IS THIS THE START OF RUNAWAY GLOBAL WARMING?

William P Hall (PhD)

President, Kororoit Institute

Evolutionary Biology of Species and Organisms

Presentation for download Reposted from here

1. Introduction

This essay presents some observations on how the Earth’s climate has changed during the era of satellite observations beginning in 1979 when it became possible to see the planet as a whole world has changed through that time. The observations of how our planet has changed are real. What they are telling us about our future is open for interpretation. The majority of climate scientists think they paint a picture of a rapidly warming (at least in any geological or ecological sense) world, where the rate of warming over the last few years has been accelerating.

Our world’s climate is a chaotic and highly complex system. As such it is impossible to make exact predictions how climate will change over the next few years or decades. However, we can consider how climate may continue to change in terms of risk. This is discussed in the concluding Section 7. How should we react to the observed global warming? The observations show a growing risk to human society from runaway global warming, and they beg explanation. Arguably climate variation in the Arctic Region, and especially the area of the Arctic Ocean drives global climates through its effects on the location and behavior of the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams (see A Rough Guide to the Jet Stream: what it is, how it works and how it is responding to enhanced Arctic warming) and ocean currents extending through the Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic to Antarctic and from there into the Pacific. For an explanation of how this can be see Wikipedia’s Thermohaline Circulation and Shutdown of Thermohaline Circulation, and also Section 5.3, below. It is also the case that the Arctic as a whole appears to be warming at something like twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

This essay focuses on observations of what appears to be the start of runaway warming in the Arctic that may have profound effects on global climates over the next few years; and a plausible cause – the warming driven release of methane gas from permafrost forming a strong greenhouse cap over the Arctic Ocean. Evidence shows that over the last few years winter cooling over the Arctic Ocean has been significantly retarded when the sun is below the horizon for months at a time when heat absorbed over summers with 24 hour daylight should be radiating away to outer space. However, during the late autumn and winter over the last two to three years, monthly average temperatures over large areas of the Arctic Ocean have been as much as 20​+ °C!! hotter than the 1989-2000 baseline averages for the same months.

The observations summarized here are based on computerized analyses of many millions of data points collected per day covering the entirety of the satellite era, beginning in 1979. To encapsulate summaries with the minimum of text and numeric data, I have used a number of animated maps where primary data is encoded in color. Changes in this data over time intervals ranging from days to months and years are shown as a stack of gif images forming short movies.

To me, in addition to a continuing rise in arctic temperatures, the most conspicuous indication that we may have passed a tipping point where arctic warming is increasing at an ever faster rate as shown by the graph below. This depicts changes in the areas (extents) covered by sea ice on the whole planet. Over the half year on each day of the year the area of the globe covered by sea ice has been by far the lowest it has ever been in the satellite era for those days and from 7 January until around 9-10 March – a period of two whole months – there has been less sea ice on the planet since the previous record low recorded in mid February 2016. Such a major deviation from “normal” indicates there are currently some serious climate changes taking place in the world.

Figure 1 – Data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center for 23 April 2017 plotted by Wipneus. Click here for the most up-to-date plot of this graph and related graphs and explanation.) The red shaded area of the graph highlights daily extents lower than any low extent recorded in any previous year since 1978. The inset graph shows changes in the deviations from the mean value over the last 10 years. In November 2016 this reached nearly 8 standard deviations(σ), with the current reading around 4 standard deviations – where there is a chance of less than about 1 in 15,000 that such a deviation could occur by chance. The value is now hovering between 3σ and 4σ.

After introducing the agencies that collect and plot the climate observations, I’ll explore the observational data supporting these findings in more detail.

2. Global monitoring agencies

Several government agencies around the world use various observational tools to measure weather. These include simple recording thermometers measuring ground and air temperature together with wind speeds and direction and cloud cover at designated weather stations, balloon lifted radiosondes to plot temperature profiles of the atmosphere above the weather stations, similar measurements made by ships and floating buoys at sea, and a variety of satellite-based remote sensing systems . Together with electronic communications and automated data processing their daily and more frequent readings provide a global picture of weather and climate.

The kinds of observations collected include temperature at a variety of heights above the ground, sea surface temperature, precipitation and clouds, location and depths of ice on land and over the ocean, mean sea level pressure and pressure at a variety of elevations above mean sea level, precipitable water, surface winds, jet stream winds and a variety of other variables collected on a more limited basis, such as concentrations of various kinds of gases in the atmosphere. These observations provide input for a variety of weather prediction and climate change models where values and changes can be visualized on a global basis.

Major sources of information relating to the raw observations and how they are collected include NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (e.g., Climate MonitoringNational Snow and Ice Data Center – Arctic/Antarctic Sea Ice Analysis and News), Goddard Space Flight Center – e.g., GIS TEMP JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), European Space Agency, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO Climate Science Centre, and a variety of other national meteorological organizations around the world. To now the US agencies, NASA, NOAA and NSIDC have provided the most comprehensive weather/climate monitoring and tracking, yet US President Donald Trump claims that would be good for America and the world to shut them down.

Three particularly useful services automatically process and digest the millions of individual daily observations into consistent and coherent global visualizations: ClimateReanalyzer.org (Climate Change Institute, University of Maine), Weather BELL Models (Weather Bell Analytics), and Earth (Cameron Beccario @cambecc. These show daily variations in weather and long term histories of climate change on global and regional scales.

3. How is global climate change measured and visualized?

Although daily variations in local weather are to some degree governed by changes in regional and global climates, weather observations recorded by instruments at single locations are generally poor indicators of broad-scale climate variation. For example, global warming or cooling may cause jet streams or ocean currents to change in ways that move the average local temperatures in opposite directions to the larger scale temperature trends.

Only by plotting measurements from all available sensors systems meeting appropriate quality criteria can we map regional and global weather patterns. And only by tracking changes in these large-scale weather patterns over a number of years can we construct long-term climate changes globally. To maintain consistency and accuracy, climate scientists periodically review the instrumentation and locales of the weather stations used for climate measurements to adjust for factors such as, e.g., moves of the stations or increasing urbanization around the stations.

In the satellite era, remote sensing platforms orbiting around the planet collect data for constructing global maps of temperature, humidity, extent of snow and ice, wind, waves, currents, and various other variables affecting climate. Continuing cross comparison between satellite observations and records from instruments in the atmosphere or on the planetary surface helps to ensure that the various sensors are measuring the same things and to help ensure that the older instrumental records are coherent with the current satellite + instrumental observations. Also, the development of supercomputer systems able to process the hundreds of millions of data points collected every day has removed a lot of subjective bias in analyzing the data to produce products visualizing climate variation as illustrated below.

When considering changing temperatures over time, the concept of an “anomaly” – the deviation of the value for a specific geographic location and time or period compared to the value at the same location averaged over .a specified “baseline” period is used to represent the change (see also Wikipedia). The animated graphic below compares the computed annual average temperature at each pixel on the map with the computed average temperature over the baseline period of 1979-2000.

I have prepared animations unique to the present document using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). Most of the animations use daily and monthly maps of global temperature anomalies plotted from NASA data by the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. These maps and a variety of others can be accessed on http://cci-reanalyzer.org/. Temperatures refer to air temperatures measured at 2 meters above sea level (temperatures of mountainous regions are adjusted to the sea-level reference height using well known and understood physical laws). The range of anomalies charted range from -4 °C below baseline (bright lavender) to +4 °C above baseline (bright red). One animation and some of the static maps are sourced from WeatherBELL.

Animations show the changing nature of the yearly average temperature anomalies over the period of satellite observations beginning in 1979.

Figure 2 – Annual temperature anomalies over the planet from 1987 to 2015 compared to a 1979-2000 baseline (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The year for each image is shown at the upper right corner of the map. Years with strong El Niños are indicated by the streak of brownish to red (i.e., warmer) water extending west along the equator from South America as shown in the 1979-200 image. Strong La Niña conditions are indicated by the streak of blue (i.e., cooler) water extending west from South America. The animation shows that In the baseline years (through about the year 2000) there are only relatively small positive and negative deviations over most of the planet, with perhaps a higher frequency of extremely negative anomalies. As the end of the sequence is approached (i.e., after ~2000), positive anomalies become more extreme and more wide-spread, with large areas in the Arctic showing temperature anomalies of 4 °C or more. WeatherBell’s anomaly map for 2016 shows large areas over the Arctic Ocean 5 – 7 °C above a 1981 to 2010 baseline that is already slightly warmer than ClimateRenalyzer’s 1979-2000 baseline.

The animation above is what climatic warming looks like on a global scale. Watching the changes in detail, note that the area of the Arctic Ocean around Novaya Zemlya Islands off northwestern Siberia (the area near lower right hand corner of the following polar projection map) remains persistently hot from around 2005 through 2015 (i.e. 3-4+ °C hotter over the whole year than the average temperature recorded for the 21 baseline years). (Click the links in the figure caption below the map to identify the locations of the geographic features referenced).

Figure 3 – Geography of the Arctic region (modified from Nordpil – the red line is the 10 °C isotherm). Land masses serving as geographic markers in and around the Arctic Ocean include Alaska, the Canadian ArchipelagoGreenlandSvalbard/Spitsbergen (between Greenland and Novaya Zemlya), the Franz Josef Land Archipelago (north of Novaya Zemlya), Severnaya Zemlya (east of Novaya Zemlya to the north of central Siberia) and the New Siberian Islands (an archipelago north of Eastern Siberia). Links above and below describe and show in more detail the geographic locations of the named markers. Subdivisions of the Arctic Ocean that are often open water during the summer include the Bering Strait (connection to the Pacific Ocean between Siberia and Alaska), Chukchi Sea (north of Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska), Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska and Canada between the Chukchi Sea and the Canadian Archipelago), Wandel Sea (north of Fram Strait) – Fram Strait (between Greenland and Svalbard – the only deep water connection between the Arctic Ocean)- Greenland Sea (south of Fram Strait), Barents Sea (between Norway, Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya and Russia), Kara Sea (between Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Severnya Zemlya, and Siberia), Laptev Sea (between Severnya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands), and the East Siberian Sea (north of eastern Siberia, between the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island/Chukchi Sea).

Given the way that the Mercator projection used for the animation above greatly exaggerates the polar regions, it is difficult to understand the actual geographic extent of the polar anomalies. Most of the remaining temperature and ice cover observations will be depicted on a planetary globe rather than flat maps. This shows the Arctic Ocean in truer perspective.

4. Observations

4.1. Arctic temperature anomalies

Looking down on the North Pole, the first global view animates the anomalies in yearly average temperatures for each year from 1979 through 2015: Over the baseline period from 1987 through 2000, moderately cooler and moderately warmer periods are about even over the Arctic Ocean. Beginning around 2005 anomalously hot areas over the Arctic become larger and more frequent. In 2015 – then the hottest year on record for the planet, much of the area over the Arctic Ocean is at least 4 °C warmer than average for the baseline period.

Figure 4- ANNUAL: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the yearly average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for each year from 1979 through 2015 compared to the average temperature for the baseline period 1979-2000 (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The year covered by each image, e.g., Ann 1979, is displayed in upper right corner of each image. (Climate Reanalyzer).

Counterintuitively, the greatest contribution to the annual anomalies for the Arctic Ocean is from excessively warm autumn and winter months (the “dark season”), when there is no solar heating because the Sun is below the horizon for most of the time.

Summer anomalies over the Arctic Ocean are generally not extreme over the entire period 1989 through 2015 because the region receives virtually the same amount of solar energy each year and excess heat retained by a stronger greenhouse cap is probably absorbed by the increased melting of sea ice. One gram of liquid water heated by 1 °C absorbs one calorie; but it takes ~80 calories to turn one gram of ice at 0 °C into liquid water at 0 °C !

However, over the autumn months of September, October and November the average heat anomaly for the season begins to increase markedly in the years after ~2000. Note that the temperature scale on the map extends to ±5 °C, and that in the later years areas of the brightest red may have heat anomalies in excess of 5 °C. The next two global animations show the autumn and winter anomalies from 1979 to 2015. The increasing heat anomalies over the Arctic, and especially the Arctic Ocean are consistent with the apparent development of a greenhouse cap in the current century.

Figure 5 – AUTUMN: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for the autumn period inclusive of the calendar months of September, October, and November of each year from 1979-2015 compared to the average temperature for the 1979-2000 baseline period (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing ). The period covered by each image, e.g., SON 1979, is displayed in upper right corner of each image (Climate Reanalyzer).

The situation is similar for December, January, and February as shown below, when sunlight never reaches the pole (the sun doesn’t rise over the pole before the vernal equinox, around March 20).

Figure 6 – WINTER: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for the Winter period inclusive of the calendar months of December, January, and February of each year from 1979-2015 compared to the average temperature for the 1979-2000 baseline period (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The period covered by each image, e.g., DJF 1979-1980, is displayed in upper right corner of each image (Climate Reanalyzer).

To explore the temporal changes in these anomalies more sedately, go to Climate Reanalyzer’s Monthly Maps, and set the following boxes from their defaults: Parameter = Mean Temperature 2m; Projection = Globe; Region = Northern Hemisphere; Month (options are annual, specific month, 3 monthly period – DJF, MAM, JJA, SON); Start/End = years); Span (Single/Multiple: Multiple gives you the opportunity to set a span of years); Plot Type (Average/Difference: average shown the average temperature for the selected period; Difference shows the temperature anomaly for the first span compared to the selected baseline span you select).

Climate Reanalyzer’s Daily Reanalysis Maps provide a tool for observing animations of daily temperature variations over a period of a selected month. This is updated a couple of weeks after the end of each month. 5-day Forecast Outlook Maps gives you a tool for projecting the average weather over the next five days.

The trends of greatly increasing temperatures over the Arctic Ocean in autumn and winter observed through the end of 2015 grew even more extreme in 2016. These are animated on the WeatherBELL map, where the Month to Date plot is updated daily until the month is completed, and the next month’s plot begins.

Figure 7 – Anomalies in average temperature over the world for each month of the calendar since January 2016 through March 2017 compared to averages for the same months in the baseline years 1979-2010. ((Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing – WeatherBELL data).

Note that WeatherBELL uses a somewhat warmer baseline (1981-2010) for measuring its anomalies compared to Climate Reanalyzer’s 1979-2000 baseline. Orange and brownish red areas in the arctic represent anomalies between 1 and 7 °C, grey to white are anomalies between 7 and 10 °C, white to pinkish red are 11 to 16 °C hotter than the baseline for the same month. The maximum anomalies shown are +16 °C.

Last year, 2016, was the hottest year on record since temperatures were recorded, for the third year in a row (see NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally). As shown in the animation above, January 2016 temperature anomalies for significant areas over the Arctic Ocean north of Scandanavia and western Siberia averaged +10° or more above the baseline, with small areas between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land Archipelago and between Franz Josef and Novaya Zemlya as warm as +15° above the baseline. In February the extent of these warm areas increased significantly, followed by March with very similar distributions to those observed in January. In April and May the magnitude of the anomalies diminished to +4-6°, and almost disappeared in June, July and August. In September much of the area over the Arctic Ocean showed an anomaly of +3-5°. In October the average anomaly over much of the Ocean was 5-11° above the baseline. In November the monthly average anomaly ranged an insane 10-16° above the baseline. In December) the polar area above latitude 80 or so still averaged 10-12° warmer than the baseline with some exceptionally warm spikes. In January and February 2017 there will still patches that averaged 11° above the baseline around Novaya Zemlya, and in March the 10-11° patch extended south into north-central Siberia and out into the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia.

In the animation, also note the switch from El Niño conditions that existed in the beginning of 2016 (indicated by the reddish streak of warmth extending west along the Equator from South America) to La Niña in April and May (when a blue streak begins to replace the red west of South America) and continues for the rest of the year. By January 2017 there are already hints of a new El Niño forming along the Equator west of Peru that becomes stronger in February and March – the shortest interval between El Niños known to date. The high ocean temperatures off Peru led to extensive and unseasonal flooding in Peru.

Figure 8 – Daily mean temperature variation in the high Arctic (above 80° N) from 1958 to 24 April 2017 compared to a 1958-2002 baseline – (Danish Meteorological Institute). (Click graphic for animation / click Return when finished viewing. The solid red line is the calculated mean temperature over the high Arctic in degrees above absolute zero (°K). The solid green line is the baseline temperature variation over a 1958-2002 baseline. The horizontal blue line is the 0 °C melting temperature for ice. From 1958 to 2000 the frame rate is one second per year – demonstrating only slight and random variations from the average temperature for the day over the year. From 2000 to 2010 the frame rate is two seconds per year, and from 2011 to the present it is 3 seconds per year. In 2002 the algorithm for plotting the temperatures was changed and the two systems were run in parallel for half of the year. Both plots are shown, which accounts for the doubling of the variation line for that year. Note that there is little difference between the two algorithms. From 2010 to 2017 the frame rate is three seconds per year. In 2012 the daily temperatures begin to deviate significantly from the long-term average behavior. In 2016 winter temperatures were averaged a good 10 °C higher than the long term average.

What this long time series shows is actually quite important. Aside from variations due to weather fluctuations and a slight random variation around the the long term averages, the behavior of temperatures in the high Arctic above 80° N latitude remained fairly stable through around the year 2000. Then, beginning around 2005 dark period temperatures began rising with a considerable acceleration in the rate of temperature increase around 2012. By 2016 the average anomaly was an insane 10 °C over the long term average. 2017 so far is also quite hot.

On 22 December the closest weather buoy to the North Pole (300234064010010 – about 145 em S of the Pole) recorded a temperature of 0 °C (see Weather buoy near North Pole hits melting point – Washington Post 22/12/2016, for more detail). On 11 February 2017 at 87.18° N, 176.39° E and 17:00 local time in the middle of the Arctic Ocean the air temperature was -3.0 °C !! (see earth.nullschool.net).

In March 2017 there are large anomalies over the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia (up to +10-11 °C) over western and eastern Siberia mainland and most of Antarctica are also anomalously warm. Only Alaska and western Canada are cool (between -4 and -2 °C). El Nino conditions are beginning to be evident along the equator west of Peru (see also Section 4.2 – Today’s weather), and in March there was a significant amount of warm water along Australia’s east coast that contributed to the severity of Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie that lashed 1,300 km of the eastern seaboard and slopes with category 4 winds and catastrophic flooding.

Figure 9 – Global average temperature anomalies for the first 23 days of April 2017 relative to the 1981-2010 baseline for the same period. (WeatherBELL) . Note the significantly warm (7-9 °C) anomaly over the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia. The only significantly cool area is Greenland. The Tasman Sea east of Australia shows a cooling possibly left over from Ex Tropical Cyclone Debbie cooling the surface waters by mixing them with cooler deeper water. There are signs of a developing El Nino in the Eastern Pacific along the Equator off Peru. The Ross Sea off Antarctica has the hottest anomaly for the time period on the planet.

The striking warming of the air over the Arctic Ocean and adjacent continental margins has consequences. Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an accelerating rate, with new minimum areas of ice coverage being reached almost every September.

4.2. Today’s weather

For more than a year, every time I update this document, today’s weather shows no signs that global warming has stopped. In fact, the usual outlook is noticeably worse. ClimateReanalyzer provides a good window on our changing weather. “Today’s Weather Maps” displays the latest information for a range of weather/climate variables: Temperature, Temperature Anomaly, Sea Surface T Anomaly, Precipitation & Clouds, Mean Sea Level Pressure, Precipitable Water, Surface Wind, Jetstream Wind, Sea Ice & Snow.

Two of these plots are represented here, with comments on associated weather events.

Figure 10 – Global Temperature Anomalies for “Today”, 7 April 2017 (ClimateReanalyzer). Note the the large heat anomaly (> 13 °C) over Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia and North America. In the Southern Hemisphere there is a strong >20 °C anomaly over the Ross Ice Shelf and adjacent West Antarctica..

Figure 11 – Global Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies for “Today”, 7 April 2017 (ClimateReanalyzer). Note the warm water (> +2 °C) along the edge of the Arctic Ocean ice cap from north of Iceland eastward north of Norway and European Russia where it will be actively melting oceanic ice,. Most areas of the tropical and subtropical oceans show considerable heating, with a particularly warm patch off south eastern Australia. .

4.3. Polar sea ice

The unprecedented heating of the Arctic as shown in the observations above is associated with (as a cause?) an equally unprecedented melting of the cap of sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean. This is shown over the period from the minimum of September 1984 through September 2016 in an animated video from the US National Astronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Figure 12 – The remarkable loss of Arctic sea ice over the period from Sept. 1984 to Sept 2010 Note: the age of the ice is indicated by how white it is. The thinnest, year old ice is shown as grey, the thickest ice, 5 or more years old is shown in bright white. (Click picture above for NASA’s animation and narration).

The progressive reduction in extent and thinning of ice on the Arctic Ocean since 2012 is shown particularly clearly in ice charts produced by the US Naval Research Laboratory HYCOM Consortium for Data-Assimilative Ocean Modeling. The US Navy is, of course, greatly concerned as to the navagability of the Arctic for its warships and submarines. NRL also provides daily images for sea ice concentrationthickness and speed/drift since 2012 and animated views of changes in ice cover for the last year and the last 30 days for concentration, thickness and speed/drift select preferred gif).

Figure 13 – Thinning of the ice cover: snapshots for 7 March 2012 to 2017. 7 March was this year’s maximum extent. (Click graphic for animation / click Return when finished viewing) These shots are selected from CICE ice thickness – Snapshot Archive. Even by 2014, 5 m thick ice is almost gone and 3 m thick ice is substantially diminished. In the 2017 snapshot all ice thicker than 3 m (green) has virtually disappeared except hard along the north coast of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland. This year on 7 March over two thirds of the iced over area of the Arctic ocean is covered by ice that is less than one and a half meters thick (lavender to dark blue and grey).

The anomalously warm arctic has impeded autumn and winter ice formation in 2016-2017 compared to previous years as shown in the National Snow and Ice Center’s most recent plots of ice extent. Sea ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic set record low extents every day in December 2016 and January 2017 so far, continuing the pattern that began in November (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 5 Jan 2017; see again the Fig. 1 ). March 7 recorded the lowest Arctic extent ever recorded (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 22 Mar 2017) with the average for the month also the lowest ever recorded (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 11 April 2017) Please note that all of the following graphs of sea ice coverage are based on detailed satellite observations as mapped using 25 km x 25 km grid cells.

Figure 14 – Daily changes in the extent of sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans from 1979 through to 24 April 2017. (graphs prepared using the Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graph using the publicly available satellite data on sea ice from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center). Shading represents ±2 standard deviations from the daily average cover during the baseline period. The Arctic ice extent is only 5,000 km2 more than the lowest ever recorded for this date, while the Antarctic ice extent is the second lowest extent recorded for this date.

Not only are this year’s extents at or close to record lows, but much of the existing ice is fragmented with a lot of exposed ocean within the extent, as shown on the maps of sea ice concentration next:

Figure 15 – Polar ice extents for 6 April 2017 (maps produced using the Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graph application using the publicly available satellite data on sea ice from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center).

Arctic melting is speeding up in April under increasing sunlight, the extent of the ice is essentially tied for the lowest for this date. Profound effects have also been observed over the last year on the thickness of ice on the Arctic Ocean in that almost all ice thicker than 2.5 meters has disappeared from the ocean as shown in Fig. 16. The PIOMAS graph (Fig. 17) shows the impact this melting has had on the total volume of Arctic ice.

Figure 16 – Ice thicker than 2.5 meters has disappeared between 2016 and 2017 (CICE ice thickness – Snapshot Archive). Although the extent of the Arctic ice after the winter maximum begins to shrink in March, over the Arctic Ocean the thickest ice is seen towards the end of April. In 2016 over half the surface of the 90-180° W quadrant was covered by ice thicker than 2.5 meters. Excepting only thick ice piled up on the shores of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, one year later there was no ice left in the Arctic thicker than 2.5 meters. Also, around half of the remaining ice is now less than 1.7 meters thick..

Figure 17 – Recent history of arctic ice volume changes through 1 April 2017. (Plot by Wipneus from PIOMAS data. See also PIOMAS Arctic Sea Ice Volume Reanalysis and Unified Sea Ice Thickness Climate Data Record.) If the present trend of melting continues through the September minimum, except for ice piled up against the shores of Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice free this year.

The low amount of sea ice at both poles means that the oceans will be absorbing much more heat energy from the sun than would be normal for this time of year – to encourage even more melting of the ice, as shown in the next graphic.

Figure 18 – The “albedo effect” (Arctic News). Snow and ice reflect around 90% of the solar energy striking them. Open water or dark soil generally absorb around 90% of the solar energy they receive. The absorbed energy heats the absorbing medium, increasing its temperature until there is a balance between heat leaving the area via conduction, convection, or radiation.

The net effect for this time of year from from the energy absorbed by the oceans in the summer is to impede freezing (in the Arctic) or to continue melting (in the Antarctic). Given that much of the remaining ice even in early stages of the melting season is quite thin (under 2 m thick), it will be readily fragmented by wind and waves to speed melting. Except for the thick ice along the shorelines of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, it is possible we will see an ice-free Arctic Ocean for a while this summer or next. If the reduction in volume compared to the previous lows shown in Fig. 17 continues through the rest of the year through September (around 2,000 km3) that would leave only around 1,800 km3 of ice on the ocean. Given that fragmented ice melts faster, it could be even less. While the ocean is mostly ice-free summer warmth will no longer be absorbed by the melting process (see Fig. 8), and the air temperatures in the high Arctic are likely to become substantially warmer – causing who knows what knock-on effects.

