Anthropocene, oder…?

[‘Welsh Dragon takes on digger, End Coal Now!, Ffos-y-Fran, Wales, UK, 3 May 2016.’ Photo: Amy Scaife / Reclaim the Power]

The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current geological period in which human activities have significantly altered the functioning of planetary systems. It is a period in which human cultures no longer labour with nature, the seasons, as a constant cyclical background, but in which humans are both historical and geological actors, transforming the systems in which they are enmeshed and potentially rendering the planet inhospitable to themselves as a species (Charkrabarty 2009).

McKenzie Wark considers the Anthropocene as a significant shift in Western thought, ‘a world-historical moment’ (Wark 2015, p. 15) akin to other ‘great discontinuities in perspective’ (p. 227), such as the heliocentric universe proposed by Copernicus and Galileo, Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution of the species, and with respect to Marxist scholars, historical and dialectical materialism. Wark names the agencies responsible for the release of carbon into the atmosphere the ‘Carbon Liberation Front’ and describes them as the most successful liberation movement of the 20th Century.

The Carbon Liberation Front seeks out all of past life that took the form of fossilized carbon, unearths it and burns it to release its energy. The Anthropocene runs on carbon. It is a redistribution, not of wealth, or power, or recognition, but of molecules. Released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, these molecules trap heat, they change climates. The end of prehistory appears on the horizon as carbon bound within the earth becomes scarce, and liberated carbon pushes the climate into the red zone. (Wark 2015, p. 14)

Jason W. Moore, co-ordinator of the World Ecology Research Network, is critical of the Anthropocene thesis for several reasons. He argues that it renders ‘Humanity’ as an abstract undifferentiated mass. According to Moore, ‘Humanity with a capital H’ becomes ‘a homogeneous acting unit’ and does not account for human inequalities, imperialism, patriarchy, etc as the drivers of industrialisation, urbanisation and the explosion of populations (Moore 2015, p. 448). Further he claims that the thesis provides cover for a kind of thinking that considers human activity as being ‘separate and independent’ rather than being entangled in a ‘web of life’ (Moore 2015, p. 449).

Moore suggests a more suitable term would be ‘Capitalocene’ (a term coined by his student Andreas Malm), arguing that the current era of globalised Capitalism, of ‘Capitalist Realism,’ (Fisher 2009), has arisen from the interplay between ecological conditions and the activities of particular civilisations. Moore reaches back into the ‘long’ history of the sixteenth century (1451–1648) to describe the matrix of nature and capital that gave rise to present conditions, i.e. certain ecological conditions that enabled the development of Capitalism based on the exploitation of ‘four cheaps’: food, energy, nature and labour, and to which Wark (2015b) adds a fifth, information. Exploitation of these cheaps has historically organised and transformed environments (natures), which in turn had further consequences for human organisation (cultures). This is most obvious in colonial expansions across Europe and into the New World and the exploitation of its people and resources. The crisis of Capitalism arises when there are no longer any more cheaps to be exploited and we must confront the planetary limits to economic growth.

‘But what about Russia and China?’, one might ask, why not ‘The Communisocene’? Andreas Malm responds with ‘six simple facts’ as to why Capitalism is the chief historical and ongoing driver of anthropogenic climate change, the short argument being that ‘only one still exists’:

Ours is the geological epoch not of humanity, but of capital. Of course, a fossil economy does not necessarily have to be capitalist: the Soviet Union and its satellite states had their own growth mechanisms connected to coal, oil, and gas. They were no less dirty, sooty, or emissions-intensive — perhaps rather more — than their Cold War adversaries. So why focus on capital? What reason is there to delve into the destructiveness of capital, when the Communist states performed at least as abysmally?

In medicine, a similar question would perhaps be, why concentrate research efforts on cancer rather than smallpox? Both can be fatal! But only one still exists. (Malm 2015)

Donna Haraway (2015) problematises the discourse in another way, arguing that the origins of the Anthropocene are not to be found in the burning of coal but in slavery, suggesting the ‘Plantationocene,’ and arguing that there needs to be many names for the present era. Her own contribution, ‘Cthulucene,’ which she distinguishes from ‘H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu’ forwards a concern of how it is to make kin across species:

‘My’ Chthulucene, even burdened with its problematic Greek-ish tendrils, entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in- assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus. Even rendered in an American English-language text like this one, Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa, Medusa, Spider Woman, and all their kin are some of the many thousand names proper to a vein of SF that Lovecraft could not have imagined or embraced—namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact. It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, and narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize systems. (Haraway 2015)

Haraway and her colleagues at Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) also complicate the universalising aspects of the Anthropocene (Haraway et al 2015). In a round-table conversation they foreground other ways of being and interpreting the world, what Isabelle Stengers calls ‘diverging conceptions of reality’ (Stengers 2015), to gesture towards a de-colonial imperative in addressing planetary climate change.

