“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a safety advisory placed on the passenger side mirror of motor vehicles mandated by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the United States. Its purpose is to remind drivers on distance perception as convex mirrors give a useful field of view while making objects appear smaller. From an anthropological perspective, I feel a deep sense of irony as we go about our daily lives trying to ensure safety on the roads but fail to acknowledge that “objects”, or “hyperobjects” causing catastrophic environmental destruction are closer than they appear.
Hyperobjects are matter or ideological constructs that are:
Supertemporal, extending beyond the human imagination of space and time, refuting the idea of boundedness.
Viscous, sticking to any other object/subject and entraps them within its influence.
Non-local, hyperobjects are felt or perceived indirectly
Phased, hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional space that may be invisible to the human senses
Interobjective, hyperobjects form interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects (Morton 2013, pp.1–7).
Hyperobjects are real and yet are intrinsically difficult for humans to experience or understand fully. For example, climate change is an illustration of hyperobjects. Climate change envelops humans despite our attempts to detach ourselves from it. We experience climate change in the form of natural disasters such as droughts and monsoons. Climate change also appears to be periodically phased, allowing the Ozone layer to heal while other parts of the Earth continues to degrade.
Why do we need to know hyperobjects?
Timothy Morton argues for a fluid conception between humans and objects: “no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which all things fit” (2013, p.102). Rather than continuing to use the container analogy to organise social life, Morton asserts for a mesh analogy to decentre human exceptionalism and raise urgency towards the current ecological calamity that we, humans and objects alike, are responsible and are within the crisis.
Humanity’s reaction to using ironic distancing to obscure environmental degradation is delaying attempts to create a sustainable future. Ironic distancing is the attempt to distance oneself from a problem or thing that one is already embedded within. Our current attitudes reflect ironic distancing and what Rob Nixon argues as “slow violence”. Slow violence is the product of neoliberalism’s deregulation of the economy, creating massive competition in resource extraction, indiscriminate dumping of waste, etc (Nixon 2011, p.11). Such activities enact “violence” toward the environment and impoverished communities that is noticeable in time to come.
Slow violence is spectacle-deficient. For example, the effects of losing biodiversity or exposure to nuclear radiation are invisible and latent for long periods (Nixon 2011, p.47). The Chernobyl disaster was censored by the Soviet government for eighteen days, hindering effective containment strategies to prevent radiation from spreading (Nixon 2011, p.51). As a result, there was pollution to water bodies, speculative radiation estimates and an increase in mental disorders and abortions from the fear of ionising radiation or radiophobia. Thus, hyperobjects blurs international, intergenerational and somatic temporalities.
What does it mean for Anthropology?
While many “modern” anthropological concepts centres around the human, Morton argues for an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) which I shall briefly summarise as moving away from human exceptionalism and assuming that objects have the agency for causality. In sum, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a salient ontological reminder that our environment is afflicted with slow violence and humans need to start reconceptualising fundamental philosophical questions of existence and do away with using “distance” and “time” as defence mechanisms to shield us from the nearness and precarity of pollution and degradation.
Morton, T 2013, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
Nixon, R 2011, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Space: The Final Frontier. The final colonial stomping ground for the rich and the entitled and the predominantly white. The phrase “colonisation of space” – and all its associated connotations of conquering and civilising – has long been in use in both science-fiction and real-world references to the future of humanity, as envisioned in the great starry plains of the cosmos. (The first “original” use of the phrase is difficult to ascertain). Undoubtedly, from the so-called “Space Race” of the 1950s to the 1970s, to Elon Musk’s present-day SpaceX program, the modern world appears particularly enamoured with the concept of exploring and, eventually, inhabiting space. Earth’s own moon, and the red expanse of Mars, are especially coveted as the site(s) for this proposed future habitation, as the planets deemed to have atmospheres most resembling Earth’s (from within our own solar system). At least, if not entirely resembling Earth’s, the atmospheres of the moon and Mars are deemed the most “manageable”; the most “conquerable”, and, indeed, the most “colonisable”.
Certainly, living on either moon or planet would require extensive “terraforming” of the landscape to allow the human physiology to survive. Science-fiction novels, movies, and television shows abound with images of domes and underground bunkers; great white spectres amidst otherwise barren landscapes.
Yet beyond merely being able to walk and talk and
breath within these habitats, the primary concern centres around our ability to
grow food. That is, to grow plants: agricultural foodstuffs such as wheat,
maize, vegetables, fruits, herbs. Plants not only for our own (human)
consumption but for the potential consumption of livestock as well. Without
these, humanity simply will not survive a long-term habitation of space.