The heat anomalies in the Arctic are clearly slowing the rate at which new ice forms, even leading to an episode of net melting from December 18 through December 25 – at a time of year when the sun was below the horizon and could not contribute solar energy to add heat to the system. This suggests that major changes are taking place in the weather systems that normally lead to a rapid freeze-up of the Arctic Ocean. We can speculate where the anomalous heating comes from:

  • Water currents, e.g., the Gulf Stream may be hotter or flowing faster and further north than it usually does in the area between Svalbard and Scandanavia/Russia. However, a flow of warm water from the Pacific is limited by the shallow depth and narrow width of the Bering Strait
  • Southerly winds may be bringing more heat into the Arctic.
  • A stronger greenhouse cap over the Arctic. Water and ice have very high heat capacities, and cool via convection (transfer of heat from warmer to cooler air or water), or radiation (Arctic winters are generally stable and clear, allowing virtually all radiant energy given off by water or ice to escape to outer space). However, if the Arctic region is capped by a strong greenhouse layer, radiant energy given off by freezing water and continuing radiation from ice still close to the freezing point kept “warm” by the conduction of heat from the still liquid ocean under the ice will be trapped in the atmosphere to impede cooling of the surface as indicated by anomalously high air temperatures in the Arctic. Water vapor/clouds, CO2, and methane can all contribute to a stronger greenhouse cap.

5. Some relevant phenomena

As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, climate conditions in the Arctic drive world climates via their impacts on the Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream winds and ocean currents. In this section I will review some of these drivers and feedbacks affecting them.

5.1. Complexity theory: non-linearity, negative and positive feedback, and chaos

Local weather is the consequence of the interactions of a multitude of variables in a dynamic and complex physical-chemical system involving the sun, Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and other water bodies, the land and components of the biosphere that determine local temperatures, winds, and precipitation. Meteorologists aided by supercomputer models and the statistical analysis of many years of historical evidence that can be used to constrain the models now understand this complexity well enough to give reasonably accurate predictions up to several days in advance.

It is very difficult to model the behavior of weather systems because there are many interacting variables, and few if any of these interactions behave in a linear fashion (i.e., “linearity” is where there is a strict proportionality between the value of a any “independent” variable and the value of a variable it controls). Systems that include interactions that are not linear are termed “nonlinear systems“). Also, the values of a fair number of climate variables feed back on themselves, such that an increase in the one variable may cause changes in other variables that in turn affect the value of the first variable.

  • “Positive feedback” is the case where a change in the first variable causes other changes that feed back onto itself so as to cause the variable to change at a still faster rate. In other words positive feedback amplifies the extent of the change in either direction.
  • Negative feedback” is where the change feeds back on itself to actually reduce or damp the rate of positive or negative change.

Nonlinear dynamic systems with positive and negative feedback are often termed as chaotic. What this means is that no two repetitions starting from the virtually identical initial conditions will be similar after a significant period of time (say a month where real climates are concerned). On the other hand, the range of variation in important climate parameters seem to be constrained to stay within approximate boundaries – such that the large scale behavior of climate systems can be modelled in probabilistic terms.

5.2. Jet streams and the polar vortex

Under “normal” conditions as understood in the era of scientific climatology, a strong vortex of winds forms in the stratosphere above the Arctic Ocean, with dry stratospheric air drawn down into a high pressure region encircled by a tight vortex of low level easterly winds blowing outward from the periphery of the vortex. When the vortex forms the freezing stratospheric air grows warmer as it slowly descends, preventing cloud formation (but it is still very cold compared to the temperatures of ice, snow, ocean and continental) and allowing the easy radiation of heat to space enabling rapid cooling of ice and water on the surface of the Ocean. As long as the high Arctic remains much colder than lands to the south the polar vortex remains strong and maintains a “tight” and nearly circular arctic jet stream as a wall between the air mass of the frigid Arctic winter and the warmer lands and oceans to the south.

Figure 19 – The Polar Vortex. A strong polar vortex (1) leads to rapid freezing of the Arctic Ocean due to descending dry and frigid air and the rapid radiation of heat stored in the open ocean and recently frozen ice to outer space. If the vortex weakens it can break down (2-4) allowing major allowing icy air to flow south. Snow insulates sea ice and the land allowing cold air flowing south from a weak vortex to become even colder, bringing extreme cold air to temperate zones of the continents. (Eco West)

A comprehensive explanation of how the polar vortex and its associated jet streams works is provided by John Mason (2013) in his post, “A Rough Guide to the Jet Stream: what it is, how it works and how it is responding to enhanced Arctic warming“. This explains how a reduced temperature difference between the pole and temperate latitudes leads to a weaker and more meandering jet stream.

Under “normal” conditions the jet stream forms regular north-south meanders of moderate amplitude that progress eastward around the planet driving weather systems before them. This is called “zonal flow” (see image below). Arctic air masses are held north of the jet stream, while the hotter tropical air is held to the south.

Figure 20 – Typical zonal (red) and meridional (orange) jet stream paths superimposed on part of the Northern Hemisphere (Mason 2013). The relatively small north-south waves in zonal flows progress from west to east around the polar region and help to form a stable barrier between polar and temperate air masses. Extreme meridionality slows or even stops the eastward progression of waves and can bring very cold air flooding a long way south from the Arctic while warm air is able in a different sector to force its way into the far north to cause prolonged cold/wet and hot/dry spells in the respective sectors.

With a reduced temperature difference between arctic and temperate latitudes (e.g., as a consequence of arctic warming) the meanders increase and may even break off as separate vortexes in what is called “meridional flow”. More significantly, the eastward progress of the meanders may slow or even stop. Arctic air can then flow southward on the north side of meanders as far as the sub tropics, and tropical air can be brought well up into the arctic zone on the south side of north extending meanders.

What is even more damaging is that these extreme weather conditions can persist in the same area for many days or even weeks, causing severe stress and to people and natural ecosystems from the record high or low temperatures. In winter, during these southern excursions over continents insulated by snow, the air can become substantially colder that it was over the Arctic Ocean. Also, under these meridional conditions large masses of warm air can be brought as far north as the Arctic Ocean where they add still more heat to the system to further reduce average temperature differences.

5.3. Thermohaline circulation and ocean currents

Global ocean currents are also of major importance in governing global climates due to the capacity of water to absorb, move, and release very large amounts of heat around the planet.

Figure 21 – The thermohaline circulation also known as “meridional overturning circulation” (Wikipedia: Robert Simmon, NASA. Minor modifications by Robert A. Rohde – NASA Earth).This collection of currents is responsible for the large-scale exchange of water masses in the ocean, including providing oxygen to the deep ocean. The entire circulation pattern takes ~2000 years.

Basically, aside from prevailing winds pushing along surface water, the overall current system is driven by the physical fact that salty cold water is substantially heavier/denser than hotter and fresher water. The dense salty and cold water sinks to the bottom of the ocean and fresher and warmer water is pulled in to replace it.

The saltiest water forms in the Atlantic Ocean due to the continued evaporation in the hot tropics and subtropics (Mediterranean water is saltier but little of this reaches the Atlantic). This salty Atlantic water is still hot enough to flow north over the top of fresher but cooler waters until it reaches the Arctic where the salty water eventually cools enough to sink to the bottom. The cold salty water forms a deep current that flows south as far as the Antarctic where it then flows eastward along the bottoms of the Indian and Pacific Oceans where it gradually mixes and warms enough to again become surface water flowing into the Atlantic from the Pacific (to the west) and Indian Ocean (from the east). Along the way, as the Gulf Stream, the warm current substantially warms the East Coast of the USA, southern Canada, western Europe and northern Scandanavia.

The important consideration here is that the whole circulation pattern is driven by the fact that the salty warm water becomes cold enough in the Arctic that it sinks to the bottom to draw in more surface waterIf the surface water in this region becomes too fresh (due to the melting of glacial ice – especially of the Greenland Ice Cap) and warmer (due to a general warming of the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean) due to global warming, the water will stop sinking and the thermohaline circulation will diminish, stop, or perhaps even begin to work in reverse. This would have catastrophic climate effects on continental areas currently warmed by the Gulf Stream that may then become very much colder in winter. Detailed explanations and discussions are provided by Wikipedia’s Thermohaline Circulation, and Shutdown of Thermohaline Circulation; Carbon Brief’s The Atlantic ‘conveyor belt’ and climate: 10 years of the RAPID project; and Real Climate’s The underestimated danger of a breakdown of the Gulf Stream System.

5.4. Other feedbacks

The most obvious positive feedback affecting the melting of sea ice is the interaction between summer sun and the ice: As sea ice melts less solar energy is reflected back to space and more is absorbed to warm the adjacent ocean. The warmer sea water speeds melting of more sea ice. As shown below, as the Arctic Ocean becomes more open due to rapid melting of the sea ice larger waves can form that assist in the breaking up and melting of sea ice. The graphic shows some of the less obvious sources of positive feedback that may contribute to a rapid breakup of the remaining sea ice – possibly over only a couple of years, and even faster arctic warming than we have contemplated.

Figure 22 – A Canadian view of potential sources of positive feedback that may lead to a chaotically rapid increase in the rate of melting of arctic sea and glacial ice. (Alternatives Journal)

6. Where are we now and how did we get here?

6.1. What the observations seem to tell us

The vast multitude of climate observations summarized above provide overwhelming evidence that the global, and especially arctic climates are rapidly warming at geologically unprecedented rates that may have accelerated markedly over the last 2-5 years. Coincident with this is a rapidly accelerating shrinkage in the extent, area, and volume of polar sea ice to what was in the first three months of 2017 the lowest levels that have been measured during the satellite era beginning in 1979 (see Fig 1).

Although not discussed in this essay, there is plenty of evidence in the news and on the web that the increasing temperatures have produced high frequencies of extreme weather events such as droughts, extensive wildfires (especially in Canadian and Russian boreal forests), and ecosystem collapses (Californian oak and pine forests, kelp forests, coral reef and mangrove systems, tropical peat forests – e.g., Indonesia, central Africa). Arguably, much of the recent disorder in Syria, other areas of the Middle East, and Africa is a consequence of the drought-induced collapse of subsistence agricultural ecosystems.

“Atmospheric rivers” in the air (see Every 200 years California suffers a storm of biblical proportions — this year’s rains are just a precursor) have apparently ended five years of what has been one of California’s worst droughts in the modern record where the state’s agricultural ecosystem may have been on the verge of collapse (LA Times, 12 January 2017). However, as the world continues to warm such agricultural collapses and associated famines become increasingly likely.

6.2. Greenhouse gasses: H2O, CO2 and methane (CH4)

Atmospheric water vapor (H2O) is the most important natural (as opposed to man-made) greenhouse gas, accounting for about two-thirds of the natural greenhouse effect. However, its role in climates and its response to changing global temperature are difficult to assess because many of the processes involved in its spatial and temporal distribution are still poorly understood.

Figure 23 – Atmospheric components contributing to the greenhouse effect. Dotted and dashed lines depict the fractional response for single-addition and single-subtraction of individual gases to either an empty or full-component reference atmosphere, respectively. Solid black lines are the scaled averages of the dashed and dotted line fractional response results. The sum of the fractional responses must add up to the total greenhouse effect. The reference model atmosphere is for 1980 conditions. (Wikipedia)

Modeling found that water vapor accounts for about ~50% of the Earth’s greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing ~25%, carbon dioxide ~20%, and the minor greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols accounting for the remaining ~5%, as shown in Fig. 23. As explained below and in Fig. 24, the strength of the local H2O greenhouse effect and the potential amount of precipitation depend on the amount of water in the atmosphere both as water vapor and as visible clouds, roughly measured as “precipitable water“. It is also important to know that when H2O vapor condenses into cloud or rain droplets the process of condensation releases a large amount of heat (heat of condensation). Similarly, when water evaporates from cloud droplets, the ground, or the ocean it absorbs heat from its surroundings. (see enthalpy of vaporization). CO2, methane and other “non-precipitable” greenhouse gases only account for ~25% of the total greenhouse effect, but it is these non-condensing GHGs that actually control the strength of the greenhouse effect because the contributions from water vapor and cloud depend on temperature dependent sources of evaporation, and as such, only provide amplification. Because carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of the non-condensing GHG forcing in the current climate atmosphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane are primary controls governing the Earth’s temperature (Schmidt, et al. 2010. The attribution of the present-day total greenhouse effect)

The figure below is a view of atmospheric precipitable water in a typical Northern Hemisphere winter. Note that large areas of the polar regions are extremely dry – essentially cloudless with comparatively little water to contribute to a greenhouse cap. With close to zero H2O vapor or clouds in the atmosphere only the non-condensing gases (mainly CO2 and methane) will be contributing to any greenhouse.

Figure 24 – Global distribution of precipitable water in deep winter on 21 February 2017. Note that the low levels of atmospheric moisture in the Arctic winter will not contribute to any polar greenhouse cap that may exist. Note also that there is an atmospheric river impinging on Southern California.

However variation in the amount of the H2O-based greenhouse (especially in the dark times of the arctic winter) will contribute significant positive feedback (i.e. to increase warming) to the greenhouse potential of other greenhouse gases present in the arctic atmosphere. How this works is described by Burt, et. al., 2016 – Dark Warming, as summarized in the next graphic:

Figure 25 – Schematic of the ice–insulation and “winter monsoon feedbacks”, which operate during the “dark season” when there is no direct solar heating (modified from Burt, et. al., 2016). As the arctic greenhouse traps more heat over the arctic more ice will melt and more precipitable water will both contribute to increasing the amount of greenhouse warming. As discussed below, other gases, e.g., CO2, methane, etc. are involved in other feedbacks contributing to warming.

To reverse the positive feedback from warming, we have to do something to reduce the net greenhouse.

CO2 and to some degree, methane, are the only parameters under human control. They must be reduced enough to cancel out other contributors that humans cannot control such as H2O and methane released from geological sources such as peat bogs and melting permafrost. As will be seen, we may soon be reaching a point of no return where even zero carbon emissions would be insufficient to actually reduce the greenhouse being enhanced by non-anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The next image (Fig. 26), links to a NASA video modeling changes in CO and CO2 concentrations over the course of 2006 from natural and human generated emissions and absorptions. Fig. 27 links to an NOAA, Earth System Research Laboratory animation tracing the historical variation on CO2 concentration from 800,000 years ago through glacial, interglacial, postglacial and industrial eras up to the present.

Figure 26 – NASA image of variations in CO2 concentrations around the world based on sources of emission (generally the darkest red areas) and absorption (generally the lightest colored areas). (Goddard Media Studios). Click here for A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2) that shows the yearly cycle of emission and absorption.

Figure 27 – Animated history of CO2 concentrations from 800,000 years BP to January 2016. Click the graphic to begin the animation. As it begins, the left panel shows the annual variations CO2 concentrations at various latitudes from the South Pole to (blue dot) through Mauna Loa (red dot) to measuring locations in the Arctic. Open dots are various other locations. The top part of right panel shows a map of monitoring locations and the date. The lower part of the right panel shows a graph of the variation in CO2 concentration from January 1979 when measurements at the South Pole began to the current date. When January 2016 is reached, the Mauna Loa curve is traced backward to 1958 when recordings were started by Charles D. Keeling. When 1958 is reached, CO2 concentration for earlier dates is then measured from gas bubbles trapped in radioactively dated Antarctic ice core slices, the oldest of which goes back 800,000 years before present. This shows how extraordinarily rapidly CO2 concentrations have risen in the Industrial Age from a maximum of 300 ppm any time prior to the beginning of the Industrial Era when humans began burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale to over 400 ppm now. As shown in the credits organizations from many nations contributed the data summarized here. (NOAA, Earth System Research Laboratory, Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide)

CO2 and H2O are not the only gases contributing to changes in the strength of the greenhouse. Although it is measured in parts per billion (ppb) rather than parts per million (ppm), methane (CH4) is between 20 and 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (depending on the time period under consideration). Its concentration in the atmosphere is also rising much faster than CO2. In the industrial era, CO2 concentration rose from around 275 ppm to the current level of more than 400 ppm – an increase of around 46% during this time. In the same period methane rose from 700 to around 1850 ppb (= 1.85 ppm) – around 164% of the original value depending on what year was taken as the baseline. (see Fig. 28).

Figure 28 – Changing CO2 and methane concentrations through time from 800,000 years before present up to 2016. (US EPA Climate Change Indicators.

We have a reasonable understanding of sources and sinks for anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic CO2. Some of the atmospheric methane has clearly been released as the result of human activities, e.g., the raising of cattle and other ruminants, mining and drilling for oil and gas, leakage from a variety of other industrial activities etc. The fast rise in methane concentrations in parallel with the expansion in animal husbandry and industrial activities suggests that its rise in atmospheric concentration is also a consequence of human activities. However, compared to CO2 which has a atmospheric lifetime of many centuries because it is “permanently” removed from from the atmosphere/biosphere only by relatively slow geological processes, methane has a short lifetime (around 10 years) before it is degraded by hydroxide radicals and sunlight into CO2 and water.

As shown in Fig. 29, over the period from ~1980 the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been rising at an accelerating rate, while the concentration of methane plateaued from 1989 through around 2007. This suggests that the rates of methane emission and degradation were in approximate equilibrium during this period. Beginning around 2008 the concentration of methane again began to rise more or less in step with the increasing temperature anomalies in the Arctic around 2008 (See Fig. 4 and Fig. 8). It is possible that a rapidly growing fraction of methane began to be released around that time from peat bogs in the boreal forests and permafrost under tundra and the Arctic Ocean that were exposed a times of lower sea levels during the ice ages.

Figure 29 -. Rising concentrations of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere from ~1980 to January 2017 as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii and Cape Grim, Tasmania, Australia. Both sites have been selected to record baseline measurements because because they are as far removed as practical from local sources of CO2 and methane production. The cyclic variation in CO2 concentrations is due to the absorption of the gas by plants during the growing season and then release as they decay over autumn and winter. The variation in methane is a consequence of its light induced breakdown in spring and summer compared to its stability and continuing emissions during the dark seasons. (Mauna Loa observations from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Cycle Gases, MLO, Methane. Cape Grim observations from CSIRO, Cape Grim Greenhouse Gas Data.)

Fig. 30 shows the degree to which different gases released by human activities contribute to the greenhouse effect. CO2 makes the largest contribution, followed by methane. Fig. 31 shows how much the forcing from each gas has increased between 1980 and 2015.

Figure 30 – Contributors to global warming (US EPA – Climate Change Indicators: Climate Forcing, see also Wikipedia: Radiative Forcing).

Figure 31 – Changes in radiative forcing by greenhouse gases between 1980 and 2015. (US EPA – Climate Change Indicators: Climate Forcing.

Fig. 32 is a dense graph summarizing a lot of information. The annual maxima and minima of methane concentration tend to increase year on year, with a suggestion that the rate of increase begins to accelerate around 2006. The valleys in the front extending from the south pole to around the equator show annual minima autumn and maxima in spring. This is that because of shorter day lengths methane accumulates faster in winter than it breaks down and summer sunlight drives the chemical processes that oxidize methane into CO2 and water. The broad picture in the northern hemisphere where the seasons are reversed is the same. However, the most significant observation is that the highest concentration of methane occurs over the Arctic Ocean, where the concentration is also rising the fastest, with the lowest rise and rate of rise over Antarctica. This suggests that most methane is released in high latitudes where its rate of release exceeds its rate of decomposition. Decomposition rates are highest under the equatorial sun, but the increasing concentrations of methane still spill over the Equator into the southern hemisphere to drive rising concentrations even at the South Pole.

Figure 32 – Changes in the global distribution of methane from 1996 through 2013. The x-axis (left-right) plots each month from 1996 through 2013, the y-axis (in-out) plots latitude from the north pole to the south pole, and the z-axis plots methane concentration in nanomoles/mole (= parts per billion).

6.3. Arctic Methane

The obvious conclusion here is that the major source of methane emissions is in the industrial north, and probably even from the basically non-industrialized high Arctic. The actual sources of methane emission have not been as well studied and quantified as CO2 emissions, but it appears that major arctic sources may be emissions methane from anaerobic fermentation and CO2 in boreal peat and tundra bogs, and the release of “fossil” CO2 and methane stored as ice-like hydrates (= clathrates) in permafrost laid down on land and shallow continental shelves during low sea-level periods of the ice ages as these warm and melt in the increasingly hot Arctic. Rates of greenhouse gas release from all of these sources increase with rising temperatures. Of these, methane is the least well understood.

Aside from forest bogs, an unknown proportion Arctic methane is probably emitted from thawing permafrost above and below the ocean surface – especially in areas that received organic rich sediment during the last glacial era when sea levels were some 100 to 200 m lower than they are today. The distribution of land based permafrost is shown here:

Figure 33 – Distribution of arctic permafrost (from NASA Earth Observatory’s Methane Matters).

The following pictures from the Siberian arctic and their associated articles suggest this kind of outgassing may prove to be a major issue for continuing life as we know it.

Figure 34 – The hillock visible here is actually a bubble of methane trapped under the tundra (The Siberian Times – 22 Jul 2016). This dome was like jelly to walk on, and filled with meltwater and methane gas. After removing the layer of grass, when sampled the air around it proved to be full of methane gas. “The carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration released was 20 times above the norm, while the methane(CH4) level was 200 times higher”.

Figure 35 – This is probably the same crater as depicted in the illustrations below. “The vent has many features similar to a volcano. A central vent surrounded by debris ejected from it that forms the parapet. Initially the parapet will have been much larger (taller) and made up of ice blocks that have subsequently melted” (Mearns, 2015 – On the Origin of a Permafrost Vent on Yamal Peninsula, Russia).

Figure 36 – Some hillocks, called pingos, are formed by the expansion of a column of ice within the permafrost that may also contain ice-like CO2 and methane hydrates (The Siberian Times – 10 July 2015). If the ice melts (increasingly likely with rising arctic temperatures), and the melting hydrates release gas, the gas pressure may cause the pingo to blow out spewing water, mud, and ice along with the released gases, leaving a hole like shown here that leaves easy access to the atmosphere for further emissions, and that gradually fills with debris. The blowholes eventually degrade into the millions of deep circular lakes in the tundra.

Figure 37 – A highly pitted landscape covered with water-filled permafrost “blow”holes on the tundra of the Yamal Peninsula (Yamalsky District, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia – Google Maps 68°50’59.3″N+69°50’23.7″E – I have enhanced the brightness and contrast to clarify the image). The meandering streams collect and eventually conduct meltwater out of the landscape. The dark blue lakes are those that are still deep – not yet filled in by debris. The smallish lake – third in a near vertical straight row of five in the lower middle of the picture is ~170 m in diameter. There are also smaller similarly structured blowholes (such as those illustrated above, e.g., Fig. 35) down to the resolution of Google Maps.

Permafrost is known to store large amounts of CO2 and methane in ice-like hydrates that decompose into water and gas at temperatures around the freezing point. As heat from the warming climate penetrates ever deeper into the soil the ice and clathrates in the solid permafrost melt and turn into semi-liquid mush that releases any stored gasses as bubbles that can reach the atmosphere when the gas-filled structure bursts or collapses. From the evidence on the permafrost landscapes, where the permafrost layer is thick enough this gas appears to reach the atmosphere in an vigorous eruption, blowing out blocks of ice, water and gasses to leave a deep pit that soon fills with meltwater and debris leaving deep ponds as shown in the sequence of pictures above. These pitted landscapes can can easily be found as I have done here in Fig. 37 using Google Maps in Earth mode in alluvial deposits around the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, and Russia/Siberia.

As the Arctic warms, permafrost is melting at an increasing rate. More recently than the reports above, on 20 March 2017 a Siberian Times times article, “7,000 underground gas bubbles poised to ‘explode’ in Arctic“, reported that “scientists have discovered as many as 7,000 gas-filled ‘bubbles’ expected to explode in Arctic regions of Siberia after an exercise involving field expeditions and satellite surveillance”. These bubbles are like that illustrated above in Fig. 34. Similar structures have also been found on continental shelves in the Arctic as reported in the Siberian Times (18 Nov. 2015 – Leaking pingos ‘can explode under the sea in the Arctic, as well as on land’) as described in the Geological literature (Serov et al. 2015. Methane release from pingo-like features across the South Kara Sea shelf, an area of thawing offshore permafrost, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface).

The amount of greenhouse gas released per year by this process is very poorly quantified, with estimates ranging over two factors of 10. Ruppel and Kessler in a 2017 preprint of an open access article, “The Interaction of Climate Change and Methane Hydrates” published by the American Geophysical Union in Reviews of Geophysics present from a conservative point of view the current range of understanding and opinions regarding the relationships between currently frozen methane and global warming.

