Monday, December 8, 2014

11 Theses on the Anthropocene

1.     It is not mainly a scientific or empirical event, even though it has, ironically, landed in the stratigraphers’ bailiwick.  Instead, announcing to Anthropocene is a political and ethical call to take responsibility for the world we participate in making.

2.     It is neither optional nor reversible.  (E.O. Wilson is writing a book on getting out of, or reversing, the Anthropocene.)  Part of the reason is in the fact of our impact on the world (the Anthropocene condition), but just as important is awareness that we are making the world in ways that involve it inextricably in human practices and human meanings (the Anthropocene insight).  This bell cannot be unrung.

3.     The Anthropocene will intensify existing inequalities, from vulnerability to rising seas and expanding diseases (Bangladesh) to having your traditional lands leased out from under you to feed China (much of Africa).  Because these inequalities will be inscribed on the landscape itself, it will be perennially tempting to think of them as natural, inevitable, or what people deserve/had coming.  A constant political challenge in the Anthropocene will be to remember that what “nature does to us” is better regarded as something people do to one another.

4.     As an overarching political and ethical problem, it will be contested along familiar lines.  Not surprisingly, there is a neoliberal Anthropocene in the economize-everything-and-forget-wilderness movement (spurring division in the Nature Conservancy and driving attention-getters like the Breakthrough Institute) and there is a new socialist Anthropocene in Naomi Klein’s interpretation of climate change (This Changes Everything).

5.     Anthropocene politics will remain a distinctly human practice (contrary to some proposals for post-humanist and new-animist approaches to political life), but it need not be human-centered in the sense of restricting its concern to human beings.  One of its most important elements will be constantly revisiting our relation to and engagement of the non-human world

6.     Pre-Anthropocene treatments of the non-human world have been either empiricist (what is it) or idealist (what does it mean)?  An Anthropocene approach will have to overcome this opposition, because the ways we participate in making the world what it is will both reflect and shape what we take it to mean.  Fact and meaning are a single circuit in the human-nature continuum. 

7.     The Anthropocene will not be apocalyptic: it will be a time of perennial slow crisis.  At least for the next century (and how much further can we pretend to see?), most people will be less vulnerable to nature than most people have been for most of history; but systems will falter and fail, the ground will shift, and everything will be harder.  However strange it becomes, it will seem basically normal, and not adapting too readily to that normality will be part of the political and ethical work.

8.     Anthropocene economics will have to accept that there is no longer such a thing as an “externality” – the basic concept in today’s environmental economics – because there is no “outside” of either ecology or economics.  The two are increasingly a single system.  While the neoliberal lesson from this is that all the world must be economized, the alternative is that political and ethical judgments are necessary about the value of life itself.

9.     Previous political thought has been Holocene: it has been able to assume the stability of nature, the definiteness of its meaning, and the distinction between the human and the natural.  Anthropocene political thought can assume none of these, and must take them all on as questions and projects.

10. Literary, political, and philosophical history will not become irrelevant, but we will read it differently, finding the ways in which we have always been Anthropocene, without realizing it.  Our past will appear in a different light, with more resources than we had realized for the future.

11. Environmentalism does not end with the Anthropocene, but it changes form.  Instead of a set of topical areas, it becomes a way of asking questions about everything, from the energy economy to the transport system to the aesthetics of the global atmosphere.  It will ask of each of these: What kind of way is this of inhabiting the earth, and how does that habitation shape both the world and the consciousness of the inhabitants?

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