The Anthropocene Reviewed

Epitome: A half-summary, half-review of a few articles from new publication The Anthropocene Review, and a discussion of the field.

Recent updates in the world of the Anthropocene (10/28/2016).


Major Takeaways:

  1. The Anthropocene is possibly an Epoch, and describes the period of time during which human beings became the predominant geological force on the planet.
  2. Earth Scientists quibble over when exactly the Anthropocene began.  This argument is largely a result of the golden spike fallacy, the effort to apply a synchronous date to a diachronous process.
  3. It does not matter when the Anthropocene began.  What matters is when it ends, and what comes after it.  If this geological era is defined by humans, what will the next be defined by?  The lack of them? By some sci fi technophilic future?  By an atavistic regression to the stone age? By a mass extinction? Or by the end of thinking things to come of with names for periods of time?
  4. The most interesting articles focus on how the role of human rights and law will change in response to the anthropocene.  The journal is at its strongest when it focuses on activism: education, art installations, and law.  This is my main suggestion to the magazine: be more interdisciplinary.  Bring in more law, education, efforts at organization, focused localized stories of the Anthropocene, and Sci Fi.


The Anthropocene. We’re in it. So what is it?

“Anthropocene” comes from Greek etymology: anthropos = “human”; cene/kainos = “new” — meaning something along the lines of “new human age.”

One thing that makes the word particularly apropos is it rhymes with the false cognate “anthropocentrism,” a concept at the very center of the main problem of the anthropocene: the belief that human beings are the center of the universe, an narcissistic, anthropocentric perspective underlying the general assumption that human beings are somehow special, chosen, and separate from everything else, the strange belief that four billion years of natural selection is now finished with the capstone invention of humankind, the myopic absurdity that justifies the boundless liberties people–particularly Americans–take with their surrounding environment, eloquently debunked by Carl Sagan’s Great Demotions:

We seem to crave privilege, merited not by our works but by our birth, by the mere fact that, say, we are humans born on Earth…

Uncommon strength is needed to resist blandishments of those who assure us that we have an obvious, God-given, superiority to our fellows.

The Anthropocene is driven by anthropocentrism: the anthropocentric anthropocene, the anthropocene anthropocentrism, the anthropocentric center.  The term replaces the “Holocene” (holos = “whole”; cene = “new” — “wholly new”),  the geological epoch that accounts for the past 12,000 years — roughly the length of human civilization.  That’s right, for the past twelve thousand years humankind has been living blissfully in the Holocene — probably without even knowing it — until an Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist named Paul Crutzen, moved by his research on holes in the ozone and inspired by the chiliastic spirit of Y2K, invented a new word and banished the Holocene inexorably to the past.

We’ll miss you, Holocene.

On the whole (holo), geologists, ecologists, scientists, ecocritics agreed: ‘anthropocene’ is a fine word, a necessary idea, a useful term to describe the period of time after which human beings began to have an influence over the planet comparable / measurable on the scale of geology.

The Anthropocene is an anticipatory geological era, just born.  The Anthropocene Review only has three issues out so far; it’s a publication as new as its subject.  Each issue seems to have a new editor.  The editors are primarily based at institutions in England, though contributors span Europe, Australia, USA, and even China. Each issue is packed full of redundancy, probably in part to make sure everyone is on the same page.  It is a solid publication.

Of note, all these environmentalists, earth scientists, ecocritics, whether or not they know it, have become chronocritics.  The Anthropocene is a fundamentally anticipatory age. The questions they ask are fundamentally rooted in the measure of time, the anticipation of the future, and the reconciliation of cosmological, geological, and human timescales. The two questions the Anthropocene Review is concerned with:

  1. How do we define the anthropocene?  How can we measure it? When did it begin precisely? Is it an eon, an era, a period, and epoch, or an age?
  2. What the use of this new word? What is it good for?