The review’s conclusions are worth quoting verbatim:

On the contemporary Earth, gas hydrate is dissociating in specific terrains in response to post-LGM [Last Glacial Maximum] climate change and probably also due to warming since the onset of the Industrial Age. Nevertheless, there is no conclusive proof that the released methane is entering the atmosphere at a level that is detectable against the background of ~555 Tg yr-1 CH4 emissions. The IPCC estimates are not based on direct measurements of methane fluxes from dissociating gas hydrates, and many numerical models adopt simplifications that do not fully account for sinks, the actual distribution of gas hydrates, or other factors, resulting in probable overestimation of emissions to the ocean-atmosphere system. The new generation of models based on ocean circulation dynamics holds the greatest promise for robustly predicting the fate of gas hydrates under climate change scenarios [Kretschmer et al., 2015] and could be improved further with better incorporation of sinks.

At high latitudes, the key factors contributing to overestimation of the contribution of gas hydrate dissociation to atmospheric CH4 concentrations are the assumption that permafrost-associated gas hydrates are more abundant and widely distributed than is probably the case [Ruppel, 2015] and the extrapolation to the entire Arctic Ocean of CH4 emissions measured in one area. Appealing to gas hydrates as the source for CH4 emissions on high-latitude continental shelves lends a certain exoticism to the results, but also feeds catastrophic scenarios. Since there is no proof that gas hydrate dissociation plays a role in shelfal [sic] CH4 emissions and several widespread and shallower sources of CH4 could drive most releases, greater caution is necessary.

At present we do not know how much of a threat is represented by the emissions of methane from non-anthropogenic sources in the arctic because too little research has been done to accurately quantify either the magnitude of the emissions or how much methane more methane would be released as a consequence of atmospheric and ocean warming. We know that all of the rate of methane emissions from a variety of different will increase with rising temperatures, and that the addition of more methane to the polar atmosphere will cause temperatures to rise still faster. However, we know too little to quantify the positive feedback on the overall global warming process in terms of either the rate or magnitude of the additional warming.[my emphasis] For marine settings, the emerging research underscores the vulnerability of upper continental slope hydrates to ongoing and future dissociation in response to warming intermediate waters. In light of predictions that thousands of methane seeps remain to be discovered [Boetius and Wenzhofer, 2013; Skarke et al., 2014] on the world‘s continental margins, surveys should focus on identifying sites of possible upper continental slope gas hydrate breakdown and degassing. Such research should better constrain hydrate reservoir dynamics, CH4 release, and carbon cycling in response to climate forcing. As on the circum-Arctic Ocean shelves, it is important to continue investigating the source of CH4 emissions on upper continental slope to prevent attributing too much to hydrate dynamics, and establishing clear linkages between CH4 emissions and known gas hydrates is critical for proving the climate-hydrates interaction. At the same time, focused paleoceanographic studies should also constrain bottom water temperature changes on upper slopes since 20 ka, the critical period for placing present-day emissions in the context of post-LGM climate and oceanographic changes.

The authors’ views here regarding current methane emissions are conservative, but accepting of the limited knowledge presently available relating to the problem. However, they clearly identify the fact that the rate of methane release is likely to increase considerably as the atmosphere and oceans grow warmer and speed the melting of permafrost on land and on the continental shelves.

Regarding the question of whether this non-anthropogenic source of methane is contributing to polar warming now, I remind readers of the observational data reflected in the accelerating increase in Arctic temperatures in the current century and the persistent location in the sunless months of the year of the most extreme and stable anomalies over the permafrost of sedimentary areas of the high Arctic of North America and Siberia and the adjacent continental shelves. To me this suggests that a strong greenhouse cap is forming over these regions in autumn and winter, trapping heat from ocean and ice that would otherwise radiate away to outer space as was the case in the 20th Century.

7. How should we react to the observed global warming?

The the material presented above summarizes a vast array of observational data regarding global climate change – especially changes in average temperatures over time. The observations are from government and institutional sources I trust and respect and are fully live-linked to their sources which explain how the data have been collected and processed to produce the summaries I present here. How we should react to these and similar observations depends on how we assess adverse risks that may be a consequence of possible future climate changes that can be projected from the observations.

7.1. Engineers and project managers have to assess risks

Engineers and managers of all kinds of projects have developed some useful tools to help them think about, assess and quantify the range of possible physical and financial risks to operators, owners, and the general public associated with the engineered product, project or event in order to assess the viability of the project and the potential consequences if it should fail. (Risk analysis was one of the disciplines I had to understand and apply in my work for Tenix Defence – designer and builder of the ten ANZAC frigates for Australia and New Zealand – as a knowledge management systems analyst, designer and implementer.)

Thinking about project risks generally begins by creating a rectangular matrix for each identified risk, involving the dimensions of “likelihood” (probability of occurrence) and “consequences” (magnitude or cost if the risk happens) – see Risk Management.. Normally there are five degrees of likelihood – from rare to almost certain, and four of consequences – from insignificant to catastrophic. Given the nature of the possible risks associated with climate change, I have added a sixth level of consequence – “existential”, as explained in the slide graphics below (see Wikipedia on Permian-Triassic Extinction Event and Mass Extinctions).

Figure 38 – Defining the concepts of risk and “existential” risk. (William Hall (2016) – Slide 9, The Angst of Anthropogenic Global Warming: Our Species’ Existential Risk).

Figure 39 – A generic risk matrix for assessing risks that may be existential (William Hall (2016 – Slide 10, The Angst of Anthropogenic Global Warming: Our Species’ Existential Risk).

If the adverse consequences of a risk are unlikely and are insignificant or minor if they happen, it may be most cost effective to “ignore” the risks, and simply remediate any problems that arise if/when the adverse event being considered happens. On the other hand if the risk is high (or extreme), and if there is any possibility that the adverse event will happen, then the organization may well decide not to proceed with the project (i.e., to avoid the risk), or, alternatively, decide to spend what is required to mitigate (i.e., to remove) the possibility to ensure that the event cannot happen.

And then there are existential risks where the adverse consequence being considered may possibly cause the extinction of the organization, country, or even most or all of humanity, we are well advised to do everything possible to ensure that the adverse event doesn’t happen. For example nuclear war is an existential risk for a nation. It would be utter MAD-ness to organize a nuclear strike against another well equipped nuclear power with second-strike capability, because this would lead to a high probability that the nation that launched the first strike would be obliterated. Because the consequences would be so bad for all the parties involved and much of the remainder of the world as well, no nation to now has been mad enough to start a nuclear war. Hence the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

7.2. Analyzing the risk of runaway global warming

It is not my purpose here to present a complete risk analysis for Arctic warming, but only to highlight that that there is a potential for runaway warming in the Arctic that exists as an existential risk for humanity through likely cascading effects (as discussed above) on the global climate. The global average temperature has already increased by around one degree centigrade/Celsius since the mid 1930s, and by significantly more than that in the Arctic – especially over the Arctic Ocean since regular satellite observations began in 1979 to fill in the gaps between the sparse records offered by the small number of land stations, research vessels and weather buoys. Given the nature of positive feedbacks already discussed above, this is likely to trigger accelerating rises in Arctic temperatures:

  • higher water and air temperatures melt more sea, glacial ice faster and snow on the land
  • reduced summer ice cover and arctic snow on land leads to absorption of more heat to increase temperatures of ocean and overlying air to melt still more ice and snow
  • reduced temperature differences between Arctic and temperate zones weakens the polar vortex, changing zonal jet streams regularly progressing to the east, into the slowly progressing meridional jet streams meander widely and sometimes stop that bring hot and moist tropical air up to the Arctic and colder dry air down into the subtropics that may force temperatures into extremes that may last for days trap extreme temperatures over localities for days or even weeks a time to trigger floods, wildfires in boreal forests, droughts and other extreme weather
  • wildfires deposit black ash on snow and ice, encouraging further heat absorption and melting
  • warmer, fresher fresher ocean water from melting ice and snow plus increasing solar heating reduces thermohaline circulation, allowing still more summer heating and the Arctic, while allowing local sea level rises and colder temperatures in western Europe and northeast USA
  • changing sea levels and reductions in the mass of ice caps and glaciers are likely to trigger local volcanism
  • higher temperatures lead to more rapid melting of permafrost on land and on shallow continental shelves, releasing stored but likely large amounts of greenhouse gases stored in sediments during the ice ages, trapping absorbed summer heat in the atmosphere into and perhaps even through the dark winter months.

The illustration below summarizes the risk to humans if we cannot reduce the existing greenhouse cap over the Arctic faster than it is being increased by these geophysical processes in order to allow cooling and the freezing of more ice to proceed.

Figure 40 – Emissions from land-based permafrost may also contribute strongly to the Arctic greenhouse cap. (Arctic NewsNear Term Human Extinction).

Could something like this actually happen to humanity? There is actually reasonably good evidence that runaway warming in the past has caused mass extinctions of life on Earth. A strong case has been made than the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event was caused by runaway warming at least partially as a result of a major methane belch from the oceans. It was the our planet’s worst extinction event, when some 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared. It is the only known mass extinction of insects: some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera. Presumably, because of the great reduction in biodiversity, it took significantly longer than after any other extinction event for diversity to recover – possibly as much as 10 million years.

The scenario is described in by M.J. Benton in his 2008 book, “When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time“. published by Thames & Hudson, London.” A 2016 report by Brand, et al. (Methane Hydrate: Killer cause of Earth’s greatest mass extinction, Palaeoworld 25(4), pp. 496-507), uses a number of physical methods to reconstruct a detailed time-line of the extinction event together with indicators of changes in temperatures and atmospheric events. Their conclusions need to be considered in the context of risks humanity presently faces from runaway global warming:

Carbon dioxide derived from Siberian Trap volcanism with its δ13C value of about −6‰ would bring about a warming of about 6 °C and a shift in marine carbonate 13C values by about −2‰.The rapid addition of isotopically lighter methane (∼−60‰) to the global atmosphere and hydrosphere would bump up the aver-age global temperature to well above 29 °C, and afteoxidationsthe 13C signature in marine carbonates would record carbon isotope compositions ranging from −2 to −7‰.

The emission of carbon dioxide from volcanic deposits may have started the world onto the road of mass extinction, but it was the release of methane from shelf sediments and permafrost hydrates that was the ultimate cause for the catastrophic biotic event at the end Permian.

The observational data presented in this essay provide strong evidence that significant Arctic warming has already begun that is apparently accelerating, suggesting that the ice-albedo feedback and polar vortex feedbacks are already operating, and that others may also have begun. Given (1) that the potential feedbacks mentioned here are all based on well established physics, geophysics and climatology, and (2) that they appear to be ongoing at the present time, it is entirely reasonable to assess the risk of adverse consequences to humanity as being existential.

The single most telling observation as to how far along this process we are is the catastrophic drop in the overall volume/mass of sea ice left on the planet as exemplified by the annually shrinking volume of Arctic ice shown by the following summary graphic from ArctischePinguin. For the period of 1979 through 2001 the average MAXIMUM volume of ice was 30,000 km3. From this year’s trend the peak would appear to be around 21,000 km3, which will be about 1,500 km3 lower than last year’s peak then tied to be the record low peak. Wipneus’s extrapolations of what appears to be an exponentially decreasing volume suggests that the Arctic Ocean may be ice free by the summer of 2020 – or perhaps even this year! Obviously, the actual minimum volumes of ice for each year bounce around above and below the trend line, so the first ice free summer could happen even sooner (or later) than when the trend line reaches zero. Nevertheless, if our planet loses its Arctic ice cap for even a short time that will probably be a unique event since at least since the last interglacial. The impact on temperate zone climates is not likely to be minor.

Figure 41 – Monthly variations in the total volume of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean from 1979 through 4 April 2017 as measured in thousands of cubic kms. Arctische Pinguin – PIOMAS / PIOMAS Daily Arctic Ice Volume)

In other words, the danger of extremely adverse consequences to our species if we deny or ignore the threat and do nothing to mitigate it can be ranked in three dimensions as:

  • Probability: likely to almost certain
  • Severity: catastrophic to extinction
  • Time scale: near to imminent (i.e., within the normal lifespan of at least some people now living)

Figure 42 – Ranking the risk of runaway global warming in three dimensions. Above danger assessment adds a third dimension, i.e. time scale. A 5 – 10°C temperature rise could eventuate within one decade and this also makes the danger imminent, adding further weight to the need to start taking comprehensive and effective action. (Arctic News – The Threat Of Arctic Albedo Change).

My conclusion from what appears to be undeniable evidence canvassed in this essay is that we have already passed the tipping point where we had any hope of stopping warming at 2 or even 3 °C, and urgently need to focus on greatly improving our scientific understanding and learning learning how to live with and survive decades of rapid heating, and to develop global geoengineering tools to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere before most life on the planet (including ourselves) is exterminated by heat stroke and starvation in collapsing ecosystems.

—o0 END 0o—

Any size population will do? The fallacy of aiming for “stabilisation” of human population size

Karin Kuhlemann[1]

Original article published in The Ecological Citizen Vol 1 No 2 2018

Abstract

Human population growth is slowing down, but there is no end in sight: we are due to reach 11 billion towards the end of this century, and to continue expanding our numbers well into the next. This article discusses why focusing on the rate of population growth as the central problem amounts to a mistaken and misleading approach to thinking about the issue, as does the suggestion that we should aim to “stabilize” population size. Our current population size is already unsustainable, which poses great risks to human beings and wildlife alike. The aim must be to reverse human population growth rather than merely to slow it down or lock it in at some arbitrary, unsustainable size.

High fertility rates are largely a product of social norms. But social norms can change, and this is a powerful argument for active and honest dialogue about the problem of unsustainable human population growth.

Introduction

Human numbers were relatively stable during thousands of years, slowly edging up until reaching our first billion around 1804[2]. After this, growth accelerated, then exploded. By 1927, when beloved naturalist Sir David Attenborough was a baby, humanity had already notched up the second billion. By the time Attenborough narrated the first Life on Earth series in the late 1970s, our numbers had more than doubled again. We are now on course for to reach our third doubling by 2023; there will be 8 billion of us then. Population growth is slowing down, but there is no end in sight: we are due to reach 11 billion towards the end of this century and to continue expanding our numbers well into the next[3]. The number of people added to this planet every year (~80 million) has not changed much since the late 1970s, but it translates into an ever-smaller rate of growth because our absolute numbers are getting larger and larger. For many, this means there is no problem left to solve.

In this article, I briefly discuss how problematising population growth in terms of the speed of growth amounts to a mistaken and misleading approach to thinking about the issue, as do suggestions that we should aim to “stabilise” population size (whether at the national or global level). Population size is not a neutral factor and poses great risks to human beings and wildlife alike. Logically and morally, the aim must be to reverse population growth rather than to merely slow it down or lock it in at arbitrary, unsustainable size. High fertility rates are largely a product of social norms. But social norms can change, and this is a powerful argument for active and honest engagement with the problematic of population growth by scientists, activists and policy-makers.

First, a clarification. In this paper I criticize rhetorical arguments about the problematic of population growth which are frequently put forward by economists, futurists, and policy-makers, but sometimes also by natural scientists and even population concern activists. Any of these actors might be motivated by political expediency, ideological commitment, or a sincere belief that their positions are empirically sound. Whether or not genuinely endorsed by those who proffer them, the arguments I attack are commonly presented to the public as though they represent sound reasons for dismissing concern about population growth, and this is a problem. As I attempt to demonstrate, even a fairly cursory examination shows these arguments to be fallacious. I make no claim that my criticisms or counter-arguments are novel. On the contrary, I take the logical and moral incongruences I identify as fairly self-evident to anyone who has given serious thought to the subject of population and sustainability.

The future of population growth is not set in stone. But if we get the problem wrong, we are bound to misunderstand our options about what can or should to be done to mitigate the risks to all life on this planet, both human and wild.

Too fast, or too much growth?

Concerns about population growth are often articulated in terms of the growth being too fast. Supposedly, we should aim at slowing down growth or stabilising our numbers. In its most intellectually reprehensible incarnation, this framing of the problem translates into the argument that there is nothing to worry about because the rate of population growth is already slowing down. The easiest way to solve a complex ethical and practical problem, as ever, is to deny that it exists.

Current declines in fertility rates are neither irreversible nor inevitable, which is why multiple UN population projections have had to be adjusted upwards in recent years. But more importantly, the rhetoric of “slower growth” or “stable population size” erroneously and misleadingly implies that population size is a neutral factor. If a “stable” population is an ideal outcome, or at least a population that is not growing as fast, then it must follow that any population size is fine; the problem is merely that there is change, or the change is too fast. But this is not the case, however much it may suit one’s ideological inclinations or political aims.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, what matters is the current and cumulative effect of absolute population size, not the rate at which our numbers grow. It makes a great deal of difference to the prospects for human security and wellbeing, and for wildlife survival, if our population is 2 billion, 7 billion, 11 billion or, indeed, 16 billion. Whether a population is sustainable turns on how many consumers there are, consuming as they can be realistically expected to consume[4]. If there are more consumers than can be sustained, the risks will turn principally on how many more and for how long there is an imbalance.

The risks from an unsustainable pattern of resources use do not crystallise overnight. Consider a situation where your one and only source of livelihood is withdrawals from a bank account into which someone placed a large deposit (precise amount unknown). Even if you repeatedly withdraw from the account more than it is earning in interest rates, it may take a long time to empty the account completely; you may come to think it will never happen, even though it is the logical end-point of your trajectory. You may be a very optimistic person who is counting on interest rates going up in future, or on finding a way to diminish your withdrawals before the capital is completely gone. (Another way of looking at it, of course, is that you are reckless with your finances.) But for the time being, your withdrawals are unsustainable. They do not stop being unsustainable because things might change in future. The longer the unsustainable withdrawals go on for, the harder it becomes for you to mitigate the risk that you’ll run out of money. In particular, the longer you keep up your unsustainable withdrawals, the less leeway you’ll have to deal with unexpected expenses, falling interest rates, or simply having misjudged how much there is in the account. As with our planet’s resources, there is no safety net in this thought experiment.

I am quite willing to concede that, from the perspective of provision of public services, the speed of population growth is indeed an independent problem. Rapid population growth can create something of a Red Queen race for societies, where continuously increased public expenditure is needed simply to keep up with growing demand for school places, hospital beds, housing, sanitation, public transport, etc.  

But in so far as one accepts that at least some needful resources are finite and depletable – in so far as one accepts that sustainability is or can be an issue independently of the capacity of social structures to adapt to population growth – then it simply cannot be logically supposed that the solution lies in ensuring growth eventually stops, yielding a stable population size. That a population’s size is stable in no way entails sustainability. It may be sustainable, or it may be far too large. This turns on a range of factors, most notably on how big that ‘stable’ population is and on the state of the resource base on which it depends.

Framing population stabilisation as a policy goal – independently of any sustainability assessment – is simply false and bound to mislead the public about the nature of the problem.  It reflects an unthinking acceptance of the premise that populations must not shrink, that whatever arbitrary size a population grows to must be locked in and accommodated somehow. The fear of population “decline” or “ageing” is primal and tribal, reflecting macho anxieties of a bygone era where survival was about how many young men one could round up for waging war or fighting off invasions. It makes no sense in today’s world, where the main threats to the long-term viability of human societies are ultimately rooted on there being too many of us, men and women, young and old, doing damage simply by peacefully leading our own lives.

Population, affluence and technology

It is trivially true that the environmental impact of any given population size is modulated by affluence and by the technology available (in addition to cultural and institutional particularities). This broadly corresponds to the familiar “IPAT identity”[5] formula: impact = population x affluence x technology. However, it is often mistakenly assumed that more advanced technology translates into a reduced impact, or that people living in poverty have next to no environmental impact or will remain poor for ever.

Technology can be used to increase efficiency in resource use, allowing us to make more with less. But it can also be used to extract resources faster and more cheaply, masking their scarcity, encouraging overuse, or otherwise accelerating resource depletion. As the Aldo Leopold put it nearly 70 years ago, “few educated people realize that the marvellous advances in technique made during recent decades are improvements in the pump, rather than the well.[6]”  There is mounting evidence that the predominant relationship between technology and resource use is one of improvements to the pump, that is, facilitating their extraction rather than creating more resources. A related phenomenon is described in economics as Jevons’ paradox[7], where greater technological efficiency in the use of a resource ultimately increases its overall consumption. In addition, technology can also be used to convert one environmental problem into another, for example where freshwater scarcity is “resolved” via desalination plants that consume vast amounts of fossil fuels, decimate marine life, or generate serious pollution.

Affluence is a similarly multivalent factor. A wealthier population will typically consume much more than a poorer population of the same size, but will also be better able to invest into the development of new technologies that may reduce their impact on resources – or amplify it.  But there is nothing inherently “environmentally friendly” about poverty.  In much of the world, those who are struggling to find opportunities in the formal economy will turn to extractivist activities[8] to make a living for themselves and their families, often to devastating results: empty forests where most wildlife has been hunted down[9], rampant deforestation for wood fuel and growing food[10], overfished rivers and bays[11]. In addition, it is clear that some environments are better able to support larger human populations than others. Poverty-stricken, rapidly growing populations are too often found in drought-prone, resource-poor, fragile environments such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. In such areas, mere subsistence activities are enough to over-exploit natural resources, driving desertification and worsening the already chronic food insecurity[12]

The contribution of population size to our environmental impact is comparatively unambiguous. For any given level of affluence, use of technology, or environmental constraints, and regardless of which way these factors pull, a smaller population size will mean a smaller environmental impact, slower resource depletion, and a greater range of alternatives for coping with resource scarcity (for example, relocating elsewhere). Conversely, a bigger population will have a greater environmental impact, a faster rate of resource depletion, fewer alternatives for coping with scarcity due to the concatenation of multiple scarcities and to greater competition for resources, and a greater number of human lives at risk than what would otherwise be the case.

Population size always matters, and in today’s world, a smaller population is a more resilient one.

The irrelevance of current food production

It is often suggested that we ought not to worry about population growth because we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Supposedly we can, or should, let population growth run its course, whatever it may prove to be, because we are safe on the food front. There are at least three reasons why this reasoning is fallacious.

First, answering the question of how much food is produced now is not answering the question of how much food we can expect to produce over the foreseeable future. Current resource use in agriculture is unsustainable,[13] and this is without taking into account the potentially devastating impact of climate change. Discussions about food waste and expansion of the agricultural frontier typically ignore the reality that not all waste can be prevented, that most productive land worldwide is already in use for agriculture[14], and that what is left is natural habitat that supports important ecosystem services and provides critical sanctuary for what remains of the world’s wildlife.

Secondly, even if it were possible to sustainably produce enough food to feed a population of 10 or even 11 billion – and we have no reason to be confident it will be[15] – food production is not the only issue. People’s ability to earn a livelihood matters to their ability to secure enough food and other basic resources for themselves and their families, to their ability to live lives of dignity, and to the fiscal sustainability of their societies. The International Labour Office has been chronicling a global trend towards higher unemployment and underemployment for years, due to job creation not keeping up with growth in the number of new labour market entrants. This has particularly affected younger workers[16], reflecting the morally problematic asymmetry of all population growth externalities: the costs and risks of population growth are typically worse for younger generations than for the older generations who have made the choices that created or added to the risks. As if these population growth-driven trends were not enough of a threat to the livelihoods of younger generations, in recent years there has been growing concern about the scope for developments in artificial intelligence to cause unprecedented levels of unemployment without concomitant creation of new jobs for those displaced[17], potentially vastly aggravating fiscal unsustainability problems that are already widespread[18]

And thirdly, even if it were possible to secure food and decent livelihoods for 11 billion people, our population may keep on growing well past that already enormous size. This is the trajectory indicated by the latest UN population projections[19] sees the global population continuing to grow well into the 22nd century, and its projected size for 2100 might prove optimistic. Population projections for countries experiencing high fertility are particularly uncertain; these are the countries which are projected to drive the bulk of global population growth from 2050 onwards. Even slightly slower than anticipated fertility declines could result in a much larger population size. The UN’s “high” variant projection assumes fertility rates will remain half a child higher, on average, than the “medium” variant. This yields a 2100 population of over 16 billion. It may be thought that the high variant assumes an increase in fertility; on the contrary, it still builds in a substantial reduction in fertility rates relative to today’s levels. A straightforward extrapolation of current fertility rates would yield a population of well over 25 billion by 2100[20].

While many remain steadfastly optimistic about the prospects for producing enough food to feed 11 billion in a climate changed world with damaged soils and not enough water, this author is not aware of any credible proposals for feeding a world of 16 billion or more.

Already unsustainable

Our current population’s impact on the natural resources on which we depend suggests 7 billion is already an unsustainable population size. Further population growth will increase systemic risks to food security and livelihoods, in particular climate change, mounting unemployment and sub-employment, degradation of agricultural soils, overfishing, and freshwater scarcity.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change recognises population growth as a primary driver of climate change[21], along with economic growth. The IPCC warns that climate change may have severe impacts on food security via higher temperatures, precipitation changes, increased frequency of extreme weather events, the spread of new pests and ocean acidification. Estimates suggest that some 200 million people could be displaced by climate change over the next 40 years[22]. Food production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a dominant force behind diversity loss, degradation of land and depletion of freshwater sources, among other serious environmental impacts. Simultaneously, agriculture is the most weather-dependant of all human activities, and extensively reliant on the same natural resources and ecosystem services[23] it is degrading.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation identifies population growth and economic growth as the primary drivers of the ongoing loss and degradation of agricultural soils, which in turn is a major threat to food security[24]. Global marine fisheries landings have been declining since the late 1980s due to overfishing[25]. The FAO’s analysis of assessed stocks has found a downward trend in biologically sustainable fish stocks since 1974; some 30% of fisheries are already overfished and a further 60% are “fully fished”[26], with pressures on fish stocks largely driven by population growth (but also economic growth).  Around 1.4 billion people live in areas where ground water is being drawn at a faster rate than it can be replenished[27]. The UN projects that almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, potentially displacing as many as 700 million people[28]. Water scarcity is driven principally by population growth and – what else – economic growth, is set to be worsened by climate change, and is thought to be a major driver of armed conflict, in particular in Africa[29]. Some of the most water stressed countries are also experiencing very high population growth rates[30]. The UN estimates that nearly 80% of the jobs constituting the global workforce depend on access to an adequate water supply[31].

