Essay/Ecology & Environmental Sciences

Anthropocene fever

The Anthropocene idea has been embraced by Earth scientists and English professors alike. But how useful is it?

Jedediah Purdy

Aerial view of salt ponds, Walvis Bay, Namibia. Photo by Frans Lanting/National Geographic
is Professor of Law at Duke University in North Carolina. His forthcoming book is After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.

3,600 words

Edited by Ross Andersen

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Officially, for the past 11,700 years we have been living in the Holocene epoch. From the Greek for ‘totally new’, the Holocene is an eyeblink in geological time. In its nearly 12,000 years, plate tectonics has driven the continents a little more than half a mile: a reasonably fit person could cover the scale of planetary change in a brisk eight-minute walk. It has been a warm time, when temperature has mattered as much as tectonics. Sea levels rose 115 feet from ice melt, and northern landscapes rose almost 600 feet, as they shrugged off the weight of their glaciers.

But the real news in the Holocene has been people. Estimates put the global human population between 1 million and 10 million at the start of the Holocene, and keep it in that range until after the agricultural revolution, some 5,000 years ago. Since then, we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the Earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and industrial waste, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction. Rising sea levels are now our doing. As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.

This is why, from the earth sciences to English departments, there’s a veritable academic stampede to declare that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans. Coined by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and brought to public attention in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, the term remains officially under consideration at the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London.

The lack of an official decision has set up the Anthropocene as a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal change in the human/nature relationship. The rise of agriculture in China and the Middle East? The industrial revolution and worldwide spread of farming in the Age of Empire? The Atomic bomb? From methane levels to carbon concentration, from pollen residue to fallout, each of these changes leaves its mark in the Earth’s geological record. Each is also a symbol of a new set of human powers and a new way of living on Earth.

The most radical thought identified with the Anthropocene is this: the familiar contrast between people and the natural world no longer holds. There is no more nature that stands apart from human beings. There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed. Our mark is on the cycle of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA that organises matter into life. The question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.

The discovery that nature is henceforth partly a human creation makes the Anthropocene the latest of three great revolutions: three kinds of order once thought to be given and self-sustaining have proved instead to be fragile human creations. The first to fall was politics. Long seen as part of divine design, with kings serving as the human equivalents of eagles in the sky and oaks in the forest, politics proved instead a dangerous but inescapable form of architecture – a blueprint for peaceful co‑existence, built with crooked materials. Second came economics. Once presented as a gift of providence or an outgrowth of human nature, economic life, like politics, turned out to be a deliberate and artificial achievement. (We are still debating the range of shapes it can take, from Washington to Greece to China.) Now, in the Anthropocene, nature itself has joined the list of those things that are not natural. The world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.

The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents is rooted in hundreds of eminently practical problems. The conversation about climate change has shifted from whether we can keep greenhouse-gas concentrations below key thresholds to how we are going to adapt when they cross those thresholds. Geo‑engineering, deliberately intervening in planetary systems, used to be the unspeakable proposal in climate policy. Now it is in the mix and almost sure to grow more prominent. As climate change shifts ecological boundaries, issues such as habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; they need landscape-scale corridors and other help in migrating as their habitats move. There is open talk in law-and-policy circles about triage in species preservation – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save.

What work is this idea of the Anthropocene doing in culture and politics? As much as a scientific concept, the Anthropocene is a political and ethical gambit. Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making. So far so good. The trouble starts when this charismatic, all-encompassing idea of the Anthropocene becomes an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for one’s preferred version of ‘taking responsibility for the planet’.

