It’s a chilly winter evening and you find yourself in a dimly lit basement bar. Smoke from cigarettes is wafting around the room, and you can hear people clicking their fingers to the soft beats of jazz music. It’s an Anthropo Scene gathering. Some of the most outspoken anthropologists, Anna Tsing, Jason W Moore, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour were unable to attend this gathering, but they have sent envoys to carry their messages. These envoys seem to be posing as undercover social scientists, wearing ill-fitting hip couture in an effort to blend in. They mingle in a corner discussing topics ranging from philosophy to geology to anthropology and you sit at a table nearby and listen eagerly…
What is the Anthropocene?
Anonymous blob wearing dark glasses and a beret: Well, from my understanding, it is a term that was first proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stroermer to the scientific community in 2000 to describe a new geological epoque for the earth (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 3)(Moore, A. 2015, p. 32). The idea is that we have moved into an era where humans have become the most influential factor in global changes–most notably biodiversity loss, climate change and changes in the earth’s fossil record (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). It is contested whether this shift began with the Neolithic introduction of farming or much more recently around the time of the Industrial Revolution which caused a massive increase in carbon dioxide levels (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4)(Tsing 2015, p.19). The shift has also been marked by the testing of nuclear bombs in mid-20th century which disseminated radioactive isotopes all over the globe (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). This era is said to continue today and will continue to shape the earth for an indefinite future…
But tell me, what does that mean for anthropology?
Yes, how did this topic of geological science become so influential to social and political sciences?
Excuse me let me introduce myself. I was bred from an old and deep mycelium, to bring us the message of the Anthropocene anthropologist Anna Tsing. Simply put, in the Anthropocene ‘progress’ stops making sense (2015 p. 25). This view of the world that has been clouded by dreams of progress, science, and advancement is destabilised (Tsing 2015, pp. 20-21). And with it, the Enlightenment dualism between nature and culture and humans and nature is brought into question. This realisation that, in the Anthropocene, humans cause more disturbance to the earth, and by extension non-human beings, than other geological forces means that the distinction between humans and nature is blurred.
Anthropology as a discipline is more important now than ever. The progress mentality that drove humans to look ahead has failed us, and instead we need to start looking around (Tsing 2015, p. 22). We need to revitalize arts of noticing (Tsing 2015, p. 37), like ethnography and anthropology more generally. Anna wants me to pass on the message about the very useful concept of assemblage (Tsing 2015, p. 22). Keeping in mind the concept of assemblage helps us to ask how varied species, human and non-human, influence each other (Tsing 2015, pp. 22-23). The nature of the field has changed. Despite the looming ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene that refuses to acknowledge our collaborative survival with non-human beings (Tsing 2015, p. 19), the Anthropocene also forces anthropologists to take note of how the focal subjects our study, humans, are entwined in the lifeways outside of ourselves (Tsing 2015, p. 23). It brings anthropologists an appreciation for multi-species and multi-sited ethnographies. Anna also wanted me to read you this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:
‘I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.’ (Tsing 2015, p. 17)
Perhaps the work of anthropologists in the Anthropocene can be that pig on the tracks, to persuade humanity to stop and look around.
Let me cut in here, I’m a spider who crept out of Jason Moore’s book “Capitalism and The Web of Life”. I’m here to talk about how Jason Moore thinks the concept of the “Anthropocene” needs to be reframed (2015). I agree that what we are seeing an unprecedented climate emergency, but the name “Anthropocene” can be used be humans to evade responsibility and create apathy. We have even seen corporations hijack the word “Anthropocene” by using it as a buzz word to suggest human exceptionalism. For example, look at this article in The Economist where the Anthropocene is elevated as giving “humans an unexpected promotion—to the status of geological movers and shakers” (The Economist 2016). The reason that the planetary life support system is dying is because of capitalism, a political and economic system that values profit and an uneven distribution of resources.
My suggestion is to rename this era the “capitalocene”, but I’m not just arguing “about replacing one word with another” (Moore 2015, 81). We need to reframe the thinking around it as well. Theorists of the Anthropocene are trying to collapse the old dualisms such as nature/culture. Yet placing emphasis on the idea that it is human activity that is destroying an external nature is also dualistic. Humans aren’t an external force that are impacting the natural world, they are inextricably linked together in the earth system, like it’s just one big web. Capitalism as a socio-economic system is also part of this web, and it is the growth of capitalism is what has caused colossal imbalances in the Earth system.
Anthropocene theorists haven’t quite acknowledged this, although they have tried to overcome dualistic thinking by using new terms such as “assemblages”. I disagree that these theoretical tools are able to destabilise the capitalistic categorisation of nature as a resource external to humans. Post modernist concepts such as “assemblage” diffuse knowledge and make it harder to locate the power imbalances that are destroying living systems (Moore 2015, 5). If we describe the source of climate destruction as the entire human race, as the name “Anthropocene” suggests, then the corporations and countries who contribute the most to climate destruction are let off the hook. The worst experiences of the climate emergency will be in countries who don’t have the infrastructure to cope with extreme climates, which is unfair because it is the Global West and large corporations who contribute the most carbon emissions. The term “Capitolocene” highlights these contradictions.
Moore, A. 2015. ‘Anthropocene anthropology: reconceptualizing contemporary global change’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 22(1): 27-46.
Moore, J W. 2015. Capitalism in the web of life: ecology and the accumulation of capital. London:Verso Press.
Moore, J W. 2017. The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(3): 594-630.
Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Raffnsøe, S. 2016. Philosophy of the anthropocene : the human turn, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.