Net zero requires massive tracts of land. Habitat conservation lies in the details

Crunching the numbers, researchers found that turning the western U.S. into an electrified net zero hub is technically feasible, affordable—and perhaps even environmentally sustainable.

By Warren Cornwall

Original article here

The push to power more of the modern world with electricity—and to get those electrons without burning fossil fuels—isn’t entirely green.

Vows to steer down a path to “net zero” carbon emissions around the middle of this century have become a centerpiece of climate policies for companiesstates and entire countries. Such moves are considered critical if the world is going to keep temperature increases well below 2°C, a threshold commonly cited as a point when the effects of global warming become severe.

But kicking the fossil fuel addiction comes with an environmental price of its own, especially if we want to hang onto the cell phones, plane trips, car commutes and 24/7 easy electricity that are hallmarks of modern life in the developed world. Copper, aluminum, lithium and rare earth metals, to name a few, need to be mined. And then there’s the question of where to put all those solar panels, wind turbines and switchgrass fields.

Now, a group of scientists working in the western U.S. have crafted a road map for getting the region to net zero while minimizing the environmental footprint. The upshot: It’s going to take a lot of land blanketed with solar panels and wind turbines. But careful planning could shrink the footprint on sensitive habitats and valuable farmland by half.

Grace Wu, a University of California, Santa Barbara environmental scientist who helped lead the research, summed up her view of the likelihood of western states reaching net zero this way: “It’s going to be hard, but it’s not impossible.”

Reconfiguring an entire energy system is no easy task. The North American electrical grid alone has been described as the world’s largest machine. Add in all the ways energy today is produced (wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, gas, coal, oil, etc.) and used (transportation, manufacturing, server farms, watching Netflix, writing this story, etc.). The number of variables is staggering.

Wu was part of a team of scientists with expertise in all things energy who joined forces to try to come up with detailed, realistic scenarios for how the 11 states in the western U.S., which are joined together by electrical transmission lines, could shift their energy systems to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They also wanted to see what the footprint would be on land and in the ocean. Members included people from a handful of California universities, consulting firms, energy companies and the environmental group The Nature Conservancy.

To find answers, the group embarked on a binge of data-crunching and computer modeling. They used environmental and land-use data to map where power generators such as wind farms could be built. They modeled routes and costs for power lines to get electricity from where it’s made to where it’s used. They plugged all of this into a program called RIO, designed to create different scenarios that would meet future energy needs. They then calculated how these results overlaid on the region’s farmland, important wildlife habitat and relatively undamaged landscapes.

The magnitude of the impact is boggling. By 2050, turning the western U.S. into a highly electrified net zero mecca run largely on renewable energy would take as much as 4.5 times more total electricity than a system built without worrying about carbon emissions. That’s largely because of the shift from fossil-fuel burning devices (cars, stoves, furnaces) to ones running on electricity. Demand for transmission systems to move that electricity would be as much as 65% greater. And the amount of land and ocean space dedicated to energy could be as much as 11 times greater than if carbon weren’t a concern. All told, the region’s energy footprint would be between 70,000 and 143,000 square kilometers bigger with the net zero push, the scientists reported this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The larger number represents enough solar panels, power lines, wind turbines and bioenergy crops to cover nearly half the state of New Mexico.

“The scale, pace, and land use requirements of the energy infrastructure build-out required to achieve net-zero economy-wide emissions are unprecedented,” the researchers wrote. “Yet, if this transition is adequately planned, it is technically feasible, affordable, and environmentally sustainable.”

The final footprint, however, depends on the details. Shifting more quickly to electricity would reduce the amount of land used, because it would mean less reliance on producing liquid biofuel from crops, the most land-intensive part of this energy equation. Likewise, adopting measures to steer power production away from more ecologically or agriculturally valuable land would shift power production to less land-intensive uses, the scientists found. For example, more conservation-minded policies would translate into a 25% increase in solar farms, while wind farms would shrink by 26%.

Emphasizing land conservation does add a 3% cost to overall energy production, which amounts to $7.8 billion in annual costs in 2050, the study showed.

While these scenarios help clarify the tradeoffs of choosing different paths forward, they illustrate how daunting it will be to make good on the net zero promises. It also raises questions about whether society and governments are ready for it. Between now and 2050, construction of low-carbon energy infrastructure would need to advance at two to three times current rates.

The biggest roadblocks could come with some of the least glamorous hardware: transmission lines. It can take a decade to build high-voltage transmission lines to ferry electricity across multiple states – for example from Wyoming windfarms to California, said Wu. That’s in part due to the challenges of getting permits for such projects. The study found that even with more strict land conservation policies, getting to net zero would take more than 10,000 kilometers of new high-voltage lines. “I worry more about actually permitting transmission than I do about permitting wind and solar farms,” she said

Wu, et. al. “Minimizing habitat conflicts in meeting net-zero energy targets in the western United States.” Jan. 19, 2023. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image: ©Andy Tucker via Flickr

Reflecting on the Anthropocene: The Call for Deeper Transformations

Karen O’Brien 

Ambio volume 50, pages 1793–1797 (2021)


Research on global environmental change has transformed the way that we think about human-environment relationships and Earth system processes. The four Ambio articles highlighted in this 50th Anniversary Issue have influenced the cultural narrative on environmental change, highlighting concepts such as “resilience,” “coupled human and natural systems”, and the “Anthropocene.” In this peer response, I argue that global change research is still paying insufficient attention to how to deliberately transform systems and cultures to avoid the risks that science itself has warned us about. In particular, global change research has failed to adequately integrate the subjective realm of meaning making into both understanding and action. Although this has been an implicit subtext in global change research, it is time to fully integrate research from the social sciences and environmental humanities.

“Welcome to the Anthropocene.” The cover photo of the May 28, 2011 edition of The Economist portrayed the Earth as a technical structure covered by riveted steel plates in dull blue colors. The accompanying story informed readers that “Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too” (The Economist 2011). This was a remarkable statement from a magazine considered an icon of neoliberal economic policy, and it seemed to suggest that an awareness of human-induced global environmental change had finally penetrated the world of business and economics. Ten years later, is there any real evidence of a fundamental shift in thinking that moves beyond business as usual and towards an equitable and sustainable world?

Yes and no. How we think about the way that the world works has changed dramatically over the past decades. The years leading up to The Economist cover story saw an impressive amount of research on global environmental change that has transformed the way that we think about human-environment relationships and Earth system processes. The concept of the Anthropocene has contributed to a new way of describing the significant role of humans in shaping the Earth’s geology and ecology. Yet climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, inequality, and other global problems are even more serious concerns today, and the timeframe for taking actions to meet international commitments is shrinking, increasing the risk of reaching “tipping points” and experiencing catastrophic losses (IPCC 2018; IPBES 2019). Business as usual has been proceeding at breakneck speed, interrupted only by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an important moment to reflect on how conscious transformations to sustainability can be realized.

In this peer reflection, I start by acknowledging the contributions of global change research to a dynamic, interconnected view of the world. With specific reference to four key articles published in Ambio, it is clear that concepts such as “resilience,” “coupled human and natural systems,” and “the Anthropocene” represent important advances that have influenced both scientific and cultural narratives on environmental change. However, I would also argue that global change research is still paying insufficient attention to how to deliberately transform systems and cultures to avoid the risk of what Steffen et al. (2011, p. 14) describe as “the collapse of large segments of the human population or of globalised contemporary society as whole.” In particular, global change research has failed to adequately integrate the subjective realm of meaning making into both understanding and action. Not just meaning making in general, but the differences in and dynamics of meaning making, including how they relate to beliefs, values, agency, empowerment, creativity, emotions, and not the least, political action. A deeper approach recognizes the limits of what Berzonsky and Moser (2017, p. 16) refer to as the “’dominant social paradigm’ characterized by fragmentation, either/or thinking, an isolation of humans from nature, and a split of the material from the spiritual, the individual from community.” Without attention to the “deeper” human dimensions of global environmental change, it is likely that large-scale societal transformations will remain wishful thinking, rather than experienced realities.