Peter Kareiva, the controversial chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, uses the theme ‘Conservation in the Anthropocene’ to trash environmentalism as philosophically naïve and politically backward. Kareiva urges conservationists to give up on wilderness and embrace what the writer Emma Marris calls the ‘rambunctious garden’. Specifically, Kareiva wants to rank ecosystems by the quality of ‘ecosystem services’ they provide for human beings instead of ‘pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake’. He wants a pro‑development stance that assumes that ‘nature is resilient rather than fragile’. He insists that: ‘Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.’ In other words, the end of nature is the signal to carry on with green-branded business as usual, and the business of business is business, as the Nature Conservancy’s partnerships with Dow, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, J P Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the mining giant Rio Tinto remind us.

Kareiva is a favourite of Andrew Revkin, the roving environmental maven of The New York Times Magazine, who touts him as a paragon of responsibility-taking, a leader among ‘scholars and doers who see that new models for thinking and acting are required in this time of the Anthropocene’. This pair and their friends at the Breakthrough Institute in California can be read as making a persistent effort to ‘rebrand’ environmentalism as humanitarian and development-friendly (and capture speaking and consultancy fees, which often seem to be the major ecosystem services of the Anthropocene). This is itself a branding strategy, an opportunity to slosh around old plonk in an ostentatiously shiny bottle.

Elsewhere in The New York Times Magazine, you can enjoy the other end of the Anthropocene projection screen, from business-as-usual to this-changes-everything. In his essay ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’ (2013), the Princeton scholar and former soldier Roy Scranton writes: ‘this civilisation is already dead’ (emphasis original) and insists that the only way forward is ‘to realise there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves’ and therefore ‘get down to the hard work … without attachment or fear’. He concludes: ‘If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.’

Other humanists bring their own preoccupations to a sense of gathering apocalypse. In his influential essay ‘The Climate of History’ (2008), Dipesh Chakrabarty, a theory-minded historian at the University of Chicago, proposes that the Anthropocene throws into question all received accounts of human history, from Whiggish optimism to his own post-colonial postmodernism. He asks anxiously: ‘Has the period from 1750 to the present been one of freedom or that of the Anthropocene?’ and concludes that the age requires a new paradigm of thought, a ‘negative universal history’.

In their introduction to Ecocriticism (2012), a special issue of American Literature, the English scholars Monique Allewaert of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michael Ziser of the University of California Davis describe the Anthropocene as best captured in ‘a snapshot of the anxious affect of the modern world as it destroys itself – and denies even its own traces’.

The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds. But it does turn them up to 11

All of these people (except for the branding opportunists) are trying, with more or less success, to ask how the Anthropocene changes the projects to which they’ve given chunks of their lives. Some far-ranging speculation and sweeping summaries are to be expected, and forgiven. Nonetheless, something in the Anthropocene idea seems to provoke heroic thinking, a mood and rhetoric of high stakes, of the human mind pressed up against the wall of apocalypse or arrived at the end of nature and history.

In this provocative defect, Anthropocene talk is a discourse of responsibility, to borrow a term from Mark Greif’s study of mid-20th-century American thought, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015). Greif argues that a high-minded (but often middle-brow) strain of rhetoric responded to the horrors of the world wars and the global struggles thereafter with a blend of urgent language and sweeping concepts (or pseudo-concepts): responsibility, the fate of man, the urgency of now. Greif describes discourses of responsibility as attempts to turn words and thoughts, uttered in tones of utmost seriousness, into a high form of action. All of this is recognisable in Anthropocene talk. The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds, strictly speaking, on point of their cherished convictions. But it does turn them up to 11.

On the whole, this is the inevitable and often productive messiness that accompanies a new way of seeing, one that unites many disparate events into a single pattern. As an offer to unify what might seem unrelated, ‘the Anthropocene’ is an attempt to do the same work that ‘the environment’ did in the 1960s and early ’70s: meld problems as far-flung as extinction, sprawl, litter, national parks policy, and the atom bomb into a single phenomenon called ‘the ecological crisis’. Such a classification is always somewhat arbitrary, though often only in the trivial sense that there are many ways to carve up the world. However arbitrary, it becomes real if people treat it as real, by forming movements, proposing changes, and passing laws aimed at ‘the environment’.

