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The Anthropocene

Key Readings

· Anthropocene

There are two important concepts that my book project engages with. The first is the Anthropocene. (The second is everyday religion but more on that in a later post). Here, I sketch out some key readings about how the concept evolved and developed as a means of keeping the literature straight in my head - it's certainly neither exhaustive nor meant as full unpacking! 

The term is attributed to atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and his intial ideas were set out in Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, "The 'Anthropocene,'" IGBP Newsletter, 41, (2000): 16-18. This is basically the idea that we are in an epoch where humans exert the dominant geological force, shifting us from the stable climate of the 11, 500 year Holocene to a more volatile era marked by indelible changes to the statigraphical record. Crutzen proposed a start date of 1784 - the development of the steam engine- in Paul J. Crutzen, "Geology of mankind," Nature, 415, (2002), 23. Other scholars have argued for earlier starting points: the discovery of fire, the coming of agriculture, the consumption of animal protein. An overview of how the term developed over the decade can be found here: Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John MacNeill, “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, (2011): 842-867.

Book-length, fairly accessible overviews are starting to be available - see Jeremy Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (University of California Press, 2018) and Christopher Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, (London: Verso, 2016)

The idea of an Anthropocene intersected with a move among humanities scholars to consider more-than-human agency more seriously. In particular, more and more scholars are reconsidering the implications of a collapse in the distinction between natural history and human history. Key readings in this direction include Dipesh Charkrabarty, "The climate of history: four theses," Critical Inquiry, 35 (2009): 197-222 (also see a response by Laura Watt here) and Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology , a series of lectures that has put together in book form here. Amitav Ghosh (2016) also reflects on the epistemological implications of the Anthropocene, calling the climate crisis "a crisis of culture, and thus, of the imagination," in The Great Derangement:Climate Change and the Unthinkable and critiquing the humanities' relatively muted engagement with it.

Of interest to Asianists: Ghosh's book is discussed at length in this roundtable, which is also building off from concerns about what the Anthropocene means and looks like in Asia in particular (see an special collection of articles in Journal of Asian Studies, 73:4 by Hudson, Philip, Thornber, Elverskog, Hilton and Ammarell). For the writing of history of Asia, specifically, this means a re-think of how we frame the post-colonialism and modernity in terms of species agency as Chakrabarty (2009) and Prasenjit Duara (2015) 's The Crisis of Global Modernity respectively have started doing.

There are two major and related lines of critique of the Anthropocene concept. First, there is a concern that the scientific focus on indicators such as dramatic changes the carbon and nitrogen cycle, global temperatures, species biodiversity and extinctions promotes a depoliticization of its history. This obscures the power relations that has and continues to govern human activities that have changed the planet. The pushback comes from among others, scholars like Jason Moore, who suggests that the term be replaced with Capitalocene as capitalism is the major driving force. (see Jason Moore ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016. Note: one useful critique is here.) Ghosh (2016) also suggests, among other things, relooking at the role of empire and notes that imperialism and capitalism have not necessarily moved in the same direction when it comes to climate change. For a case study of how Anthropocene doesn't work well as an analytical concept because of its universalism, see Nayanika Mathur, "It's a conspiracy and climate change: Of beastly encounters and cervine disappearances in Himalayan India," Hau: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5:1 (2015): 87-111.

The main thrust of the above line of critique is that not everyone is equally responsible or have equal agency in the Anthropocene, which brings us to the second objection. Thinking of the Anthopocene as 'the Age of Man' suggests that the human species is an undifferentiated whole - but what type of activities have been more responsible for the state of the planet than others? Among the ideas suggested - energy regimes (Thermocene); war (Thatnatocene); consumerism (Phagocene) - and Bonneuil and Fressoz (2016) has an overview.

These debates have implications on what kind of intervention (if any) that we should be working towards: the science-centered pole implying governance by experts and the humanities pole suggesting a re-envisioning of community (with a huge number of views along the spectrum). Of the latter, Donna Haraway provides a radical envisioning of what the post-Anthropocene can look like in which human and non-human survivors living together in balance (see Donna Harraway "Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin," Environmental Humanities 6, (2015): 159-165) while Anna Tsing (2015) discusses such human and non-human entanglements in The Mushroom at the End of the World.

As mentioned, this is a work in progress, reading recommendations and comments are very much welcome!

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