Plants – both agricultural, and of the garden variety
– have historically been tied to many of the “original” colonization efforts of
Earth nations and peoples. It is likely the same will be true of the
colonisation of space (Slobodian 2015). What has been deemed the “Anthropocene”
has been heavily influenced by the ‘biotic upheaval’ (Mastnak, Elyachar &
Boellstorff 2014, 364) of both plants and animals (and fungi and bacteria and…)
associated with Earthen colonialism, and its subsequent ideological ‘remaking
of relations among humans, plants, and place’ (ibid.). For colonialism
was foremost seen as a conquering of land for European empires; and only
subsequently the people and animals and plants that happened to reside on that
land. As European powers created settler colonies in these lands, they brought
with them the plants and animals of their home countries, producing an
intensive “biological expansion of Europe” (Crosby quoted in Mastnak, Elyachar
& Boellstorff 2014, 367). Plants and animals once “native” to Europe
(critiques of the concept of native/alien aside) can now be found across the
world. In this way, colonialism and its “conquering” of foreign landscapes through
human, botanical, and zoological means, arguably represents ‘the greatest
biological revolution’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 374) of the
modern world. Space proves to be no different. For ‘how could one ever think
that, on a remote planet, our environmental care would be any different’
(Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017, 213) to what it has historically been on
So, let’s take a cue from science-fiction, and envision
a future a hundred years from now, or two or three or four. Let’s say humans have
set up habitations on Mars; we’ve figured out how to grow food plants, and to
grow them well, and the first “pioneering” outposts have now expanded to great
cities of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Undoubtedly these
cities will be built to resemble the cities of Earth (Calanchi, Farina &
Barbanti 2017), including its plant life: one can picture parks and tree-lined
streets; rooftop gardens and window boxes filled with flowers. Just as Earth colonialism
“imported” the plants of settler’s home countries to new lands, so too will the
colonisation of space indubitably import Earth plants to the terraformed landscapes
of Mars, or the moon, or whichever other planet(s) we decide to “conquer” and “civilise”.
Beyond the “practical” agricultural plants mentioned previously, what other
plants might be selected for space expansion, and why? How do we decide which
plants are “worthy” of inter-planetary expansion, and which should remain on
Earth? The botanical and zoological concepts of “native” and “alien” would gain
new meaning, as the human experience becomes, literally, extra-terrestrial.
Who would make these botanical decisions, and based on what criteria? What would
such choices say about our relationship with the chosen plants, and with the
unchosen plants, and with the Earth (as a planet) more generally?
These questions and more, coming soon to an
Anthropology near you.
What is a weed? Perhaps that’s a trick question. And
no, I’m not talking about marijuana (although according to Agriculture
Victoria, marijuana is, in fact, classified as a “noxious weed”. There you have
it!). I’m talking about common garden weeds – plants like dandelions, morning
glory (bindweed), crabweed, spiny emex, etc. The kinds of plants you’d
recognise by sight but maybe not necessarily by name. Taxonomically speaking,
there is no single family or genera of “weeds”; no uniform classificatory
status. Merriam-Webster (that most cited of online dictionaries) defines a
‘weed’ as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing”, “usually of
vigorous growth,” and “one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable
plants”. They are productive and voracious growers – voracious not in the
food-hungry sense of the word, but in their eagerness, their enthusiasm
to grow – appearing in spaces where other plants simply wouldn’t survive; such
as on concrete pathways and in rooftop gutters. They grow quickly and reproduce
abundantly, colonizing available ground with speed. Certainly, they are
intrinsically bound to these concepts of space and place: ‘Many plants become
weeds simply by being in the wrong place’ (Creswell 1997, 335; emphasis
added). Take the common dandelion, for example (Taraxacum officinale). A
meadow filled with their bright yellow flowers – a literalization of the
Anthropological “field” if ever there was one – would be considered charming. Look
at all that yellow! Yet when a dandelion appears in a garden or public
pathway, they are no longer considered charming. They are immediately relegated
to the category of the “weed”.