The importance of meaning making has long been an implicit subtext within global change research. In fact, the realm of human thought and ideas, also referred to as the “noosphere,” has historically had a close relationship with understandings of ecology and geology (see Samson and Pitt 1999). However, even though this relationship has been recognized for over one hundred years, the dynamic aspects of meaning making have not been fully integrated into global change research, with exceptions such as research on climate change beliefs within cognitive psychology and on indigenous attitudes towards nature in anthropology and human geography. As an abstract representation of the subjective, interior world of individual and collective meaning making, the noosphere may be a useful starting point for inquiries into how humans relate to each other, to nature, and to the future. More important, it may provide insights into how this does (or does not) change over time and within different social and cultural contexts, such that we can better understand and promote rapid transformations to sustainability.

The four Ambio articles reviewed here include subtle yet significant references to the noosphere. For example, in “Resilience and Sustainable Development: Building Adaptive Capacity in a World of Transformations,” Folke et al. (2002, p. 437) called for “awareness of the need for a worldwide fundamental change in thinking and in practice of environmental management.” Emphasizing concepts of resilience and adaptive management, they highlighted the dynamic and non-linear nature of social-ecological change and the potential for irreversible regime shifts. They also considered the policy implications of resilience within the context of sustainable development, drawing attention to interrelationships between the biosphere and prosperous development of society, as well as the need for flexible and innovative collaboration. The article offered suggestions for how to operationalize sustainability, including by strengthening the perception of interdependence of humanity and nature and recognizing that “The outdated perception of humanity as decoupled from, and in control of, nature is an underlying cause of society’s vulnerability” (Folke et al. 2002, p. 438). This article touched on the relationship between thoughts and practices, which together with the call for a shift in perceptions, hints at the importance of meaning making, beliefs, and worldviews. This was important, as the paper summarized a report that fed into the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

In “Coupled Human and Natural Systems,” Liu et al. (2007) emphasized the complexity of organizational, spatial, and temporal relationships, and highlighted the ways that cumulative and evolving impacts of past interactions influence current and future conditions. In describing coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), they pointed to the global yet heterogeneous nature of spatial interactions and the time lags between human decisions and their environmental effects, all of which complicate understandings and management strategies. Unprecedented rapid changes and tighter couplings at multiple scales were presented as an interdisciplinary challenge that called for integrated tools and assessments to produce “more ‘usable’ knowledge for sustainable ecological and socioeconomic benefits” (Liu et al. 2007, p. 646). In reflecting on the implications for management, governance, and policy, Liu et al. (2007) recognized that hubris in human attitudes toward natural systems was an impediment for progress. At the same time, they acknowledged that humans are not sufficiently represented in ecological science. The paper thus indirectly recognized the importance of subjective attitudes and meaning making and the need for a larger role for the social sciences and humanities in global change research.

In the same issue of Ambio, the article by Steffen et al. (2007) on “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” described a profound shift in human-nature relationships. Placing the understanding of coupled human and natural systems within a wider historical context, the paper stressed that humanity is pushing the Earth into a state of terra incognita. The authors drew attention to some of the worst-case scenarios, noting that prior to the Anthropocene, humans “did not have the numbers, social and economic organization, or technologies needed to equal or dominate the great forces of Nature in magnitude or rate” (Steffen et al. 2007, p. 615). With the onset of industrialization in the 19th century, humans transformed the environment at a global scale, as evidenced by dramatic rises in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions. In describing The Great Acceleration that started in 1945, Steffen et al. (2007) noted that the intellectual, cultural, political, and legal context at the time paid little attention to the impacts on Earth System processes. To ensure sustainability of the planet, they emphasized the need for a more reflective approach to development, noting that “Humanity is, in one way or another, becoming a self-conscious, active agent in the operation of its own life support system” (Steffen et al. 2007, p. 619). The very idea that part of the system is becoming self-aware of its impact on the system suggested a shift in meaning-making, which is a reflection that resonates with some interpretations of the noosphere (Samson and Pitt 1999).

Finally, the article by Steffen et al. (2011) highlighted the potential for managing the global environment in a more sustainable manner, and called for a fundamental change in our relationship to the planet we inhabit. In “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship,” the authors reiterated some of the historical drivers and indicators of the Anthropocene, and pointed to the importance of biodiversity in maintaining sustainable environmental conditions. Importantly, they stressed that “We are the first generation with the knowledge of how our activities influence the Earth System, and thus the first generation with the power and the responsibility to change our relationship with the planet” (Steffen et al. 2011, p. 759). This article too hinted that changing our relationship with the planet involves more than behavioral shifts; it involves a shift in meaning-making that is expressed through actions that replace exploitative or controlling systems with ones that reflect a mindset of interdependence and stewardship.

These four Ambio articles identified the need for transformative change, and thus can be considered foundations for today’s rapidly-growing literature on transformations to sustainability. For example, Folke et al. (2002, p. 437) recognized that “humans can transform ecosystems into more or less desirable conditions.” Steffen et al. (2007) concluded that a business-as-usual approach will be insufficient to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, and Liu et al. (2007, p. 644) recognized that “traditional development strategies need to be altered, and transforming them into sustainable practices is urgent…”. Finally, Steffen et al. (2011, p. 753) sounded a warning against ‘‘fiddling at the edges’’ and acknowledge that “[m]ore transformational approaches may be required.” The transformative approaches described by Steffen et al. (2007) ranged from geo-engineering or the deliberate manipulation of Earth system processes to strategies to reduce or modify human influence by adopting a “Planetary Boundaries” approach. Yet geoengineering is widely considered a continuation of business as usual, in that it does nothing to challenge the current political, economic, or cultural systems that drive environmental change, nor the paradigms and practices that maintain them. This suggests a rather limited vision for transformative responses within the biophysical discourse on global environmental change (Leichenko and O’Brien 2019).

The articles have certainly helped to steer global change research in a more integrated and action-oriented direction. For example, Folke et al.’s (2002) focus on sudden and abrupt changes can be considered a precursor to research on planetary boundaries and tipping points, which is now being applied to the concept of social tipping points (Bentley et al. 2014; Milkoreit et al. 2018; Otto et al. 2020). Liu et al. (2007) called for more attention to emergent properties, reciprocal effects, nonlinearity, and surprises in management and planning. In discussing the increased scale and pace of human-nature interactions, they used the example of diseases such as SARS that spread much faster than earlier due to globalization processes. Despite these insights, the recent COVID-19 pandemic reveals a massive failure to integrate knowledge and action. Steffen et al. (2011) remind us that a failure to act introduces the possibility for collapse, or the uncontrolled decline of a society or civilization.

What these articles did not address was how deliberate transformations to sustainability come about, particularly how transformations in perceptions, meaning making, and relationships with nature actually can and do shift, and how such changes play out in the political sphere. Importantly, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of research programs, projects, and articles on transformations to sustainability. Most of these are located within the social sciences and environmental humanities, and draw attention to the importance of integrating more complex understandings of social systems and more nuanced interpretations of human relationships with the natural world. In Urgency in the Anthropocene, Lynch and Veland (2018, p. 1) contend that the notion of the Anthropocene belongs to a modern European mythology and its linear view of time, emphasizing that “our narration of causation and expectation fundamentally determines the preparation for, response to, and recovery from each perceived manifestation of anthropogenic global change.” For example, representation of the Anthropocene as a “rupture” or deviation from Holocene conditions can be contrasted with an interpretation that highlights the “entanglement” of humans and other beings and processes in the Earth system (Harrington 2020). Indeed, more and more researchers are focusing on how to transform these entangled relationships, paying attention to the role of mindsets, meaning making, imagination, and narratives (Göpel 2016; Milkoreit 2017; Hochachka 2019).

