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Monday, 30 March 2015

The promise of the Anthropocene?

London lights by NASA Earth
Observatory.
Has the Holocene come to a close? Don’t tear up your geology textbooks just yet; the experts are still to decide whether the Anthropocene is a new epoch or merely a device of journalistic rhetoric. However, the symbolism of the christening of this new geological era may provide an important opportunity – presenting a lens through which we can transform our understanding of nature, its processes, and our role within both.

The coming of socionature?


The recasting of Homo Sapiens as a geological actor, as well as a historical agent, finds its roots in the hypothesis posed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000.   When this paper was released, the authors could not possibly have understood the dominance that the idea would later assert. We are now enthralled by the debate – with the concept transcending academia and entering popular discussion. The dawn of this new geological epoch may have devastating consequences for natural scientists – for, if we live in this Anthropocene, we can no longer say anything meaningful about the natural world without including an understanding of its social, political, economic and cultural characteristics. It asserts that nature is socially produced – that the environment is made, transformed and destroyed by us exclusively.

Luckily, you do not need to be a post-modernist to understand the social production of nature. All organisms transform their habitat to some degree. Woodpeckers make holes in tree, creating sites for nests; rodents burrow; and beavers build dams. However, human society has taken it to a new level. Over half of the planet’s large river systems have been fragmented by our dam-construction – with over 45,000 large dams disrupting two-thirds of natural freshwater flows across the world. We have drained entire marshes and aquifers. We have altered the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the acidity of the oceans. We have created urban areas whose dominance and environmental consequences extend well-beyond their peripheries. Close to 70% of the world’s forests are at a distance of less than half a mile from the forest’s edge, and the civilisation that exists outside of it. The concept of wilderness is now an historical artefact. The extinction of many species has come as a result of our own actions. Virgin nature has ended; we have harnessed it and constructed our physical environment in such a way that it has become unrecognisable.


A question of symbolism


Notably, the debates surrounding the new epoch has involved those from across the disciplinary spectrum – with debates incorporating teachings and views from the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. The Anthropocene shakes our current understandings of nature to their foundations – with the concept affecting the very idea of what it means to be human in this previously natural world. All disciplines have something to contribute to this debate. The Anthropocene does not just represent a change in our relationship with our planet but also a transformation of how that relationship must be understood. 

Significantly, if we co-produce the physical nature of this planet – climate change ceases to be an environmental problem that can be solved by legislation and technological advance. It becomes a problem of choice, of politics and of conflict – we are forced to place the process within the wider trends of accumulation, consumption and excess.  We retreat from the characterisation of climactic change as a coming naturalised catastrophe and transform it into a politicised process. The role of carbon as the political enemy ends and it becomes a pathological symptom of something wider. Our relationship with nature may appear technical and scientific but it is inherently political – enabled and driven by political action. Politicising nature allows for us to question our relationship with the natural world and to detect political issues, social inequalities and the gross power asymmetries that guide it.

In many ways, the dawn of the Anthropocene can be seen as a development of semantics that many will not accept. However its symbolic nature provides an important opportunity. It is not everybody that has caused this transformation of nature. This new era is not the age of civilisation; it is the era of man. Ironically, this notion of the Manthropocene is even noticeable in the makeup of the Anthropocene Working Group, which consists of 31 men and five women. Furthermore, it is not even all men – it is a specific type of man, conducting a specific type of economic activity. In the contemporary system, ecology and nature is located as a branch of the greater political economy. As Jason Moore has argued, perhaps we need to rechristen this era further – it is not the Anthropocene that we entering, it is the Capitalocene. This provides an important opportunity for critical research. 

In contemporary debates regarding climate change, we have succeeded in environmentalising politics; however, we must push further. We must politicise the environment, situating the natural world within the wider terrain of political processes and conflict. Environmental issues and conflicts can never be understood in isolation from the political and economic contexts from which they emerge. Take the respective droughts currently faced by California and southern-coastal Brazil – which are just as much results of human decisions as they are the consequences of natural processes.  If we understand these ‘natural’ problems as issues of our own making, we can become aware of our own collective responsibility in the health of the planet we inhabit.

As Christian Schwägel has stated, “the Anthropocene should be the age of responsibility, cooperation, creativity, inventiveness and humility.” It forces a departure from the social assumptions of the Holocene – that there is an inexhaustible expanse of space out there that we can utilise, harness and exploit to our heart’s content. For ecological movements to succeed, they must illustrate the intertwined nature of the environment and of people and offer routes to the health, sanctity and development of both. If this is achieved and society is forced to question our role within nature, the Anthropocene could be a very short geological period indeed.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Ed Atkins, who is currently studying on the Environment, Energy and Resilience PhD at the University of Bristol.
Ed Atkins

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