The main problem with the publication is it spends most of its pages concerned with the first question, and not nearly enough with the second.  The following is a summary of some of the arguments, but most of it can be covered in a sentence: it is silly to specific a single “golden spike” year for when the Anthropocene began because it is much more so a diachronous process. Here are some of the suggested start dates for the Anthropocene:

anthropowhen.pngEdgeworth, et al., “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene: The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits” The Anthropocene Review

The problem of identifying the beginning of the Anthropocene is what leads us to the The Golden Spike Fallacy:  the effort to find a “golden spike” year before which the world was in the Holocene and after which the world entered the Anthropocene is frivolous: there is no such moment or event.  If you must choose a particular moment, the permeation of the world with manmade nuclear radiation post 1945 is a reasonable bet.  Processes are not defined by points.  This is one of the lessons Robert Smithson taught us in 1969 when he built the Spiral Jetty next to the original Golden Spike of the trans-continental railroad (see my forthcoming review of: Jennifer Roberts, Mirror Travels: Robert Smithson & History).

Certini’s titular question “Is the Anthropocene really worthy of formal geologic definition?” can be answered in brief: yes, yes it is. But just how big is it?  For those of you unfamiliar with how geologists mete out time, here’s how the temporal nesting dolls fit:


Certini usefully notes that no one has yet defined what scale of time the Anthropocene exists in; that is, what word to we follow Anthropocene with? There’s no real answer to this question, because we can’t know how long a period of time the Anthropocene will last, until it’s over.  If humanity is only around for another hundred years, then it might not even be work calling it a new Age.  Which pushes the anticipatory geology chronologically further: what will follow the Anthropocene? The Postanthropocene (god forbid)?  Certini argues that we should define the Anthropocene ambitiously, optimistically: let it be an era or a period; anything otherwise would be nihilistic.  I think that “epoch” is a nice, Goldilocks time frame — it’s a healthy ten or twenty thousand years to imagine forward into the future, which is not so far that it seems utterly foreign, not so brief that it seems nihilistic.  It is a time frame that fits neatly with the 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now.  Certini certainly would have us chronocritics imagining we’ll be around a while.  But it’s really not all that important.

One thing the Anthropocene Review misses is the silliness of quibbling about when it began.  The journal is practically three quarters full of different ways of measuring the Anthropocene.  While it is possible that this line of thought might yield some useful information, the results tend more towards Earth Scientists clawing to be the first to put a flag on the new Epoch.  So long as we all agree we are in the Anthropocene, it is not particularly important when it began.  What is of critical importance is when will it end?

What comes after it?

If this geological era is defined by humans, what will the next be defined by?

The lack of them?

By some sci fi technophilic future?

By an atavistic regression to the stone age?

By a significant pruning of the evolutionary tree — a mass extinction?

Some new H.G. Wellsian stage of evolution?

Or by the end of thinking things to come of with names for periods of time?

The Anthropocene will end only when something else becomes a greater geological force than humankind.

A very excellent article could be (and ought to be) written and submitted to the Anthropocene Review called “After the Anthropocene,” — it should be written by a chronocritic with some sci fi savvy, and it should survey the canon of ecological futurology in an effort to refocus these Anthropocene Review scientists on the future, not the past.

That said, here is a review of the single best essay in the Anthropocene Review on the topic of when the Anthropocene began.

In ten thousand years, one could easily imagine a visible strata of the Anthropocene blanketing the planet, compressed into a strata chock full of the made-made detritus, deposits, bits of iphone batteries, tupperware , styrofoam, the stuff of humanity.  Identifying what this stratum might look like is precisely the focus of Edgeworth’s (et alia) article “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene: The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits.”  Their article asks: What will the very first, bottom-most layer of the Anthropocene look like?  By exploring this idea seriously, Edgeworth finds that the answer isn’t simple.  Hydrofracking, massive earth-moving operations, damming, industrial waste seepage, deep mining (some 50 gigatons of mining material moved yearly), and 4,000 gigatons of materials moved from farming and agricultural operations every year suggest single, simple, readily identifiable stratum to identify.  The Anthropocene will be a different sort of stratum, because unlike other strata, there will be no single synchronous worldwide blanket by which the it can be consistently identified. The Anthropocene spans horizontally and penetrates vertically both temporally and physically, in some places it penetrates other layers; we can expect to find cigarette butts and Styrofoam alongside tyrannosaur bones.  Traditional stratigraphy (the measurement, analysis, defining, and study of geological strata) does not have the tools necessary to the task, compelling a multidisciplinary maneuver: geology, pedology, and archaeology will need to be mixed as the situation requires.  Edgeworth offers some qualities of the Anthropocene stratum:

The unprecedented hypermobility of materials.

