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SYNAPSE Workshop 2015 | June 30 – July 4, 2015

notes to the Anthropocene

20.03.13 | PROJECT: Blog | AUTHOR: Flora Lysen

Some notes on the Anthropocene

Below are some brief notes ‘in progress’ about the idea of the Anthropocene, specifically in relation to the Whole Earth exhibition that will open at Haus der Kulturen der Welt on April 25, 2013 (one day before Jill Bennett’s lecture for Synapse 2013).

Hypercene

You might not have noticed, but we have entered a new geological epoch. Our previous period, the Holocene, if you missed it, literally meant the age of the ‘entirely new’, and it was preceded by the Pleistocene (‘most new’) and Pliocene (‘more new’) some billion years ago. If one follows the logic of Greek geological nomenclature, we would now have entered the epoch of the Hypercene, the ‘mega new’, the never-ever-been-so-new-before. Recently however, a group of geologists, ecologists and climate scientists has proposed that we have arrived at the geological era of the ‘Anthropocene’, a term to denote the age of ‘anthropos’, the time in which humans have become a “global geological force” that impacts the planet more pervasive then ever and irreversibly alters cycles in the biosphere.[1] Media, scholars and policymakers worldwide have started to pick up on this proposed epochal shift.[2] As a concept for a new time era, the ‘Anthropocene’ is gaining momentum. It seems the term ‘Anthropocene’ is specifically coined to mobilize awareness; it aims to offer a new frame of thinking to counteract persistent climate skepticism and to advocate planetary stewardship. This is also a point of critique directed at the idea, that it is just another concept in the “culture wars over the recognition and interpretation of environmental processes.”[3]The author’s however, claim that Anthropocene hypothesis might no, it will proof to be inflammatory, possibly provoking as much resistance as Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century.

 

 

 

Conceptual progenitors : Earthrise and noösphere

The analogy between the Anthropocene hypothesis and evolution theory clearly shows the stakes of the idea, it is envisioned to affect a revolutionary new way of looking at human life in relation to the planet. Its authors place the idea within a genealogy of seminal texts and meetings on the relation between man and earth.[4]Interestingly, two emblematic ‘images’ of the 1960s are proposed as important progenitors for conceptual history of the Anthropocene: the famous first man-made image of the earth captured by the astronauts of the Apollo 8 in 1968 entitled “earthrise” and the idea of the noösphere, an imagined sphere of accumulative human knowledge, that gained popularity in the 1960s. Earthrise was the long-awaited epiphany of the space race in the ‘closed world’ of the cold war era, an image that could subsequently give rise to a new discourse on holism and environmental management.[5] According to Tim Ingold, the image of the earth from outer space has conceptually placed us outside the earth – like astronauts – and has offered us a permanent look back upon the sphere of the earth from a circumferential (not a central) perspective.[6] Stewart Brand, the founder of the famous Whole Earth Catalog (WEC), rallied for the release of such an image of outer space in 1966, because it would help us realize that the earth was a sphere, a finite entity that can thus be understood and perfected.[7] In 1974, WEC listed one book that had heralded ideas of the earth’s finity already in the 1938: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man said the things “many of us are trying to say.”[8] Indeed, the concept of the concept of the noösphere, developed (amongst other thinkers) by this French paleontologist and Jesuit priest in his The Phenomenon of Man, gained new popularity after the post-humus publication of the English edition of the book in 1959. For Teilhard, the noösphere was the evolutionary-developed layer of thought that had come to pervade habitable space and encircled the biosphere. The noösphere was a circumterrestrial layer of thinking that had developed precisely because of the roundness of the earth. The geometrical shape of the earth, its closed form, had allowed the development of the thinking layer, as population growth and new possibilities of traveling and communication had brought people closer together.[9] The ideas of Buckminster Fuller (spaceship earth) and Marshall McLuhan (the global village) were influenced by Teilhard’s work.[10] Historian Linda Sargent Wood has emphasized the attractiveness of Teilhard’s work for holistic discourses of the 1960s and 1970s, in the New Age movement specifically, Teilhard topped the list of most influential thinkers.[11]

 