We know what the concept ‘the environment’ has wrought but what will the Anthropocene be like? To put this over-dramatised idea in the least heroic garb possible, what will the weather be like in the Anthropocene? And how will we talk about the weather there?

For all the talk of crisis that swirls around the Anthropocene, it is unlikely that a changing Earth will feel catastrophic or apocalyptic. Some environmentalists still warn of apocalypse to motivate could-be, should-be activists; but geologic time remains far slower than political time, even when human powers add a wobble to the planet. Instead, the Anthropocene will be like today, only more so: many systems, from weather to soil to your local ecosystem, will be in a slow-perennial crisis. And where apocalyptic change is a rupture in time, a slow crisis feels normal. It feels, in fact, natural.

So the Anthropocene will feel natural. I say this not so much because of the controversial empirics-cum-mathematics of the climate-forecasting models as because of a basic insight of modernity that goes back to Rousseau: humanity is the adaptable species. What would have been unimaginable or seemed all but unintelligible 100 years ago, let alone 500 (a sliver of time in the evolutionary life of a species), can become ordinary in a generation. That is how long it took to produce ‘digital natives’, to accustom people to electricity and television, and so on for each revolution in our material and technological world. It takes a great deal of change to break through this kind of adaptability.

This is all the more so because rich-country humanity already lives in a constant technological wrestling match with exogenous shocks, which are going to get more frequent and more intense in the Anthropocene. Large parts of North America regularly experience droughts and heat waves that would devastate a simpler society than today’s US. Because the continent is thoroughly engineered, from the water canals of the West to the irrigation systems of the Great Plains to air conditioning nearly everywhere, these are experienced as inconvenience, as mere ‘news’. The same events, in poorer places, are catastrophes.

Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce. Are enslaved people kept illiterate and punished brutally when they are not servile? Then ignorance and servility must be in their nature, an idea that goes back in a continuous line to Aristotle. The same goes for women, with some edits to their nature: docile, nurturing, delicate, hysterical, etc. It was not until Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill worked together on The Subjection of Women (published under his name alone in 1869), that English-language philosophy produced a basic challenge to millennia of nature-talk about sexual difference.

The expulsion of Native Americans was ‘justified’ on several versions of nature. Maybe they were racially different. Maybe their climate made them weak and irrational, unable to cultivate the land or resist European settlement. (Colonists briefly embraced this idea, then grew uneasy when they realised that the North American climate was now theirs; by the time of American independence, they raced to reject climatic theories of racial character.) Maybe Native Americans had simply failed to fulfil the natural duty of all mankind, to clear and plant the wilderness and make it bloom like an English garden, an idea that many theorists of natural law advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries. One way or another, nature was a kind of ontological insurance policy for human injustice.

And now? Well, it’s common wisdom that rising sea levels will first affect some of the world’s poorest people, notably in Bangladesh and coastal India. But it’s much worse than that grim geographic coincidence. Wealth has always meant some protection from nature’s cruel measures. In fact, that is the first spur to technology and development of all kinds: not to be killed. Tropical diseases with changing range will find some populations well-equipped with vaccination and medicine, others struggling with bad government and derelict health systems. When seas rise fast, even the feckless but rich US will begin adapting fast, and coastal flooding will be classified in the rich-world mind as a catastrophe of the poor.

So will starvation. A legal regime of unequal Anthropocene vulnerability is well underway. Take the vast, long-term leases that Chinese companies have entered into for some of Africa’s richest farmland. When drought, soil exhaustion or crop crisis puts a pinch on global food supply, contracts and commerce will pull trillions of calories to fat-and-happy Beijing. This is, of course, only the latest chapter in centuries of imperialism and post-imperial, officially voluntary global inequality. But it is the chapter that we the living are writing.

neoliberal environmentalism aims to bring nature fully into the market, merging ecology and economy

