This is the first in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.
“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”
“Human activities are exerting increasing impacts on the environment on all scales, in many ways outcompeting natural processes. This includes the manufacturing of hazardous chemical compounds which are not produced by nature, such as for instance the chlorofluorocarbon gases which are responsible for the “ozone hole”. Because human activities have also grown to become significant geological forces, for instance through land use changes, deforestation and fossil fuel burning, it is justified to assign the term “anthropocene” to the current geological epoch. This epoch may be defined to have started about two centuries ago, coinciding with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.”
~Paul J. Crutzen
Considering the suitability of the name “anthropocene” to characterize the present geological era, there are several competing and overlapping narratives. There is a tension within many of the narratives about exactly which humans are the ones leaving their geological imprint on the earth. Paul Crutzen, who is credited with originally coining the term, along with many other climate scientists, exemplifies what Cristophe Bonneuil has called a naturalist narrative. This type of narrative emphasizes that the climatic and geological changes occurring in the earth’s biosphere have been caused by human activities, particularly in the time period since the industrial revolution. However, the question remains for many, which humans? And are these geological imprints essential qualities of humans, or more specifically of capitalism?
I argue, along with others, that blaming the human species may not accurately reflect the particular capitalist relations that led to recent ecological and geological changes. Most science narratives do recognize that the impacts of humans on the earth are very unequally distributed, with the responsibility falling mostly to the few wealthiest countries and corporations. However, while this may be acknowledged within most narratives about the anthropocene, Naomi Klein and others argue that the term “anthropocene” serves to homogenize those differences, attributing responsibility to all humans, and erasing the place-based Eurocentric values that led to the exploitative capitalist-industrial economy. Furthermore, this term does not address or recognize that these environmental responsibilities and burdens are linked to differences in class, race, and gender on a global scale.
Anthropologist and historian Dipesh Chakrabarty believes that the term “anthropocene” makes strides toward bridging the modern divide between nature and culture, human history and environmental history, by allowing humans to become aware of their interconnectedness with the earth and the severity of their impacts. However, I would counter that this did not happen by accident. The domination of nature has been part of the project of modernity from the beginning. Colonizers and imperialists very intentionally and knowingly endeavored to exploit nature to serve progress and civilization. To me it seems that the naturalist narrative about the anthropocene serves to reinforce this view of humans as dominant, but now with the earth in need of rescuing. Cristophe Bonneuil further points out that this narrative also positions the sciences (and technology) as saviors of the earth, without recognizing its instrumental part in contributing to many of these planetary changes.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Amazonian perspectivism inspires a shift in our understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to have agency. According to this take on Amazonian cosmology, all beings have agency and spirit, and each occupies an embodied perspective defined by a distinct relationality, giving rise to separate ontological understandings of the world. If we view capitalism as a way of organizing nature which has come to define the epoch of the anthropocene, (or “Capitalocene”, as Jason Moore has renamed it), I argue that capitalism as a “world-ecology”, has its own relationality, and essentially its own spirit or agentive persepective, with a very specific set of relations defining it. Capitalist relations link labor and natural resources as objects of capitalism, which are exploited for the accumulation of capital. As Moore contends, this exploitation blurs the Cartesian boundaries between mind and matter, and places the objects of capitalism into the realm of nature, concealing both inter- and intra-species differentiations. This is part of the distinct ontological understanding of the spirit of capitalism.
I wonder, if we view both human and non-human beings as having agency, can we truly say that human laborers have more agency than natural resources in powering the capitalist machine? It can certainly be said that the climatic and geological changes evident in the anthropocene could not have been achieved without humans, but equally, they could not have been achieved without coal, water, trees, and fossil fuels. I would agree with Bonneuil in stressing that a plurality of narratives and voices about the anthropocene are needed in order to understand where the burdens of responsibility lie, and whether the environmental and geological changes of the modern era can be attributed to humans as a species, or to capitalist relations that play out in a global ecological system.
Angus, Ian. 2015. “Does Anthropocene science blame all humanity?” from climateandcapitalism.com. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/05/31/does-anthropocene-science-blame-all- humanity/
Bonneuil, Cristophe. 2015. “The Geological Turn: Narratives of the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, C., and Gemenne, F. (eds). Routledge.
Crutzen, Paul J. 2006. “The ‘Anthropocene’.” Springer.
Klein, Naomi. 2015. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster.
Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis” 2014.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004. “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 463–84.