Welcome to the Anthropocene

(Pictured above: An Orangutan desperately charges at a bulldozer in a last-ditch effort to protect the final remnants of his forest home in Borneo)

There is no longer serious debate around the fact we have since left the Holocene and entered a new and wholly unpredictable era: the era of humans as a geological force (Crutzen, 2006). Hamilton (2015) denotes that, “the fundamental test of the Anthropocene is whether human activity affects the Earth’s global functioning, does so discernibly and is outside the range of natural variability (Steffen et al., 2007). This is most certainly the case with regards to the current 6th mass extinction and anthropogenic climate change, wherein rates of change far exceed the range of natural variability. The now widely established periodization of the Anthropocene around 1800 following the momentous changes ushered by the Industrial Revolution (Steffen et al, 2011, pg. 849) was initially proposed by Crutzen (2002) precisely because this is when ice core data reveal spikes in global concentrations of CO2 and Methane (CH4) arising from the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels (Hamilton, 2015, pg. 2). While carbon is not the most useful tool for identifying the precise starting period of the Anthropocene because of the influence of natural carbon sinks which absorb and mask heightened levels of CO2 production, nevertheless by 1850 atmospheric CO2 concentrations were at 285ppm, at the upper reach of natural Holocene variability of 260-285 ppm. By 1900, this number had climbed to 296 ppm, denoting an “unmistakable human imprint” (Steffen et al, 2011, pg. 848-9) on the earth’s atmosphere. Though pre-industrial civilizations tampered with the energy-rich fossil fuels that now power modern societies, the industrial revolution marked a radical shift in the human-nature relationship because it was from this moment onwards that humans developed the capacity to alter the very chemical composition of the atmosphere (Steffen et al, 2011, pg. 846). Since the 1800-marker, a new periodization has taken center-stage: the post-1945 period known as the ‘Great Acceleration’ (Hibbard et al, 2006) marked by an ‘explosion’ of the human enterprise (Steffen et al, 2007; Steffen et al, 2015). As Steffen et al (2015) remark, “Only beyond the mid-20th century is there clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range of the Holocene and driven by human activities” (pg. 93) such as substantial increases in population, technological advancements, and mass production and consumption (motor vehicles, cell phones, etc.).

Moore (2017), in contrast to the dominant discourse surrounding the periodisation of the Anthopocene, locates the beginnings of our current socio-ecological crisis in capitalism’s early modern period, beginning with Columbus’ conquest of the Americas and in the “epochal transitions in landscape transformation after 1450” (pg. 596). These changes, which marked the greatest watershed since the rise of agriculture and the first cities (Moore, 2017, pg. 596), ushered in the ‘Capitalocene’, a periodization that challenges the Eurocentric nature of predominant Anthropocene discourses. Moore (2017) enquires, “Are we really living in the Anthropocene- the ‘age of man’- with its Eurocentric and techno-determinist vistas? Or are we living in the Capitalocene- the ‘age of capital’- the historical era shaped by the endless accumulation of capital?” (Pg.596; McBrien, 2016). Indeed, it’s crucial to remain aware of the decidedly unequal global distributions of power and resources, and the vast geographical, cultural, socioeconomic and historical imbalances that have driven and continue to drive the rapacious consumption of biophysical resources and the related impacts on the biosphere stemming therefrom. Indeed, the explosive proliferation of human economic activity that marked the ‘Great Acceleration’ period denoted earlier overwhelmingly took place in the Global North (Pichler et al, 2017), and in 2013, nearly half of global GHG emissions were generated by a mere 10% of the world’s population (Pichler et al, 2017, pg. 33). Put another way, the average US citizen (not counting intra-national inequities) emits as much as 500 citizens of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, Chad, Cambodia, and Burundi (Roberts & Parks, 2007). The differences between the ecological footprints of the planet’s 42 wealthiest individuals (or more aptly, criminals) who collectively own more wealth than the 3.7 billion of the world’s poorest and the latter are astronomical. Such grotesque realities “challenge the assumption of humanity as a homogenous driver” (Pichler et al, 2017, Pg. 32). So, with such immense historical and contemporary imbalances, how can the current socio-ecological crises be attributed to ‘humanity’ as a whole?

The more precise concept of ‘Capitalocene’ is a helpful expansion on the more general ‘Anthropocene’ concept which at least initially appears to designate an undifferentiated ‘humanity’ as the driver of global ecological decline rather than a specific set of historical, structural, and/or socioeconomic forces (Moore, 2017, pg. 597). However, though the blanket designation of ‘Anthropocene’ may risk initially concealing a great degree of complexity and variability, it needn’t so. As Chakrabarty (2009) rightly denotes, “to speak of species thinking is not to resist the politics of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’” (Pg. 218). Though culpability is distributed wildly unevenly historically as well as presently across geographic and socioeconomic divides, and though the natural parameters that sustain life have been under threat particularly since the rise and proliferation of capitalism (Žižek, 2011, pg. 333), it is nevertheless us ‘Anthropos’ as a species, as a collective-turned-geological-force, who are largely responsible for the current socio-ecological crisis. In a mere handful of generations, our species alone has virtually exhausted fossil fuel sources that took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate (Crutzen, 2002). Until now, no single species had ever significantly and systematically reduced planetary-level biological diversity (Cafaro, 2015, pg. 387) to such an abysmal state. As far as other species are concerned, humans are indeed the devil (Huxley, 1967). Industrial capitalism is no predetermined outgrowth of biogeophysical laws but a socio-historical contingency, bolstered by unusually favourable environmental conditions throughout the Holocene that paved the way for our industrial-agricultural ways of life (Flannery, 2006; Chakrabarty, 2009). Thus, crucially, the current predicament can be otherwise. An equitable, socio-ecologically resilient, post-capitalist future conducive to the flourishing of life, though no easy feat, can be brought forth.

Most significantly, the Anthropocene concept designates not merely a geological periodization characterized by material reality’s ‘vengeful reassertion of itself’ (Žižek, 2011, pg. 330) but, perhaps more fundamentally, a philosophical phenomenon that has “struck like an earthquake, unsettling the tectonic plates of conceptual convention” (Johnson et al, 2014, pg. 447) (for most of us, at least!). The onset of the Anthropocene has effectively signaled the “public death” of the age-old humanist presumptions of Nature as separate from a privileged social realm (Beck, 2010), of a ‘natural’ history as distinct from ‘human’ history (Collingwood, 1993; Lorimer, 2011, pg. 1; Chakrabarty, 2009). The earth can no longer be conceived as a mere inert object, as mere ‘standing reserve’ (Heidegger, 1977) that is the solid objective foundation and fodder for human socio-economic activity; the Earth, so perturbed by our actions, now has a Subject once again (Serres, 1990, pg. 86; Latour, 2014). Increasingly, we’re been forced to come to terms with the fact that we are and always have be inextricably, corporeally entwined with our agentic natural support systems and co-evolutionary kin, and that these natural others are meaningful players rather than the inert stage on which the drama of the human enterprise plays out. Now we can begin to relate in an entirely new way to our fellow Earthlings, realizing that life is entanglement, and we are never separate from or above all that is.

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