The lower boundary (Boundary A) will be diffuse and gradational.

Contaminated materials may often leak below the boundary.

Mining and other means will often penetrate well below the boundary.

The Edgeworth article uses a chronocritically odd metaphor, the “coalescing” of “island of time”

The stratigraphic ‘islands in time’ – precursors to the main archaeosphere formation – reveal something important about the impact of human beings on the surface geology of the planet. Initially human impact was local rather than regional or global. Over time, as extent and intensity of human activity increased, the small ‘islands’ of anthropogenic ground coalesced – both vertically and horizontally – into larger units. The process of coalescence is still taking place. It is the coalescence of local traces (leaving some uncoalesced units in its wake) that leads to formation of the archaeosphere proper – now of regional and near-global extent. There is no single date for when this process of stratigraphic coalescence started taking place, for even the uncoalesced ‘islands’ below the main archaeosphere deposit are often themselves coales- cences of multiple traces of human activity. Nor is there an end date, for the process is ongoing.

The concept of a “coalescing Islands of Time” seems to resemble the agglutinating process whereby individual droplets of water on a surface begin to bloop together into a puddle. We might imagine this looks a little bit like the SETI logo:


Two separate islands, existing in their own heterochonic worlds, might suddenly sync watches in a moment of cultural cohension — the pooling together of time comes somewhat close to the river of time metaphor, the imagining of time as water, a dynamic fluid in some sort of motion.  The Anthropocene, by this definition, seems to have come into being at some point in this process of coalescing — but precisely when isn’t important to Edgeworth — it s not an answerable question.  It’s the Sorites paradox:  just how many grains of sand are necessary to define a “heap.” All this goes to support an essentially heterochronic argument (see Alexander Nagel’s Medieval Modern or Keith Moxey’s Visual Time), that turns, at the very end of the article, towards geometry:

“What appears as diachronous on a human timescale could be taken as synchronous on a geological timescale.”

Seen from a sufficient distance, a line segment will appear to be a point, a cube a mere square, a star a pinprick: Edgeworth and his team admit, at the end of the article, that what might appear three dimensional on the scale of an age or an epoch will likely be utterly flattened in an eon. [Sidenotes: this sort of dimensional thinking is the essence of time travel in the H.G. Wells sense.]  A synchronous imagination of the Anthropocene stratum may indeed be possible in the very, very long run.  Let’s be sure our children are around to observe it.

I’ve written so much about just one or two articles now that I feel a need to cut myself off a bit.  Here are some brief summaries of other articles:

Hamilton & Grinevald “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?” — H&G argue that the Anthropocene was unanticipated, that there is no real precendent in history for it, and that efforts to connect the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ or a human-induced geological period generally suffer from a stiff case of precursoritis, or the fallacy of a fortieri.  In short, the effort to connect the idea of the Anthropocene with early 20th century authors, philosophers, or scientists — is a misuse of the nanos gigantum humeris insidente “standing on the shoulders of giants” metaphor.  What we chronocritics should do is not focus on connecting the Anthropocene to some sort of historical narrative, but rather, we should focus on what the Anthropocene is: unprecendented; unanticipated; without anologue. Pretending there is precedence for what the Anthropocene is, or what it has in store for us, is the equivalent of the ostrich burying his head in the sands of history: a doomed strategy that provides merely the feeling of safety and control.