There are also many critical and emancipatory approaches in the social science that acknowledge the ways that social structures and institutions can limit or expand the potential for humans and non-human species to flourish in the Anthropocene (Wright 2013). For example, pointing to the need to go beyond a general focus on “megatrends” and “humanity,” Brand (2016, p. 515) emphasizes a political ecology perspective, where “[w]hat is being examined is not ‘the environment’, the ‘environmental space’, ‘planetary boundaries’, or even the overuse of resources, ecosystems and sinks. Of interest are rather the capitalist, imperial and patriarchal forms of the appropriation of nature: i.e., the forms in which such basic societal needs as food and housing, mobility and communications, and health and reproduction are satisfied.” This focus on power, politics, gender, colonization, global inequality, and interspecies relationships has led to alternative interpretations of the Anthropocene, introducing terms such as the Manthropocene, the Capitalocene and the Chthulucene (Gibson-Graham 2011; Castree 2015; Haraway 2016).

Returning to the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” article in The Economist, one cannot help but notice that the “world of transformations” described by Folke et al. (2002) translated into the idea that planetary resilience “will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling” (The Economist 2011), or more specifically geoengineering and technical innovations. Hmm. It is clear that transformations to an equitable, just, and thriving world will require more than this. Perhaps the key to a sustainable future lies not in just working to change the way that “others” think about the world, but to be alert and wary of the potential for hubris in the science of global change. The imperative for transformative change demands reflexive, strategic, inclusive, and diverse responses; integrating the noosphere into understandings of Earth System processes may help us not only to make sense of the current crises, but also to transform them.


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O’Brien, K. Reflecting on the Anthropocene: The Call for Deeper Transformations. Ambio 50, 1793–1797 (2021).

Seeing Through the Fumes: Technology and Asymmetry in the Anthropocene

Jochem Zwier & 

Vincent Blok 


This paper offers a twofold ontological conceptualization of technology in the Anthropocene. On the one hand, we aim to show how the Anthropocene occasions an experience of our inescapable inclusion in the technological structuring of reality that Martin Heidegger associates with cybernetics. On the other hand, by confronting Heidegger’s thought on technology with Georges Bataille’s consideration of technological existence as economic and averted existence, we will criticize Heidegger’s account by arguing that notwithstanding its inescapable inclusion in cybernetics, technology in the Anthropocene itself fosters an experience of what remains excluded. We conclude by indicating how such an experience is relevant for contemporary philosophical investigation of technology.

And Earth, our bloodwarm Earth, a shuddering prey

To that frigidity of brainless ray – George Meredith


This paper offers a twofold ontological conceptualization of technology in the Anthropocene. On the one hand, we aim to show how the Anthropocene occasions an experience of our inescapable inclusion in the technological structuring of reality that Martin Heidegger associates with cybernetics. On the other hand, by confronting Heidegger’s thought on technology with Georges Bataille’s consideration of technological existence as economic and averted existence, we will argue that notwithstanding its inescapable inclusion in cybernetics, technology in the Anthropocene itself fosters an experience of what remains excluded. We conclude by indicating why such an experience is relevant for the contemporary philosophical investigation of technology.

To clarify what is at stake, we will address technology in terms of symmetry and asymmetry. In “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section, we begin by interpreting the Anthropocene as a cybernetic phenomenon in Heidegger’s sense. Technological existence is thereby rendered ontologically symmetric, meaning that our habitation of the Earth comes to be characterized by what we will discuss as a collective measure (symmetry) of technological regulation. In “The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section, we consider the Anthropocene from an ecological perspective to articulate an asymmetry on the part of the anthropocenic Earth. Subsequently, the “Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section shows how this asymmetry comes to unsettle Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of symmetric cybernetics. Put briefly, this means that even though the Anthropocene concretely corresponds to Heidegger’s portrayal of the “cybernetic age,” it does not entail the therewith associated oblivion of being. Instead, we will develop a critique of Heidegger’s consideration of cybernetics by arguing that the peculiar interplay of technology and the Earth gives rise to a concrete experience of being as concealing-unconcealing. To investigate this experience, the “Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” section introduces a Bataillean reading of technology that flanks but finally strays from Heidegger’s interpretation. Situating technology in Bataille’s thought on economy and waste allows for an articulation of technological existence as forgetfully diverting from what ontologically constitutes it. While such an articulation of technology resonates with Heidegger’s association of cybernetic technology and the oblivion of being, we submit that technology in the Anthropocene comes to be reminded of this forgetful diversion, notably due to the way it relates to the Earth via abundance and waste. We therefore conclude that in the Anthropocene, technology must be understood as ontologically forgetful, but not wholly oblivious, as it fosters—through the fumes of the technological waste named CO2—a responsivity to what ontologically constitutes technological existence whilst remaining asymmetric to it. Finally, the “Conclusion: the Asymmetric Exposure” section indicates why such a twofold consideration of technology (as symmetric and asymmetric) is relevant for the philosophical questioning of technology in relation to our earthly ecology.

The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon

In this section, we interpret the Anthropocene as a cybernetic phenomenon, thereby using Heidegger’s considerations of phenomenology and cybernetics as a guide.

The Anthropocene is commonly understood as the epoch in which the technological activity of industrialized humanity becomes the dominant factor shaping the Earth and its associated life-supporting systems (Steffen et al. 2007). Supplementing the Holocene, where the relatively warm climate was considered to be the critical geological factor (Crutzen 2002; Fagan 2004; Dumanoski 2009), the Anthropocene places anthropic technological activity in the center, thus marking the time in which “natural and human forces [are] intertwined, so that the fate of the one determines the fate of the other” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010: 2231).

As Hamilton, Bonneuil, and Gemmene note, the concept of the Anthropocene is not isolated to the scientific fields of climate science, geology, and earth-system science, but moves beyond these fields insofar as it more generally “represents the ground-breaking attempt to think together earth processes, life, [and] human enterprise (…) into a totalizing framework” (Hamilton et al. 2015: 2). This convergence of human enterprise and other earthly processes is philosophically relevant because it renders them symmetric, meaning that both appear in the same register of geo-forces whose operation constitutes the earth-system. By implication, human rational thought is not merely considered to appear on Earth as a manifestation of something superlunary or transcendent, but primarily appears as Earth, which is to say as one of many earth-shaping geo-forces, albeit one of considerable magnitude (see Zwier and Blok 2017). The magnitude of the rational geo-force called humanity becomes particularly patent in its techno-industrial interlocking with other earthly processes, for instance the ones that engender fossil fuels (the residue of antecedent geo-forces such as organic life compressed via plate tectonics). By way of this interlocking of geo-forces, the human geo-force currently takes the stage as the dominant earth-shaping force amongst many (see Crutzen 2002; Steffen et al. 20072011ab).

