Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsIn recent years, a new buzzword has arrived on the scene, the Anthropocene. Popularised by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, this term is an effort to mark the distinctiveness of our contemporary period. By this logic, the Earth has now left the relatively stable and comfortable period of the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago. Instead, we’re said to be living in a new geological epoch, a period in which humanity is having an increasingly significant impact on the Earth's climate, biodiversity, nitrogen cycle, and all manner of other biogeochemical systems. On this basis, Crutzen and others have argued that “humanity has now become a geophysical force, reshaping the Earth in profound, and long lasting ways.”
Skip to 1 minute and 0 secondsAt the core of the notion of the Anthropocene, is an understanding of human history from a grand, planetary scale. From this perspective, the Holocene is understood as a period in which the glaciers melted, and temperatures both warmed and stabilised, opening up new possibilities for human life in many parts of the world which had previously been buried under Pleistocene ice. In the Holocene, agricultural food production spread around the globe. People settled into growing urban centres, as the human population went from perhaps a few million to billions. But these changes didn't just happen to take place during the Holocene. In an important sense, the new environmental conditions enabled them.
Skip to 1 minute and 42 secondsOver the intervening thousands of years, however, these emerging patterns of human life both continued, and intensified. According to most of the scholars using the term Anthropocene, the Industrial Revolution and the post World War II period known as the Great Acceleration are of central importance. Perhaps these periods mark the starting point of the Anthropocene, or perhaps they're just particularly critical chapters in its emergence. Either way, they represent key periods of transition, in which the impact of humanity was ratcheted up significantly, through growing population, industrialisation, resource extraction, and consumption.
Skip to 2 minutes and 21 secondsIn this way, the forms of social, political, and economic life that were dreamed up and made possible in the stable climatic conditions of the Holocene, might be understood to have undermined themselves, bringing an abrupt end to the Holocene itself. Human history told from this perspective, that is on a grand planetary scale, is fascinating stuff. For one thing, we can learn a lot about ourselves and our relationships with, and dependence on our environments and climate. But this zoomed out perspective also has many disadvantages, which are readily apparent in discussions about the Anthropocene. Perhaps the single largest problem with this grand narrative is its failure to pay attention to the diversity of human life.
Skip to 3 minutes and 4 secondsFrom the lofty heights of planetary processes, we're told that humanity has become a geophysical force, that current processes of climate change and mass species extinction have anthropogenic causes. But which humans are really at fault, here? And equally as importantly, which humans will be impacted upon most profoundly by these dramatic changes? While the term Anthropocene, literally the age of humanity, perhaps implies the we're all in this together, nothing could be further from the truth. Some scholars have identified this as a key problem with the term Anthropocene, and argued that a term like Capitalocene or Econocene would more accurately identify the source of our contemporary environmental problems.
Skip to 3 minutes and 48 secondsWhatever we call it, the point is that we as individuals, as communities, and nations, are all very differently positioned in the Anthropocene, both in terms of culpability and impacts. Paying attention to these differences is a key part of the work that we do in the Environmental Humanities, complicating simplistic narratives about "humanity," by focusing on interwoven cultural, political, economic, and historical diversities, to tell thick, situated stories about the Anthropocene as a lived reality. Alongside human diversities, Environmental Humanities scholars have also tried to complicate the anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene narrative, by paying attention to diverse forms of non-human agency.
Skip to 4 minutes and 33 secondsWhile no one's denying that humans, some of us much more than others, are impacting profoundly on environments today, some of us worry that naming a whole geological epoch after ourselves, might be just a little hubristic. However powerful we become, surely it's vital we continue to acknowledge that Earth futures can only ever be shaped in collaboration with a range of other processes— biological, geological, hydrological, and even extraterrestrial. We are not now, nor will we ever be, “in control.” Perhaps, it's our over-inflated sense of importance that got us into this trouble in the first place.
Skip to 5 minutes and 9 secondsPerhaps, what's needed most urgently at this time is more, not less attention to the diverse, more-than-human Earth agencies that we must learn to cohabit and collaborate with.
The “Anthropocene” is a term popularised by Eugene Stoermer and the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. The term has been taken up to argue that we are now living in a new geological epoch, one in which humanity has become a geophysical force.
In this video, Thom van Dooren introduces and challenges the concept of the Anthropocene. He addresses some of the problems of this grand-planetary-scale narrative, in particular asking which humans are really at fault? and what non-human, or earth agencies, are also implicated in Earth futures?
For some, the concept of the Anthropocene is used as a means of raising environmental consciousness and highlighting the scale of human impact on environments. However, if we wish to move beyond harmful anthropocentric frames of inquiry, is it wise to name a geological epoch after ourselves? Or, would it be more prudent to focus on the diverse forms of non-human agency that contribute to Earth futures?
What do you think?
What are some advantages and disadvantages of using the term “Anthropocene”?
- Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3–30.
- Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).
- Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159–165.
- Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” (unpublished paper, 2014).
- Richard B. Norgaard, “The Econocene and the Delta,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 11, no. 3 (2013).
- Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature,” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment 36, no. 8 (2007): 614–621.
© UNSW Australia 2016