Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Anthropocene and the Ambiguity of "Responsibility"

Officially, for the last 11,700 years we have been living in the Holocene epoch.  From the Greek for “totally new,” the Holocene is a blink in the eye of 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 8-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 rebounding from the weight of now-melted glaciers.  But the real news in the Holocene has been people.  Estimates put the global human population between one 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 other industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.  Rising sea levels rise are now our doing.  As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.

  This is why more and more voices, from the earth sciences to English departments, propose that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans.  The term was coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and has gained prominence since 2000, when Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-winning atmospheric scientist, urged scientists to adopt it. In 2008, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London – the people who set and enforce the boundaries of eras, the Pleistocene Police – took up a proposal to add the Anthropocene to the official timeline of earth’s epochs.  (It is still pending: straigraphers are well acquainted with geological rates of motion.) The proposal suggests that we have entered a new era of the earth’s history, when humans are a force, maybe the force, shaping the planet.

The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents – the end of the division between people and nature – 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 – and change everything.  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 like habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; we need to build corridors and help species migrate 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.   We can call the sum of these changes, the vast and irreversible human impact on the planet, the Anthropocene Condition.

             The other side of the coin is something more conceptual, which we can call the Anthropocene Insight.  Part of the meaning of the Anthropocene is as a political and ethical idea. Calling this the age of humanity is a way of owning up to responsibility for shaping the world.
In this way, talking about the Anthropocene is involves two very different registers.  On the one hand, it is predictive, like speculating about next summer’s weather and how we will keep cool (if we even can).  On the other, people who use the term are trying to get listeners to see themselves, their problems, and other people’s problems as aspects of a single pattern, which “the Anthropocene” is meant to name.  In turn, this second, persuasive aspect of the Anthropocene splits into two further faces.  First, it simply offers to unify events that might otherwise seem unrelated.  In this way, “the Anthropocene” is an attempt to do the same work that “the environment” did in the 1960s and early 1970s: meld problems as disparate 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 can become real because people treat it as real – for instance, by forming movements, proposing changes, and passing laws aimed at “the environment.”

            Here the Anthropocene’s persuasive sense comes into its stranger version, at once the most charismatic and the most dubious.  Anthropocene talk is a discourse of responsibility, to borrow a term from Mark Greif’s brilliant study of mid- twentieth-century American thought and letters, The Age of the Crisis of Man.  Greif argues that a high-minded (but often middle-brow) strain of rhetoric responded to the horrors of the world wars and global struggles thereafter with a blend of urgent language and sweeping concepts (or pseudo-concepts): responsibility, the fate of man, the urgency of now.  Two example stand out particularly.  Albert Camus told a rapt audience at Columbia in 1946, “We must call things by their right names and realize that we kill millions of men each time we permit ourselves to think certain thoughts….  One is a murderer if one reasons badly.”  In 1950, William Faulkner, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, told his audience (in a widely republished speech), “I decline to accept the end of man….  I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.”  Whether you find this admirable or ridiculous (Greif leans toward ridiculous) it is an attempt to turn words and thoughts, uttered in a certain attitude called “responsibility,” into an effective, even imperative, way of engaging the world’s events.  It treats serious thinking, right naming, heroic intentions, as a high form of action.  In using the language of responsibility, it purports to bring into being the agent of responsibility.

            Well, you might think, the worst it can achieve is nothing.  Unfortunately, that is overly optimistic.  Discourses of responsibility distract and confuse: they charge up the heart and blur the mind; they invite bloody-minded shadow-boxing and a misplaced sense of having done something by willing an argument over whether a thing is called by its right name, and about the difference between enduring and prevailing.  Indeed, the Anthropocene has inspired the New York Times to publish a piece of high-seriousness worthy of 1950, an essay titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” which concludes, “this civilization is already dead” (emphasis original) and that the only way forward is “to realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves” and therefore “get down to the hard work … without attachment or fear.”  It concludes, “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”
            Frankly, I have no idea what this is supposed to accomplish.  It makes me feel vaguely Stoic, which, in the twenty-first century, means vaguely American-Buddhist.  It confirms my sense that halfway measures won’t do much for climate change, and it also leaves me feeling that, if I compose my feelings in the right way – with a little help from some sonorous phrases – I will already be getting down to the hard work.

            Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Times you can read the paper’s roving environmental maven, Andrew Revkin, touting Peter Kareiva, the Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist, who has drawn controversy by trashing environmentalism as philosophically naïve and urging fellow conservationists to give up on wilderness and embrace what the writer Emma Marris calls the “rambunctious garden” of a world that is everywhere changed.  In other words, the Anthropocene is both a discourse of responsibility and a discourse of complacency.  In some hands, it is the ultimate catastrophe, the epochal disruption that will finally confront us with our real situation in the world (as earlier generations thought the atom bomb, or World War One, or the Holocaust might do).  In others, it is business as usual – and the business of business is business, as the Nature Conservancy’s partnerships with Dow, Monsanto, Coca Cola, Pepsi, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and the mining giant Rio Tinto remind us.

            This is the problem with a charismatic, all-inclusive idea like the Anthropocene: it becomes, more or less instantly and unavoidably, an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for whatever one happens to believe already.  Today, at least, it also becomes a branding strategy, a way to claim newness and relevance, and an opportunity to slosh around your old plonk in an ostentatiously factory-fresh and gleaming bottle.

            More interestingly, if no less frustratingly, Anthropocene talk also becomes an inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent of responsibility – 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; that is, 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., etc.  The different negotiating positions of India, China, Russia, Europe, and the United States over twenty-plus years to climate talks are as much evidence of this as the chattering schisms of elite media and even environmental movements.  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.”

            The Anthropocene might be particularly susceptible to this kind of confusion.  Discourses of responsibility would make full and complete sense only in certain elusive circumstances: a religious context where words created an ontological community of meaning among speaker, listeners, and a created world; or a political setting where a genuine unity of attention made words in the public forum a fulcrum of joint action.  The first of these is an object of nostalgia, the second a project of utopia.  It is crushingly clear that neither of these conditions holds around here today.  But “nature” has always stood for the mind of God, and environmentalism has always traded in calls for “us,” the “community,” and “humanity” to act on its supposedly self-evident truths.  It has been a way of pretending to, or seeking, more unity and clarity, and more integrity and force for words, than there otherwise is.

            Without that prop, talk of the Anthropocene as a discourse of responsibility cannot make, to repeat, full and complete sense.  The question remains: what kind(s) of sense can it help to make?   

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