Anthropocene and Anthroposphere

If the closed form of the sphere is the emblematic predecessor for the Anthropocene, we have to analyze the notion of ‘sphericality’ in relation to the Anthropocene thesis. Before the notion of ‘Anthropocene’ was coined by Paul Crutzen in 2000, the idea of ‘Anthroposphere’ had already circulated in science literature. [12] Presently, Anthroposphere seems to denote “those parts of the Earth which have been made or greatly modified by humans – cultivated land, cities, road systems, mines and quarries, reservoirs,” as one component of several interlinked ‘spheres’ or subsystems in the earth system, such as the hydrosphere, biosphere, geosphere and cryosphere.[13] In this way, the Anthroposphere thus seems the weaker version of the Anthropocene thesis, the latter proposes the all-pervasive influence of humans, turning the Anthroposphere into an uncontained entity that permeates all other spheres, or into a phagocytic sphere that engulfs all others. This Anthroposphere would be the epitome of human-centeredness and man’s domination of earth. Conversely, the Anthropocene moves away from the bounded image of the ‘sphere’ altogether: the influence of humans on earth is expressed in terms of time instead of space. As a concept for a geological time era, the idea of the Anthropocene seems decidedly non-anthropocentric, it proposes a point in the future in which humans have become extinct, and, as Claire Colebrook has emphasized, places humans as one among other species that come into being and pass away.[14] In fact, if we take previous epochs of geological time seriously, it would be suitable to start to think of life non-anthropocentrically, to devise a new ‘iconography of life’, as Stephen Jay Gould has proposed, including the idea of a ‘world without us’.[15] The term Anthropocene suggests such a new iconography, but its spherical progenitors show how much the concept is still bound to the idea of a sphere, to “planetary boundaries” in relation to the protection of the earth.[16] Sphericality turns our attention to the shallow time of economics and lifespans. The current propositions on the Anthropocene have not yet taken its ‘future perfect’ tense and sense of time to its logical extreme and remain attached to the global boundary of the earth, as a middle ground between spaceless Anthropocene and a local sense of place that disregards sphericality altogether.

 

 

 


[1] Steffen, W., Grinevald, J., Crutzen, P., & McNeill, J. (2011). The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1938), 842-867.
[2] Before 2003, the term yielded 416 web hits; by 2011 that number had increased to over 450,000, in Syvitski, James, “Anthropocene: an epoch of our making,” Global Change 78, March 2012. An animation movie on the idea of the Anthropocene opened the Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in June 2012. ‘The Anthropocene: A Man-made World’ The Economist May 26th 2011, available online at http://www.economist.com/node/18741749 and ‘Anthropocene: Have humans created a new geological age?’ BBC News, 11th May 2011, available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/scienceenvironment-13335683
[3] Whitney J. Autin and John M. Holbrook. “Is the Anthropocene an Issue of Stratigraphy or Pop Culture?” GSA Today 22, no. 7 (July 2012).
[4] For example, George Perkins Marsch’s Man and Nature of 1864 is put forward as an important progenitor, as well as seminal scholarly meetings on Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Princeton University, 1955), the famous Club of Rome Limits to Growth report of 1972 and The Earth as transformed by human action (Clark University, 1987).
[5] On the notion of a closed world, see Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. MIT Press, 1997. On the image of the earth from outer space, see Denis Cosgrove, “Contested Global Visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo Space Photographs,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 84, no. 2 (1994): 270–294. Benjamin Lazier, “Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture.” The American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (June 2011): 602–630. Sheila Jasanoff,  “Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images.” In Earthly Politics: Local and Global in Environmental Governance, edited by Marybeth Long Martello and Sheila Jasanoff. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 2004, 31-52.
[6] Ingold, Tim. Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000.
[7] Stewart Brand, “Photography Changes Our Relationship to Our Planet.” Smithsonian Photography Initiative, unknown date. http://click.si.edu/Story.aspx?story=31.
[8] WEC, cited in Macy, Christine, and Sarah Bonnemaison. Architecture and Nature: Creating the American Landscape. Routledge, 2003, 344.
[9] Part of Teilhard’s popularity might be due to the lyrical ambivalence of his texts and the multi-interpretability of his concepts. As Julian Huxley remarks in the English introduction to ‘The Phenomenon of Man’, Teilhard leaves us few clues about the precise ontological status of his noosphere: was it an imagined accumulation of thinking activity or did it also entail the physical environment that enabled the interrelation of thinking people?
[10] Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. University of Toronto Press, 2003, note 52, p. 256.
[11] See Wood, Linda Sargent. A More Perfect Union:Holistic Worldviews and the Transformation of American Culture After World War II. Oxford University Press, 2010, 136. Since 1967, The Teilhard Association spread Teilhard’s ideas through conferences, books, and the journal Teilhard Studies. To indicate Teilhard’s popularity, Wood cites Marilyn Ferguson’s research into the New Age movement. In her 185 interviews with leaders of the New Age movement in the 1970s, Teilhard topped the list of most influential thinkers, “ahead of Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Werner Erhard, and Maharishi Yogi.”
[12] Syvitski, James, “Anthropocene: an epoch of our making,” Global Change 78, March 2012.
[13] “Pushing the Boundaries: The Earth System in the Anthropocene” Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, Spring 2012, 7.
[14] Colebrook, Claire. “Introduction to Extinction.” Open Humanities Press, 2012. http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Extinction/Introduction.
[15] see Colebrook for  a review of Gould and other authors on ‘Comprehending Extinction.’
[16] The concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ is put forward as an integral part of the Anthropocene thesis (see Steffen 2011), and was first proposed by Rockström, J. et al. (2009) “A safe operating space for humanity”. Nature 461, 472–475.