The Anthropocenic symmetry between thought and other earthly processes is philosophically relevant because it suggests that theoretical thought can no longer assume an isolated perspective that merely observes the configuration of geo-forces as an object, but is itself always already implicated or included in this configuration. Such inclusivity prompts an interpretation of the Anthropocene as a phenomenon to be questioned phenomenologically.Footnote1 Following the work of Martin Heidegger, a phenomenon never stands over against us as thing or object, but concerns the relation that we always already enact in our encounter with things (see Heidegger 2004; see Zwier et al. 2016). Heidegger famously exemplifies this relationality when he shows how a theoretical perspective on a hammer (considered as material object with particular weight, strength etc.) already enacts a specific relation by means of which the hammer can appear as a theoretical, “present-at-hand” object (Heidegger 2008: 93, 95). Such a theorizing relation is not universal but specific: in using a hammer, one does not encounter it as a theoretical object, but rather enacts a kind of relation by which the hammer appears “ready-to-hand” (2008: 95–102), meaning that it withdraws in favor of the project that is to be hammered out. Although we can relate to things in various ways, the crucial phenomenological point is that we are always already and inescapably included in a relation. Such inclusion is inescapable because of the following reason: although our way of encountering a hammer can itself become the object of analysis (as the above example illustrates), this can only be done by enacting a relation in which this particular encounter itself appears as theoretical object to be analyzed. This then means that we are always already included in a relation between being and thinking, whether this concerns the ‘embodied’ kind of thinking enacted in praxis (using a hammer) or a more ‘abstract’ theoretical thinking (studying the hammer as object, or analyzing ways of encountering a hammer). The phenomenon concerns this inclusive relation between being and thinking. It is thereby not itself situated on the ontic level of beings or objects that we find in front of us, but must be understood ontologically, as an inescapable structuring of our encounter with things. Now, the Anthropocene attests to a similar inescapable inclusivity, given how human (practical and theoretical) activity is here considered to be inevitably implicated in a play of geo-forces. This suggests that the Anthropocene can be understood as phenomenon (see Zwier and Blok 2017).

Questioning the phenomenon of the Anthropocene accordingly means questioning the character of its inclusive relationality. We propose to call this relationality cybernetic. This follows Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics as a “foundational” or “fundamental science [Grundwissenschaft]” (Heidegger 1972: 58).Footnote2 For Heidegger, cybernetics is not one particular scientific discipline apropos a specific domain of objects at the ontic level of specific beings (technological, organic, social etc.), but is ontological in that it concerns the relation between being and thinking that already “defines and steers” (1972: 58, translation modified) the objective sciences, meaning that it structures the way in which objects are encountered and how propositions regarding such objects are made and evaluated. He calls this ontological relationality cybernetic because being and scientific thinking couple in an operative feedback-loop: in the same way that an anti-aircraft cannon constantly feeds-back information pertaining to the flightpath of an aircraft into its actuators (speed of rotation, angle of barrel etc.) to constitute an adaptive system, the sciences feed-back propositions, categories, hypotheses, and (experimental) results into a functioning whole, constantly adapting or discarding dysfunctional elements, for instance via a process of falsification (see Heidegger 2001: 91–92, 1972: 58–59). Our hypothesis is that the phenomenon of the Anthropocene involves such a cybernetic relation between being and thinking, whilst provoking a concrete experience of our inclusion in this cybernetic relationality. As such, we submit that the Anthropocene can be characterized as cybernetic phenomenon. To develop this hypothesis, we begin by analyzing both sides of the relation between being and thinking, which in turn sheds light on the phenomenological implications pertaining to this relation itself.

On the side of being, the anthropocenic objective sciences (most notably earth-system science) consider the being in question—the Earth—as earth-system. This system has a cybernetic character insofar as various functional elements (temperature, pH, chemical composition of the atmosphere, ecosystems, and notably human activity) couple in a feedback-loop which regulates the conditions of the planet understood as integral system. Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill accordingly define the earth-system as

the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles (…) and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet. [A] critical feature is that forcings and feedbacks within the Earth System are as important as external drivers of change, such as the flux of energy from the sun. [The] Earth System includes humans, our societies, and our activities; thus, humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself. (Steffen et al. 2007: 615; see Hamilton 2016: 94)

The being called the earth system thus appears as a cybernetic system, which integrates human beings as one of its many regulatory elements. Be that as it may, this description of a particular cybernetic being does not yet lend credence to our hypothesis that the Anthropocene concerns a cybernetic relation between being and thinking in an ontological sense. We therefore turn to the side of thinking.

It is noteworthy that anthropocenic scientific thought is not merely about some cybernetic being called the earth-system and its dynamic configuration of geo-forces. Rather, scientific thought is itself already included in a cybernetic encounter with this cybernetic being, given how it is oriented towards regulation of the human habitat. Science has not only disclosed how the Anthropocene signals—most eminently and alarmingly via global warming—the advent of an earthly regime that may well be uninhabitable for humanity, but immediately responds to this by mobilizing scientific knowledge about the earth-system to ward off such a regime (see Hamilton et al. 2015: 4; Baskin 2015: 13; Clark 2011). Instances of this include Crutzen’s aim to “guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene” (2002: 23), the envisaged task to “steer nature’s course symbiotically” (Crutzen and Schwägerl 2011), or the general idea of “Planetary Stewardship” (Steffen et al. 2011ab), whether via radical geo-engineering or other (perhaps more conservative) ways of technologically regulating the planet (see Lorimer 2016; see Zwier and Blok 2017; Lynas 2011). As Jeremy Baskin sums up:

In almost all of the major accounts of the concept it is assumed that [the Anthropocene] requires a trinity of techniques: clear management of the Earth and Earth-systems, guided by experts (and scientists/engineers in particular), using the most advanced technology possible (including large-scale technology). (2015: 20)

This regulative response to global warming indicates how scientific thought is not merely about the cybernetic being called the earth-system, but itself immediately and cybernetically feeds back into this system to regulate thermal parameters that are presently witnessed to drift towards fatal levels. Such a focus on regulation is not limited to eco-modernist programs of planetary engineering. For instance, the socio-ecological approach of “Resilience Thinking” (Walker and Salt 2006) is critical of a “command-and-control approach” (11) that tends to place human management outside the ecological system. At the same time, whilst explicitly acknowledging and including itself in the interlinking of social and natural systems (8), resilience thinking expressly considers such interlinking in terms of cybernetic regulation and feedback. This is evidenced by its basic concepts, where, for example, resilience itself is understood as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function” (1), or where “thresholds” take account of how systems have “more than one kind of stable state … with different feedbacks between its component parts” (11).Footnote3 Generally then, with regards to the relation between being and thinking, such emphasis on regulation and feedback makes clear that scientific thought not only encounters the earth-system as a cybernetic being or system at the ontic level, but that this encounter is itself already “defined and steered” by cybernetics at an ontological level.

Yet what is more, this cybernetic character is not limited to scientific thought vis-à-vis the earth-system, but equally envelops the mundane thinking that we enact in, for example, having a cup of coffee. Indeed, the phenomenon of the Anthropocene precisely and quite literally renders a cup of coffee mundane insofar as its earthly character becomes pronounced (ontologically, not aromatically). In the same way that we no longer can have routine conversations about the weather without having global warming intrude upon the conversation (Morton 2013: 99), neither can we have a cup of coffee that is not shadowed by its earthly trace, e.g., a carbon-footprint related to its production, shipping, brewing, etc., and which cannot be dissociated from a warming earth-system. Of course, this earthly character is not always obtrusive: we do not experience it when stopping by the coffee machine before rushing into a meeting. Yet when it does come to the fore—for instance when the emptied beaker made out of 100% biodegradable materials catches our eye during a tedious meetingFootnote4—it not only reveals our preceding activity of drinking coffee as feeding back into the earth-system, but further makes clear that this feedback is unavoidable: opting for ecologically certified coffee that includes emission compensation precisely takes account of such feedback. The takeaway here is not some normative vilification of coffee, but a phenomenological indication of how the cybernetic character of the Anthropocene does not merely concern the relation between being and scientific thinking, but likewise envelops the relation between being and the mundane, everyday thinking involved in brewing, ordering, or drinking a cup of coffee.