Population growth contributes to and amplifies every one of these risks while increasing the number of people exposed to those risks. In addition, by expanding the reach and intensity of human pressures on the natural environment, human population growth poses an existential threat to countless other species.

The most recent doubling of our numbers was accompanied by a loss of over half of wildlife numbers, driven by destruction of natural habitats and harvesting of wildlife to meet human needs and aggravated by environmental fouling from human activities.[32]  This involves a combination of thinning of wildlife populations and eradication of countless species. A sixth mass extinction event is ongoing, the worst spate of species loss since the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event that saw the end of non-avian dinosaurs and many other lineages of life[33]. Even if our human population eventually stops growing and shrinks back to a sustainable size, the species pushed to extinction along the way will be lost forever.

Those of a particularly extreme speciesist or anthropocentric moral outlook may believe that there is no inherent wrong in causing other species to go extinct. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the interests of human beings are the only moral considerations that count. Even then, humanity’s impact on the natural world is a serious moral wrong of reckless risking of livelihoods and safety nets. Many millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America rely on wildlife resources for their livelihoods and as a buffer to see them through times of hardship, such as unemployment and crop failures.[34] More generally, the world’s poor are often highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the most vulnerable to the effects of defaunation and environmental degradation[35].

For those of us who reject anthropocentrism, or at least do not endorse such an extreme version of it, the permanent loss of biodiversity is a profound moral wrong to the species being annihilated by humanity’s reckless expansionist project. It is also a moral wrong to future generations, condemned to live in a biologically impoverished world where such iconic fauna as elephants, sea turtles, snow leopards, orangutans, rhinos, gorillas and tigers no longer exist in the wild, or at all.

Ideas, values, and behaviours

When we accept a large risk, we must have in mind an even greater benefit that justifies taking that risk, or else we are behaving irrationally and recklessly. Most people should be able to recognise that it is wrong to expose younger and future generations to enormous risks, and bring entire lineages of life to an end, for as trivial a reason as our reluctance to adjust our own behaviour and attitudes in response to changing circumstances, or as disreputable a reason as treating children and wildlife as means to the ends of today’s parents and consumers. We are supposedly a rational species. We have been aware of population growth for decades, and reliable and inexpensive birth control methods have been available for over 50 years. And yet, we hold on to the idea that cultural and individual preferences about family size should be left to drift along, as if the future of humanity and of countless other creatures was not sufficiently important to warrant conscious effort to mitigate population growth.

Where population growth is acknowledged to be a problem, it is commonly suggested that the way to address it is by educating girls, tackling gender discrimination or lifting people out of poverty. Ensuring women and girls are treated with equal respect and afforded the same educational and economic opportunities as men and boys is a matter of justice and basic human decency. The same applies to efforts to secure for everyone the at least the minimum material resources needed for lives free from fear and want. However, it is important to note that tackling gender inequality and absolute poverty are neither preconditions[36]  to fertility declines nor reliable ways to achieve declines that are as deep and fast as they need to be to adequately mitigate unsustainable population trajectories.[37] Conversely, high fertility rates pose a formidable obstacle to securing improvements to gender equality and to economic and educational opportunities[38].

Women who are unable to control their bodies can be confidently predicted to bear more children than those who can, and education tends to make larger families less appealing. But it would be a mistake to surmise that women having large families necessarily do so out of ignorance or because they have no choice. It seems more likely that ideas about the role of women and the (instrumental versus intrinsic) value of children spring from the same socio-cultural fountain as preferences about family size. The weight of the evidence suggests the most important factors driving population growth today are persistent preferences for larger family sizes[39] and unintended births resulting from non-use of contraception even where it is available, often due to cultural/religious objections [40]. Both factors are amenable to changes in values and social norms that have a tremendous bearing on individual attitudes and reproductive behaviour, as exemplified by the many successful ideational change campaigns employing entertaining television and radio shows[41].

But the case for changes in values and social norms is undermined whenever and wherever those best placed to understand and explain the risks that are driven or aggravated by population growth stay silent on it, and even more so if the only voices speaking on population are pro-natalist ideologues representing capitalist, patriarchal or religious interests.  An unconscionable population +-taboo[42] has developed whereby scientists, activists and policy makers talk around population growth and gloss over or omit reference to the need for smaller family sizes when discussing climate change, food or livelihood insecurity, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation. In doing so, these actors are complicit in creating an environmentally impoverished world in which many millions, possibly billions of people may starve, become displaced, or have no hope of securing decent livelihoods. This needs to change.

What can be done?

Fundamentally, we must foster a shared sense of responsibility for the size of our human population, and adjust our behaviours and ways of thinking. In the oft-quoted words of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. But we all are. Even the childless by choice are still consumers, and as social beings we all make a contribution, however small, to what ideas live or die.

The logical and ethical response to unsustainable population growth is to reject the primitive rhetoric that irrationally fears population de-growth and ageing while embracing speculative gambles with our collective futures. It is to confront those who promote population growth on the ethically repugnant premise that human beings exist to serve the needs of a supposedly ever-growing capitalist economy, or the political goals of religious leaders. It is to embrace, rather than fear, sub-replacement fertility.

In order for younger and future generations to have a shot at decent lives in a world that is not an environmental wasteland, social ideas about what a normal family looks like need to change.  A one-child family ideal is a very small family indeed, but one that prioritises the life chances of children, the long-term stability of human societies, and the survival of the world’s wildlife over the immediate preferences and desires of prospective parents. This is what makes sense, and how it should be. 

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[1] Doctoral candidate at University College London, School of Public Policy

[2] Based on historical estimates of world population compiled by the US Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/population/international/data/worldpop/table_history.php)

[3] See United Nations (2015) and Gerland et al (2014)

[4] In the original (and rather more eloquent) words of Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1990: 37-40): “Overpopulation is defined by the animals that occupy the turf, behaving as they normally behave, not by a hypothetical group that might be substituted for them.”

[5] Holdren and Ehrlich (1974); Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1990).

[6] Leopold (1949) p. 223.

[7] Alcott (2004); Magee and Devezas (2016)

[8] See for example Kerr et al (2004), Duffy and St John (2013), Harrison (2011), Nasi et al (2011), Slingenberg et al (2009), Sreekar et al (2015), McDonald (2016), Gettleman (2015), Lall (2013).

[9] Nasi et al (2008); Nasi et al (2011); Harrison (2011); Nellemann et al (2014); UNEP (2016); Long et al (2017). See also Panjabi (2014) and Maxwell et al (2016).

[10] Kerr et al (2004); Some et al (2007); McCarthy (2011); Hosonuma et al (2012); Nellemann et al (2014); Sedano et al (2016); FAO (2016).

[11] Stobutzki et al (2006); Salayo et al (2008); Keskar et al, 2017.

[12] United Nations (2007), IPCC (2014), Lifland (2012)

[13] International Food Policy Research Institute (2016), The Government Office for Science (2011)

[14] See for example Tilman et al (2002), Cassman (1999), Young (1999)

[15] Schade and Pimentel (2010)

[16] ILO (1996), (2007), (2012), (2013), (2014), (2016a), (2016b), (2017)

[17] See for example Frey and Osborne (2013).

[18] See for example The World Economic Forum’s 2017 report on global risks, which (as with previous reports) ranks fiscal unsustainability and unemployment/underemployment, along with a host of man-made environmental and humanitarian crises, as high impact, high likelihood risks.

[19] United Nations (2015)

[20] There was no “business as usual” (constant fertility) graph in the UN’s 2015 projections, perhaps because the BAU graph in the 2012 projections was thought to be alarmistic. It is fair to say that a human population of over 25 billion is improbable.

[21] Pachauri et al (2015)

[22] Laczko and International Organization for Migration (2009)

[23] Daily (1997)

[24] FAO (2015). See also Blum (2003)

[25] Mora et al (2009)

[26] FAO, 2016

[27] FAO (2009), (2012)

[28] Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (2014)

[29] Ibid

[30] UNDP (2006); see also United Nations (2012)

[31] Unesco et al (2016)

[32] World Wide Fund for Nature (2016)

[33] Ceballos et al (2015), Barnosky et al (2011), Dirzo et al (2014), McCauley et al (2015)

[34] Nasi et al (2008), Schulte-Herbrüggen et al (2013), Ntuli and Muchapondwa (2015)

[35] OECD (2008)

[36] See Campbell and Bedford (2009) for a useful summary.

[37] See Garenne (2012) and Grant (2015) for sobering data on the limited impact of education on fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Myrskylä et al (2009) on how advanced levels of socio-economic development can reverse fertility declines.

[38] The population of many Sub-Saharan African countries is set to at least quintuple over this century (See UN, 2015), greatly depressing the scope for those societies to provide decent education and livelihood opportunities for rapidly enlarging cohorts of young people. See for example McNay (2005), Ashraf et al (2013), and Grant (2015). See also Anderson and Kohler (2015) and Recoules (2011) on how low fertility may boost gender equality and how gender equality may in turn boost fertility rates. The relationship between fertility and gender equality appears to be far more complex than commonly assumed.

[39] Westoff (2010); Bongaarts (2011); Bongaarts and Casterline (2013); Madsen (2015). See also INS and ICF International (2013).  

[40] This reflects the difference between unmet demand and unmet need for contraception. Where a woman would like to avoid pregnancy but does not intend to use contraception, there is unmet need but no unmet demand. For example, 65% of people in Pakistan, 54% of people in Nigeria and 52% of people in Ghana personally believe that using contraceptives is morally unacceptable; it does not necessarily follow that very large families are wanted [See Poushter (2014) and Pew (2014)]. A recent review of demographic and health surveys [Sedgh et al, 2016] found that a substantial proportion of women in developing countries did not seek family planning services even though they wanted to avoid pregnancy. Opposition to contraception was cited as a reason by 23% of those women, particularly among married women, while lack of knowledge or access to contraception, was cited by fewer than 10% of respondents. The same study confirmed that a preference for large family sizes remains the norm across most of Africa. See also Casterline and Agyei-Mensah (2017). Even if all women who have an unmet need for contraception used it, fertility in sub-Saharan Africa in particular would remain well above replacement levels [Bongaarts, 2011]. One of the most often encountered forms of instrumental valuing of children is parent’s expectation of financial support in old age. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a robust correlation between increased social security benefits and reduced fertility rates – see Boldrin et al (2015).

[41] See for example Westoff and Koffman (2011), Basten (2009), Ashton et al (2015)

[42] See for example Mora (2014), Coole (2013), Campbell and Bedford (2009), Campbell (2007), Betts (2004), Orenstein (2004), Butler (2004); Beck and Kolankiewicz (2000), Grimes (1998), Maher (1997), Catton Jr, 1996.

Around the Anthropocene in Eighty Names—Considering the Urbanocene Proposition

Franciszek Chwałczyk

Institute of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Anthropology and Cultural Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, 61-712 Poznań, Poland; franciszek.chwalczyk@amu.edu.pl

Abstract: There are now at least 80–90 proposed alternatives to the term “the Anthropocene”, following critique mainly from the social sciences. The most popular seem to be Moore’s Capitalocene and Haraway’s Chthulucene, but there are others, such as: Hornborg’s Technocene, Mann’s Homogenocene, Wilson’s Eremocene, Stiegler’s neganthropocene, Parikka’s Anthrobscene… Furthermore, similar recognitions and critiques have been made in urban studies (Urban Age, Planetary Urbanization…). What should we make of this multiplicity? Those propositions are approached here from the philosophical and cultural studies perspectives, in the spirit of Galison’s trading zones and Bal’s travelling concepts. They are treated with engaged pluralism (introduced through geography and urban studies) and, because of their eschatological dimension, with (secular) negative theology. The Urbanocene is also outlined using Nowak’s ontological imagination. None of the propositions are sufficient on their own. Most contribute to a better understanding of the Anthropocene. Those concerning the role of cities and urbanization (Astycene, Urbanocene, Urbicene, Metropocene) are insufficient. This entails that there is a need for an Urbanocene proposition to be formulated. This proposition draft is briefly outlined here by linking an example of exceeded planetary boundaries (levels of phosphorus and nitrogen) with urbanization, drawing on the works of Mumford and Gandy.

Keywords: anthropocene; urbanocene; urban age

This paper is first published here MDPI: Sustainability (2020) [1].

1. Introduction
1.1. The Anthropocene—The Epoch of Man and Its (Urban) Context

What epoch do we live in? On a cosmic, geological or biological-evolutionary scale, time and its epochs are the objective external frame, and “man” is simply thrown into it. Is this really the case? It seems that not necessarily, not anymore—with the scale of “human” perpetration still increasing. Time scales and time units must also take into account this increase in impact—and its spatiality and arrangement. Especially given that this perpetration has just reached critical potential and it is not evenly distributed. Its effects and manifestations are noticed, variously demarcated and given a variety of names in different disciplines: global warming or climate catastrophe in climatology [2], the sixth mass extinction in biology [3], and, finally, the epoch of the Anthropocene in geology [4].

The Anthropocene is a much-discussed phenomenon and concept nowadays. As a phenomenon, it is the superhuman scale of perpetration, visible in and measured by, e.g., Planetary Boundaries [5]. As a concept, it is a postulate dating back to around the year 2000 [4], which designated a new geological era—as a part of the Holocene or as its end. The premise is that anthropogenic changes have occurred on a large scale on Earth. Their effects will probably be recognizable in future geological strata, composed of matter we today produce and arrange; and social scientists or humanists would add that we produce and arrange this matter due to our cultures—the ways we live.

This proposition is currently being considered by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), composed of scientists of various affiliations—not only geological. Recently, the AWG recommended that the Anthropocene should be posited as taking place after the Holocene and beginning in the mid-20th century. As the clearest example of its indicator around the globe, the AWG postulates radioactive traces of nuclear weapons tests from the 1945 and onward [6]. It is now up to the International Union of Geological Sciences and the International Stratigraphy Commission to familiarize themselves with the AWG results and vote on the new name. However, like most issues in science, this proposal to view and name the new age as the Anthropocene is not limited to the field of science. In the meantime, doubts have been raised within and outside this field. Neither is the field itself homogeneous. Although this proposition of a concept describing an important phenomenon is needed, it is not sufficient from the perspective of other sciences. This is the basic point of departure of this article. I focus here on other suggestions for the name for the epoch—the other “-cenes”. These are the alternative names (Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Urbanocene…) for the geological epoch—all of which have some justification. They are usually proposed as part of the constructive and creative critique of the Anthropocene-concept, but at the same time recognize the Anthropocene-phenomenon. Here I present all of the terms that I found (see Appendix A, Table A1) and I survey them to see what is missing or what is not adequately represented. This allows me to recognize needs and propose how to answer them, but not by just throwing my concept onto the table and cynically riding the wave of popularity of the concept without even considering what alternatives have already been proposed.

These discussions go much further, beyond the AWG, and turn out to be very lively, interesting and copious—as Ewa Bińczyk shows in her article in The Anthropocene Review and in her book [7,8]. She points out that this broad debate about the Anthropocene—involving most of modern science, but also media and business—is fundamental and unique for seven reasons, such as: it offers philosophical reinterpretations of the human’s relations with nature; the scope of human agency and entanglement; and the triad of freedom, power, responsibility. It gathers and unites various disciplines around one subject and goal. Its central problem is irreversibility and unprecedentedness, shrinking possibilities and—resulting from this knowledge—mourning, anger and frustration. Hence, the debate has an eschatological dimension—especially as it is accompanied by apocalyptic motives. And it can serve as a (last) warning, as well as a catalyst for a new perspective—and, consequently, action and change. It may even wake us up from the “marasmus” of the Anthropocene, according to Bińczyk. Hence, if this is a fundamental phenomenon and a key debate, it should be thoroughly studied, but also extended to include sciences whose subjects the Anthropocene-phenomenon touches, but which the concept of the Anthropocene, geology and neighboring disciplines does not cover.

In the sense of a geological proposal, the Anthropocene (Anthropocene-concept) has already been discussed many times in many places and is not the main subject of this paper, while the Anthropocene-phenomenon and alternative concepts and names are. Such a demarcation of the research field is justified by the fact that geologists and related researchers understand the Anthropocene quite narrowly. However, their perspectives are expanding, as tables of contents and the contents themselves of various specialist publications show [9,10]. However, they mainly focus on what geological unit the Anthropocene is and when it started, where to drive a “golden spike”. They do not necessarily take into account the possible political consequences of their findings. Meanwhile, their work on this concept has become very political, as is indicated by alternative propositions.

To put it simply, while geologists and like-minded researchers are interested in the geological side of the phenomenon, the “-cene”, here the question is the “anthropo-”—the social side—or literally the humanist, anthropological side. Especially since it seems that this is currently the most fertile and most important subfield. In the case of research on climate change, the natural and technical aspects are already quite well understood and researched. The result is scientific consensus, reports like that of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and pretty accurate models [2,5,9,10]. Meanwhile, the social and humanistic side is not so well developed. This is hardly surprising, considering that in the years 1990–2018 natural and technical sciences received 770% more funding for research on climate change than the social sciences. Only 0.12% of the funds were allocated to research on the social dimensions of coping with climate change [11]. In the present situation, the natural sciences can only tell us what is going on and why—with increasing detail—but only taking into account natural causes. Meanwhile, the main causes—as well as the solutions—belong to the social realm and, therefore, fall outside the scope of these disciplines.

As Kathryn Yusoff notes [12], Michel Serres already pointed out the global and “geological” impact of man on the Earth in 1990 [13]. This philosopher wrote about “dense tectonic plates of humanity” [13] (p. 16) affecting the world. In his book he pointed out that we need a new contract—analogous to the social one—but with nature, if only for nature to become a party, a (legal) subject, and for the harm that is being done to it to become somehow visible. As Serres puts it:

“… being-in-the-world transformed into a being as powerful as the world. […] This is the state, the balanced account, of our relations with the world, at the beginning of a time when the old social contract ought to be joined by a natural contract. In a situation of objective violence, there is no way out but to sign it.

At the very least, war [“better” because codified, covered by conventions, noticeable, sometimes also “lighter” violence—ed. F.Ch]; ideally, peace” [13] (p. 20).

The Anthropocene hypothesis and the discussions surrounding it seem to be an attempt and a possibility of such a new contract, at least for Bińczyk. As she points out, this concept, first of all, creates around itself an integrated, scientific systemic perspective on a planetary scale, without disciplinary divisions (Earth System Science—ESS). Secondly, it forces the recognition that humanity is in danger of losing the future and of triggering a cascade of disasters as a result of its activities. Thirdly, it introduces the idea of a planetary “we”, the foundation for political change.

However, for this new contract not to end in the same way as many climate agreements—as a dead declaration or an act favoring the strong under the guise of technocracy—it must take into account a number of details and a great deal of complexity. Not only those concerning one side, the climate, but also the other, the “defendant”, anthropos. That is because this “we” is strongly heterogeneous when it comes to distribution in space, vulnerability, degree of perpetration and many other features. Furthermore, this “we” that underlies constitutions and social systems usually turns out to be severely disabling for some (deliberately or not).

However, there is another aspect to this issue. In the same place, Serres draws attention to something that other authors did not take into account. As he writes:

“Visible at night from orbit as the biggest galaxy of light on the globe, more populous overall than the United States, the supergiant megalopolis Europe sets out from Milan, […]. It’s a social unit comparable to the Great Lakes or the Greenland icecap in size, in the homogeneity of its texture, and in its hold on the world. This plate of humanity has long disturbed the albedo, the circulation of water, the median temperature, and the formation of clouds or wind-in short, the elements—as well as the number and evolution of living species in, on, and under its territory” [13] (p. 16).

Hence the intuition that we should take closer look at the spatial perspective and, within this, especially at cities and urbanization. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz note that while cities, pastures and fields occupied about 5% of the terrestrial landmass in 1750, today it is almost 30%. Furthermore, 84% of the land not covered with ice is today under the direct influence of homo sapiens, while 90% of photosynthesis on Earth takes place in biomes under its control—taking into account biomes only partially influenced by humans [14] (loc 220). According to many estimates, over 50% of people already live in cities [15]. Eric Swyngedouw cites the following data: 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and most waste are generated by the current urban lifestyle [16] and other research corroborates such intuitions in certain aspects [17]. On the other hand—although also showing the considerable impact of cities—urban and industrial sulfur dioxide emissions have slightly limited the planet’s warming in recent years [14] (loc 475). Elsewhere we can find reports that cities use over 66% of global energy and are responsible for 70% of the emissions [18]. Marina Fischer-Kowalski, along with her co-authors, tried to adequately and quantitatively describe how and when humanity acquired this global agency, focusing not on emissions, but on energy demand. As they write:

“The functional inter-linkage with urban growth is apparent from the beginning: without a source providing heat for a rapidly increasing number of urban households and trades no proto-industrialization would have taken place. But even more so: on the global level, there is a near-perfect fit between urban population numbers and the amounts of fossil fuels used globally, across the next 500 years (see Figure 1)” [19] (p. 20).

Not all population, but urban population. In their conclusions they state that since 1500 there has been a very close relationship between cities and fossil fuels.

Let us take a deeper look. In the long-term perspective it is cities that will leave a lasting impression on the face of the Earth (and beneath it). They will be this new geological layer, future fossils, as indicated by the head of the AWG, Jan Zalasiewicz [20]. A layer extremely diverse in composition, containing and concentrating matter from other layers, times and places. Perhaps the rapid urbanization that the world is experiencing now is another “sudden mineralization” in the history of life, about which Manuel De Landa wrote [21] (pp. 26–27). In this case, cities are nothing less than a human (exo)skeleton, a life-support system, as Matthew Gandy puts it [22]. If this is the case, then, just like the dinosaurs, man will also leave behind his great skeleton as remnants. It is not surprising that—as Jeremy Davies claims [23] (p. 102)—the post-war exponential growth of megacities was considered to be the “golden spike” for the Anthropocene. Hence, maybe it should be the Urbanocene, rather than the Anthropocene?

1.2. What Age, Which Man? The State of the Discussion and Problems Associated with the Urban Age and the Anthropos

As was already pointed out, according to many estimates, over 50% of people already live in cities [15]. But what does this really mean—if anything? Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid call this statement and its conceptual basis the Urban Age Thesis [24] (UAT, or “thesis” hereinafter). As those authors indicate, it is a long-standing and still dominant view when it comes to urbanization, population distribution and coverage of the surface of planet Earth. They compare it to the concept of modernity or modernization in the 1960s and globalization in the 1980s, just as Jason W. Moore compares the status of the Anthropocene today to globalization in the 1990s [25] (p. 80).

As with the case of the Anthropocene-concept, sufficient attention has already been given to the “thesis” in its various forms. At the heart of it is quite a big and extensive issue of what to understand as urban/city and how it changed, especially as figured in Modernist and Postmodernist discourses. However, I would like to focus on analogies between the Anthropocene-concept and the “thesis”—especially those regarding their problems and the need for rethinking them. As Brenner and Schmid show, sources of “thesis” should be sought in the Cold War attempts to more accurately measure the world urban population. The authors argue that although today, researchers use current data, at the same time the conceptual orientation, geographical imagination and representational strategies (“graphonology”) have not changed a great deal since the 1950s.

Authors distinguish between statistical and theoretical problems with the “thesis”. As for the former, there is a problem with operationalization of this “urban”—with determining and counting what is and what is not a city (and, by analogy, a city resident). On the other hand, there are two main theoretical problems inherent in the “thesis”. The first is methodological territorialism—the perception of social processes as closed and limited, occurring in strictly defined, non-overlapping spheres. Secondly, urbanization is treated here simply as a concentration of population in a given territory. A city is a homogeneous, coherent, discreet, unchanging, timeless container, detached from global processes. Borders are assumed rather than obtained as a result of research. This has three effects: the fetishization of settlement types, pitting the countryside and city against each other, and a “fluid” model of change—changes in space occur through transfer of population from rural areas to urban ones. Meanwhile, the countryside under this approach remains a black box. Here the problem lies in excessive territorialization, whereas in the case of the Anthropocene-concept it is the lack of such—in the sense of paying attention to space. At the same time, urbanization understood in this way is ahistorical and apolitical.

