The ‘Anthropocene’ concept was initially launched as a lens for understanding the destructive power of humanity on nature and as a warning concerning the unpredictable, long-lasting, and potentially threatening effects of human action for human and non-human life. It underlines, indeed, the fact that technologically enhanced human activities have grown to such a scale that they have become significant geological forces competing with other natural processes, such as volcanic phenomena or variations of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. This new geological period identifies human species as a leading telluric force which is literally ‘terra-forming and transforming our home’ (Barry, 2016: 107). Although initially well-intentioned, this concept is questionable. If the goal is to help us become less self-human-centred and more reflective about the harm we do to the world, if the core idea of this concept is to gain some humility about our place in the universe, is the naming of an entire geological era after ourselves, the best way to achieve it? My contention, here, is that human supremacists and anti-environmentalists have seized the opportunity of this concept as a justification for further environmental destruction. As Mitchell (2014) says, ‘the existing concept of the “Anthropocene” magnifies and sometimes even valorises radical anthropocentrism, reverence of human agency and the desire to gain mastery over nature’ (n.p.). In other words, the term itself contributes to the problems it is supposed to address. First, it pushes the logic which has created the predicament to its extreme by suggesting that humans can shape the planet and re-create it in their image. Second, it perpetuates the ontological dichotomy between humans and nature in which human agency is treated as a force acting upon rather than in or as a part of nature. Third, and aside from ontological implications, this concept offers an apolitical and ahistorical account of the ecological crisis by designating an undifferentiated ‘Anthropos’ responsible for the large-scale changes that take us outside of the stable Holocene.
From the perspective of the Earth System Sciences, the earth is indeed going through a huge change, leaving behind us the thousands of years of exceptional stability of climate temperatures and sea levels that characterized the Holocene to enter a new epoch of climate instability, uncertainty, and significant climate related socio-environmental transformations. Earth System Science (ESS)’s approach considers feedback mechanisms inherent in forces that escape our analytical models and sudden collapse thresholds of ecosystems as carrying unpredictable consequences that will change the conditions of life on Earth. It offers a nonlinear view of the future of our planet understood as a complex system, ultimately very vulnerable and unpredictable (fraught with structural indeterminacies).
The Anthropocene, considered as an ecological predicament, is therefore rather an era of ‘nonknowledge’ or rational ignorance linked to uncertainties and ontological indeterminacy than a period of human mastery and domination of earth systems. But further, it also displays the helplessness (impotence) of already accumulated scientific knowledge to trigger necessary changes. Indeed, the issue today is not any longer to get a clearer picture of the situation by accumulating scientific data but to understand ‘how we entered the Anthropocene despite very consistent warnings, knowledge and opposition’ (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: 79; original emphasis). The accumulation of empirical facts and scientific findings on the predicament of our planet, no matter how detailed and alarming they are ‘can never be’, as Blühdorn explains, ‘a substitute for normative judgments’ (2015: 159). The lack of ethical, philosophical, and political judgements associated with the neoliberal management of environmental issues, explains, indeed, the depth and acuity of the ecological crisis.
A paradigmatic example of the apolitical treatment of the Anthropocene is the ecomodernist talk of a ‘good Anthropocene’. Ecomodernists or ‘neo-greens’, (also called ‘eco-pragmatists’ or ‘neo-environmentalists’) advocate the decoupling of the human economy from nature in order to save it, celebrate the ‘end of nature’ as well as ‘the death of environmentalism’, encourage the use of technology to counter the side-effects of technology, and especially call for a ‘neoliberal conservation’ guided by economic rationality and human-centred managerialism’ (Asafu-Adjayeet al., An Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015). Such a techno-optimist and neoliberal view celebrates ‘the “age of human” as the achievement of the cornucopian dream to create and recreate the planet according to our wishes’ (Fremaux & Barry, 2019). However, in such unsure and endangered times, nothing appears less appealing than Latour’s and ecomodernists’ invitation to ‘love our monsters’ (Latour, 2012; Nordhaus & Schellenberger, 2011), that is the dramatic and dangerous side-effects of our technologies (such as global climate change, nuclear waste, presence of radionuclides, microplastic particles and aluminum in the core elements of matter, alteration of fundamental chemical cycles, etc.) As Crist and Rinker warn us: ‘[t]o rip into the planet’s rhythms, cycles, and interconnections, as the civilisation we have created is doing, signals human folly, not mastery’ (2010: 13).
The techno-optimistic association made by those who wish to maintain the present fatal trajectory, between the Anthropocene and a new age of further mastery and control contradicts our conception of the Anthropocene as an era fraught with uncontrolled and unpredictable ‘human-induced changes’. There is, indeed, a conceptual gap between saying that humans ‘influence’ nature and arguing, as ecomodernists do, that humans are now ‘creating’ it. Contrary to the latter position, it is now obvious that human (impotent) power has become ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘unmanageable’: that’s what one may call the ‘non-mastery of our mastery’. The Anthropocene ‘dominant narrative’, i.e. the ‘good Anthropocene’ given by some scientists (Crutzen included) and post-environmentalists fails to recognize the predicament in which we are and the fact that the new ‘geology of humankind’ is not so much the era of (mastered) human domination on earth but rather the era of (uncontrolled) human destruction of earth.
