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What’s in a name? Understanding the Anthropocene

Academic disciplines move at faster than geological speeds…usually.  But they still need time to react to new ideas. It has been a few years since Paul Crutzen proposed that we now live in a new geological era, the Anthropocene – an idea first aired, as it happens, in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in 2000. The notion that there is a distinct period in which humans begin to have effects that leave their mark on the entire planet is now gaining adherents, and non-geologists are beginning to react. Clive Hamilton, in his recent review of geoengineering Earthmasters, maintains that “the Anthropocene is now the subject of extensive scientific investigation, but almost no thought has yet been given to its larger meaning”. Well, that thought is getting under way, though maybe a little slowly.

The Society in the Anthropocene conference at the University of Bristol. Photo: Philippa Bayley

A recent meeting organised by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute on Society in the Anthropocene was a chance to hear some reactions to the idea that we live at a time when humans collectively have a global impact which alters key Earth systems in ways which leave geological traces.

The results were mixed, of course. There were a few “we told you so”s, in the sense that some social theorists have been proposing that nature, society and culture are artificial distinctions for quite a while – 200 years, one speaker said.

There was also quite a lot of reference to power, and the exercise of power, questioning how adopting the notion of the Anthropocene would affect, in one oft-heard theoretical term, governmentality. That’s a complex idea, originating with the work of the French thinker Michel Foucault, which centres on how people are governed in ways which, if you like, they may not recognise. For example, they fit their thoughts into frameworks that those with power find convenient, and do as they are bid without overt coercion. This is a fairly standard critique of how society works these days, so it is a straightforward extension of this line of work to ask how the idea of the Anthropocene meshes with governmentality. Presumably, it involves invoking consequences of action or inaction on an exceptionally large scale, perhaps even planet-wide, or the effects on future generations, when you want people to do something. This might, of course, be a good thing, or merely another way to manipulate opinion.

Alternatively, there was one suggestion I overheard that the Anthropocene fits in with calls to think less about globalisation, more about “planetarity”. I’m not going to comment on that term, coined a decade or so ago by post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, because I haven’t got a clear fix on what it means yet. However, if one aim in this arena is to encourage social and natural scientists to work together, I have a feeling this may not be the best way to begin the conversation…

What would be better, for openers? That remains to be seen, but some possibilities were apparent.

In some cases, the Anthropocene offers a new strand to weave into existing analyses. A good case in point here is International Relations professor Peter Newell, whose work on whether capitalism can rise to the challenge of climate change is well known.

He makes a good case that his approach, through political economy, is a useful way to consider the implications of the Anthropocene. Shifting to a low-carbon economy and dealing with the effects of climate change is likely to require change in so many aspects of society that it amounts to a transformation in how we organise our social and economic order (the word revolution didn’t come up, but it might have). A question for the social sciences is then what kinds of change are possible, and what precedents might exist for the kind of change we need?

Newell argues that past episodes worth studying here include the shake-ups in global institutions and the way the global economy is governed which can emerge from wars or financial crises – the period immediately after the Second World War being especially interesting. If the focus is on energy systems, then the way massive alternative infrastructures were rolled out, especially if it happened fast, can be instructive. Look at the UK’s railway boom of the 19th century, not long after the canal network had been built.

Looking ahead, Newell suggests “capitalism produced the Anthropocene” and the Anthropocene now needs to remake contemporary capitalism”. It’s a striking formulation, though his analysis works pretty well without it. His books and papers laying out the problems and prospects for such a transformation, and discussing the ways we might transform the global energy infrastructure, are rooted in more conventional political economy. It isn’t immediately clear how much the idea of the Anthropocene adds to them. Along with a number of other speakers at this meeting, he had made quite an effort to relate his existing work to the new term, but it isn’t obvious yet how it will affect the way it develops in future.

There were strong hints that one reason to pay attention to the Anthropocene is that transformations in society go along with transformations in consciousness. So it matters what kind of change in consciousness the recognition of the Anthropocene represents.

There is definitely something distinctive here. As Gísli Pálsson of the University of Iceland emphasized – and elaborates in a recent paper – the most striking feature of the Anthropocene is that it is the first geological epoch in which a defining geological force (that’s us) is actively conscious of its geological role. So the Anthropocene therefore really starts when humans become aware of their global role in shaping key parts of the Earth system and, when this awareness in turn shapes their relationship with the natural environment.

Andrew Barry from the University of Oxford offered a closer analysis of the same point. For him, “the idea of the Anthropocene dates from when society’s impacts become measurable”.  This is a comment not on the dating of the Anthropocene itself, but on what is being measured – and registers globally, or on a very large scale – to fix that date, and how.

He adds that such measurements are significant when they become significant “for practical purposes”. For example, the idea of global impact from human action was reinforced by the era of massive nuclear weapons testing. This was a significant step on the path to measures like environmental impact assessment, enshrined in legislation in the USA in 1969.

The multinational institutions, collaborations, and instrument networks which now help research Earth systems reveal global impacts, but geopolitical sources are not always obvious. That complicates one of the social functions of assessing impact, which is to establish – but also limit – responsibility.

“Impacts are now connected, and systemic”, he reckoned. Signs that this is influencing real political controversy can be read in, for example, a study of opposition to the Mackenzie gas pipeline in Canada’s North West Territories. Environmental impact assessment of the pipeline, it was argued, should include assessment of its impact on the climate as well as more direct, local effects.

More generally, Barry says, the society of the Anthropocene is trying to construct new political and scientific institutions to address a growing range of transnational environmental problems. It is interesting to view the development of Future Earth in that light. An idea that emerged from one of the immediate predecessors to Future Earth will now help shape the next generation of research programmes. As Barry put it, “The idea of the Anthropocene seems to me represents a remarkable intervention by the geosciences into the field of politics…an attempt by the geosciences to move above-ground.”


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