The effects of such reifying and depoliticized thinking are solutions from which politics is cut out and replaced by technoscience. Just as Bonneuil and Fressoz mention sustainable development as an old and standard response to environmental crises, and today to the Anthropocene [14] (loc 422–443 and 3845–3940), so it has a spatial counterpart (with its own set of violence) described by Swynegouw [26]. This is the majority of cities that are sustainable, smart, green, eco, zero-carbon, intelligent or resilient (or are labeled as such). Usually those enterprises solve problems only locally and for few—and can increase them on the global scale. Behind every intelligent building there can be a bloody coltan from Congo [27], e-waste villages in Asia [28] or CO2 emissions associated with electronics and cement production (Congocene, Molysmocene, Anthrobscene…). What is more, these solutions are difficult to negotiate. One can either accept them and give most of the power to specialists and infrastructures or reject them. There is not much place here for the visions of a given community, its ideas, views and preferences, nor space for negotiations.

Similar veins of criticism apply to the Anthropocene-concept. This “we”, this anthropos in the Anthropocene proposal, is one of the main problems that Bonneuil and Fressoz bring to the fore in their book [14]. They thoroughly examine the Anthropocene-concept and also propose and describe a number of alternative conceptualizations. It is due to the latter that their work is being used here as a main source of criticism for the Anthropocene-concept, although there is a lot of critique developing (for example, [29]). Additionally, because it is an excellent example of a critical approach to contemporary knowledge structures [30], I would say that it is an exploration of this “we” with respect to the natural sciences, but from the perspective and initiative of social sciences and humanities.

I will refer here only to selected threads of the critique of the Anthropocene-concept made by Bonneuil and Fressoz. As the authors point out, similarly as with UAT, the basic problem is operationalization. Because who is this anthropos? And what does his global responsibility look like? The authors point out that the average American from the US uses 32 times more raw materials and energy than the average Kenyan. A child born in a rich family will have a carbon footprint 1000 times larger than a child born in a poor one [14] (loc 1182–1244). And, after Alf Hornborg and Andreas Malm, they repeat the joke that an explanation indicating generally homo sapiens may be sufficient only for orangutans or polar bears asking who violates their habitats [29] (p. 6). Even if the numbers cited above are not accurate (which is difficult to confirm, for many reasons), they adequately represent ratios and relations. These inequalities are well summarized in the Oxfam report [31] and there are abundant data that legitimize similar conclusions [32].

Similarly problematic in the Anthropocene proposal is the explanation of where this situation came from. The approach to history is geological here, as if events were evenly distributed over sufficiently long periods of time, like accumulating rock layers. Hence, “exaggerating a little, we could say that history for anthropocenologists comes down in the end to a set of exponential charts” [14] (loc 1235) starting in 1945. This leads to formulating the Anthropocene in a similar way as UAT: ahistorically and apolitically. Meanwhile, the Anthropocene is a diverse socio-political-historical problem, not a geological, quantitative and demographic monolith.

This averaging, reducing and monolithic approach is an extrapolation and reversal of the slogan “We only have one Earth”, which guided the UN ecological conference in Stockholm in 1972 [14] (loc 1062–1071). The effect of this reversal is a message that can be conveyed as follows: “there is only one cause and it is all of us”. Of course, there is no doubt about the anthropogenic source of the climate catastrophe and most of the changes occurring. The problem, however, lies in the details and meaning of the term “anthropogenic”.

This problematic symmetry between diagnosis and phenomenon goes deeper. The Anthropocene-concept seems to derive from the same source from which the Anthropocene-phenomenon came. This means the nature–culture divide, the “man vs. world” vision, and seeing nature as something separate and under man’s influence [14] (loc 486–574), [25] (p. 80). It is a similar construction to that of UAT: urban vs. rural. Moore notes that this concept cannot answer the question “how did it happen?”, because it is being hostage to the same cognitive structures that are responsible for today’s situation [25] (p. 84). This also affects the proposed solutions that are subject to the same symmetry.

Just as the AWG identifies the Great Acceleration as the beginning of the Anthropocene, so Bonneuil and Fressoz see the sources of the above dualistic approach in the Cold War “optics”. On the one hand, it is a vision and heritage of cybernetics and systems theory, quite universalizing, which also attempted to create a scientific perspective without disciplinary divisions. One can add the tools and effects of this optics: infrastructures that allow the diagnosis of the Anthropocene and climate change (radars, climatology and meteorology) can also be associated with this period and with the (cold) war context. The same applies to sources of the Anthropocene-phenomenon, as one can see in alternative propositions concerning the military and political sources of technology and energy infrastructures (e.g., Thermocene, Thanatocene, Necrocene, Technocene, etc.). On the other hand, it is the cultivation of a “glance from nowhere”, initiated by the famous “Earthrise” or “Blue Marble” photos—gazing from space onto the planet and seeing it as a fragile Spaceship Earth. A ship that apparently needs the strong hand of a geo-scientist-pilot, who will guide her through this crisis. In the meanwhile, in line with this and the common approach, this crisis is automatically recognized as an opportunity [14] (loc 9761021 and 1488).

This is how the defenders of everlasting growth and the proponents of a “good” Anthropocene [33] see it—as a transformation of the Earth and nature into a human garden, adapting those two to the economy, and not other way around. This is the way for William Nordhaus, the laureate of the so-called [34] Nobel Prize in economics. As he calculated in the 1990s, and still believes this is the case, economically-optimal global warming is 3.5 degrees Celcius [35]. The IPCC 2018 report sets the limit at 1.5 degrees, while 2 degrees is already a big ecological problem, to put it mildly [2]. However, according to Nordhaus, a bigger disaster (financial and detrimental to economic growth) would be to struggle to maintain the thresholds recommended by the IPCC. Nordhaus’s and other good anthropocenologists’ positions are a testimony to the cracks and crevices in the scientific community. As there is a consensus in disciplines dealing with the climate catastrophe on various scales (climatology and ecology), climate economists and geologists—especially those related to the oil industry—have doubts with which they “trade” [36]. These are the same geologists within whose discipline the Anthropocene-concept is being formulated and the Anthropocene-phenomenon is going to be named.

To describe this conceptualization and subsequent solutions, Bonneuil and Fressoz took inspiration from works of Michel Foucault. They propose the notion of geo-power and geo-knowledge (a succession to the bio- prefix), the subject of which is the whole Earth. In this framework, scientists are enlightened guides of the entirety of undifferentiated humanity and, similarly to the Cold War era, difficult to accept [37], potentially violent [38] climate engineering projects are proposed as solutions [14] (loc 1552).

Violence and coercion are indispensable elements of power, state and organization. However, their distribution remains a key issue. It is very likely that in order to save what we have understood as the Earth so far, we need some geo-power and geo-knowledge. Not only to make and sign a new contract with nature, but also to enforce it. The question is what values will stand behind this “legislation”. The Anthropocene turns out to be a construct torn apart by conflict of interests. As long as the discussion consists of different voices and its shape is not a foregone conclusion, indeed there are the potentials that Bińczyk wrote about. However, one must be careful about the moment of crystallization and reduction. For if we fail to take into account these critiques and this multiplicity, we will end up with a dysfunctional concept. A concept that will provoke pseudo-solutions, like the “green” discourse about saving the planet through consumer choices, not systemic changes. That is why it is so important to look closely into other propositions, alternative names based on alternative diagnoses, and to further develop those that are underdeveloped (such as the Urbanocene)—to be able to see the problem in its full complexity. Only then can we also have solutions multidimensional and complex enough to handle the situation.

2. Materials and Methods

As in philosophy and cultural studies, the materials that are on the table here are practices, ideas and their embodiments. I focus on propositions for an alternative name of the geological epoch (Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Urbanocene…—the “-cenes”) that were somehow justified by authors. They are proposed as a part of the constructive and creative critique of the Anthropocene-concept, but they share the recognition of the Anthropocene-phenomenon and try to name it (or some aspects of it). I am not interested in the dismantling critiques of the Anthropocene (concept or phenomenon)—in those names that mock the idea of proposing alternatives or in propositions without any idea or recognition behind them.

For a list of all the propositions found as a part of my query, with the sources, see Appendix A, Table A1. Such attempts have already been made, but seem unsatisfactory. Either they were made some time ago and are not exhaustive [8], or they were conducted in a spirit of trivia and not exhaustively enough [39], or only listed names without providing sources [40]. Mine probably also misses many propositions, but it is still twice as extensive as others and no effort of this kind can be complete or closed. Every “-cene” used in this text can be found in the table, with a proper reference. I will not be citing them here, in the standard, bracketed way, as that would only make the citation system obscure.

As for the general approach of working with those concepts, I adopt a transdisciplinary way of practicing cultural studies [41], additionally inspirited by Science, Technology and Society studies (STS). On the one hand, it is putting oneself in the position of a “trickster” [42] or “Hermes” mediating between various disciplines and meanings [43]. On the other hand, it is taking tricksters, parasites [44] or boundary objects [45] as the main objects of interest (and also as methods, like travelling concepts [41]). This requires mobilizing a specific ability to capture and view subjects and their relations—the ontological imagination, as Andrzej W. Nowak calls it [46,47]. He retrofits C. W. Mills’ famous concept and critically merges the STS approach with action-network theory.

This pluralism, metaphorics of exchange, wandering and circulation, as well as the subject of research, direct me towards a more specific perspective and justification for my research approach. One that is also a source for the aforementioned engaged pluralism [48]. To a large extent, what I do here can be considered a study of “trading zones” [49] and the co-production of such. This is a concept Peter Galison coined to explain how physics researchers were able to collaborate on specific projects and devices. These are spaces in which researchers locally coordinated and agreed upon their actions when, in a broader perspective, the meanings behind their actions or objects were conflicting or contradictory. The differences did not disappear in those zones; however, it can be said that a discrepancy report had been draw up and the attempt to put something together was continued. By exchanging theoretical, epistemological or technological objects, the sides agreed on the rules of exchange, although completely different meanings could been assigned by them to the objects exchanged. Those were not just simple exchanges—new procedures and qualities were being developed. I show how this applies to the “-cenes” in the Results.

There are two methods used here to recognize how the “-cenes” complement each other and to answer the question of whether there are any empty spaces. The first method was inspired by negative theology (discussed in philosophy by, e.g., Derrida [50] or Putnam [51]). The second inspiration was the post-secular current of contemporary humanities and also the literally “supernatural” status of the subject being studied, the Anthropocene-phenomenon. Bińczyk emphasizes the eschatological dimension of the Anthropocene debate [7]. Bonneuil and Fressoz draw attention to the similarity of the structure of the Anthropocene narrative to the history of redemption [14]. Clive Hamilton writes about theodicy—in the case of this eco-modern, “good” Anthropocene [52]. Mark Sagoff, in a journal that can be regarded as representing the “good” Anthropocene approach, writes about “the theology of eco-modernism” [53]. Donna Haraway formulates her Chthulucene by referring to chthonic deities, underworld and rebirth, the beliefs of indigenous peoples, and proliferating and intertwining tentacles [54]. Mark Lynas describes the scale of influence of a collectively treated man as “divine” [55], and after Tomasz Majewski one can look for a way out of the marasmus of the Anthropocene in “secular holiness” [56]. By following these clues, proliferating and intertwining alternative names for the Anthropocene-phenomenon can be interpreted in this spirit. Then Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Urbanocene etc., are different names denoting various aspects or avatars of a given supernatural driving force. In speaking of a supernatural driving force, I do not mean a thing out of some spiritual order, but from a social one—spiritual and ghostly only insofar as it is the subject of Geisteswissenschaften. In this context, listing further propositions of names for the Anthropocene-phenomenon here, and indicating that they do not fully capture it, can be compared to and named as a (secular) negative theology.

I will show it here by means of an example, as it is a less established and described method and approach than other ones I refer to here (trade zones, engaged pluralism, ontological imagination). The question is: what epoch are we living in? Let us focus on the subquestion about responsible subjects—who is responsible? Then, is it the Anthropocene, the age of anthropos? No, because it is difficult to recognize all Homo sapiens as equally responsible. Maybe just one half, so an Androcene? No, it needs to be historically and geographically more contingent. Is it the Eurocene, because it was European culture and policies that led to colonization, the industrial revolution and the current situation? It is hard to hold Central and Eastern Europe responsible for that. Maybe the Sinocene, as the Chinese civilization is one of the longest lasting civilizations on Earth? However, they did not start a global industrial revolution or emit so much greenhouse gas (although they are catching up, even if producing for the West). Is it the Occidentalocene or the Anglocene, because most of the emissions were produced by the UK and USA and the West (or for them)? No, because it is hard to blame the poor from those countries for this condition. So maybe the Oligarchocene or the Corporatocene? Not really, it started and was caused by changes in mostly democratic countries, and not only corporations, but states were also responsible—and there were many oligarchies in history that did not end up causing changes on a geological scale. Maybe then we should use single figures as symbols, like the Trumpocene (to denote disregard of science and denialism), the Jolyoncene (as a statement about political elites) or the Alanthropocene (to acknowledge the participation of all “middle-class northerners”)? Those are too specific. So maybe we should try to name it through a negation—is it the Polemocene, the epoch of the resistance against the environment degradation? But that only tells us about organized resistance in Europe or India, inside the centers, but what about the peripheries? Maybe then the Anthropo-not-seen, the epoch of forcibly adjusting and turning some cultures into the dominant ones (based on human–nonhuman division) and ignoring those other cultures, their possibilities and peoples? Etc. As one can see, this method does not allow us to name the epoch. However, it gives us some knowledge about it (of course when done more precisely than here, this is just an example).

The second method, the positive one, is “engaged pluralism”, created by the philosopher-pragmatist Richard Bernstein and adapted by the economic geographers Trevor J. Barnes and Eric Sheppard [48]. This pluralism enables not only a dialogue between some approaches but also some progress. It differs from other pluralisms in that it “above all means stubbornly pursuing potential common ground” [57] (p. 297). It is a “navigation between the Scylla of multiple solitudes and the Charybdis of monism” allowing for “practices of hope” [48] (p. 194). As a result, the meeting of conflicting approaches should not end as these often end: with the division of the parties and return to playing their “chmess” [58]. In response to criticism of his and Christian Schmid’s Planetary Urbanization proposition, Brenner tries to apply it himself and encourages this way of discussion [59]. He also notes that it is an apt method for application in urban studies, where—as other authors note—“the main challenge is to not become paralyzed by notions of theoretical or empirical ‘incommensurability’” [57] (p. 297).

3. Results
3.1. The Anthropo-Scene of the Neologismcene

The key feature of a trading zone is the development of a common contingent language. For Galison, referring to anthropology, those are kinds of pidgin languages (with proper conditions met—creole). “Anthropocene” and subsequent “-cenes” (“Capitalocene”, “Chthulucene”, “Urbanocene”…), “planetary boundaries”, etc. seem to be the notions and words of just such a scientific pidgin. One that is emerging at the junction of different disciplines dealing more or less with the Anthropocene.

When describing such a scientific pidgin, Galison firstly notes that it is a local language—specific to the applications it serves and the languages it combines. It only embraces what it needs and cuts off the wider context. Similarly, none of the participants in the Anthropocene debate knows all the knowledge necessary to fully understand this phenomenon. Its purpose is to name a new era, understand how we got here and counteract its dangers or, as Bińczyk calls it, the risk of losing the future. As dangers are multidimensional, so combating them must be interdisciplinary and coordinated.

Secondly, such a pidgin is time-dependent and embedded in a given moment. It is born from a need, develops and dies. For some time, research and debate about the Anthropcene-phenomenon has been growing, as well as discussion about the concept and alternatives.

Thirdly, it is a contextual language—one cannot try to understand it without taking into account the wider social and historical circumstances. In this case, Galison speaks of war (WWII, Korea, Vietnam), as it “throws people of different languages together” [49] (p. 50). The Anthropocene and the climate catastrophe are also being considered a war situation with a need for mobilization that reflects this—either by philosophical inquiry (as in the case of Serres) or due to the scale and seriousness of the phenomenon. At the same time, some alternative names for the Anthropocene-phenomenon (the Thanatocene, the Necrocene…) point to its wartime specificity and sources.

Galison states that war is not the only socio-historical factor that shapes language. The other factor is power relations, where the stronger one usually provides the vocabulary and the weaker one the syntax. Here one can see why the debate around the Anthropocene-concept between the natural sciences or ESS, on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities, on the other, is focused on one word, the name—and why debate within the natural sciences or ESS is not. To a large extent in the social sciences and humanities, working on the Anthropocene-concept involves either a different arranging of the “words”, or arguments, of the ESS and the natural sciences, or trying to get our “vocabulary” included: in order to name some meanings and aspects that were not included and are important—to make the phenomenon more comprehensible.

Let us then take a look at the vocabulary of the Anthropocene trading hub. The propositions listed in Appendix A, Table A1, can be divided into three groups:

  • The Meta-propositions are focused on the process of naming the new epoch and how this concept is being worked on and mobilized. Steve Mentz notes that although the name “Anthropocene” will stay with us, environmental humanists are doing everything in their power to make it plural. As he states, in the history of environmental humanities there may not have been a moment more abundant in the proliferation of neologisms—hence his (first) proposal, the Neologismcene. Jamie Lorimer also commends this multiplication by stating, “let a hundred -cenes bloom!”, and describes it as the Anthropo-scene. Swyngedouw and Ernstson note some problems with the Anthropocene and the Anthropo-scene (depoliticization among both the natural sciences and new ontologies in humanities and social sciences) and try to counteract them, also naming it the Anthropo-obScene. Kate Raworth draws attention to the question of who has the opportunity to name the epoch. To reflect the answer, she proposes two terms: Northropocene and Manthropocene, as the AWG consists mainly of men from the “global north” (Europe and the USA). Raj Patel, in turn, warns against the Misanthropocene. There are other propositions, but I will not focus on this category here.
  • The Postulative Propositions focus on the current moment as a beginning of a new era whose shape is not yet determined. Therefore, they suggest what this new era should be like. They do not diagnose how we got here nor what will happen based on current trajectories—but are rather concerned with what should happen and how to get there. There are two main types here. The first ones, mainly originating from the natural and technical sciences, sustain or even further anthropocentrism. They advocate an escape forward and a leap into the future through technology and further change of the environment, etc. (e.g., Sustainocene, Good Anthropocene). The second ones, mainly originating from the social sciences, humanities and the art world, call for reorientation and rethinking of place and role of the anthropos in the world, the creation of new relations on a new basis, etc. (e.g., Chthulucene, Cosmopolocene, Symbiocene). I will not focus on this category here.
  • The Diagnostic Propositions category is most numerous one. Here are all the propositions that name and describe the current situation, how it came to be and what lies ahead according to prospects and trajectories. There are many ways one can order this set. For clarity, I categorize them using the five W’s and How heuristic—simple and basic, but a useful method in the field of collecting and organizing information. Those five W’s are the following questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Of course propositions do not distribute evenly. There are not many that answer the “when” question (Paleoanthropocene, Early Anthropocene)—or, more accurately, they all answer this question but focus on aspects other than time. As an example I listed most of those answering the “who” question in the Materials and Methodssection.

Most diagnostic propositions answer the questions “what” and “how”, simultaneously. Thematically, they can be divided into three additional categories (at least two of which have already been discussed in one way or another in the context of the Anthropocene (e.g., [14])):

  • The first ones are concentrated on the hyperagency of the anthropos and his dealings with anything deemed external (to society, to order, etc.). One can distinguish here a group of propositions focused on the loss of biodiversity and war on nature—let me use it as an example. Here is the Homogenocene (referring to the effects of Columbian Exchange), the Thatanocene (the story of achieving mastery in killing and later applying it towards the environment), the Pyrocene (concentrating on the importance and shaping role of fire control in the development of humanity) and the effect—the Eremocene (becoming a lone species on a once lush planet) and the Necrocene (linking death, war and killing with the Capitalocene).
  • The second ones focus on the interior management, helplessness, futility, lack of power and agency and their production. Those propositions are about policing the order inside the local or global anthropos communities. Here the Econocene can be found (pointing out how the economy became the main episteme of the postwar period as well as the most important thing) and the Growthocene (focusing on growth as becoming the only possibility, compulsion even), the Phagocene (where consumerism serves as a means of pacification, but also as a motivator increasing the agency), the Agnotocene (concentrating on the deliberate production of the ignorance), the Trumpocene (pointing out the newest developments and figures of the Agnotocene) and the already-mentioned Anthropo-not-seen. In all of the phenomena described by such propositions, any “outside” (to society, to the accepted order of things, etc.) is being forgotten, hidden, covered or overlooked—as long as it serves and fulfills its role.
  • The third ones are about the infrastructures of hyperagency and helplessness—for movement, transportation and translation between scales. Here the Anthrobscene is found, which tells us about the functioning of the media and reminds us about their materiality and weight: how “clouds” need space and energy; how smartphones need coltan, are made by slave labor and end as e-waste. Those media also need a precise and secure environment to function [60] and are tools of the Agnotocene, as they allow filter bubbles [61], and as they are weapons of “math” destruction [62]. Those were more infrastructures of helplessness, but what about the ones for hyperagency? Those are being described under, e.g., the Thermocene proposition. This shows how the energy technologies progressed—not necessarily being better, but being more culturally and socially appropriate and better fitting into existing power relations. Adreas Malm points to something similar when subscribing to the Capitalocene proposition [63]. There are also propositions regarding the cognitive apparatus and way of seeing the world needed for creation, maintenance and governance. The Anthroposeen refers to a linear perspective, the Euclideocene to geometry, and the Simulocene to simulations and modeling in real time with causative feedback loops. Finally, there is the Technocene, where technology is characterized as magic (in an anthropological sense). It is a kind of social persuasion, mediated by human perception, but represented as independent from it. It results in an ability to move the work and liabilities onto someone and somewhere else in time and space. It also leans toward the Capitalocene.

Many propositions invoke the Capitalocene as an overarching proposition, so is seems to be the one answering the “why” question. This is not the time or the place to show why the Capitalocene proposition, although important and overarching, is still not sufficient on its own. The same applies to relating the Urbanocene to the Capitalocene. Urbanization appears in Moore’s texts and books, but not as a significant actor. For example, as a synonym for proletarianization [64] (p. 250) or as an “earth-moving: urbanization, agricultural expansion, mining, and so forth” [64] (p. 87) process in opposition to the more important and underlying environment-making forces of capitalism. Moore points out that the industrial revolution took place in the countryside, not in the cities [64] (p. 150). Generally, in his argument he puts more emphasis on production spaces. Meanwhile, they do not exist without spaces of circulation, exchange and consumption—cities, in other words. Only in his later texts, inter alia after the works of Brenner and Schmid, does Moore recognize the role of the city as, e.g., a new frontier [65] (p. 22, footnote 12). It suffices to say that capitalism as we know it would not have developed without cites, as e.g., Fernand Braudel shows [66–68].

One should agree with Mentz and Bińczyk that “Anthropocene” is rather the only realistic candidate for the name—no other proposal has received such attention. As Bińczyk notes, one should appreciate the rhetorical power of this etiquette, uniting geologists, climatologists and others, and catalyzing the discussion around the topic. However, the reservations made in the second part of the Introduction—as to the actual state of this unity and as to the content of this label—remain valid. Bińczyk is aware of them, but due to her goals—focusing on the future—she believes that these problems would be difficult to eliminate [69] (p. 115).

Indeed, if we are to have a future, this cannot be the Capitalocene and all the subsidiary -cenes that got us here. It is already running out of margin and it must end. In turn, other proposals fail not in naming and defining the future, but the past—the Chthulucene is still only postulative. Here I see the possibility and need for the Urbanocene proposal. Constituting the city and urbanization as the major vehicles and sources of anthropos (hyper)agency, its restraints, and also the hubs of infrastructures managing is not only justified, but it may also have other benefits. It may allow not only to diagnose where the current climate crisis came from (concrete, localized practices and structures) and why it is so difficult to fight it, but also how to deal with it—on a proper scale: not individual, not global or state, but between and linking them, as cities do. However, before one can start to formulate such a theory, one must recognize the already existing accounts.

3.2. The Space “-cenes” and towards the Urban Frontier—The Astycene

Let us take a closer look at the propositions that consider space. The spatial dimension is not particularly intensively explored within the discussed Anthropo-scene. The first two spatial proposals, the Plantationocene and the Euclideocene, were formulated as a part of the “Anthropologists talk” event with Donny Haraway, Anna Tsing and others [70]. They focus directly on the issue of space and spatial categories, but not satisfactorily enough. They show how space in the Anthropocene and the way it is perceived have been changing, and how these aspects are interrelated. However, they do not place the main causative factors in the dimension of space or the way it is organized.

The Plantationocene proposition refers to agriculture-slavery: of people, but also of animals, plants and microbes. The key issue here is the displacement of genomes, abstracting organisms or entire environments, the productive forces from their environments, and their implementation elsewhere—relocation for extraction. In that, it is similar to the Homogenocene, but when it comes to the broader framework, the authors refer to the Capitalocene. The other one, the Euclidocene, discusses the necessary conditions for the Plantationocene or the Capitalocene. To create ownership it is necessary to impose a grid on the world, to enclose space in frames and categories. The ability to separate and abstract from the world and its networks of relationships is also important. However, both of these propositions are rudimentary. The first one gained some attention lately (e.g., [71,72]). The second one was slightly developed, focusing on the linear perspective, but independently from the original, by someone else and under a different name—the Anthroposeen [73].