In this way, the Anthropocene can be said to render Heidegger’s arguably rather abstract ontological interpretation of cybernetics concrete, as it manifests how we are inescapably included in a relationality that can be phenomenologically characterized in terms of cybernetic, regulative steering.Footnote5 For Heidegger, cybernetics means that

The world-relations of humans and with them the collective societal existence of humans, are enclosed in the hegemonic domain of cybernetic science. (Heidegger 1983: 145)Footnote6

In the Anthropocene, we can experience this “enclosure” in a concrete way insofar as we find ourselves part and parcel of a warming globe that must be regulated if it is to remain habitable. If the abovementioned coffee merely offers an easily overlooked glimpse, more blatant examples include starting the ignition of a car after refuelling (where feed-back into a thermally drifting earth-system increasingly becomes a burning concern), or proudly studying the yields of one’s rooftop solar array to record the “kg’s of CO2-emissions saved”. The experience here is how, just as we cannot step outside our warming globe, neither can we escape relating to this globe as an earth-system needing to be regulated in one way or another. As such, we can say that the Anthropocene both concurs with Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics and concomitantly offers a concretisation of what he articulates as our being “enclosed” (Heidegger 1983: 145) in a cybernetic relationality.Footnote7

The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry

The previous section took notice of what we can call the symmetry of the Anthropocene. Understood according to its colloquial meaning, such symmetry denotes a qualitative similarity, where humanity registers as one of many similar geo-forces that make up and shape the earth-system. Yet further, understood phenomenologically, this symmetry not only betokens the ontic domain of beings (such as geo-forces) but the ontological relation between being and thinking as well: if, as argued, the phenomenon of the Anthropocene implies that earthly beings (including ourselves as scientists, coffee drinkers, car refuelers, etc.) appear included in a cybernetic relationality, then this relationality is itself symmetric inasmuch as it is characterized by an inexorable—paraphrasing Heidegger: “enclosing”—collective measure, a sym-metry of regulative steering. Now, by foregrounding the Earth, the present section contrasts the symmetry of the Anthropocene by introducing an Earthly asymmetry.

Whatever one makes of it, the Anthropocene always obviously concerns the Earth. We proffer, however, that the above interpretation of the Anthropocene as cybernetic phenomenon engenders a specific, twofold understanding of the Earth, namely as symmetric oikos and asymmetric intrusion.

As to the first, we have argued that our current encounter with things takes place as Earth inasmuch as the regulative steering enacted by the geo-force called humanity inheres in an Earthly interplay of many symmetric geo-forces (notably including the interplay of geo-forces such as plate tectonics and organic life that engender fossil fuels on the one hand, and their technological, exploitative regulation by the human geo-force and its combustion engines on the other). Be that as it may, such symmetric encounters evidently take place on Earth. The latter can thereby be understood as the habitat or oikos that, as it were, provides the stage upon which the interplay of geo-forces unfolds. This oikos is symmetric in the ontic sense of housing a vast variety of symmetric geo-forces, but is also symmetric in an ontological sense that concerns the character of our habitation of this Earthly oikos, where being and thinking (whether scientific or mundane, see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section) couple in a regulative feedback-loop and thus adhere to the collective measure (sym-metry) of cybernetic regulation.

Besides the Earth as symmetric oikos, however, the Anthropocene also involves an asymmetry between oikos and Earth. This comes into view as the flipside of symmetrically understanding humanity as a geo-force: while the current dominance of the anthropic geo-force may validate its very own epochal nameplate, it becomes equally evident that this dominance is not its own Munchhausen-like doing, but is conditioned by the Earth. Not only does our geo-forcefulness hinge on the Earth granting us access to its vast depot of fossil fuels, but the very existence of our now planetary oikos turns out to be contingently premised on the earth-system going through a (Holocenic-Anthropocenic) period of relative climatic stability (see Szersynski 2012: 168). And at this juncture, global warming makes its dreaded entrance, not only as the consequence of the infernal coupling of the anthropic geo-force and fossil fuels (see Clark and Yusoff 2014), but primarily as compelling a concrete experience of what earth-system science and geology have long since known objectively, namely that the Earthly stability that supports our oikos and which we take for granted, is no longer self-evidently granted, and turns out to be an exception to the rule of a deeply unstable, constantly fluctuating and capricious Earth (see Clark 2011; McGuire 2013; Zwier and Blok 2017). This then demonstrates how in the Anthropocene, the cybernetic regulation of our habitat not only belongs to the Earth (here understood as the symmetric oikos upon which the interplay of geo-forces such as humans and fossil-fuels transpires), but is conjointly pitted against the Earth insofar as we find it withdrawing its stable support. In correspondingly experiencing the necessity to regulate against such withdrawal by way of some form of technological regulation, we both encounter and counter the intrusion of an Earthly regime that transcends, exceeds, i.e., remains asymmetric to our oikos. In short, in the Anthropocene, we do not merely inhabit the Earth (as symmetric oikos), but in so doing (en)counter the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth.Footnote8

This oiko-logical interpretation of the Anthropocene thus gives rise to a twofold consideration of the Earth as symmetric oikos and asymmetric intrusion. This consideration roots in what at first appears as a singularly ontic interpretation of a being called the Earth. It is open to question, however, whether the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth is limited to the ontic domain. The question that therefore follows concerns the implications of asymmetry for cybernetic symmetry.

Phenomenon and Asymmetry

In responding to the question raised at the end of the previous section, the hypothesis developed here is that the intrusion of asymmetry in the Anthropocene engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics. We submit that such a reorientation is significant for philosophy of technology, because it allows for a reconsideration of Heidegger’s identification of technology and the oblivion of being. To clarify this reorientation, it is fist necessary to elucidate two additional points of reference that orient Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics (“Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section), and subsequently confront these with the Anthropocene (“Cybernetics and the Anthropocene” section). Having already discussed the enclosure of cybernetics (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), we now turn to its unidirectionality and occlusion.

Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion

In characterizing the relation between being and thinking, cybernetics structures the way in which beings are encountered, namely according to a collective measure, a sym-metry of regulation. For Heidegger, such structuring is unidirectional, meaning that our (technological) interactions with the world at the ontic level neither affect nor escape the ontological relationality in which they are always already included. We have heard Heidegger state that:

The world-relations of humans and with them the collective societal existence of humans, are enclosed in the hegemonic domain of cybernetic science. (Heidegger 1983: 145)

He further says of cybernetics that

[its] most expansive feedback-loop encompasses the interrelation of man and world (…) [and its] occlusion [Verschlossenheit] can never be disjointed by human beings (…) not by way and means of scientific-technical planning and making. (Heidegger 1983: 145–146)

On the one hand, these fragments indicate Heidegger’s unidirectional relating of being and beings. As a “foundational science” (Heidegger 1972: 58; see §1), cybernetics is not some generalization or categorisation that abstracts from the cybernetic beings encountered in the world (e.g., cybernetic systems, theories, or human operations), but is rather understood as the “hegemonic domain” that already “encloses” and “encompasses” every relation to the world and worldly beings. What is more, inasmuch as our encounter and interaction with the ontic world of beings, for instance our “scientific-technical planning and making,” is already “encompassed by” the ontological relation between being and thinking that structures this encounter, the ontic domain only responds to ontological cybernetics, whilst never reshaping or “disjointing” it. Put succinctly, ontological cybernetics structures the ontic world of beings, but never vice versa. We can refer to this the unidirectionality of Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics.Footnote9

