I should probably start by saying that I claim no particular expertise in this area. The anthropocene is a concept that I have to deal with… mostly in the context of students who want to use it. Occasionally I use it myself, though generally in a heuristic sense, to explore the ways that the concept is being deployed, the political stances and potentialities that it contains. The following is a series of notes that have emerged from my engagements with the concept (in teaching both design studio, and history and theory, as well as recent research projects that I have been involved with, notably the scarcity project, and more recent work around questions of energy)). Hopefully this will provide some material to discuss what is at stake in the concept. how is the concept being deployed today and by whom, and perhaps most importantly for us this evening, whether the concept of the anthropocene might actually be conceived in such a way that it has useful conceptual structure that we can all do some work with, in our different fields.
The basic proposition of the concept of the anthropocene is a simple one: that the collective productive labour of the human species has become a global, geological force. The evidence can seem compelling: humans move more rock and earth than all of the Earth’s glaciers and rivers combined, we fix more nitrogen in the soil than microbial activity does, we consume in various ways vast quantities of the biological, material and energetic resources of the planet, and of course, we have our own sedimentary layer, what has become known as ‘Anthropocene rock—the concrete, steel and bitumen of the planet’s cities and roads’.
One of the biggest problems encountered with the anthropocene concept is that it is too easily adopted in a simplified form, as simply referring to this quantitative aspect, often all too enthusiastically by those who seem to take a rather adolescent male delight in the idea that at last (or once again) mankind has overcome his imagined nemesis in mother nature. We might start by saying that this is by far the most trivial and conservative reading of the term, and one which none of the initial authors (Paul Crutzen 2002) or primary users of the concept actually deploy. Nonetheless, one often encounters this kind of boosterish reading – which of course, is particularly ironic, given that the anthropocene – should we chose to accept the term – could well be the geological era in which humanity becomes extinct! Paradoxically, we need to be careful that the anthropocene concept does not in fact naturalise, in terms of political ideology, our current way of being in the world.
But one of the problems with the concept is that it can seem to promote a naive and one-dimensional mode of Prometheanism, there are other problems too. Its is, it is hardly worth saying, a anthropocentric concept. Yet one wonders what it even means to say anthropocene when we learn that only 10% of the cells in the human body contain human DNA – is it already anachronistic, a legacy of outmoded ways of thinking about life. Concepts such as anthropocene often obscure as much as they illuminate, making us forget that every other living process on the planet also feeds into the anthropocene, and that this is an unfolding process that that ecological systems theory tells us we can in no viable way control.
There is perhaps also a danger that the concept acts to underplay more important categorisations. It might be more useful to think in terms of the difference between a biotic and abiotic planet, or a pre and post language planet. The anthropocene concept can act to compound our broader difficulty in recognising the complexity of other forms of species-life and who knows, other forms of species-being that are in the world.
One often hears that the anthropocene designates the first time that a single species has had such a global effect. Again, this is dubious.
We are certainly not the first species to have had a transformational geological affects at the scale of the planet. We might note for example that the Earth’s atmosphere is a non-equilibrium mixture of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gases (mostly argon), including the all important carbon dioxide which makes up a mere 0.4%. However, 2.4 bn years ago the Earth was a very different place, there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere, and a great deal more carbon dioxide. This condition was transformed into the kind of atmosphere that were have today through what is known as the Great Oxegenation Event – the fundamental transformation of the oceans and atmosphere brought about through the photosynthetic activities of phytoplankton, such as cyanobacteria in the ocean, which produced sugars from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, with oxygen as waste.
In this process the anaerobic life forms that had existed on the planet were wiped out in the first great mass extinction event, but which opened the way to the explosion of oxygen based life that we have on the planet today (well..) . Right now, 98% of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced on an ongoing cyclical basis, through the photosynthetic labours of plants, trees and still primarily sea based organisms.
If we are impressed by our sedimentary activity in anthropocene rock, then we might do well to remember how much of our own landscape here on this island was directly produced out of the bodies of other species, producing limestone, and granite.. materials that we might think of as geological, but which are absolutely organic too. These materials of course, have provided the basis for our own anthropogenic building activity, both directly in the form of stone structures and claddings, but also indirectly as concrete.
Nor do we have the biggest structures on Earth. There is an ant colony that stretches 6000km from the Iberian peninsula through France to Italy in what National Geographic journal has described as ‘the largest cooperative biological unit ever discovered’.
And we would do well not to forget the global production of soils by microbes… I could of course go on…
So on one level, the concept seems to mark the last gasp of a particular mode of anthropocentric thought, the end of a way of thinking. However, beyond the trivial claim that human activities have changed the planet, there is a bigger, and more interesting claim, which doesn’t depend upon sedimentary activity, but is rather a question concerning consciousness. For example, we might concede that yes, many species have had, and continue to have, as profound a geological and atmospheric impact upon the planet as we have, but, as Marx famously noted, what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the human has a plan. Now, we might look at the world today and wonder ‘where’s the plan’, but in a sense, this is precisely the point in what I think is a more useful construction of the conception of anthropocene.
In fact, right from the start, the concept is tied to our emerging understanding of complex systems theories, of the material-energetic complexity of physical and natural systems, and humanities metabolic relations with those systems. Rather than an adolescent Promethean glee, the anthropocene can offer a more of a sober acknowledgement of both the real complexity of our inorganic body in ‘non-human’ nature, and accepts and works with the reality of our ecocide practices. Perhaps the most important, though still problematic intended use of the concept was to foreground an attempt to create a new kind of ecological literacy, and a global subject capable of perceiving its interdependencies with other life forms and systems, in the words of Paul Crutzen, one of the co-authors of the term.
Dipesh Chackrabarty developed an influential post-colonial critique of Crutzen’s formulation, focusing on the kind of universal human subject implied. Chackrabarty was also significant in pointing out how the concept had the potential to entirely reorganise the task of historiography, and called for a new kind of history writing that would work through the old distinctions of natural and human history… work which became useful in thinking about a lot of the practical and written work that has been developed in architecture schools in recent years. And more recently, a new wave of work on the anthropocene has taken the consciousness question further… Ben Dibley’s work on Marx’s conception of species-being and the anthropocene is particularly suggestive I think.
The concept of species-being is introduced by a young Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and although it reappears in various forms in his later writings it remains a concept that has caused some controversy of interpretation, which I do not have the space to go into here. But we can say that for Marx species-being is a potential, the potential of human existence to consciously reflect through practice on its own conditions of life as a mode of life, or in Marx’s words: ‘making life activity itself an object of will and consciousness’. However for Marx we do not yet experience life as species-being… we are as yet alienated from it:
‘The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body, (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object, and the tool of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – that is to say, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature – i.e., nature is his body – and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature … Estranged labor turns . . . Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him . . . It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect’
So if for Marx the natural world is our extended body, but one which is alienated from us. I will conclude these brief notes by suggesting (following Dibley) that the progressive reading of the anthropocene – framed as a question of raising our self-consciousness of our deeply implicated order with the non-human world – might be rethought through species-being. But I would have then to conclude that today we live in the pre-anthropocene. We could of course move into the anthropocene, but this would be a necessarily revolutionary act. To paraphrase the young Marx, to do this, we would need to make ourselves, including our extended body in nature, the historical subjects of the anthropocene, as the form of our species-being.
Filed under: ecology, research, teaching, anthropocene