But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with Anthropology? You want to study people, not weeds. Well, fair enough. But think about it: Who defines this notion of “right” and “wrong” places for weeds to grow? Mary Douglas, a prominent Anthropologist you’re bound to come across in your studies, is perhaps most famous for her argument that dirt is simply ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1965, 198). So, too, are weeds simply plants that are “out of place”. They are weeds only in relation to their unwanted-ness; and, specifically, to human want and un-want. A cat, or a deer, or a bee, or a tree, has no concept of a weed; for weeds ‘are creatures of human disturbance’ (Tsing 2017, 3; emphasis added). For me, weeds highlight the human obsession with classifying things and putting them in their “right place”. This linguistic and ideological obsession is ‘deeply engrained in the way we think and act’ (Creswell 1997, 334); in how we think about and interact with the world around us. We order this world in carefully constructed ways, both scientifically – through taxonomy and nomenclature (see my companion post on Carl Linnaeus’s legacy here) – and practically. Gardens are personifications of this botanical ordering, with each plant put in its correct place, ‘forming a harmonious whole’ (Creswell 1997, 335) in which weeds would be a disturbance: ‘useless, harmful, and undesirable’ (ibid.). In removing such “weeds” from the human-cultivated space of the garden – in performing the verbal act, “to weed” – the gardener ensures that the physical world ‘conforms to the structure of ideas’ (Douglas 1965, 199). Things belong where they belong, and must remain so, bounded and boxed eternally. A garden full of weeds is not a garden at all but a representation of the “natural” and the “wild”, encroaching on the “human” and the “civilised”. Colonial terminology abounds.
Certainly, our pedantic categorising of the world
around us reveals more about ourselves than, arguably, any inherent properties
of the world itself. A weed is not a weed until a human deems it so, and a
human only deems it so when a plant has the wild, untamed audacity to
grow where it is not wanted. Anything can be a weed, in that sense (okay,
except for maybe trees – which grow too slowly and would be “weeded out” before
they reached anything approaching maturity). Conversely, it appears that plants
can occasionally escape the denomination of “weed”, too. In my grandmother’s
retirement village in South Africa, a common species of clover (nomenclature
unknown), with its dainty purple flowers – long relegated to the category of
“weed” in the village inhabitants’ previous suburban gardens – had achieved an
ideological revolution, and was now present in almost every garden and
window-box in the village. My mother was horrified. “But it’s a weed!”
she cried, repeatedly. And yet the inhabitants of the retirement village had
now deemed it not so. The ease with which the “weedy” clover grew was now
coveted, and the flowers “sweet” and “pretty”. It makes me think of the
Shakespearian idiom “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Would a weed by any other name be considered as “weedy”? As unwanted? As out of
place? Clearly not.
Have you ever
felt so connected to a piece of earth that you can feel the appreciation in
your heart swell? Or perhaps you envision that place in your mind, recollecting
the memories, and become very upset at the idea of it no longer being there? What
if I told you that the connection you feel to this land is just imagined in
your mind, and has no material precedence and should become developed for Western
intellectual pursuits? Would you feel devastated?
I like to keep myself up to date with the controversies surrounding natural and sacred spaces, and their ongoing protection and destruction from capitalist developments. Divergent concepts and understandings of culture around the world have laid the groundwork for multiple controversies surrounding environmental protections, the rights of nature and climate change; from the protection of water at Standing Rock, the scheming of the Australian government to bulldoze 800 year-old sacred Djab Wurring trees, to El Salvador becoming the first country to recognise the inherent rights of natural forests. I think it is important for all beginner anthropologists to consider how different understandings of culture play into these debates.
Recently on October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of
Hawaii approved the building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of
the sacred Hawai’ian mountain, Mauna a Wākea. This decision came after
years of legal battles between the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) and
scientists, as well as multiple country stakeholders (India, China, Japan and
The Kanaka Maoli and environmentalists opposed the development
of the giant telescope because it would be built on one of the most sacred
natural locations in Hawaiian culture. The Mauna a Wākea is a sacred
mountain for the Kanaka Maoli. Wākea, sometimes translated as “Sky
Father”, is considered the father for many of their peoples and in other
respects the “piko, umbilical cord, or centre of existence for Hawaiians”
(Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, p.1). The summit is a sacred place for their spiritual
connectedness, practices and sense of oneness with the earth – all of which are
fundamental elements of their culture (Ibid).
Many of the telescope’s
stakeholders failed to acknowledge the importance Mauna a Wākea had in
Hawaiian culture and instead, focused on the scientific exploration and
commercial production that the telescope would bring. This was evident in the
TMT International Observatory’s commitment to “a new paradigm of development on
Mauna Kea founded on integrating culture, science, sustainability and education”
(TMT 2017, p.1). Their investment in the TMT,
as the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, was ultimately embedded in
their desire to bolster Western cultural and astronomical contributions.