Other space-propositions are about the seas and oceans. The first is the Thalassocene, coined by Mentz in his book [74]. It is an attempt to write “the human history through and on the World Ocean, whose currents and storms shape exchanges of cultures, products, creatures and stories” [39]. The second is the AnthropOcean [75], focusing on venturing into the largest habitat on Earth and the issues concerning it. However, again: in both cases it is more a space where something happens or a space that is an environment of some processes, facilitating them or hindering, merely reactive, rather than a space that works, acts and even changes on its own, and has some agency.

Finally, we can focus on the propositions that indicate the way of spatial organization as an essential factor enabling human hyperagency on a geological scale and, as a consequence, the coming and naming of a new epoch. What is more, all such propositions diagnose cities and urbanization processes as key factors.

The Astycenewas proposed in 2010 by Karen C. Seto, Roberto Sanchez-Rodriguez and Michail Fragkias [76]. The authors focus on the scale, pace, geographical coverage, form and function of modern urbanization and changes in land use. They note that although urbanization is a diverse process, the one that nowadays dominates and spreads is the sprawling, “American” model. It is also in urbanization, but in a different style, that they see the best answer to the challenges of global warming. This proposition links together a lot of research and knowledge about urbanization in the context of climate change and the Anthropocene, and through that it provides a whole battery of empirical and statistical arguments in favor of the reorientation from anthropos to a “townsman” as a main cause of the Anthropocene-phenomenon. However, it is just one article and does not offer an explanation or a mechanism of why cities and urban folk are the source of all of that agency. In fact, at a key moment the authors turn to “(a) increasing returns from innovation and productivity; and (b) economies of scale in energy use, carbon emissions, and infrastructure provision” [76] (p. 187), which are being tackled in detail by Santa Fe Institute researchers (here in 3.4.). However, the authors also note the need to take into account other factors (such as institutions, management and planning methods), not only spatial distribution and population growth physics.

3.3. The Metropocene—The Relations between Cities and Their Environments

The Metropocenewas proposed by Mark Whitehead in 2014, in his book about the “where” of the Anthropocene-phenomenon [77]. This proposition is very close to what the theory of the Urbanocene should look like. The author’s goal is to show the need to not only look into the depths and to include not only the geological dimension, “the future past”, as an extrapolation of what is. He would like the present and the “width” to be taken into account—geography, environments, peoples, their psychology and cultures, and also possible changes and futures.

In the chapter dedicated to urban issues, Whitehead speculates that it may be helpful to consider our current geological period as the Metropocene—a period defined by the dynamics and needs of urbanization. He supports this with some statistics and by reaching back to the history of urbanization, to the conclusions of Lewis Mumford from “The City in History” [78]. Firstly, it is the special role of the city and the surplus of food that enable specialization, which in turn leads to the development of technology, which in general enables the emergence of the Anthropocene-phenomenon. Secondly, it is the creation of a new, “artificial” environment by the city that allows a distancing from the “natural” environment and managing it from a distance while using the obtained technological tools.

This is a good starting point, especially when Mumford’s works about the connection between culture and cities are added to this [79]. However, Mumford’s works on technology, from the early ones [80] to the late ones, synthesizing his approach [81,82], are getting broader and broader in scope, reaching a general frame, that amounts to his own philosophy of technology, based on the myth of the machine and the megamachine. Although it is useful as a frame, I am not so sure that it can be useful for the theory of the Urbanocene, because here one should trace how situated technologies work on a smaller scale—or rather, between different scales, traversing them. This is a question about the mundane components, crews and screws of Mumford’s omnipotent and all-encompassing megamachines. On the other hand, what is missing in Mumford’s frame is a certain psychological dimension or a nuanced representation of human entanglement in technology and space.

Like the previous authors, but after Mumford, Whitehead points out that there are many types of urbanization. Among them, he indicates the American type of spreading (sub)urbanization as fundamental for the Anthropocene-phenomenon. This diversity of urbanization also serves as his justification for why, when going on to theorize the city, he does not use the Chicago school, which focused on urbanization as a consequence of the internal properties of a closed urban system. He goes straight to David Harvey and to the processual approach to the city—a bundle of political, social, economic and relationship interests with capitalism. This dualism in approach and offered explanations—either internal factors, the (existing) city in itself and some of its properties, are the cause, or external ones are: urbanization determined and created by its contexts (usually capitalism)—is a recurrent theme among the attempts to link the planetary changes (the Anthropocene-phenomenon) with urbanization.

Finally, moving on to the relationship of urbanization with the environment, Whitehead proposes a possible model for these relations: the ecological Kuznet’s curve. This is a bell-like or inverted U-curve. In this case, it represents the relationship between environmental degradation (vertical y axis) and the economic growth of the city (horizontal x axis). When a city grows (especially in the industrial age), it pollutes its surroundings—until it reaches a point where this trend reverts and the city begins to take care of its environment, and pollution decreases (especially in the post-industrial era). This change may be related to the strengthening of local governments and regulations, to the enrichment of residents and their disagreement with living conditions, or to the technological progress. In this version, the curve is practically no different from the classic Kuznet’s curve. Both the original and the ecological ones were thoroughly discussed and assessed quite negatively, especially in the ecological context, as the Astycene proponents note [76] (p. 169).

However, here this curve is signed as “local/metropolitan scale”. There is another curve in which there is no turning point. Even more: after crossing the tipping point of the former, the latter grows more. It is a pollution curve on a global, “external” scale. And here comes another, possible explanation of the shape of the first curve. At some point, it becomes more profitable to export pollution sources (heavy industry, etc.) outside to other, often cheaper locations, and to invest in and free space and workforce for office and management work. At that time, the city is still responsible for these emissions, because it is for its needs that they are emitted. Only they are emitted somewhere else.

Treating those two curves as a starting point, Whitehead also recognizes two possible directions for the urban in the Anthropocene. The optimistic one, which sees cities as a solution (Peter Hall, smart and new urbanism) and a pessimistic one, especially in the context of the global domination of capitalism. In addition, after Hodson and Marvin [83], he notes that there is one more answer to the challenges of climate change, and it is the possibility of reinforcing and securing the cities. In the context of this and the climate disaster, it is worth recalling the question that Mike Davies asks in his classic text: “who will build the ark?” [84]. However, I am more interested in two other questions here, concentrated around those curves. The first one is: what if (or more like when) the “exterior” ends—either as a result of exhausting its limits, crossing Planetary Boundaries, saturating the environment, or as a result of planetary urbanization, or the internalization of the whole world? Secondly, what constitutes and sustains these curves—or the processes behind them? Those are the key questions of the Urbanocene, but one cannot find answers to them in the Metropocene proposition.

3.4. The (Santa Fe Institute’s) Urbanocene—The Urban Event Horizon

Urbanoceneis a name proposition mentioned by Geoffrey West in his 2017 book on scales [85]. Again, the proposition is not really fleshed out. That is why I will use other works by West and his colleagues—mostly Luis M. A. Bettencourt’s [86,87]—to reconstruct what I call Santa Fe Institute’s Urbanocene and present it here. Brenner and Schmid include this approach as a subtype of the UAT, technoscientific urbanism [88]. However, it partly exceeds the traps of the “thesis”. Still, this is an approach with a very wide reach and considerable ambition. These researchers draw their conclusions on the basis of data obtained from many metropolitan centers of China, Japan, Europe and the USA. Bettencourt declares: “I show how all cities may evolve according to a small set of basic principles that operate locally” [87] (p. 1438). In other studies, they diagnose similar properties for pre-modern cities based on archaeological records [89]. Although this may be too big a generalization, on the other hand the modern urban network is quite strongly connected, internally, and its main nodes are similar. In addition, it can be simply treated as a different level of idealization than the one usually found in the social sciences (and what else to expect from physicists than grandiose generalization). That is why it does not include important internal differences within the city (class, race, gender…). Bettencourt seems to be aware of the latter issue, as he points out: “It should be emphasized that the theory does not predict […] socioeconomic differences inside the city, but the scaling for the properties of the city as a whole” [87] (p. 1441). However, it is possible to supplement and correct this approach, and its problems resulting from excessive simplification, with sociological and anthropological approaches; ones with higher resolution.

The city in this proposal is a container in which scaling effects occur and which provides a favorable environment for frequent and various social interactions to occur in it. There are two components to this effect: economies of scale and increasing returns for scale (referred to by the authors of the Astycene). These scaling effects mean that the values of many different measurable properties of the city (the production of patents, income per person or the total length of electric cables) are subject to a power law function. This function consists of the size of the population with scaling exponents, marked as β. These can be classified into certain classes, e.g., more or less than one.

The modeling done by those authors shows that for quantities reflecting the production of goods and services (GDP, salaries, crime rates, the spread of infectious diseases or even the speed of pedestrians’ walking), i.e., the effects of social activity, this parameter β assumes values that are approximately 1.2 (more than 1, which means increasing the rate of return). For quantities related to material infrastructure, raw materials, etc., this parameter β takes values that are approximately 0.8 (less than 1, which means economies of scale). Simply put, when doubling the population, there is a slight increase in the social effects than would result from a simple doubling, and the consumption of raw materials and infrastructure increases a little less than it should. This translates to the dynamics of growth that somewhat accelerate with size instead of slowing down.

It is particularly interesting that one of the highest values—from 1.15 to 1.34—is reached by β for categories such as employment in Research and Development (R&D), the number of new patents, inventors, employment in the “super-creative” sector, and the number of R&D institutions. The special relationship between the city and technology (if to treat those as its proxies) shows up here again.

Bettencourt concludes his article by stating that cities can resemble various other objects with properties derived from the article:

“The most familiar are stars [..]. Thus, although the form of cities may resemble the vasculature of river networks or biological organisms, their primary function is as open-ended social reactors. This view of cities as multiple interconnected networks that become denser with increasing scale” [87] (p. 1441).

However, this approach has two disadvantages. Cities are considered here in a vacuum, without relations with other cities and with their environment. At the same time, they are “flat” and black boxed. First, this happens on the ontological level, due to the assumptions and perceiving the city as homogenous. Cities are really like stars here, consisting of just a few layers and mainly being aggregates of hydrogen and helium. Of course, it should not be surprising that physicists dealing with social issues come up with such a star-model of the city. Secondly, it happens on the methodological level, by being interested only in the data on the entry and on the exit of the studied entity. This perspective focuses on and describes the interior, but treated as a whole and in a zone of contact with the outside—not deviating even a millimeter in or out. It is as if a black hole was being described, behind the event horizon of which nothing can be seen—or a black hole being treated as a two-dimensional being, and therefore its surface is examined and it testifies to what is happening inside.

Santa Fe Institute’s Urbanocene shows that cities create pressure and where the specificity of cities lies. However, it does not show what the relations with the immediate and wider surroundings are, nor what is happening inside—or how the transition between different scales occurs and how the strengthening or weakening of the processes being relayed happens. Using the author’s metaphors, but slightly changing the course, what is really interesting is to look at the city as a reactor. This one definitely has no homogeneous structure, but is a complex techno-scientific entity with many different subsystems, mental and material, human and non-human. From this perspective, the Santa Fe Institute researchers’ approach focuses on the physics of the fusion itself and symbols on the blackboard. What should be taken into account is the casing of such a reactor, its closer and further socio-technical environment, crews, rods and fuel sources, its political frame, complicated pipe systems connecting different layers and the folds of insulation separating subsequent levels.

3.5. The Urbicene and Why not the Planetary Urbanization?

The Urbicene is a proposition put forward by Swyngedouw in one of his brief essays [90]. It is the second closest one to the themes and approach of the needed Urbanocene proposition—one that is being hinted at throughout this text and especially in the Discussion. However, the Urbicene is not really a name for why and how the Anthropocene-phenomenon occurred through cities and urbanization (the diagnostic category), and so it does not serve the purpose I am committed to here.

It is more a reflection on the Anthropocene-concept (the meta category): how much of the “scene” depoliticizes the issue and allows the status quoto be sustained and furthered. The author points out that even those critical new ontologies serve as a fuel for the accelerationist manifestos of hyper-modernization. The Urbicene is also a consideration upon the desirable and undesirable futures and ways of portraying them (the postulative category). The undesirable ones being the immunization frame, “smart”, “sustainable” and “resilient” cities under techno-managerialism, with a focus on geo-social interventions as a means of continuing “business as usual”. It is worth noting here that to fight for our planet we might need geo-social interventions; hyper-modernity with positive biopolitics [91]—maybe just driven by different axionormativity and under societal, political and democratic supervision, rather than market supervision.

Swyngedouw’s analysis employs the apparatus of psychoanalysis and metaphors of immunology. Although such tools serve well at the meta level, it seems that they would not be so useful on the diagnostic level. I do not see the need to, or benefit from, bringing yet another epistemic universe, one of biology and psychoanalysis, into this issue. Similarly to those new ontologies, these ones can also be easily twisted on the diagnostic level. Finally, urbanization in the Urbicene is capitalist, and it seems that all of its problems stem out from this fact. However, it is important to also look into urbanization itself, as cities preceded capitalism. They also allowed urbanization to flourish and had a great environmental impact before capitalism.

As for the proposition itself, Swyngedouw states:

“Planetary urbanization is of course the geographical expression of this anthropocenic process. Therefore, Urbicene might be a more appropriate term to capture the sociomaterial form that the Anthropocene takes” [90] (p. 19).

Planetary Urbanization could be a good basis for this. However, from the perspective sketched in this paper, it is still somewhat lacking. Brenner formulates nine theses [92], which he later reformulates with Schmid to seven [88] and then explains in response to criticism [59]. For these authors, the key today is not the city, but the urbanization process—and therefore not the container, but what it is created by: relations and their dense networks. They repeat urbanism as a way of life, but now it is on a global scale. Urbanization is an uneven, dynamic, changeable, diverse and differentiating process. It was usually seen through the prism of agglomeration—the concentration of people, infrastructure and investment in some place against the background of a larger space. Now the emphasis is placed on different scales and distant areas, hinterlands and relations that put them into such “rural”, “urban” and “dependent” categories.

According to Brenner, first of all, the urban is a theoretical construct, arising through theoretical abstraction. It is not an empirical, pre-existing object, place or space. I agree with the advised methodological caution resulting from this. Brenner emphasizes the importance of being aware of the theoretical background and its impact on the operationalization and research results. However, this declared nominalist approach and the resulting radical cut-off from reality is problematic. Other authors raised similar reservations [93], indicating that this concentration or even limitation to epistemology is not enough. Planetary Urbanization approach does not see the “ontological struggle”—that is, struggles with everyday life and around it, the production of knowledge at this basic level. Those are factors capable of emerging on the surface of events and initiating global changes. This ontological aspect is crucial. However, it is not easily discernible—it requires special imagination, as I already mentioned [46,47].

Too often, according to Brenner, the concepts related to or derived from everyday practices are turned into analytical categories without enough reflection. However, Brenner’s postulate for separating “categories of practice” and “categories of analysis” does not seem feasible and desired. As one can see in the case of the Anthropocene, scientific concepts can and often are ideological, and end up becoming everyday notions. A large part of the struggle in trade zones and responsibility of science and scientists concerns the construction, saturation and introduction of those terms in such a way that they land in society in the most responsible manner. Such a struggle for discourse in science and beyond it is particularly important when—secondly, according to Brenner—the place and subject of science, here urban studies, are constantly being questioned, and when—thirdly—the main currents of science, here urban studies, fail to cope with the demarcation of their places and subjects and with the formulation of terminology and assumptions that would be sufficiently aware. No wonder then that they are strongly, though not necessarily intentionally, intertwined with other terminological circuits. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it can even be useful. Again, as in the case of the Anthropocene and the attempt and need to generate a collective political and operational entity, that “we”—words and the circulation of meaning is a part of that.

In the fifth thesis [92], Brenner advocates giving up focusing on the typology of settlements and looking for what distinguishes the city from the rest (“nominal essences”). He proposes paying attention to the socio-spatial processes (“constitutive essences”), which are producing the various urban and other landscapes of modern capitalism. The sixth point is that, however, it requires a new lexicon, because today it is no longer possible to talk about the urban–rural divide. As a consequence, and this is the seventh thesis, nowadays urban effects appear and continue in very diverse socio-spatial landscapes, not just urban ones.

At this point, Brenner also touches the topics of mentality and culture. The typologization he is so opposed to requires the mental actions of separation and sustaining divisions. Thanks to them, the uniqueness and essence of the given spatial and social form is being constructed, demonstrated and sustained. However, this is not just a scientific process; it is also a socio-cultural one. Not only because science is part of culture, but also because (more or less) the concepts and ideas from science pervade society and culture and go into wider circulation (and back). That is why Brenner also urges us to analyze the widespread urban ideologies through which we perceive something like the city and as a city—a separate and limited urban unit, the fruit and engine of progress—in opposition to the countryside or nature recognized as a self-regulating, closed, virgin and cyclical system.

However, recognizing a thing as such reproduces and creates it, making these divisions and objects as real as possible. Here I see another convergence with the Anthropocene and its alternatives. The processes described here by the Anthroobscence—the Agnotocene on the one hand, and the Euclidoecene and the Anthroposeen propositions on the other—are necessary for the Capitalocene- and the Anthropocene-phenomenon. The same applies to the Planetary Urbanization—it is also accompanied by a cover-up of its realities and basic conditions, on the one hand, and special ways of seeing the world on the other. Those are the roles of urban ideologies. They are not only symbolic, ephemeral, non-material. Brenner does not seem to fully take into account those performative, causative and creative powers. They are real, solid, material and causative, and they created cities as we know them. Again, one needs the ontological imagination here [46,47]. Were it not for the cultural sphere and objects present in it—this image of the city and its opposition to the world—the relations and flows described here in this form would be unsustainable. Similarly, maintaining these ideas and ideologies would not have been possible without the effort and appropriate scene: the props, the entire materializations of the urban iconography—walls, gardens, fountains, panoramas, and, e.g., collective portraits of the militia company from the 17th century Amsterdam.

Critics claim that Planetary Urbanization could very well be called “planetary capitalism” or the “global space-economy” [94]. The same could be said about the Anthropocene-concept, the Urbanocene or other propositions in the context of the Capitalocene. Yes, but only on condition that the urban aspect is not perceived as important and separate from capitalism—and therefore contrary to the authors. For they write:

“We would insist, however, on distinguishing urbanization from the more general processes of capitalist industrialization […]. As understood here, urbanization is indeed linked to these processes, but its specificity lies precisely in materializing the latter within places, territories and landscapes […]. Capitalist industrial development does not engender urban growth and restructuring on an untouched terrestrial surface; rather, it constantly collides with, and reorganizes, inherited sociospatial configurations […]. Urbanization is precisely the medium and expression of this collision/transformation, and every configuration of urban life is powerfully shaped by the diverse social, political and institutional forces that mediate it” [88] (p. 172).

The problem I see here is the way of looking at the medium. Especially in connection with this “expression”, it seems to be perceived here as pure and transparent, merely a carrier. I fully agree with such an approach to urbanization, but more in line with Friedrich Kittler’s “city as a medium” [95]. In this case, after his successor, Marshall McLuhan, it is worth noting that “the medium is the message” [96]. The city is not only an expression, because it is not blank—not just capitalist even when it is capitalist. Being a medium, it can be an amplifier, but also a resistor, dimmer or some other component. It has its own properties and agendas that it weaves into.

This medium problem connects with another issue. Brenner and Schmid are accused of completely giving up on the city—as a category and as an object. This is a partly understandable and substantiated charge, although excessive (the city exists here in the form of the effects of “concentrating urbanization”). It seems that they simply wanted to pay more attention to urbanization outside the traditional limits of the city. However, one can get such an impression when one reads that: “Apparently stabilized urban sites are in fact merely temporary materializations of ongoing sociospatial transformations” [88] (p. 165). The question that arises here is about the time scales of this appearance and temporality. Even at a non-geological scale, such an approach seems to be inadequate. Cities are not only seemingly stabilized and this temporariness, like a stopgap, can also be extremely persistent. The question is what does change. Even with high variability, after all, the structure, as in Theseus’s ship, may remain.

This stability, a city as a secured stabilization environment, is strongly neglected in this approach. Again, using the electronics example—what matters is not just the speeds of radio waves and optical fibers, or the ephemerality of the “cloud”. One should also remember about the cables on the ocean floors and physical locations of servers—e.g., in former silos for ballistic intercontinental missiles [60]. Those technologies need a stable microenvironment and security. A similar need is demonstrated by complex material–symbolic, human–inhuman, mental-bodily–out-of-body cultural infrastructures. I would not give up so easily on the “container” or “casing” perspective.

4. Discussion

So what could the Urbanocene proposition look like? A (very) simple, idealized model with an example can be constructed using and combining the research by Matthew Gandy and Lewis Mumford (about which, and the Urbanocene, I partially and briefly already wrote [97,98]). This is mainly a historical case, focusing on providing well-documented instances for the sketch of a critical model. Its main purpose is to show that the urban environment was already a key driver of past geophysical and ecological transformations and can still be today. But to show how exactly these observations translate into the modern, globalized urban environment (with its accompanying political-economic rhetorics and imperatives) as a key driver of present transformations would require a more detailed example and refined model, which are yet to come.

I will start with Mumford and his work on the history of natural urbanization [99]. The author tries to conceptualize urbanization, the city’s relationship with the environment and its changes. Mumford distinguishes two perspectives (internal and external) and points out that the village and the city—usually pitted one against other—are actually the same. The former only lacks the size and complexity of the latter. What changes as one grows and what ultimately distinguishes the two entities—in the external perspective—are the relations of the settlement with the environment. In turn, the internal perspective focuses on the presence of an organized social core, the creation of a new environment (and subsequent ones), the relocation of the dwellers into it, and a loosening of the bonds connecting them with the previous environment. Now groups and individuals are being shaped according to the new environment and adapt to it.

In Mumford’s view, as the city changes and grows, it becomes more and more independent from its surroundings and detaches from it. Put another way, it expands its surroundings to the point where the closest one is no longer so important and necessary. Until the local growth limits (obviously co-determined by the logic of growth) are exceeded, cities develop mainly through extensification, enlarging the surroundings. After exceeding these limits, development takes place, on the one hand through intensification, while on the other through penetrating into the extra-local space or into other cities, e.g., by subordinating them. Mumford illustrates this with an example of ancient deforestation around Rome or the impoverishment of the lands surrounding it because of connecting toilets through the sewers to the Tiber, which began a cycle of increasing imbalance. Important in this transition is the growing network of influence and its coverage—thanks to, e.g., roads and channel networks. The city, from the container for the area (granary and wall), becomes a sluice controlling streams flowing from near and far and directing them towards itself, forming a catchment. Finally, it turns into a dam, concentrating and capturing flows, and the surroundings turn into a bayou.

Mumford mainly uses the example of the city’s relationship with arable land. He shows how for a long time it is land around cities that is cultivated, the city consumes its fruits and fertilizes the land with the effects of the metabolism taking place in the city. Hence the best areas for intense cultivation were, e.g., in China, just under the walls, near the city—up until recently. Braudel also writes about this [66]. Gandy, in turn, describes the entire institution of the so-called “night soil collectors”—people who had the dangerous task of emptying latrines and cesspits (usually at night) and taking waste products to the surrounding fields.

For a long time, the fertility of the land was a condition of urban development and urbanization. Braudel cites calculations according to which since the eleventh century the urban center with 3000 inhabitants had to have around a dozen villages, i.e., an area of about 85 km2 under its control [66]. However, meeting this condition and settling in fertile places led to a paradox. As the city grew, it covered that fertile land and its food needs increased. According to Mumford, in the United Kingdom in the 1950s cities occupied only 2.2% of the area, but this was more than half of the “first-class” agricultural land and one-tenth of the “good” land. In this situation, if the cities were to be only dependent on their surroundings, they would have had to stop growing or experience overgrowth, and fall.

However, hardy and durable cereal grains, pottery, and other tools, technologies and infrastructures enabled the city to draw food from afar. Fischer-Kowalski and co-authors model the dependence of the urban development of this period on means of transport and food availability [100]. These measures allowed cities to grow further and occupy arable land all around, and gave them excess time and energy to manage. When combined with other factors this resulted in the possibility of the emancipation of the city from its immediate surroundings.

The ultimate effect is the “ghost acres” that Bonneuil and Fressoz write about when discussing the Capitalocene [14] (loc 4206, 4256, 4505). These are areas that were directly or indirectly occupied—which was necessary for the European powers after exhausting their own territory (or its efficiency). Thanks to them, those powers can sustain themselves. What is more, not only the fruits of these acres are being imported, but also the fuel for the native acres. Bonneuil and Fressoz describe the dependence on guano mines in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and phosphorites in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria [14] (loc 4250), and Brett Clark and J. B. Foster present a similar analysis [101]. However, as can be seen above, this mechanism of dependence can be reconstructed at the urban level—lower than the state level, although still with global reach. It is also worth remembering the key role that cities played in the foundation of states and empires [66].

In turn, these surpluses and released resources were crucial for the development of technology, for which cities play a central role. This is indicated by Mumfrod or by the discussed Santa Fe Institute studies. At the same time, the fruits of this development further enabled the obtainment of these surpluses, releasements and changes. They allowed, for example, intensification, instead of complementing the extensification. In agriculture this is the case of “natural” and “artificial” fertilizers.