 

2 Responses to notes to the Anthropocene

  1. Kieran Suckling says:

    I don’t see how the concept of the Anthropocene in anyway promotes or assumes the extinction of humans. The geological concept describes our historic and recent impact on the planet. It says nothing about the timing or necessity of human extinction. As a biological species, humans are of course, certain to go extinct on some time scale, but this has been known scientifically since Darwin and more generally for a hundred years before that. See for example Buffon’s 1778 explanation that the planet will eventually cool to a point not being able to sustain human or other life. All these questions arise out of a recognition of our being a species, being finite, and living on a changing planet. They do not follow from the belief that we are a planetary geological force.

    Additionally, while the recognition of future extinction has engendered a humility among some, even enough to dislodge anthropocentrism, that response is neither logically nor emotionally required. One can be highly anthropocentric in the face of future extinction. The apocalypse, for example, often viewed as a near-term event, has long been a belief of Christians, while the religion is extraordinarily Anthropocentric.

    Name the entire geological age after humanity, is not only clearly anthropocentric, it as old a geology itself. Buffon, the predictor of human extinction, nevertheless described the “current age” as that in which humans assume their rightful control over all plants, animals and environment. Sovereigns of the Earth he called us. From that moment forward, there has not been a single decade in which geologists, philosophers and theologians have not had a name for the current time meaning “The Age of Man.”

    What, fundamentally is the difference between the Anthropocene and the Anthropogene (with a “g”) which has been the name of our period in Russia since the 1920s, but especially since the 1960s? And the Psychozoic? Anthropozoic? Anthropolithic? Anthropic? Anthropeian? Era of Mind? Human Era? Human Epoch? I’ve cataloged over 30 such terms, all of the widely used in their day, since Buffon.

    Note also the neither the Holocene, Pliestocene nor Pliocene are named after a species or a geologic force. So why not name the current period after the state of the planet as some have suggested–like say the Homogenocene–rather than a perceived geologic force? There is absolutely no logical reason not to. Indeed, it would be more consistent with geologic naming systems. We don’t, because we’re anthropocentric. Because in the West we’ve always been anthropocentric. Because the current time, since the Enlightenment at least, time has always been called the Age of Man.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

    • Flora Lysen says:

      Dear Kieran Suckling,

      Thank you for a very interesting comment. I agree with you that giving a new name to (what has already for a long time been perceived as) ‘The Age of Man,’ might not be a groundbreaking gesture. Still, I think that the current popularity of the notion of Anthropocene (both in the academic world, but perhaps even more in a popular-science/climate discourse) deserves closer attention. There are two things that I find particularly interesting: first, the suggestion of a ‘reading’ of the earth after all ‘readers’ have vanished and the position of stratigraphy in scientifically validating perceived earth events. I quote from an interesting recent paper on this topic:

      “‘Man’ as subject position – as the natural being whose role it was to know nature — was the condition of possibility of geology as he was of the other sciences of the Modern episteme. (…) But in the Anthropocene ‘man’ has become a destratifying force, the différance that explodes the book of geology, and thereby its condition of impossibility. The taking up by ‘man’ of a geological object position — his pressing into geological service, a becomingmineral, to be contemplated by the geologist-to-come — is not so much interpellation as interpolation — the process of inserting new material within and falsification of the original text of the great stone book of nature. As the Anthropos turns from reading to writing the stone book of nature, this is a ‘being written’ that seems to disrupt the order and meaning of all the other pages of that ‘written being’.” (Bronislaw Szerszynski, The End of the End of Nature: The Anthropocene and the Fate of the Human, Oxford Literary Review, Dec 2012, Vol. 34, No. 2 : pp. 165-184, citation from draft version).

      A second interesting aspect of the Anthropocene thesis is that it raises (again) the notion of ‘species-being.’ The Anthropocene makes us rethink what it means to look at humans as a species, what groups are left out in this universalist conception of humankind and whether there is a loss of agency (and possible depoliticization due to a ‘species-wide’ scale of a problem) at stake in using the term Anthropocene. See Swyngedouw (2011) and Dibley (2012).

      Well, perhaps the idea of the Anthropocene perhaps doesn’t raise entirely new (philosophical) questions, but at least makes us raise them again.

      – Dibley, Ben.” “Nature is Us:” the Anthropocene and species-being.” Transformations Journal. Nr. 21, 2012.
      – Swyngedouw, Erik. “Whose environment? The end of nature, climate change and the process of post-politicization.” Ambient. soc. vol.14 no.2 São Paulo July/Dec. 2011.
      – Szerszynski, Bronislaw. The End of the End of Nature: The Anthropocene and the Fate of the Human, Oxford Literary Review, Dec 2012, Vol. 34, No. 2 : pp. 165-184.

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