climate with aerosols, and designing bacteria are such examples of market technoscientific solutions that emerge from a system of capital that contributed to the crisis in the first place.
  7. We are no longer afforded a utopian vision of the future, but rather must begin to compose the world with new relationships between humans and nonhumans.  Enlightenment inspired freedom, with its ambivalence for nature’s limits on human life, must necessarily be re-conceived to accommodate a cosmopolitical process: politics beyond the domain of the human.  Life in the Anthropocene therefore has no certain future, only prospects that depend on our conduct in the present.

One response to “Further orientations (continued)

  1. Discussion report (by AI):

    We found Crist’s article to be provocative — indeed, to be intended as a provocation. I reported that the article had elicited strong responses pro and con on the International Society for Environmental Ethics listserv (I had forgotten which listserv it was, but I’ve now looked that up). it seemed to do the same for us.

    Crist accepts the idea of the Anthropocene — as a description of things — but strongly disputes its usefulness as a way to rally pro-environmental change. Her argument about “nomenclature” is thus a strategic one, framed as a lament, a critique of a “discourse.” But we agreed that it’s not an accurate critique of the empirical use of the term “Anthropocene.” It’s, rather, more of a critique of the ways in which the term can be put to use to prop up anthropocentrism.

    This raises the questions of what the term is meant to do, and what its alternatives might be. As a form of geological nomenclature, it makes sense, even if it’s focusing on the “anthropos” may be an overgeneralization. (Surely not all anthropods, or all humans, have played an equal role in generating the epoch; and those that have have not done this by themselves. They’ve done it rather through biogeochemical alliances with a range of other actors, from bacteria to grasses to fossil fuels and whatever else.)

    On the other hand, Crist proposes a term by which we can deconstruct the “Anthropocene” and work towards its transcendence — a “name whose higher calling we must rise to meet.” She proposes Thomas Berry’s “Ecozoic,” but we tended to agree that this was neither descriptively useful (i.e., to describe what’s happening now) nor necessarily helpful in providing much insight into what’s to come or what we should work for. (And to one of us, it just sounded ugly.)

    There was some discussion of how the term “Anthropocene” in fact does the opposite of what Crist claims: it’s a humbling term that bounds and frames “us” temporally and spatially, even if the closing frame isn’t visible yet. (That’s the subtitle of this blog is intended to suggest.) It makes clear both that this anthropocentric era is **extremely** short (so far) compared to other eras, and that it is bound to end just like all previous eras. It might not amount to a lot, if it doesn’t last, but the geological point is that it will leave behind a layer of residue that future/alien geologists will have to note.

    As for the normative (rather than descriptive) work of the term, we discussed three alternative ways of conceptualizing “where we might go” (as a species and planet):
    1. The world-for-us: This is the traditional, anthropocentric perspective, the set of background assumption generally taken for granted;
    2. The world-without-us: this is the more novel and emergent set of frames that’s been appearing here and there in the wake of Anthropocene realizations (e.g., Weisman’s book, speculative realist philosophers like Brassier, Woodard, and others)
    3. The world-with-us: This is a compromise, relational position, which focuses on what we might do, but not only for ourselves but for the others we connect with (biologically, geologically, etc.). (A question: to what extent is this “correlationist” in the speculative-realist sense? To what extent is it simply pragmatic and realistic?)

    Final thought: “the Anthropocene” is a productive discourse for a lot of things, but does it name “the problem” in a way that allows us to come to creative grips with it?

    As for the Dibley article, we found this to be a useful articulation of a number of lines of thinking. We noted Dibley’s useful writing on the “crease of time,” the multiplicity (and contradictoriness) of temporal scales, and particularly the meeting of Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” — the backwards looking perspective on humanity’s disasters piling up on disasters — with the geologic “long day” in which we’re less than a split second. But even capitalism’s time is not merely one time meeting another: it is a tremendous acceleration: explosive and combustive in its nature.

    We discussed previous extinctions (such as the “oxygen holocaust”) and how the current extinction crisis compares: is it merely one in a series, or is it qualitatively different, if only because we (one among the non-extincting species) can gain a broad knowledge of the crisis-in-progress and potentially manage/redirect it? We’ll explore the dilemmas of “planet management” in future weeks.

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