For the moment, Anthropocene inequality has a special affinity with neoliberalism, the global extension of a dogmatic market logic and increasingly homogenous market forms, along with an accompanying ideology insisting that, if the market is not beyond reproach, it is at least beyond reform: there is no alternative. Where previous episodes of global ecological inequality took place under direct imperial administration – witness the Indian famines of the late 19th century, suffered under British rule – ours is emerging under the sign of free contract. Anthropocene inequality is thus being doubly laundered: first as natural, second as the voluntary (and presumptively efficient) product of markets. Because human activity now shapes the ‘natural’ world at every point, it is especially convenient for that world-shaping activity to proceed in its own pseudo-natural market.

But Anthropocene problems also put pressure on the authority of economics. Much of environmental economics has been built on the concept of the externality, economist-speak for a side-effect, a harm or benefit that has no price tag, and so is ignored in market decisions. Air pollution – free to the polluter – is the classic bad side-effect, or ‘negative externality’. Wetlands – not valued on the real-estate market, but great sources of filtration, purification and fertility, which would otherwise cost a lot to replicate – are the model positive externality. So neoliberal environmentalism, which Kareiva’s Nature Conservancy has been cultivating, aims to bring nature fully into the market, finding a place in the bottom line for all former side-effects, and fully merging ecology and economy.

In a climate-changed Anthropocene, the side-effects overwhelm the ‘regular’ market in scale and consequence. And there is no ‘neutral’, purely market-based way to put a value on side-effects. Take the example of carbon emissions. It is possible to create a market for emissions, as Europe, California and other jurisdictions have done; but at the base of that market is a political decision about how to value the economic activity that emits carbon against all the (uncertain and even speculative) effects of the emissions. The same point holds for every (post-)natural system on an Anthropocene planet. Ultimately, the question is the value of life, and ways of life. There is no correct technocratic answer.

The shape of the Anthropocene is a political, ethical and aesthetic question. It will answer questions about what life is worth, what people owe one another, and what in the world is awesome or beautiful enough to preserve or (re)create. Either the answers will reproduce and amplify existing inequality or they will set in motion a different logic of power. Either the Anthropocene will be democratic or it will be horrible.

A democratic Anthropocene would start from a famous observation of the economics Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen: no minimally democratic society has ever suffered a famine. Natural catastrophes are the joint products of natural and human systems. Your vulnerability to disaster is often a direct expression of your standing in a political (and economic) order. The Anthropocene stands for the intensifying merger of ecology, economics and politics, and one’s standing in those systems will increasingly be a single question.

But talk of democracy here is – like much about the Anthropocene – in danger of becoming abstract and moralising. Reflecting on a democratic Anthropocene becomes an inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent – a state, or even a movement – that could act on the scale of the problem. Indeed, it reveals that there is no agent that could even define the problem. If the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the planet, well, there is no ‘humanity’ that agrees on any particular meaning and imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc. To think about the Anthropocene is to think about being able to do nothing about everything. No wonder the topic inspires compensatory fantasies that the solution lies in refining the bottom line or honing personal enlightenment – always, to be sure, in the name of some fictive ‘we’.

This returns us to the basic problem that the Anthropocene drives home: as Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the idea of human rights – such as the right to democratic standing in planetary change – is a chimera and a cruel taunt without a political community that can make it good through robust institutions and practices. The Anthropocene shows how far the world is from being such a polity, or a federation of such polities, and how much is at stake in that absence. The world is too much with us. Worse, there is no ‘we’ to be with it.

In the face of all these barriers, what could all this talk about the Anthropocene possibly accomplish? Ironically, a useful comparison lies in Arendt’s target, the mere idea of human rights. While mere ideas are in fact sorry comforts in an unmanageable situation, they can be the beginning of demands, projects, even utopias, that enable people to organise in new ways to pursue them. The idea of human rights has gained much of its force this way, as a prism through which many efforts are focused and/or refracted.

A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.

Ideas make a difference

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