To pick up on the multispecies aspects of Haraway’s thinking, Keirán Suckling, Executive Director of the US based Centre for Biological Diversity argues for the ‘Homogenocene,’ claiming that the Anthropocene is a biocentric term (cited the comments of Demos 2015). According to Suckling it is the ‘global homogenization of species and cultures that define our time’ in which cultures are not only drivers but also victims alongside plants and animals in an era marked by an ‘exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries’ and recognised by scientists as a Sixth Mass Extinction (Ceballos et al 2015). All of these scholars I have mentioned tend towards the inseparability of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘cutlure,’ what Haraway labels ‘naturecultures.’

Dipesh Chakrabarty issues another challenge to Anthropocene discourses, observing in Indian scholastic publishing there have been several economic textbooks concerned with global capitalism but no scientific texts concerned with planetary climate change, highlighting how the Anthropocene theory relies on ‘Big Science’ of the kind only produced in economic super-powers of the global North (Chakrabarty and Weizman 2016).

This raises the issue of ultimately who is making the decisions that affect the future of life on the planet and according to whose interests? Or, as Naomi Klein seems to suggest, are these decisions already foreclosed? Klein (2016) points out that when a 2°C target for global warming was first proposed at COP10 in Copenhagen, 2009, African delegates labelled it ‘a death sentence.’ At COP21 in Paris 2015 several low-lying island nations campaigned with the slogan ‘1.5 to stay alive,’ which resulted in a last minute clause being added to the Paris Agreement that instructs nations to pursue ‘efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.’ Klein argues that this target is not only non-binding but is simply a lie as ‘governments that made this promise are now pushing for more fracking and more tar sands development — which are utterly incompatible’ with the agreed upon 2°C limit.

In light of the issues raised, and with a tendency towards Wark, I refer to the Anthropocene as a popular label for present conditions as it corresponds with two totalities.The first is concerned with the actual geophysical limits of Earth systems and the dramatic changes to planetary systems due to human activity, eg atmospheric CO2 levels, acidification of the oceans, melting glaciers, the contraction of lakes and the expansion of arid zones.The second totality is concerned with a global political-economic-informational system, a scenario Wark (2016) has recently describes as being ‘worse than capitalism.’

Ceballos, Gerardo, Ehrlich, Paul R., Barnosky, Anthony D., García, Andrés, Pringle, Robert M. and Palmer, Todd M., 2015. ‘Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,’ Science Advances, vol. 1, no. 5, 19 June.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh and Weizman, Eyal, 2016. ‘Dictionary of Now: Forum,’ Haus der Kutluren der Welt, Berlin 11 April.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 2009. ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses,’ Critical Inquiry, no. 35 vol. 2, pp.197–222.

Demos, T.J., 2015. ‘III. Against the Anthropocene,’ Still Searching [weblog], 25 May.

Fisher, Mark, 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, Winchester, UK and Washington, USA.

Haraway, Donna, 2015. ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,’ Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, pp. 159-165. [PDF]

Haraway, Donna, Ishikawa, Noboru, Gilbert, Scott F., Olwig, Kenneth, Tsing, Anna L., Bubandt, Nils, 2015. ‘Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene,’ Ethnos, pp. 1–30.

Klein, Naomi, 2016. ‘Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World,’ London Review of Books, vol. 38, no. 11, 2 June, pp 11–14.

Malm, Andreas, 2015. ‘The Anthropocene Myth,’ Jacobin, 30 March.

Moore, Jason W., 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Verso, London and New York.

Stengers, Isabelle, 2015. ‘Accepting the reality of Gaia: A fundamental shift?’ In: Clive Hamilton, François Gemenne, Christophe Bonneuil (eds) The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 134–144.

Wark, McKenzie, 2016. ‘The Sublime Language of My Century,’ Public Seminar, 14 May.

Wark, McKenzie, 2015. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, Verso, London and New York.

Wark, McKenzie, 2015b. ‘The Capitalocene,’ Public Seminar, 15 October.

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