This opposition between the
worldviews and values of the TMT and the Kanaka Maoli brings into question: What
counts as culture and who determines what cultural perspectives “win” in
The struggle over Mauna a Wākea is a struggle
over the meaning and making of sacred places, nature and Indigenous cultures. Native
Hawai’ian scholar, Marie Alohalani Brown (2016), describes that the kinship
relations between the Kanaka Maoli and the island-world environment are not
validated by the West unless they are materially visible. She states, “The
Hawaiian Islands…[and] culture is something to be enjoyed as long as it is
presented in a form that is palatable, saleable, and consumable” (Brown 2016,
p.166). The traditions and sacred elements of Indigenous cultures are
recognised insofar as they do not limit the economic and cultural projects that
strengthen Western domination.
The western ideologies of scientific exploration and
commercial exploitation are imposed on the Kanaka Maoli by the TMT as being for
‘the better good of humanity and culture’. This prioritisation of western
thinking is clear in the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s decision to approve the
construction of the telescope – it alludes to how scientific discoveries and
explorations have become a fundamental aspect of Western culture that is
treated with the upmost regard. This is completely at odds with the spiritual
relationship to Mauna a Wākea and the island world that is central to
Native Hawaiian culture – the sacredness is not merely a concept or label as
perceived by those holding the western ideologies. The sacredness of the
mountain stems from their understanding of it as a kin relative – “Sky Father” –
which they maintain a sacred and traditional relationship with. The mountain is,
in many respects, a lived experience that is representative of the Kanaka Maoli’s
connection to the natural and spiritual worlds (Brown 2016, p.166).
This is evidently a highly contested space, within and beyond, the anthropology discipline. But these cultural complexities leave us with some key anthropological questions to ponder: what ‘counts as culture’ in our Western society? And who decides whether nature is incorporated into these understandings and protections of ‘culture’?
Brown, Marie Alohalani 2016, ‘Mauna Kea:
Ho’omana Hawai’i and Protecting the Sacred’, Journal for the Study of
Religion, Nature & Culture, vo.10, no. 2,150–69.
You’ve been very solemn there in the corner, Squid, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the term “Capitalocene” and what it means for the people who write about humans and non humans?
First allow me to introduce myself. I am the envoy of Donna Haraway, who is a dear friend of my squid squad. Haraway also agrees with you, Spider, that the term Anthropocene avoids calling out capitalism and also puts too much emphasis on humans (2015, 159). Donna always says that language how we build our world, and unfortunately the name of the Anthropocene puts humans in the middle of it (Haraway et al 2016, 538).
Donna Haraway uses a multitude of terms, including the “Capitalocene”, the “Plantationcene” and the “Chthulucene” (Haraway et al 2016). The Plantationcene is an effort to acknowledge that the destructive habits of humans do not only date back to the onset of industrial capitalism. They actually began with the earlier colonialist history that fed into capitalism, where slave labour was used to exploit land for agricultural and mineral purposes. Yet Donna is often criticised for being too political for using the term “Capitalocene” and “Plantationcene”. Humans are strange creatures like this, they try to evade any kind of responsibility, but Haraway actually says that the responsibility of humans is also a “response- ability” (2015, 164).
Humans need to work out how to live with their non-human kin. In fact, in Donna Haraway’s recent book the “Chthulucene manifesto” she has even said that we could even call this present era the “Chthulucene” rather than the “Anthropocene”. This is not actually to honour our leader Cthulhu, but it is to show that humans actually have tentacles (and webs and roots) in the non-human world. When humans study and write about the world, they should make an effort to include the narratives of all entities like us, mushrooms, spiders and squid. I don’t just want to hear the old trees and polar bear narrative. Just look at what is happening with the sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals, maybe a better name for this period is just ‘the trouble’ (Haraway et al 2016, 537).
Haraway says that people are hesitant to act because they haven’t read the newest critique of the system (Terranova 2016). This is one of the problems with academia, it is easy from those academics to say that you don’t know how the world works, because you haven’t read a particular theory and you are just a student, or a taxi driver, or a mushroom, or a spider. The most important thing is that people are recognising that the current system is destructive, even if they don’t have the most fully developed critique of it. What we need to focus on is less on having a perfect vision of what is going on right now and turn towards where we could be going, looking at the possibilities of life on Earth. Science fiction and speculative anthropology are ways of accomplishing this vision, which is why Haraway often works with science fiction writers and anthropologists to create stories for Earthly survival (Terranova 2016).
What I am proposing is a call-to-action for our human kin to respond to this climate emergency and resist individualist or human-centred ways of depicting the world. Otherwise there will be grave and perhaps even chthonic consequences for all of us, a true Cthulu eruption of doomsday proportions! Beware!
