March 20, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Anthropocene.

Donna Haraway has called for us to see the Anthropocene as a boundary: it’s a limit after which the world isn’t what it was before. Instead of thinking of this as an epoch, she suggests, we should think of it as a turning point. At the same time, since we all need to live through it, live into it, I think we need to pay close attention to what potential the Anthropocene brings.

Different theorists and scientists put the start of the Anthropocene all over the place. Is it the advent of agriculture, which kicked off a 10,000-year stabilization of the earth’s climate? Is it the nuclear test in 1945, marking a transformative moment for how we think of ourselves in place, time, and environment? Jason Moore argues persuasively that when we mark the Anthropocene’s beginning influences what we think this era is about. When we argue for its start defines the kind of story we’re telling about our epoch.  Lots of theorists are on the hunt for names other than “Anthropocene” for this period. Moore suggests “Capitalocene” and locates its start with the rise of modernity. For him, this period, marked by catastrophic changes to the planet’s climate and ecosystems, is precipitated by and shaped by the systems of commodification and appropriation of capital. Haraway, on the other hand, calls for the “Chthulucene” as a time of heightened interconnectivity and the queering and redefinition of human/non-human family/non-family kin/non-kin boundaries, an idea that is as alluring as it is radical.

But I want to argue for the Anthropocene. Yes, it’s an anthropocentric term by its very definition. And, Moore is also right that the word relies on a binary separation of humans and nature – something I’ve been looking for an alternative to for a long time. I want to look for an Anthropocene that offers us Haraway’s transformative moment, and I want that to be a moment where we can also see ourselves in the not-self, the boundary between human and nature finally and fully abolished. But calling our time the Anthropocene is also a way of restoring agency to individual people.

In the face of catastrophic impacts on the global environment, it can be hard to feel any power to change anything. A kind of paralysis sets in: “I do not like the world I live in, but I am but a cog, a tiny piece of a vast machine.” How am I (the proverbial I) to “say no” to the unacceptable problems of that machine? (Not to mention, though mentioning here, the problem of “How am I to change this system and still pay my bills, show up at work on time, and support my family?” A question that is not at all a distraction or an excuse). This is where I think calling this time the Anthropocene offers the restoration of agency. Calling this time the Capitalocene effectively points the finger at the global economic systems and capitalists that, over the last few centuries, have driven the extractive practices that led to climate change. This late capitalist system is still made of individual people (and some of them reap enormous benefits from this destruction, of course). But calling our time the Capitalocene reduces each person to a minuscule part of that larger system. By calling it the Anthropocene, I think it’s possible to emphasize the possibility of individual (and therefore collective) action.

So, I still want Anthropocene – not the moment when humans became a dominating geophysical force, but instead as the era when humans are conscious of this force. A reflective geophysical force is one that can make choices.