On the other hand, the previous quotations not only make clear how cybernetics is ontologically unidirectional and enclosing, but further indicate that this entails an occlusion [Verschlossenheit]. This occlusion is considered as an “occlusion vis-à-vis the destining [Geschick]” (Heidegger 1983: 146). Explained in phenomenological terms, such destining can be understood as the characterization of the ontological relationality in which we are always already included, and which structures the way in which we encounter things. For Heidegger, such structuring takes on different configurations throughout the “history of being” (Heidegger 1999) of the Western philosophical tradition. Where, for example, antique philosophy encountered a tree as a sublunary, perishable instance of a superlunary, eternal idea, and where medieval philosophy encountered the same tree as ens creatum in a divinely instituted order of things, today, in light of global warming, we encounter this tree cybernetically, as a carbon-source or carbon-sink to be regulated (see Zwier and Blok 2017).Footnote10 Leaving aside further analysis of these “destinings” and their coherence, it presently suffices to emphasize how such destining belongs in what Heidegger calls the concealing-unconcealing of being (Heidegger 1998a). This means that in the emergence of a destining (unconcealment), the possibility for a different destining remains withdrawn (concealment).

Now, Heidegger considers cybernetics as an ontological destining in the above illustrated sense, but its “occlusion” entails that this destining itself is forgotten. This is to say that cybernetics is unquestioningly presupposed as status quo, and is not recognized as a particular structuring of reality or way of unconcealment belonging in the concealing-unconcealing of being. Accordingly, conveying both the meaning of “enclosed” as well as “being closed off from,” the cybernetic occlusion implies that while we are “enclosed” in the destining of cybernetics, we are concurrently “closed off from” perceiving cybernetics as a specific ontological destining.Footnote11 The reason for this is that insofar as the relation between being and thinking is “defined and steered” by cybernetics, thinking exclusively looks to beings as things to be regulated, but overlooks—and is “closed off” from noticing—that it thereby already enacts a relation between being and thinking. Due to this occlusion, Heidegger associates cybernetics with the “oblivion of being” (Heidegger 1998b: 259).

In brief then, enclosureunidirectionality, and occlusion surface as three points of reference that orient Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics.

Cybernetics and the Anthropocene

Although the Anthropocene accords to Heidegger’s first reference point inasmuch as it offers a concrete experience of our being “enclosed” in cybernetics, it discords with the other two points concerning unidirectionality and occlusion. We therefore propose that the Anthropocene does not imply the ontological forgetfulness that Heidegger articulates as the oblivion of being. Rather, we will argue that the Earth in the Anthropocene engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s interpretation, implying that instead of its oblivion, the Earth can be said to offer a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being.

To develop this claim, we confront the unidirectionality of cybernetics with the previously discussed twofold Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section). When asked how the Earth relates to cybernetics, part of the answer is that it appears “enclosed” in the cybernetic “hegemonic domain”. As noted previously, this concerns the Earth as the symmetric oikos where things (e.g., coffee, empty fuel tanks, or the earth-system as such) are inescapably encountered in light of global warming and thus according to a collective measure of technological regulation (see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section).

That, however, is only half the answer. The Earth in the Anthropocene is not only a being that is encountered according to a cybernetic relationality, but conjointly appears as the stage upon which the “hegemonic domain” of cybernetics concretely unfolds. This is to say that the Earth is conditioned by cybernetics insofar as it appears as a symmetric oikos that must be regulated, yet itself conversely conditions cybernetics insofar as our regulative encounter with things takes place on Earth as the oikos that ‘houses’ this encounter. As a first step, therefore, we can say that besides offering a concrete experience of our cybernetic enclosure (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), the Anthropocene further engenders a peculiar and literal concretion, i.e., a ‘growing together’ of cybernetics and the Earth.

Be that as it may, the mentioned con-cretion of cybernetics and the Earth remains trivial unless its ontological relevance can be brought out. In conditioning cybernetics by housing its “hegemonic domain,” the ontic Earth becomes ontologically relevant inasmuch as it engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s unidirectional consideration of cybernetics. If cybernetics concerns an ontological relation between being and thinking, this relation is enacted by human existence inasmuch as it included in an ontological relationality (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section). Human existence thus appears as a necessary condition for cybernetics. If, in turn, human existence requires an earthly oikos for its wherewithal, then by implication, the Earth surfaces as necessary condition for cybernetics (see Blok 2016). This outwardly trite observation is rendered pertinent by the Anthropocene, because the harrowing experience of the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section) revokes our liberty of taking this condition for granted, and of ignoring how our cybernetic, symmetric oikos itself rests upon a transient Earthly support. If we thoughtfully pursue this experience, we can say that on the one hand, the Earth sustains the oikos upon which human existence can (with Heidegger: obliviously) enact a cybernetic, symmetric relation between being and thinking. On the other hand, in the Anthropocene, the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth renders explicit how the support that sustains this symmetric oikos is not at all unconditional. Instead, it is itself Earth-conditioned by way of a relatively stable exception to a deeply unstable and temperamental rule, where the short-lived chapter featuring humanity as protagonist is experienced to belong to the vast, turbulent, deep timely drama of volatile geo-dynamics that make up what D.T. Ansted once called “the great stone book” of the Earth (1863; see Szerzynski 2012). No longer just the tale of abstract geological science, today, the Earth’s asymmetry becomes distressingly tangible by the experience of global warming, foreboding that the brief anthropic chapter in this great stone book is approaching its final readable pages, since the Earth appears on the verge of withdrawing support for the transient, symmetric oikos that we inhabit. Three things follow from this diagnosis.

First, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth occasions a reorientation of Heidegger’s unidirectional interpretation of the relation between the ontic and the ontological, since the Earth now attains a peculiar status. While the Earth as symmetric oikos concurs with Heidegger’s interpretation, this oikos itself appears only a minor moment in a major history of the Earth. As indicated, through the experience of the Anthropocene and the asymmetric Earth, today, the Earth appears in a novel wayFootnote12 that is incompatible with Heidegger’s unidirectional consideration of cybernetics. Since the being called the Earth is the condition of possibility for the oikos housing human existence, and since this oikos accordingly is the condition of possibility for ontological cybernetics inasmuch as it conditions the cybernetic relation between being and thinking, we can say that rather than being unidirectionally encountered as a being that merely accords to the ontological structuring of cybernetics, the Earth itself emerges as cybernetics’ ontic-ontological condition of possibility (see Zwier and Blok 2017; Blok 2016; Blok 2017).

Secondly, and further pursuing an interpretation of the first point, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth suggests that cybernetics in the Anthropocene cannot be identified with the oblivion of concealing-unconcealing being. In contradistinction to Heidegger’s idea that the cybernetic “occlusion” and therewith associated “oblivion of being” can never be “disjointed” by occurrences at the ontic level (“Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section), the twofold Earth of the Anthropocene in fact disjoints this occlusion. Rather than being fully enclosed in the collective measure of cybernetics, the ontic Earth qua symmetric oikos emerges (with Heidegger: is unconcealed) as condition and support for ontological cybernetics, whilst concurrently withdrawing from it (with Heidegger: concealing) inasmuch as the Earth is also alarmingly experienced to remain asymmetric to our cybernetic, symmetric oikos. In other words, although the Anthropocene engenders a concrete experience of our “enclosure” in cybernetics, this does not necessarily entail that we are “closed off” and oblivious to cybernetics as a destining. Instead, the peculiar con-cretion of cybernetics and the Earth in the Anthropocene offers an experience of how the symmetric, cybernetic structuring of reality in which we are inescapably included itself concerns a way of “unconcealment,” a way that is itself brought underway via a being named the Earth. This being is thereby not fully “enclosed” in the collective measure of symmetric cybernetics, but conceals itself inasmuch as it remains asymmetric to its unconcealed, briefly inhabitable oikos. In light of the abovementioned peculiar ontic-ontological status of the Earth, it must be stressed that such concealment does not merely pertain to a being that partly withdraws itself (like the dark side of the moon), but pertains to a being that conceals itself in conditioning the very possibility of concealment-unconcealment. As such, we can say that rather than oblivion, the ontic-ontological Earth of the Anthropocene fosters a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being.