There is a contemporary version of this expansion, invasion of the non-local space, extensification or obtainment of the “ghost acres”. One can consider as such the global land grab progressing after 2007, following the financial, fuel and food crises. These are mass expropriations and buyouts of land on a global scale for the cultivation of food, biofuels, fiber crops etc. (palm oil, soybean, wheat, rice etc.) [102]. The main buyers are China, one of the most urbanizing nations, and highly urbanized countries (Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Korea), all trying to secure their position. The purpose of these purchases is to control resources (land, water) and the benefits stemming from them—to subordinate and draw them into the orbit of global, large-scale circulation. This is to “link extractive frontiers to metropolitan areas” [103] (p. 4).

On the other hand, there is intensification. As discussion revolves around the topic of land, soil, agriculture and water, in this case it will be only natural to talk about natural and artificial fertilizers. Especially since this is one of the four significantly crossed  Planetary Boundaries [5]. This is a fairly classic thread, referred to as metabolic rift in the literature (especially from a Marxist perspective [104], but also more broadly [105]). Moore [106] and Bonneuil and Fressoz [14] (loc 3297–3373) also explored this topic. Discussing and combining changes in nitrogen and phosphorus circulation with the replacement of excrement as fertilizer with artificial ones, Bonneuil and Fressoz write about urbanization as an important but rather secondary process. In addition, they write about it in the simplifying spirit of UAT: “urbanization, i. e. the concentration of the population and their faeces …” [14] (loc 3297). This view of the city as “only” the concentration of humans and their feces, the effects of their metabolism, does not take into account the networks on which all of it depends, or the emergent processes which may result from the distribution of actors in space and this concentration.

Parallel to Mumford, it is now worth recalling Gandy’s research and model (similar in some aspects). He is studying urban public health policies, born of the need to keep bodies healthy and extinguish outbreaks of disease [107]. Gandy analyzes changes in those models, sets of standards, practices and their infrastructures.

First, he distinguishes a pre-industrial organic model, based on cycles and a compact city (similar to the one in early phases that Mumford described). “Nature” is just behind the walls; it runs an exchange with its surroundings and is aware of it. At one point, however—when and where a number of conditions are met and are favorable—it turns into a differentiating and spreading “bacteriological” model. In its creation and existence, an important role is played by the “technical rationalization of space”—the perception of urban space (and not only) as homogeneous and coherent [108]. However, it is not only this—the bacteriological city was created due to many factors, such as specific mental and material infrastructures:

“Advances in the science of epidemiology and later microbiology which gradually dispelled miasmic conceptions of disease; the emergence of new forms of technical and managerial expertise in urban governance; the innovative use of financial instruments such as municipal bonds to enable the completion of ambitious engineering projects; the establishment of new policy instruments such as the power of eminent domain and other planning mechanisms which enabled the imposition of a strategic urban vision in the face of multifarious private interests; and the political marginalization of agrarian and landed elites so that an industrial bourgeoisie, public health advocates and other voices could exert greater influence on urban affairs” [109] (p. 365).

The biopolitical nature of the modern city is associated with the dissemination of hybrid relationships of the body, nature and urban space, physiology and infrastructure [22]. Gandy focuses on the example of water circulation as the main one, showing the degree of incorporation of man into the city and his regimes. At the same time, this rationalization did not mean a transformation of only the physical structure of the city and areas far beyond it, but also mental and cultural ones. Those are, for example, the public and private space divisions, hygiene and washing regimes and their evolution—e.g., the change of attitude towards public washing places with the appearance of the bathroom and new standards [107]. At that time, human excrement changed its meaning and perception. From the “night soil”, something important for agriculture and ordinary in the organic city, it turned into faeces—something disgusting that needed to be hidden.

Finally, a technological and strictly urban thread needs to be included here; one completely omitted by Moore and almost entirely by Bonneuil and Fressoz [14] (loc 3135, 3745). One that is crucial from the point of view of Mumford, Gandy and the Urbanocene proposition. It is the invention and implementation of a technical infrastructure, namely the sewage system, and with its help the reconstruction of urban naturocultures, overcoming some limits and creating others. Its creation was a direct result of the expansion of cities and the need to overcome related problems. As the city grows, the amount of water falling on it during rainfall increases. At the same time, the possibilities of absorption (built-up area) and drainage are decreasing (although the city grows, the streets do not get significantly wider). In the event of heavy rainfall, the streets of a large city without a sewage system turned into rushing rivers. Sewerage was originally created primarily for the drainage of storm water, not faeces. What is more, this idea was opposed. Using the example of Paris, Gandy shows two positions from which the option of connecting and flushing the effects of human metabolism were opposed [110]. Baron Hausmann could not imagine letting feces into his mains,  the miracle of the Second French Empire  considered an achievement equal to Rome. On the other hand, ecological and economic concerns were flourishing: the dilution and loss of nitrogen, so important for agriculture and the army, was considered a real threat. Similarly, those fears are mentioned by Bonneuil and Fressoz [14] (loc 3339). On the other hand, due to the expansion of the city, the output of night soil collectors was drastically falling. It became difficult to take all the waste matter from the city to the more and more distant fields before dawn. Meanwhile, as a result of the development of science, technology, commerce and imperial policy, alternative sources of food or fertilizer were sought and provided.

However, as Gandy notes, the appearance of these opposing voices testifies to the continued existence of cyclical, premodern thinking in the (supposedly) modern, rationalist order. It was sewerage and artificial fertilizers that were ultimately to change this—along with a number of other physical manifestations of the reconstruction of urban space into a more “rational” one, which were conducive to management and control. This created a new, metropolitan attitude to “nature”: from a direct partner in the waste–fertilizer–product cycle, a material necessity, the environment, it changes into a landscape, a remote source of pleasure and rest. On the other hand, it still remains a material base, but a hidden one—and is exploited even more. Agriculture disappears from the eyes of downtowners into the provinces or colonies—just as chamber pot contents disappear in the hole and underground.

Due to the rapid expansion of the hinterlands on a global scale and beyond the boundaries of imagination, they seemed potentially infinite. In other words, these are (already described here by Mumford) changes in the settlement’s relationship with the environment through the creation of a new one, and a loosening of the bonds connecting dwellers with their previous environment. It is plumbing, hygiene and the new circulation of waste and fertilizers that trigger an increase in imbalance, which progresses, expands and self-propels a decrease in mortality, an increase in population and in food needs, a decrease in the availability of natural fertilizers, an increase in the acquisition and production of artificial ones, and their deposition in the environment.

The effect of this cultural mental–material change is the possibility of (seemingly) unlimited growth of cities—assuming the maintenance of logistics lines and the opening of new hinterlands. They can be in space, in the form of new lands for cultivation or in time, through technology. Such a role can be played by new technologies, acreages or ways of using energy or matter accumulated over time, as in the case of fossil fuels or fertilizers. These are guano mines on the Pacific Islands, superphosphates created by treating bones with sulfuric acid or phosphate rock mines, with limited and decreasing deposits. For nitrogen, unlike phosphorus, one can determine the end point and also the triumph of this logic, the discovery of the “infinite” source—the Haber–Bosch method: obtaining nitrogen from the air. Nitrogen and phosphorus are no longer circulating between the city and its fields. One is dug up and the other is pulled literally out of thin air. Then, in excessive quantities, they are used in global fields to feed the metropolises. Finally, they flow into oceans that are unable to process this rapid accumulation. This may lead to excessive eutrophication, flowering, and to significant deterioration of ecosystem parameters. This is a new limit created by the new circumstances.

The basic problem now is the limited size of the globe. The local urban–rural cycle has scaled into a global dimension. However, although it seemed otherwise, it did not lose its cyclical character. This is now a problem, when the disposed disorder is not able to decompose and recycle in the environment and it begins to return and break down the order. The outside, from whence the disorder came and to whence it returned, is starting to disappear—it is no longer possible to treat even the geological layers, the atmosphere or oceans as the exterior. The inability to remove disorder causes it to grow inside. Especially since the whole planet has been internalized (urbanized). How to resolve a situation like this, where the exterior is no longer the source of disorder and a place to dispose it?

One of the possibilities—amplified by the Capitalocene—is the creation of spheres of disorder in the interior. Such spheres of disorder can be created in the form of, for example, zones of indistinction, about which Gandy [107] writes (being critically inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy). In this context and in relation to models of urban public health policies, apart from the two models already mentioned here—organic and bacteriological—Gandy distinguishes the third one, which is dominant today: antibiotic [109]. It is an individualized health regime—instead of building collective resistance, biopolitical “care” for bodies and entire organisms, these are individual (antibiotic) therapies. He discusses this more deeply with the example of water—e.g., a common retreat from “taps” towards bottled water. One can think of another illustration here: instead of the walls around the city and services in it—gated communities, all of those smart, resilient or sustainable enclaves.

Translating this into the example discussed here so far, urban agriculture comes to mind as an illustration. The need for the internal sourcing of food ceases to be just a memory of wars and occupation [111] or the local post-apocalypse, as in the case of Detroit [112]. It becomes a vision of the future: balcony gardening [113], green roofs and roof gardens, urban greenhouses and vertical crops [114]. Perhaps in the future New York will indeed be able to (or have to) feed itself [115] and clean itself [116]. All those technologies, bundled into bigger infrastructures, now labeled as smart, resilient and sustainable by some, could become as transformative and powerful as sewers were. The problem is, firstly, what new limits will they create by overcoming the existing ones? Secondly, who will get to be plugged into this new network, and who will be forcefully separated?

At any rate, it has happened in history that the outside of the city disappeared for some time—e.g., during sieges. It is significant and very interesting that when considering the city’s situation in the Anthropocene, an interdisciplinary team of researchers—having similar issues in mind—took interest in Constantinople [117]. They argue that this city has survived 2000 years and many plagues, crises and sieges (including the longest one lasting eight years) thanks to the organization, management and sustainment of the possibilities of such internalization. For example, a large space on the inside of the walls was dedicated to possible crops. Moreover, according to the authors, in its glory days in the early Middle Ages, Constantinople resembled modern cities in many respects. It was the earlier collapse of global logistics that meant that it had to find itself in a new situation. Therefore, the authors suggest that Constantinople may be a source of inspiration, knowledge and experience for the future.

5. Conclusions

In this way, by combining the macroscale effects of collective, urban anthropos with the microscale of urbanism as a way of life, the livelihood of individual urban dwellers and their groups, it is possible to take into account (although here briefly and superficially) different dimensions: the city as one big perpetrator; its internal complexity, relations and transformations; and infrastructures and mechanisms, by means of which the impact and changes are taking place (and feedback is coming back or is forcefully stopped). Further research and formulation of the Urbanocene proposition should focus on the three dimensions distinguished here in the Results 3.1., and on an expanded expression of how the Urbanocene is manifested across contemporary urbanalities. The first triad showing that new proposition should not only be diagnostic, but also postulative and self-aware (especially in a political context). The second triad shows what dimensions it should cover—the external, the internal and how they are being constituted and linked or severed; what kinds of settlements or cities—infrastructures bundles—produce what kind of divisions into the interior and exterior, into heavenly city arcades supported by the backstage hell of modernity, to put it in Walter Benjamin terms [118]. What is their order, what is their needed and unwanted disorder? All while remembering to balance between the external (e.g., capitalism) and the internal explanations (e.g., panuniversal properties of cities). All of this extends between the macroscale of planetary urbanization and the Anthropocene-phenomenon and the microscale of urban dwellers’ environments, their actions, cognition and praxis—with many scales in between. What links different scales are infrastructures, and that has to be studied—there are already some good starting points [119–122] and more are being pointed out and emerge [123–127].

For one final remark: as one can see, it is not necessary to use capitalism and its processes here to connect at least part of the socio-culturo-economic causes with global, ecological effects and to show how this frame is produced at all. That is why Mumford may carry out a similar analysis for ancient Rome—of course on a slightly different, more local scale. This is also why one can explore the cities of former and current socialist and communist countries using this frame. Although using Moore’s frame is not necessary, it is very useful as a complementary one. The same can be said for the other 91 frames—some more, some less. For, I repeat, none of these propositions alone is sufficient to name or explain the Anthropocene-phenomenon.

Funding: The APC was funded by Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) in Poznań, Poland—Faculty of Anthropology and Cultural Studies and Institute of Cultural Studies—and from the grant funds. This text is the result of research conducted under the auspices of a grant from the Polish Ministry of Higher Education, entitled: Mediated Environments. New practices in humanities and transdisciplinary research (no: 0014/NPRH4/H2b/83/2016), PI: Agnieszka Jelewska.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the Head of the Institute of Cultural Studies AMU, Marianna Michałowska and the Dean of the Anthropology and Cultural Studies Faculty AMU, Jacek Sójka for funding the APC. I would like to also thank Angieszka Jelewska and Michał Krawczak for additional funding for the APC. I also thank Stephen Dersley for English proofreading and Joachim Horzela for support and translations from French. In the end I would also like to thank Reviewers for their assessments, comments, suggestions and work.

Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

As this is research material, a dataset for this paper, I do not find it suitable to cite those positions in the same fashion as other references in this text. For the sake of clarity, for positions in this table I give full bibliographical address inside the table and not in the References section. Along with the proposed alternative names I provide a references: to the first formulation of the name (or to a couple of them—when they were formulated independently), to the most elaborated take on the proposition, to some mix of those or to the only one source I could find.

If you are reading this and know about some other “-cenes” not listed here—and any source or reference for it—please be so kind and send it to me: f.chwalczyk@gmail.com

Table A1. “-cenes”.

No.NameSources and References
1AeroceneTED. Saraceno, T. (2017) Would you live in a floating city in the sky? Available online: https://www.ted.com/talks/tomas_saraceno_would_you_live_in_a_floating_bubble_in_the_sky (accessed on 10.04.2020). Aerocene. Available online: https://aerocene.org/ (accessed on 10.04.2020). Aerocene. Available online: https://studiotomassaraceno.org/aerocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
2AgnotoceneBonneuil, C.; Fressoz, J. B. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth. History and Us; Verso: London, UK, 2016.
3AlanthropoceneNetwork in Canadian History & Environment. MacEachern, A. (2018) The Alanthropocene. Available online: http://niche-canada.org/2018/01/15/the-alanthropocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
4AlienoceneALIENOCENE Journal of the First Outernational. Neyrat, F. Available online: https://alienocene.com/what-is-alienocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
5AndroceneSalleh, A. Ecofeminism as politics: Nature, Marx and the postmodern; Zed Books Ltd., 2017.
6AngloceneBonneuil, C.; Fressoz, J. B. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth. History and Us; Verso: London, 2016.
7AnthrobsceneParikka, J. The anthrobscene; University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2014.
8AnthroceneAnthropocene Magazine. Revkin, A. (2016/1992) An Anthropocene Journey. Available online: http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/anthropocenejourney/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
9Anthropo-not-seenE-Flux Journal 56th Biennale. De la Cadena, M. (2015) Uncommoning nature. Available online: http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/marisol-de-la-cadena/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
10Anthropo-obScene (/Anthro-Obscene/Anthro-obscene)Swyngedouw, E.; Ernstson, H. Interrupting the anthropo-obScene: Immuno-biopolitics and depoliticizing ontologies in the anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society 2018, 35(6), 3–30.
11Anthropo-sceneLorimer, J. The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed. Social studies of science 2017, 47(1), 117–142.
12AnthropOceanBrugidou, J.; Fabien, C. ‘AnthropOcean’: Oceanic perspectives and cephalopodic imaginaries moving beyond land-centric ecologies. Social Science Information 2018, 57(3), 359–385. https://doi.org/10.1177/0539018418795603
13AnthropoceneCrutzen, P. J.; Stoermer, E. F. The Anthropocene. Global change newsletter 2000, 41, 17–18. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09678
14AnthroposeenLepenies, P. The Anthroposeen: The Invention of Linear Perspective as a Decisive Moment in the Emergence of a Geological Age of Mankind. European Review 2018, 26(4), 583–599. https://doi.org/10.1017/S106279871800042X
15AquatoceneRobertina Šebjanič. Available online: https://robertina.net/aquatocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
16Atomicocene University of North Carolina Press Blog. Lindsey A. Freeman: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Cthulucene, Atomicocene (2015). Available online: https://uncpressblog.com/2015/04/23/lindsey-a-freeman-anthropocene-capitalocene-cthulhucene-atomicocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
17AstyceneSeto, K. C.; Sánchez-Rodríguez, R.; Fragkias, M. The new geography of contemporary urbanization and the environment. Annual review of environment and resources 2010, 35, 167–194. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-100809-125336
18BetaceneThe Society for Cultural Anthropology. Howe, C.; Pandian, A. (2016) Introduction: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen. Available online: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-lexicon-for-an-anthropocene-yet-unseen (accessed on 10.04.2020).
19(Billion) Black AnthropocenesYusoff, K. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None; University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2018 https://doi.org/10.5749/9781452962054
20CapitaloceneMoore, J. W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital; Verso Books, 2015. Malm, A. Fossil capital: The rise of steam power and the roots of global warming; Verso Books, 2016.
21ChimpoceneLanglitz, N. Primatology of Science: On the Birth of Actor-Network Theory from Baboon Field Observations. Theory, Culture & Society 2019, 36(1), 83–105.
22ChristoceneNorthcott, M. S. A political theology of climate change; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013.
23ChthuluceneHaraway, D. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene; Duke University Press, 2016
24CongoceneDe Groof, M. Congocene: The Anthropocene through Congolese Cinema. In Opposing Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Turbo-Nationalism. Rethinking the Past for New Conviviality; Gržinić, M.; Pristovšek, J.; Uitz, S., Eds.; Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2020; pp. 88–111.
25CorporatoceneSchneiderman, J. S. Naming the Anthropocene. philoSOPHIA 2015, 5(2), 179–201.Colebrook, C. What is the Anthropo-political. In Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols; Cohen, T.; Colebrook, C.; Hillis Miller J., Eds.; Open Humanities Press: London, 2016; pp. 81–125.
26CosmopoloceneDelanty, G.; Mota, A. Governing the Anthropocene: Agency, governance, knowledge. European Journal of Social Theory 2017, 20(1), 9–38.
27CyanoceneSagan, D. Coda: Beautiful Monsters: Terra in the Cyanocene. In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, Tsing, A. L.; Bubandt, N.; Gan, E.; Swanson, H. A., Eds.; University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2017; pp. 169–174.
28DérégulocèneVincent Mignerot. Mignerot, V.; Seemal, L. (2019) Anthropocène, Capitalocène ou… Dérégulocène? Available online: https://vincent-mignerot.fr/anthropocene-capitalocene-ou-deregulocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
29Early AnthropoceneRuddiman, W. F. The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Climatic change 2003, 61(3), 261–293.
30Econocene Great Transition Initiative. Norgaard, R. (2015) The Church of Economism and Its Discontents. Available online: http://www.greattransition.org/publication/the-church-of-economism-and-its-discontents (accessed on 10.04.2020)
31EntropoceneStiegler, B.; Escaping the Anthropocene. In The Crisis Conundrum: How To Reconcile Economy And Society, Magatti, M., Ed.; Palgrave Macmillan: Milano, 2017, pp. 149–164. Robbins, J. H. The entropocene. In Proceedings of the 61st Annual Meeting of the ISSS-2017 Vienna, Austria (Vol. 2017, No. 1).
32EremoceneWilson, E. O. The meaning of human existence; Liveright: New York, London, 2015.
33EuclideoceneHaraway, D.; Ishikawa, N.; Gilbert, S. F.; Olwig, K.; Tsing, A. L.; Bubandt, N. Anthropologists are talking–about the Anthropocene. Ethnos 2016, 81(3), 535–564. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2015.1105838
34EuroceneSloterdijk, P. The Anthropocene: A Process-State at the Edge of Geohistory? In Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies; Davis, H.; Turpin, E., Eds.; Open Humanities Press, 2015; pp. 327–340.
35Foggy AnthropoceneChaberski, M. Resensing the Anthropocene. Ambividual Experiences in Contemporary Performative Arts. In Emerging Affinities—Possible Futures of Performative Arts; Borowski, M.; Chaberski, M.; Sugiera, M., Eds.; transript: Verlag, Bielefeld, 2019; pp. 149–172.
36good and bad AnthropoceneKunnas, J. Storytelling: From the early Anthropocene to the good or the bad Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review 2017, 4(2), 136–150.
37Good AnthropoceneAsafu-Adjaye, J.; Blomquist, L.; Brand, S.; Brook, B. W.; DeFries, R.; Ellis, E.; … & Nordhaus, T. An ecomodernist manifesto. http://www.ecomodernism.org/ 2015. Bennett, E. M.; Solan, M.; Biggs, R.; McPhearson, T.; Norström, A. V.; Olsson, P.; … & Carpenter, S. R. (2016). Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2016, 14(8), 441–448.
38GoraceneHerald. Naqvi, N. (2017) Global Apartheid: On the historical superiority of the West. Available online: https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153700 (accessed on 10.04.2020).
39GrowthoceneEuropean Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE). Chertkovskaya, E.; Paulsson, A. (2016) The growthocene: Thinking through what degrowth is criticising. Available online: https://entitleblog.org/2016/02/19/the-growthocene-thinking-through-what-degrowth-is-criticising/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
40GyneceneManifesto for the Gynecene—Sketch of a New Geological Era. Pirici, A.; Voinea, R. (2015) Available online: http://ro.tranzit.org/file/MANIFESTO-for-the-Gynecene.pdf (accessed on 10.04.2020)
41HelloceneScientific American. Jackson, R. (2018) You’ve Heard of the Anthropocene? Welcome to the Hellocene. Available online: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/youve-heard-of-the-anthropocene-welcome-to-the-hellocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
42HomoceneUsher, P. J. Untranslating the Anthropocene. Diacritics 2016, 44(3), 56–77. The Purgatory Press. Culbert, J. (2016) Homocene or Anthropocene? Available online: https://johnculbert.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/homocene-or-anthropocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
43HomogenoceneMann, Ch. C. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created; Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2011. Samways, M. Translocating fauna to foreign lands: here comes the Homogenocene. Journal of Insect Conservation 1999, 3(2), 65–66.
44Jolyonceneanomie//géographie. Baker, A. (2017) The Jolyoncene. Available online: https://anomiegeographie.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/the-jolyoncene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020).
45MachinoceneAeon. Price, H. (2016) Now it’s time to prepare for the Machinocene. Available online: https://aeon.co/ideas/now-it-s-time-to-prepare-for-the-machinocene (accessed on 10.04.2020).
46ManthropoceneThe Guardian. Raworth, K. (2014) Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene? Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/anthropocene-working-group-science-gender-bias (accessed on 10.04.2020).
47MediaceneThe New York Times. Arango, T. (2009) Seeking a Missing Link, and a Mass Audience. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/business/media/19fossil.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y (accessed on 10.04.2020). Medium. Hildebrand, J. M.; Vacker, B. (2018) Hot and Cool in the MediaScene: A McLuhan-Style Art and Theory Project. Available online: https://medium.com/mediascene/hot-and-cool-in-the-mediascene-a-mcluhan-style-art-and-theory-project-658ce02a6af8 (accessed on 10.04.2020).
48MégalocèneLe Partage. Sallantin, T. (2018) Ni anthropocène, ni capitalocène: le problème, c’est le mégalocène. Available online: https://www.partage-le.com/2018/04/30/9279/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
49MetropoceneWhitehead, M. Environmental transformations: A geography of the Anthropocene; Routledge, 2014.
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51MolysmocèneFontaine, M. Rencontres insolites d’un biologiste autour du monde; Editions L’Harmattan: 1999. Quebec Science. Lemieux, R. (2016) Bienvenue en anthropocène. Available online: https://www.quebecscience.qc.ca/environnement/bienvenue-en-anthropocene/ (accessed on 10.04.2020)
52MyxocenePauly, D. 5 Easy Pieces: The Impact of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems; Island Press: Washington, Covelo, London, 2010.
53NarcissceneSagoff, M. Welcome to the Narcisscene. The Breakthrough Journal 2018, 9.
54NaufragoceneMentz, S. Shipwreck modernity: Ecologies of globalization, 1550–1719; University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
55NecroceneMcBrien, J. Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene; w: Jason W. Moore (red.), In Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism; Moore, J. W.; PM Press: San Francisco, CA, 2016; pp. 116–137.
56NeganthropoceneStiegler, B.; Escaping the Anthropocene. In The Crisis Conundrum: How To Reconcile Economy And Society, Magatti, M., Ed.; Palgrave Macmillan: Milano, 2017, pp. 149–164. Stiegler, B. The neganthropocene. Open Humanities Press: 2018.
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58NooceneZwart, H. From the nadir of negativity towards the cusp of reconciliation: A dialectical (Hegelian-Teilhardian) assessment of the anthropocenic challenge. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 2017, 21(2/3), 175–198.
59NorthropoceneThe Guardian. Raworth, K. (2014) Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene? Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/anthropocene-working-group-science-gender-bias (accessed on 10.04.2020).
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61OligarchoceneBiello, D. The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, Scribner: New York City, 2016.
62PaleoanthropoceneFoley, S. F.; Gronenborn, D.; Andreae, M. O.; Kadereit, J. W.; Esper, J.; Scholz, D.; … & Vött, A.; 2013, The Palaeoanthropocene—The beginnings of anthropogenic environmental change. Anthropocene 2013, 3, 83-88.
63PapioceneLanglitz, N. Primatology of Science: On the Birth of Actor-Network Theory from Baboon Field Observations. Theory, Culture & Society 2019, 36(1), 83–105.
64PhagoceneBonneuil, C.; Fressoz, J. B. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth. History and Us; Verso: London, 2016;
65PhronoceneBonneuil, C.; Fressoz, J. B. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth. History and Us; Verso: London, 2016;
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A manifesto for creature languages

Kate Wright

Because a lightning strike does not come down from the clouds in a continuous motion, but is instead emergent, and intra-active – formed in communication with the earth, Vicki Kirby describes it as a kind of “stuttering chatter between ground and sky” (10). As if gold scribbles through the crow black night – sharp and erratic, stop and start – like the tongue of one wracked with anxiety, to stall at the cliff-face of words, in the space between sound and silence.