What you are saying seems very morbid, Squid, but I agree with you. Imagining a shared future can be a useful way of acting in the present to avoid the worst of this oncoming storm. My mycelium networks have been retelling a lecture by Bruno Latour, who says that even though the apocalypse is a bit of a literary trope, the only way to move humans to respond to this storm is by telling stories. By the way, where is our friend the ant, who always brings messages of hope from Bruno Latour?
An ANT scurries in, late to the gathering, but carrying a message of hope from Bruno Latour:
So sorry I’m late. It’s so hard to get anywhere on time on the antway, it’s only one lane. I do come bearing a gift for the anthropologists in the room, that is, from my colleague Bruno Latour, who sends his regards.I know you may have your criticisms of the Anthropocene, but really it is an amazing gift. In the age of the Anthropocene, we are acknowledging that humans are quite literally re-shaping the earth (Latour 2014). The links between humans and non-humans are no longer merely the objects of symbolism and myth (Latour 2014). Many hard scientists are realising they too need to ponder the relationship between physical and cultural anthropology, and the blurring of nature and culture (Latour 2014). The Anthropocene has destabilised the hierarchy between hard sciences and social sciences, relieved anthropologists somewhat of having to question: ‘Are we an art or a science?’ and brought a greater appreciation for the multispecies anthropological work anthropologists like Anna Tsing are doing. Isn’t this exciting?!
Yes it most certainly is. More enthusiasm for interdisciplinary collaboration is a gift of the Anthropocene. If we compare disciplines to genres, it seems even more obvious (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)! Imagine one discipline is a science fiction novel and the other a mystery novel (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553). There’d be no reason to doubt we could have a science fiction mystery novel, would there be (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)?
That’s very true, Mushroom. And this sort of collaboration is already happening at AURA (Aarhus University Research on the Anthropo-cene) (Latour et al. 2018, p. 598), which is a hopeful outcome, one that shows us that there isn’t even ‘interdisciplinarity’ in the same sense any more, because there are no longer two sides. In the Anthropocene there is no longer a physical and a cultural side–and humans are the center for everyone and for no one. (Latour 2014). And Bruno is very excited about the opportunity for collaborative work with geo-scientists because their science ‘is not a science of the globe, it is a highly local, pluralised, multiple kind of science (Latour2014b)’ (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597). The epistemology of the globe is what got us in the mess we are in. This epistemology is why perhaps Platationocene is a more productive term to describe this era (Latour et al. 2018, p. 591). Bruno would agree with Donna that the Plantationocene is both useful for the reasons you have stated, Squid, but also because, and I think Anna would agree, ‘it refers to a certain, historically specific, way of appropriating the land, namely an appropriation of land as if land was not there. Plantationocene is a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth’ (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 591-592). The modernist and capitalist project is literally founded on the mass extraction of minerals and plants from the Earth and the removal of people from their lands. Metaphorically humans have also been separated from the Earth with the ideology that humans are outside of nature.
Mushroom: By labeling this new age the Platationocene it shifts our awareness to the need for more analytical work in the field that is ‘soil-rich’, and grounded in the arts of noticing (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 598-599)(Tsing 2015, p. 37). This is what anthropologists do best!
Yes, exactly, this highly local and pluralised sort of work (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597)! Except now, the field has also changed. We know that any field study (be that anthropological) will be ‘studying devastated sites in crisis’ (Latour 2014). But don’t be confused, this is still a message of hope. Latour believes that it is best to think we are in the apocalypse now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). And yes the apocalypse may be a bit of a literary trope, but rather than being catastrophising, apocalyptic thinking spurs us into action (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 603-604). We are not living in the indifferent time ‘after’ an apocalyptic time, nor are we ignorantly waiting for the apocalypse to happen in the future, but we are in it now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). The arrival of the Anthropocene as the apocalypse destroys modernization’s ideas about linear progress that fuel capitalism. It also reveals the entanglements, as you might say Mushroom, across space and time of different species to each other as they face extinction (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 604-605). And these entanglements include humans, and as Squid says, the Anthropocene raises the question of human moral and political responsibility (Latour 2014). I think the key question here for scientists (anthropologists included!) is ‘how do we redistribute human agency without being humanist, or post-humanist, or anti-humanist’ while simultaneously humans have become the center of all of our research and the question of what it means to be human has become blurry, as it is now recognised that we are morally tied to what used to be called ‘beyond the human’ (Latour 2014). The gift of the Anthropocene (and perhaps it is a difficult pill to swallow), in short, is that how we define: time, space, and otherness (Latour 2014)–all very important concepts to anthropologists–and consequently how we define anthropology as a discipline needs to change and be reworked!
Terranova, F. (Dir.). 2016. Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival. Icarus Films.
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?
Mushroom: 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.
Spider: 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.