Daniel Cunha’s “The geology of the ruling class?” is a brief article that translates the idea of the Anthropocene into the vocabulary of Marxism.  His intervention is a predictable effort to shift the discussion from the vocabulary of geology to that of capital. “Anthropocene narrative should be challenged, because the material resources of the Earth are actually unevenly exploited and consumed, with inequality across classes and nations.”  Disappointingly, his most useful addition to the argument is about fetishism: “Fetishism is a powerful tool to explain the uncontrollable and irrational character of the social (lack of) reactions to the global environmental (catastrophic) change.”  While making the observation that fetishism is a useful tool, he does nothing to tell us how.

Lewis & Maslin’s “A Trasnparaent framework for definine the Anthropocene Epoch” is a lengthy article arguing that the Anthropocene can be said to start in 1610, when there was a particular CO2 spike that seemed worthy of golden spiking.  Clive Hamilton replies in “Getting the Anthropocene So Wrong” with a brief take down of the absurdity of a Golden Spike moment in 1610, usefully outlining the golden spike fallacy.  Overall, this back and forth is just another addition to the many, many articles trying to make one argument or another for when the Anthropocene began.  None of them are particularly helpful, excepting Edgeworth’s.

Louis Kotze’s article “Human Right and the Environment in the Anthropocene” was among the most fascinating submissions to The Anthropocene Review. Kotze makes an important intervention, and a tremendous understatement in the central claim of his paper:

Human rights will have to be overhauled in response to the challenges of the Anthropocene…In other words, to become more ecologically responsible as well, human rights will have to redefine the individual freedom they seek to provide and protect, even if this might also mean that human rights could loose their individual character and become something else entirely; something more grounded in communal and group conceptions of rights that extend well beyond individual

It made me think very hard about the limits of utilitarianism at the end of the Age of Deferral: there’s no space for utilitarianism anymore.  The belief that anyone should be able to do whatever he/she likes so long as it doesn’t impose on the happiness of others means — as it did with the ban of indoor smoking in 1998.  The logic was simple: my right to fresh air takes precedent over your right to smoke when and where you please.  Extrapolating this principle to the global context, Anthropocene Law is in for an explosive shift.  All the rights we gun toting, flag waving, bible thumping, pearl clutching Americans so proudly believe in will need to  be significantly reexamined if any serious concern for the environment or perpetuating humanity in the future is going to be codified into law.  Indeed, I hope the route is through law, because the other option is to the free-for-all of anarchy dissolving the bonds of law until some Malthusian leveling of the human population leads to the stone age atavism.  Incidentally, either would solve our climate problems within ten thousand years or so.  Usefully, Kotze points begins to outline the precedent for some principles of human rights in the Anthopocene.

Everyone has the right:

(a)  to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and
(b)  to have  the environment  protected,  for the benefit of present and future generations and for the benefit of sustaining ecological integrity, through reasonable legislative and other measures that:
(i)  prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
(ii)  promote conservation; and
(iii)  secure ecologically sustainable development.

Kotze begins in this brilliant and insightful article what I hope will be the seeds of a necessary book.  The Anthropocene Review would do well to bring in more environmental law theorists into their discussions: it could easily be a special issue of their publication.  Rather than quibbling about when the Anthropocene began, let’s talk about 1) what the rights of human beings should look like in the Anthropocene and 2) how it would even be possible to legislate such principles that go directly against the constitution — would we necessarily have to wait for the effects of climate change to so profoundly devastate some city or region that emergency action would necessarily be enacted?  Is there any way where environmental law can be meaningfully applied preventatively and not merely as triage in response to disaster?

The Anthropocene Review also had, among its many articles, one article on education, and another article that was an art review.  I think, since the editors have mostly been Earth Scientists, they are somewhat wary of diving too deeply into the humanities.  Yet exhibitions, educations, law: these are the fields in which social change can be enacted in response to the findings of science.  The Anthropocene Review would be wise to expand their scope, embrace their multidisciplinary mission more fully, and bring in more art, education, and law. The goal of the Anthropocene Review — so far as I can tell — is to do just that.  But still, in its tiresome repetition of arguments about golden spiking, the publication still suffers from Governor Jerry Brown’s indictment of the scientific community: “If these are such big problems, why aren’t you scientists shouting it from the rooftops? And why are you scientists only talking to each other?” I look forward to future issues.

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