We have entered a world of boundaries, a material world of ecological limits but also a symbolic world of scientific limits (what post-normal sciences call the ‘unknown unknowns’, Ravetz 2006). Therefore, this is not the traditional (modern and ‘mostmodern’) narrative of progress, control, and mastery which will help us inhabit the Anthropocene but rather the recognition of our ignorance and limitations. Western people must realize that the traditional set of knowledge held by orthodox disciplines, from economics and political science to biological and natural sciences, cannot guide us any longer with accuracy and certainty in these turbulent times. Navigation in ‘heavy weather’ like the one characterizing postnormal times demands virtues such as humility, modesty, and accountability for the present but also for the future, for those who are on the deck as much as for those who are in the engine-room and in the holds (socio-environmental justice). The legacy of the Anthropocene will be legible for the millennia to come and requires that Western people start to inhabit and consciously live within ‘deep time’, or in other terms, that they extend their thinking ahead of short-term interests to the next generations and the less privileged as well as to non-human beings. The Anthropocene calls indeed for shared solidarity between humans (different generations, Global North and Global south), but also with our non-human companions on this planet.
At the time of writing, and even though the Anthropocene Working Group nominated by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has voted last April by a majority to designate a new geological epoch the ‘Anthropocene’, neither the ICS itself nor the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) have officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geologic time. Without an official accreditation, the Anthropocene remains a paradigm, a ‘claim’ rather than a validated scientific concept. Nevertheless, this concept has already become a powerful idea used by environmentalists and conservationists but also by policymakers, artists, activists, historians, journalists, writers, as well as social scientists. The word ‘Anthropocene’ has become a ‘buzzword’ which already encounters a great success, even before its geological confirmation. This success entails the pressing need for a more critical Anthropocene research agenda (as opposed to calls for a depoliticized and techno-focused ‘good Anthropocene’). If the Anthropocene has been an opportunity for some scientists and academics to revive Promethean modern dreams of technological mastery of nature and present these within an apolitical ‘naturalizing’ narrative which puts science and experts at the centre, there is also the possibility to develop another narrative and present the Anthropocene as an epoch of great danger and indeterminacy – and for scientists themselves, an age of ‘impotent power’ – which calls, therefore, for prudence and humility, for human decentring, and for shifting the attention from ecological modernization to the building of ecological democracies and a sustainable global civilization that give a significant voice to civil societies. Against the ecomodernist techno-optimistic ‘neoliberal Anthropocene’, the alternative would be a humbler ‘democratic Anthropocene’, in which humans repair and sustain the world instead of destroying it and calling, afterwards, for its artificial and incentivized reproduction and replacement.
NB.: most of the arguments developed here are extracted from:
Fremaux A. (2019), After The Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World. New York: Palgrave.
Asafu-Adjaye, J., Blomquist, L., Brand, S., Brook, B. W., Defries, R., Ellis, E., . . . Lynas, M. (2015). An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Retrieved From Https://Static1.Squarespace.Com/Static/5515d9f9e4b04d5c3198b7bb/T/552d37bbe4b07a7dd69fcdbb/1429026747046/An+Ecomodernist+Manifesto.Pdf
Barry, J.(2016). Bio-Fuelling The Hummer? Transdisciplinary Thoughts On Techno-Optimism and Innovation in The Transition from Unsustainability. In E. Byrne, G. Mullally & C. Sage (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Perspectives On Transitions to Sustainability (pp. 106-123). London: Routledge.
Blühdorn, I. (2015). A Much-Needed Renewal of Environmentalism? In C. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil & F. Gemenne (Eds.), The Anthropocene and The Global Environmental Crisis. Rethinking Modernity in A New Epoch (pp. 156-168).
Bonneuil, C., & Fressoz, J.-B. (2016). The Shock of the Anthropocene. London, New York: Verso.
Crist, E., & Rinker, H. B. (2010). Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, And Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fremaux, A., & Barry, J. (2018 forthcoming) The ‘Good Anthropocene’ and Green Political Theory: Rethinking Environmentalism, Resisting Ecomodernism. In F. Biermann, & E. Lövbrand (Eds.), Anthropocene Encounters. New Directions in Green Political Thinking (Working Title). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Latour, B. (Winter 2012). Love Your Monsters in Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and The Anthropocene. Breakthrough Journal, Retrieved From Http://Thebreakthrough.Org/Index.Php/Journal/Past-Issues/Issue-2/Love-Your-Monsters
Mitchell, A. (2014). Making A ‘Cene’. Blog, February 23, 2014. Retrieved From Https://Worldlyir.Wordpress.Com/Tag/Paul-Crutzen/
Nordhaus, T., & Schellenberger, M. (Eds.). (2011a). Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and The Anthropocene. Oakland, Ca: The Breakthrough Institute.
Ravetz, J. R. (2006). Post-Normal Science and The Complexity of Transitions Towards Sustainability. Ecological Complexity, 3(4), 275-284.