And if the world is, as Kirby argues, a cacophonous conversation, perhaps the black ants that swirl around my feet like dots of ink nipping at my toes can be heard to sing “rain, rain, rain.” Because I learned when I was a little kid that ants and water rhyme, because lines of ants across the pinewood of our kitchen bench were, almost always, followed by a chorus of rain and thunder. And much later in my life, Dharawal Elder, Aunty Frances Bodkin advised me that ants respond to weather conditions months in advance: “Their nests go down to the groundwater’ she said ‘and groundwater is connected to air pressure, it rises and falls as the air pressure changes” (Bodkin qtd. in K. Wright 162).

So it is that the moving architecture of an ant mount in response to weather – a multiplicity made of the microscopic bodies of the living and the dead coalescing with mineral rock and mobilised by an insect colony – can tell you which direction the rain is coming from. The world communicates itself as it creates itself (Murphie, 29) and this language of life is what environmental philosopher Deborah Bird Rose refers to as “creature languages” (103).

The sight and smell of flowers, the pain of the march fly bite and the sensation of blood running down the leg, the sight of swifts in the sky or flower petals drifting in the river, fireflies winking and the interminable racket of cicadas: these are multifaceted creature languages, and smart creatures take notice. Humans enhance their intelligence not by stepping out of the system and trying to control it, but by enmeshing themselves ever more knowledgeably into the creature-languages of Country (Rose 104).

It is said that we have entered the ‘Age of Man’, where the collective agency of the human species has become geological – what Michel Serres has called “the dense tectonic plates of humanity” (16). With such emphasis on the newfound mineralogical coordinates of the human “event” it can sometimes go unremarked upon that the burning of fossil fuels is a mobilisation of creaturely powers – that the uncanny return of the dead bodies of our Carboniferous multispecies kin to feed our fossil economy is part of a collective material agency, as the human, ant-like, burrows into and releases the subterranean forces of the Earth.  Hacking into the narcissistic edifice of the Anthropocene, as if chiselling into the granite to which a memory of our species is to be forever consigned, is a reminder that humans are always becoming-with nonhuman kin.

As a conceptual frame and an embodied political tactic, ‘weathering’ is a mode of attunement that attends to this relational becoming. In this immanent, affective, viscous approach to the living world, the more-than-human kin that surround us are part of a semiotic ecology – their own affective and responsive bodies reverberating with difference as they communicate shifts in time and place. Nonhuman bodies are both signals and agents because everything in the world “is a kind of immanent process of mediation or… communication,” and an active participant in the world’s becoming (Murphie, 19).

Yolngu Elder LakLak Burrarwanga describes multispecies weathering in a communicative more-than-human matrix through the coming of a storm:

This lightning and thunder is sending out messages to other countries and other homelands telling everyone – Yolngu, animals, plants, everyone – that arra’mirri mayaltha [a particular season] is coming. Are you listening? Are you looking, smelling, feeling, tasting it? Quick Baru [crocodile] there’s a message here for you, don’t miss it. It’s very hot and humid during the day now and we’re starting to sweat during the night. The night sweating is a message, telling us fruit, like larani [apple] is getting ripe (qtd in S. Wright et al., 55).

It is a condition of existence that we cannot attend to all difference in our environments. As Uexküll observed through his concept of Umwelt – our sensory bubbles are always tuning out part of the rich ecologies we inhabit.[1] Attending to more-than-human semiotic ecologies – creature languages – is a way of picking up on important environmental change that we would never be able to perceive with our own, all too human, sensory apparatus.

While the bodies of our more-than-human kin are a crucial part of our epistemology, I think it is important that these bodies are not approached with an extractivist mindset, to be dissected and mined for information. Scholars involved in Indigenous language revitalisation talk about the dangers of extracting Indigenous languages from community and place, and inadvertently (or intentionally) inserting colonial or capitalist concepts (Fraser). Creature languages are minoritarian and counter-colonial. They are part of the ongoing differentiation of life. If, as Hugo Reinert observes, extractive resource capitalism is a sort of “ontological machine—an engine that continuously remakes the world… in ways that facilitate surplus value extraction” (Reinert 96) – creature languages help us to work against this destructive worlding, and ask us to think otherwise. In this sense, creature languages can be understood as part of an intersectional more-than-human counter-colonial struggle. This decolonisation of creaturely linguistics must attend to creature languages not as a lingua nullius – but as a semiotic field that is an integral part of First Nation cultures and knowledge systems, requiring genuine collaborative engagement with Indigenous thinkers.

Callum Clayton-Dixon, an Ambēyaŋ scholar and co-founder of the Anaiwan language revival program, argues that:

For Aboriginal people, language is not merely a tool for communicating and relating with other humans. Language is also core to maintaining healthy relationships with country. The devastation inflicted upon Aboriginal languages by colonial violence, parallel to and interconnected with the colonisation of Aboriginal lands, lives and liberties, has caused extreme disruption to the fundamental relationships between people and country. It is therefore necessary, in principle and in practice, to ensure language revitalisation efforts aim to repatriate language to country. Like Indigenous peoples have been displaced from country, forced onto reserves and missions, Aboriginal languages have likewise been displaced from country, forced onto the pages of anthropologists’ and linguists’ notebooks, gathering dust in university and library archives.

Language revitalisation has a crucial role to play in contemporary assertions of Indigeneity, in what Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel describes as the reclamation and regeneration of our ‘relational place-based existence’(88).

The Anaiwan Language Revival Program, an Aboriginal language revitalisation initiative in the so-called New England Tableland region of New South Wales, has begun the task of repatriating language to land by undertaking cultural site trips, reclaiming place names, and reconnecting lexical items with the elements of country to which they belong (e.g. plant and animal species). Language revitalisation ultimately offers a means of reclaiming and reviving the ancient reciprocal relationships we as Aboriginal people held within the natural world since the first sunrise.

Akarre Elder Margaret Kemarre Turner stated that “Language is a gift from that Land for the people who join into that Land… We come from the Land, and the language comes from the Land… language is born out of the living flesh of that Land” (Turner, 194). In other words, human language is not a property that separates humans from the nonhuman world, but an extension of the eloquence of life – and a gift.

University of New England Page

Works Cited:

Clayton-Dixon, Callum. Personal Communication, Armidale, 9 December, 2017.

Corntassel, Jeff. ‘Re-envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable Self-Determination,’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 86 – 101

Simon Fraser University, Decolonizing Language Revitalization. Retrieved from summit.sfu.ca/item/14186 (2014).

Kirby, Vicki. Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 10

Murphie, Andrew. ‘The World as Medium: Whitehead’s Media Philosophy, Immediations, eds. Erin Manning, Anne Munster and Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen (Open Humanities Press, Forthcoming)

Reinert, Hugo. ‘About a Stone: Some Notes on Geologic Conviviality’ Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (2016): 95 – 117

Rose, Deborah Bird. ‘Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: Attentive Interactions in the Sentient World,’ Environmental Humanities 3 (2013).

Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract., trans: Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (University of Michigan Press): 16

Turner, Margaret Kemarre. Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person. As told byBarry McDonald Perrurle. Translated by Veronica Perrurle Dobson (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010)

von Uexküll, Jacob (1957) “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds,” Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller, New York: International Universities Press, pp. 5–80.

Wright, Kate. Transdisciplinary Journeys in the Anthropocene: More-than-human Encounters(Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017).

Wright, Sarah., Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Laklak Burrarwanga and Matalena Tofa, ‘Telling Stories In, Through and With Country: Engaging with Indigenous and More-than-Human Methodologies at Bawaka NE Australia’ Journal of Cultural Geography 29, no. 1 (2012).


[1] Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll used the term Umwelt to describe the way organism and environment form a whole system. Each organism has its own Umwelt, which is its meaningful environment. (5–80)

Anthropocene Convergences: A Report from the Field

Lisa Sideris, Indiana University

Originally published in 2016 in RCC Perspectives, an open-access publication of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich.

Dipesh Chakrabarty proposes that anthropogenic climate change presents scholars with a novel and daunting set of imperatives. It requires, among other adjustments, that we think and work across incommensurable timescales and disciplinary regimes. We must learn to “mix together immiscible chronologies,” Chakrabarty urges, as well as “rise above [our] disciplinary prejudices.”[1] Our situation is not utterly without precedent, for the idea that humans might act as geological agents of some sort “is not a new thought as such.”[2] Moreover, explaining such watershed events as the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago similarly required a convergence of diverse timescales and disciplines of “geology, archaeology, and history.”[3] Still, the idea of humans as a geophysical force akin to a dinosaur-decimating asteroid is something new under the sun. And as disciplinary mergers go, it is one thing to put historians in touch with geology but quite another, perhaps, to expect a scholar of postcolonial or subaltern studies to engage in meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue with an evolutionary biologist–particularly (let us say) a sociobiologist in the thrall of Enlightenment positivism and the quest for universal “laws” of human nature.[4]

In what follows, I focus on Chakrabarty’s invitation to blend immiscible timeframes and disciplines, primarily with reference to movements afoot in my own discipline of religious studies and adjacent fields. My aim is not so much to register disagreement with Chakrabarty’s portrait of the Anthropocene and what it signifies, as to present some sobering examples of how this invitation is being received and enacted and why no single discipline can define for us what it means to be human in the Age of the Human.

Thinking Like a Species

Anthropogenic climate change, and the attendant onset of humans’ geological agency, entails a new understanding of humans as a collective entity, a species.[5] Species-level thinking–a concept Chakrabarty attributes to E.O. Wilson, among others–works hand-in-glove with a turn to deep history. As Chakrabarty notes, Wilson believes that deep history perspectives, which move across large spans of time, and species thinking are both necessary if humans are to survive into the future. I want to pick up this strand of Chakrabarty’s engagement with Wilson and consider its implications for developing a genuinely interdisciplinary dialogue around the Anthropocene and what it means to conceive of ourselves as a species.

Thinking big is currently in vogue, but deep-historical and species-level thinking–even an incipient Anthropocene concept–have been knocking around my discipline for decades. For example, in 1992 in a book immodestly titled The Universe Story, Thomas Berry, a cultural historian and religion scholar who referred to himself as a “geologian,” and his protégé, a mathematical cosmologist named Brian Swimme, predicted that “in the future the Earth will function differently than it has functioned in the past.” In this emerging era, the “entire complex of life systems of the planet will be influenced by the human in a comprehensive manner.”[6] They envision a fourth geological era to follow the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic, and the Cenozoic, and optimistically christen it the “Ecozoic,” [7] a period marked by “mutually enhancing human-Earth relations” and by recognition that our species now occupies the geological driver’s seat.[8]

Clive Hamilton and Jaques Grinevald argue convincingly that there are no genuine precursors to the Anthropocene, which they define as a sudden (not incremental) and dangerous shift, a radical rupture in Earth history as well as in the very idea of evolutionary “advance to a higher stage.”[9] However, while I do not have space to make the argument here, I think there are precursors to the good Anthropocene. Indeed, some Anthropocene lookalikes rejected by Hamilton and Grinevald bear the earmarks of the good Anthropocene; the Ecozoic is one candidate precursor. Proponents of the good Anthropocene typically also regard the planetary crisis as a grand adventure, an exciting challenge that can be met by human ingenuity and smart technology, and—controversially—by jettisoning traditional approaches to wilderness conservation while welcoming engineering strategies for the planet and its lifeforms.[10]

Swimme and Berry’s sanguine appraisal of the coming Ecozoic is nurtured by a belief that the universe purposefully gropes its way towards consciousness. Theirs is an anthropic universe: the emergence of a self-reflective species such as our own was implicit in the unfolding of the universe from its inception. A pivotal moment for the cosmos is when humans emerge as the supreme consciousness of the universe, and–even more specifically–when we begin to reflect on ourselves as a species. Humans have often conceived of themselves as cultures, ethnic groups, or international organizations, Swimme and Berry note, but “what we seldom think about is the human as species.”[11] We must “reinvent the human at the species level,” fully and reflectively embracing the reality that we are an interdependent species.[12]

These ideas have percolated up from the musings of French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a key mentor to Swimme and Berry and, incidentally, a personal hero to Anthropocene booster Andrew Revkin.[13] Teilhard understood our planet to unfold in a series of developmental layers or envelopes: lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and finally and most significantly, the noösphere. The noösphere is an additional, thinking layer beyond the biosphere, an evolutionary stage driven by the human phenomenon. At a key moment in the universe, the noösphere begins to transform the biosphere. Acting as a kind of planetary or communal mind, our species begins to direct the course of evolutionary unfolding. While Swimme and Berry remain on guard against the extreme techno-optimism that characterizes Teilhard’s thought, an unmistakable sense of celebration attends the Ecozoic moment when humans take hold of the evolutionary reins. In short, there are many resonances between the noösphere and the Ecozoic, and between both concepts and the good Anthropocene.

A Common Story

The Universe Story is one of a handful of projects that narrate, in quasi-mythic form, the entire cosmic history, from the Big Bang to the dawn of our global environmental crisis. A variety of grandiose names are appended to these narratives–The Epic of Evolution, The Great Story, or Big History.[14] These projects blend human and cosmic history (as well as science and religion) into a comprehensive common story that properly emplaces humans in the cosmos. One recent iteration is a multimedia phenomenon called “Journey of the Universe,” launched by the above-mentioned Swimme together with religion scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker. As with Swimme and Berry’s narrative, a central claim is that humans represent the universe becoming conscious of itself.[15] Interestingly, it is E.O. Wilson who coined the phrase “Epic of Evolution,” and many a cosmic storyteller regards him as an architect of a new cosmology that will unify the human species and bind it more intimately to the Earth.[16] The binding agent is science itself–or, rather, science in mythic form. Some celebrants of the Epic have created musical and ritual accompaniments to the story, seeking to infuse it with an experiential dimension.

What I am suggesting then, in outlining these projects, their genealogy, and their affinities with Anthropocene discourse, is that these efforts embody and respond to key elements of Chakrabarty’s portrait of our Anthropocene moment. They collapse conventional boundaries between human and natural history,[17] foster self-recognition of humans as a species, and implicate human agency across geological timescales. In their utilization of multiple genres–myth, ritual, film, art, and song–they might even be seen to foster something Chakrabarty considers impossible, namely, a “phenomenology of us as a species,” an emotional or experiential identification with the species concept.[18] Moreover, they claim to combine insights from across the disciplinary spectrum, and even to breathe new life into the humanities.[19] So: we do not have to imagine what it would look like if scholars were to take up the challenges Chakrabarty puts before us. From where I’m standing–in religious studies–it seems these projects are well underway. Preliminary results are in.  In my view, the results are dispiriting.

A Perilous Journey

While he finds Wilson’s ideas alluring, Chakrabarty is attuned to the perils of inviting a vision of humans as a species, or a “natural condition,” to dominate scholarship across the disciplines. He believes our current situation confronts us with questions of human collectivity, but he resists a homogenizing vision of “global identity,” and sees “obvious value” in retaining “postcolonial suspicion of the universal.”[20] He does not abandon one scale of history for another, but asks that we attend to these registers simultaneously (even if doing so radically challenges historical understanding). The specter of “essentialism” is real to him, as are the dangers of “the political uses of biology.”[21] Still, I am not convinced that Chakrabarty fully appreciates the way in which scaling-up our imagination of the human has engendered–and perhaps is bound to engender–essentialist, reductionist, or homogenizing portraits of the human, not to mention inadequate forms of interdisciplinarity. Wilson’s species concept, in and of itself, carries a lot of troubling baggage.[22]

Citing Daniel Lord Smail’s work on deep history, for example, Chakrabarty suggests that the aforementioned perils are not so grave. Species, after all, are not fixed or homogenous entities, and the quest to identify human nature has proven largely futile and is, therefore, not something to fret about. Furthermore, Chakrabarty ventures that all disciplines engage in reductionism or abstraction: the category of personhood is “no less a reduction of or an abstraction from the embodied and whole human being, than, say, the human skeleton discussed in anatomy class.”[23] Well, perhaps. But we should note that Wilson’s brand of species-thinking, unlike Smail’s (or Darwin’s) does entail that “humans possess a species specific nature and morality.”[24] These bold assertions are uncritically received by Epic of Evolution devotees. They, like Wilson, are not especially sensitive to the limits of biological explanation. They will not entertain conversations about human nature not “firmly grounded in the sciences” and believe that “one world calls for one story.”[25]As they gaze out into the cosmos, or deep into our evolutionary past, the new self-appointed narrators of the Anthropocene do not contemplate a differentiated humanity polarized into rich and poor–as Chakrabarty at least occasionally does–but humanity in a universalizing spirit. Our destiny is to become “universe people … a form of human being that is natural to the universe.”[26]

What is worse, Wilson and his admirers castigate humanities scholars for failing to place these settled accounts of human nature at the center of their research, as if humanists’ reluctance to do so stemmed from a failure of courage rather than an appreciation of the diverse conceptual tools available to us from across the disciplines. Wilson’s attachment to the relative fixity and universality of human nature is inseparable from his investment in a form of faux interdisciplinarity he calls consilience.[27] Consilience, the unity of all knowledge, is predicated upon a clear disciplinary hierarchy. Disciplines oriented to the study of human culture will eventually fall out into science, Wilson predicts, as science progressively colonizes and explains material that was once their purview. Hence, the lasting value of the arts and humanities lies in their capacity to express in poetic, visual, or narrative form–and thereby disseminate and celebrate–the discoveries of science. Variations on this problematic division of labor characterize the narrative projects that are presently encroaching upon my discipline.[28]

As scholars pursue convergences among disparate disciplines and timescales, they will find some collaborators more egalitarian than others. Among the inegalitarian partners, as John M. Meyer rightly notes, are enthusiasts of consilience who seek to reconcile disciplinary differences by uniting all under the banner of biology. [29] Scientists who exhort humanists to embrace their portrait of the human may fail to recognize that the sciences themselves reveal multiple registers and scales, and thus multiple images of the human. Even within biological science alone–say paleobiology, microbiology, and biochemistry–we find visions of the human that are incommensurable with one another, as Julia Adeney Thomas argues.[30] The species-level view of humans as a collective agent and discrete entity might be recognizable to paleobiologists, but a microbiologist would reject this image in favor of one that regards each of us as a conglomerate of multiple species, akin to a coral reef. Where paleobiology may seem to underwrite species solidarity–the ethic at the heart of universalizing narratives like the Epic of Evolution or Universe Story–the microbiologist’s perspective makes it difficult to talk about a human “we” at all. “While 99.9 percent of our human DNA is shared,” Thomas notes, “our microbial cells may have as little as 50 percent of their genetic profile in common.” For those who look to science to inspire or justify a narrative of species oneness “this finding is disturbing.”[31]

Again, no single discipline can define for us what it means to be human in the Age of the Human. Instead of turning away from the messiness and inexactitude of these immiscible scales and their possible meanings—or forcing a reconciliation that does violence to their autonomy and richness–we might look instead “with wonder at the incommensurable yet accurate ways in which ‘the human’ emerges in various disciplines, especially in the Anthropocene.”[32] Ambitious disciplinary mergers such as those being forged in and around my own field of study will be productive and equitable only when scholars take seriously that no single framework can adequately interrogate the Anthropocene. We must say this again and again, and we must mean what we say, and say what we mean.

Reference List

Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

Dipesh Chakrabarty, ” The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Geophysical Agency of Humans and Climate Change,” Global Energy Affairs, September 19, 2013, accessed June 18, 2015, http://globalenergyinitiative.org/insights/161-climate-change-and-the-geophysical-agency-of-humans.html.

Clive Hamilton, “The Delusion of the ‘Good Anthropocene’: A Reply to Andrew Revkin,” CliveHamilton.com, June 17, 2014, accessed June 18, 2015, http://clivehamilton.com/the-delusion-of-the-good-anthropocene-reply-to-andrew-revkin/.

Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald, “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 59–72.

John M. Meyer, “Less is More,” in Minding the Gap: Working Across Disciplines in Environmental Studies, eds. Robert Emmett and Frank Zelco, RCC Perspectives, 2014, no. 2: 15–8.

Andrew C. Revkin, “Exploring Academia’s Role in Charting Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” New York Times, June 16, 2014.

Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough, “A Consilient Curriculum,” in The Evolutionary Epic: Science’s Story and Humanity’s Response, eds. Cheryl Genet et al., (Santa Margarita, Calif.: Collins Foundation Press, 2009), 175–82.

Lisa Sideris, “Science as Sacred Myth?: Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age,” in Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World, eds. Ricardo Rozzi et al. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2013): 147–62.

Lisa Sideris, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2017). 

Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992).

Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Julia Adeney Thomas, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (2014): 1587–1607.

Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Edward O. Wilson, In Search of Nature (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996).

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ” The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 220, 215.

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Geophysical Agency of Humans and Climate Change,” Global Energy Affairs, September 19, 2013, accessed June 18, 2015, http://globalenergyinitiative.org/insights/161-climate-change-and-the-geophysical-agency-of-humans.html.

[3] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses,” 219.

[4] Here I refer to E.O. Wilson, whose ideas Chakrabarty invokes. Some may object to my invocation of sociobiology, given Wilson’s move embrace group selection theory, but Wilson has never broken with the basic dogma that such complex behaviors as morality, religion, and artistic expression are fundamentally biological in nature.

[5] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses.”

[6] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992).

[7] The Ecozoic is posited not as an epoch but an era of much longer duration.

[8] Swimme and Berry, Universe Story, 280.

[9] Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald, “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 59.

[10] See, for example, Andrew C. Revkin, “Exploring Academia’s Role in Charting Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” New York Times, June 16, 2014, accessed June 18, 2015, http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/exploring-academias-role-in-charting-paths-to-a-good-anthropocene/. See also Clive Hamilton’s reply: “The Delusion of the ‘Good Anthropocene’: A Reply to Andrew Revkin,” CliveHamilton.com, June 17, 2014, accessed June 18, 2015, http://clivehamilton.com/the-delusion-of-the-good-anthropocene-reply-to-andrew-revkin/.

[11] Swimme and Berry, Universe Story, 259.

[12] Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 117.

[13] Andrew Revkin, “Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Planetary Mind’ and our Spiritual Evolution,” On Being with Krista Tippett, January 23, 2014, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.onbeing.org/program/teilhard-de-chardins-planetary-mind-and-our-spiritual-evolution/4965.

[14] See “The Great Story,” accessed June 18, 2015, http://thegreatstory.org/what_is.html.

[15] Tucker and Swimme also invoke the language of the Anthropocene. Humans have “crossed over into an Earth whose very atmosphere and biosphere are being shaped by human decisions. . .With our machines and our numbers we have become a geological force.” Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011): 101, 102.

[16] Wilson first alluded to an epic of evolution in his On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978). For a fuller examination of these movements and their relationship to science, see Lisa Sideris, “Science as Sacred Myth?: Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age,” in Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World, eds. Ricardo Rozzi et al. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2013): 147–62.

[17] It might be said that they collapse cosmic history into human history, counterintuitive as that sounds, insofar as humans are seen as implicitly present since the Big Bang.

[18] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses,” 220.

[19] See, for example, Mary Evelyn Tucker’s “Overview” of the Journey of the Universe, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org/.

[20] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses,” 222.

[21] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses,” 222.

[22] Wilson’s work routinely pursues grand and controversial themes: human nature and sociobiology; free will and determinism; the unity of science. His bold pronouncements on these themes, moreover, tend to be interconnected, as parts of an overarching metaphysics.

[23] Chakrabarty, “Four Theses,” 215.

[24] Edward O. Wilson, In Search of Nature (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996), 99.

[25] Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough, “A Consilient Curriculum,” 181.

[26] Swimme and Tucker, Journey, 113.

[27] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

[28] See Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough, “A Consilient Curriculum,” in The Evolutionary Epic: Science’s Story and Humanity’s Response, eds. Cheryl Genet et al., (Santa Margarita, Calif.: Collins Foundation Press, 2009), 175–82.

[29] John M. Meyer, “Less is More,” in Minding the Gap: Working Across Disciplines in Environmental Studies, eds. Robert Emmett and Frank Zelco, RCC Perspectives 2014, no. 2: 15–8.

[30] Julia Adeney Thomas, ” History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (2014): 1587–1607.

[31] Thomas, “History and Biology,” 1595.

[32] Thomas, “History and Biology,” 1589 (emphasis added).