Thirdly, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth suggests that technology is more ontologically ambivalent and relevant than Heidegger allows for when he says that “scientific-technical planning and making” is always already included in the “most expansive feedback-loop” of cybernetics and can never “disjoint” its occlusion (Heidegger 1983: 145–146; see “Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section). To elucidate this point, we note how the abovementioned experience of concealing-unconcealing being is deeply entangled with our technological activity. On the one hand, this experience is technologically mediated inasmuch as it is only through technologies like satellites and computers that we can encounter the Earth as warming globe and experience the associated intrusion of asymmetry (see Ihde 2016: 77–88; Zwier and Blok 2017). On the other hand, the experience of asymmetry emerges in concert with the necessity of responding to its intrusion, and countering it by technologically regulating our Earthly habitat. Now, while such technological regulation clearly adheres to the collective measure, i.e., the symmetry of cybernetics, it is significant that it consists in a counter-measure to something disturbingly asymmetric. And as a counter-measure, our “scientific-technical planning and making” is not only included in the “most expansive feedback-loop” of cybernetics governing our symmetric oikos, but explicitly involves a responsivity to what remains excluded, i.e., asymmetric to this oikos and the cybernetic “hegemonic domain” that it supports. This is to say that although technology appears “enclosed” in cybernetics, it is not necessarily ontologically “closed off” and oblivious. Rather, it involves a responsivity to what remains asymmetric to the collective measure, i.e., the symmetry to which technology adheres. In short, in light of the anthropocenic concretion of cybernetics and the Earth, technology comes under consideration as both symmetrically enclosed and as opening towards asymmetry.

Before turning to the question that follows from this, namely how we might understand this responsivity and technological opening towards asymmetry, we first summarize the above. In the Anthropocene, the Earth appears as ontic-ontological condition of possibility for ontological cybernetics. This concretion of cybernetics and the Earth implies that the Earth is not merely a being that is encountered from within a cybernetic relationality, since this only applies to the Earth qua oikos governed by cybernetic symmetry, but not to the Earth that withdraws from cybernetics in the sense of remaining asymmetric to it. Since the Anthropocene heralds the intrusion of such asymmetry, the Earth now offers a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being. Finally, given how this indication is deeply entangled with our technological activity, technology appears less enclosed, closed off, and ontologically oblivious than Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics has it. Rather than hermetically enclosed in the collective measure of symmetric cybernetics, technology qua counter-measure becomes responsive and therefore open to what remains asymmetric to it.

Now, while it is clear that an engagement with Heidegger’s thought on phenomenology and cybernetics gives rise to the idea of technology and asymmetry, its further investigation must part ways with Heidegger. The reason for this is that Heidegger neither considers the above elucidated ontic-ontological Earth nor the technological opening towards asymmetry that follows from it.Footnote13 Whilst Heidegger solely understands technological activity as included in cybernetics and thus as exclusively symmetric, the Anthropocene compels us to question technology beyond its cybernetic enclosure.

In what follows, we therefore part ways with Heidegger to encounter in Georges Bataille a thinker whose consideration of technology flanks Heidegger’s, yet diverges from it inasmuch as it articulates an asymmetry on the part of technology, thus allowing us to come to terms with technology in relation to both the symmetric and asymmetric Earth.Footnote14

Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology

Although Bataille does not systematically engage with the question of technology as such, the way in which it figures in his diagnosis of human existence is instructive for understanding the implications of the aforementioned technological rapport with the Earth, as well as the associated opening towards asymmetry. In what follows, we will see how contrary to Heidegger, Bataille allows for a consideration of an ontological asymmetry that is engendered by technology itself.

Aversive Technology

To see this, we begin by noting how Bataille takes technology to characterize the way in which human existence inhabits the Earth. This habitation is typified by a technically induced aversion from that which constitutes humanity in the first place, namely nature. Nature is understood in terms of what Bataille calls “the general economy” (1991), which is principally characterized by abundance, meaning that the energetic abundance of the sun constitutes natural organisms and propels life on the surface of the Earth. Bataille takes it as “a basic fact” that because the influx of solar energy is unremitting, natural organisms receive more energy than strictly required for maintaining life, resulting in excess energy (Bataille 1991: 21). He articulates this in terms of “pressure” (1991: 29–36), the first effect of which is expansion, as this reduces pressure via spatial distribution. If otherwise unhindered, growth eventually runs up against spatial limits, and since the sun remains impartial to such limits and continues to relentlessly bestow its energizing gift, surplus energy can eventually no longer be incorporated via growth, but must be dissipated or wasted. In nature, therefore, “the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for squander” (1991: 29) via “the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life” (1991: 33). Where, for instance, plants make relatively efficient use of the sun’s gift for growth,Footnote15 higher organisms eat plants and other animals without growing to the same extent, thus making self-preservation and growth a more ‘burdensome’ affair. Additionally, the extravagant, intricate, and painstakingly extensive sexual behaviours of higher organisms imply a relatively inefficient way of procreation: “the mammalian organism is a gulf that swallows vast quantities of energy” (Bataille 1986: 60; see Stoekl 2007b: 255). Bataille does thereby not deny that natural life occasionally faces shortages and accordingly engages in a struggle for survival, but he interprets such a struggle as constituted by, and partaking in the general movement of energy that is characterized by abundance and ultimately by squander. For example, a hungry lion faces a shortage of food, but its hunting and eating of a zebra (which itself ‘swallows vast quantities of energy’ by inefficiently feeding on grass) partakes in the carnivorous squander of the abundant energy that constitutes the grass, the zebra, and the lion. Were we to align Bataille’s ideas with the previous discussion of Heidegger, phenomenology, and cybernetics, we might say that while the ontic level of individually constituted beings may face scarcity and struggle, the ontological constitution as such is characterized by the abundance of the general economy.Footnote16

Now, for Bataille, natural organisms are fully immersed in nature “like water in water” (1989a: 19), implying that they blindly partake in both the struggle for survival and implicated squander of energy. Conversely, he interprets the human being as the natural organism that, by way of technology, averts from nature and from the general economy that constitutes it,Footnote17 meaning that humans enter into a specific, namely forgetful relation with the energy that (ontologically) constitutes them.

Bataille refers to this forgetful relation as the “restricted economy” (1991: 19–41). This means that human existence restricts its dealings to individual beings and goods, thereby forgetting about the abundance of the general economy that ontologically constitutes such beings. Analogous to our colloquial understanding of economy, the restricted economy is characterized by scarcity, necessity, and work. In averting from nature and the general economy, human existence abhors the re-submergence in nature called death (Bataille 2007: 73, 79–86), and the corresponding strife for self-maintenance evidently needs resources that do not come naturally, but are considered as scarce goods, thus demanding productive work to compensate for this deficit. One may think of agriculture as an example, where the constitutive abundance of the sun is forgotten inasmuch as its energy is ‘restrictively’ encountered as a scarce good that needs to be put to work in order to secure a good harvest, the crops of which are similarly considered as scarce goods to be traded in an economy where their value derives from supply and demand (see Zwier et al. 2015: 360–362).

Yet although human existence in the restricted economy seems similar to a hungry lion inasmuch as both strive towards self-maintenance, Bataille stresses that:

The purpose of a plow is alien to the reality that constitutes it; and (…) the same is true of a grain of wheat or a calf. (Bataille 1989a: 41).

This is to say that whereas a lion is immersed in the “reality that constitutes it” (like water in water), technology (e.g., the plow) induces human existence to engage in an ‘alienated’, i.e., averted relation to this reality. This differs from the lion’s natural immersion in two significant ways, both of which turn out to be relevant to the Anthropocene.

First, encountering things according to the restricted economy involves thinking, namely “the consciousness of a necessity, or an indigence” (Bataille 1991: 23), where we think that work is needed to meet our necessities. Aligning this with our discussion of phenomenology (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), we can interpret the restricted economy as a relation between being and thinking, where being (with Bataille: the constitutive “reality” in the above citation) is thought of in terms of beings that are scarce, needed, and thus require work. This is relevant to our discussion of the Anthropocene, because this ‘restricted’ relation between being and thinking resonates with Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics, given how both articulate an encounter with beings that is principally characterized by regulative, purposeful work. We can therefore say that due to a technologically induced aversion, humanity enters into the restricted economy and thus comes to inhabit the Earth as symmetric oikos, in which being and thinking become symmetric inasmuch as their relation is structured according to the collective measure, i.e., symmetry of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work.

Secondly, for Bataille, the aversion that gives rise to this symmetric, ‘restricted’ encounter with things is never definitive. Instead, human existence in the restricted economy remains exposed to what it averts from in two ways, which we will discuss as abundance and waste. Our hypothesis is that this twofold exposure is relevant for questioning technology in the Anthropocene, because it implies that the technologically induced aversion and associated forgetful habitation of the Earth as oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric, comes to be reminded of that what constitutes it whilst remaining asymmetric to it.Footnote18 Understanding technology in this way allows for addressing the question raised at the end of the “Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section, thus coming to terms with technology’s opening towards asymmetry.

Aversion and Abundance

Abundance implies that the symmetric, restricted way of encountering beings is not definitive, because the technologically induced aversion and associated habitation of a symmetric oikos does not disconnect this oikos from the abundance that constitutes it. Although forgetful of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, human existence remains subjected to its ceaseless influx of energy. Bataille’s twofold diagnosis of his own time is instructive here: first of all, in considering energy as a scarce good of which more is always needed, modern, industrial humanity accumulates and produces massive amounts of energy via large-scale extraction of fossil fuels and nuclear power (see Stoekl 2007a: 40–41). Secondly, forgetfulness of the general economy gives rise to equating a healthy economy with a growing economy, which celebrates employment whilst scowling at wastefulness.Footnote19 Bataille sees the pairing of the two as a recipe for catastrophe: because the large influx of energy is not allowed to be wasted, the human oikos can only expand under the pressure of abundance (which is welcomed as economic growth). However, when growth eventually runs out of space, pressure builds up, and as with any limited system that is subjected to increasing pressure, it ultimately explodes. Writing in the aftermath of two world wars which he understands as “the greatest orgies of wealth that history has recorded” (1991: 37), Bataille envisages—with Argus’ eyes—the eruption of another war as the explosive and catastrophic outcome of (or rather outlet for) uncontainable pressure. As with other constituents of the general economy, “the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for squander” (1991: 29), which in the case of forgetful human existence takes the catastrophic form of war. In this way, the restricted way of encountering things in terms of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work—i.e., habitation of a symmetric oikos—is not definitive and must ultimately come to terms with what remains asymmetric to it, as it postpones but cannot avoid the consequences of its abundance-driven constitution.

Still, because of their technologically induced aversion, humans are unlike other natural organisms, and do not blindly, but forgetfully partake in the growth and squander engendered by the abundance of the general economy. On the one hand, in light of its recipe for catastrophe, Bataille considers such forgetfulness “a failure of humanity” (2007: 15; see 1991: 21). On the other hand, because human existence is not blindly preordained to this failure, Bataille envisages an alternative.

In exploring this alternative, Bataille investigates cultural history for ways of “exhausting the surplus without war” (2007: 428), and finds a pressure exhaust in the ritual of potlatch, where the indigenous people in the American northwest wasted surplus energy by way of the destruction of accumulated and produced resources, for instance by killing one’s own slaves, wrecking one’s canoes, up to setting one’s own village on fire (Bataille 1991: 67–68). Other examples include pyramids as a rather inefficient burial method (1991: 119), Lamaist monks who avoided activity in contemplative life, thus dissipating the surplus generated by Tibetan workers (1991: 93–110), jewels, works of art (Bataille 1989b; see Wendlin 2007: 39), and eroticism (Bataille 19862007). All of these indicate a different relation to energy: rather than considering it a scarce good to be put to work, they acknowledge rather than forget its constitutive abundance, accordingly attesting to how “it is not necessity but its contrary, “luxury” that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems” (Bataille 1991: 12).

While more must and will be said about such a way of confronting abundance and the Anthropocene, we first recapitulate how technology figures in all of this. On the one hand, technology induces an aversion from nature and the general economy, thus facilitating habitation of an oikos that is characterized by a symmetric relation between being and thinking, meaning that beings are encountered in terms of the restricted economy of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work. As aversive, technology engenders forgetfulness of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, leading the human symmetric oikos to expand. On the other hand, inasmuch as this forgetful aversion remains exposed to the general economy, technology also gives rise to a specific (catastrophic or other) confrontation with the abundance that remains asymmetric to it.

Translating all of this to the Anthropocene, we can see the Anthropocene as a concrete manifestation of the human symmetric oikos being exposed to the abundance of the general economy. If abundance engenders pressure which in turn effects expansion, the Anthropocene can be seen as its result. Whatever its exact starting point, it is clear that the Anthropocene involves an enormous increase of human beings on the planet since that point, paired with an equally tremendous accumulation, production, and transformation of natural and energetic resources. The following graphs depicting “the great acceleration” (Fig. 1) express this better than anything:

figure 1
Fig. 1

In light of this expansion, we can see the Anthropocene as an effect of humanity’s (technologically induced) aversion from the general economy and associated entrenchment in the restricted economy. If such entrenchment entails forgetfulness of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, and if such forgetfulness entails that the human, symmetric oikos must expand (given how energy appears a scarce good to be accumulated and not wasted), then the Anthropocene has this oikos expanding to a planetary scale, thereby rendering its anthropic inhabitant the dominant geological factor.

With Bataille, therefore, we can add an economic dimension to our previous discussion of cybernetics. We have seen how the Anthropocene offers a concretisation of our inclusion in a cybernetic, symmetric relationality (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section). We can now interpret this relationality to belong to a technologically induced aversion from the general economy, by which humanity comes to inhabit the Earth as the oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric. As with Heidegger’s cybernetics, this symmetrical way of encountering things is ontologically forgetful (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). Unlike Heidegger, however, it is not wholly “closed off,” since the aversion that engenders such forgetfulness is not definitive, as it postpones but cannot avoid the consequences of its abundance-driven constitution. What follows is that the forgetful, symmetric way of encountering things and goods eventually comes to be reminded of its forgetfulness and must therefore, whether catastrophically or other, come to terms with the constitutive abundance that remains asymmetric to it.

Be that as it may, in the Anthropocene, this reminder of forgetfulness occurs in another significant way as well. We therefore turn to waste as the second way by which human existence remains exposed to what is averts from.

Unceasing Departure: Aversion and Waste

As noted, human existence averts from nature, meaning that instead of being immersed ‘like water in water,’ humans depart from nature to enter into a specific, forgetful relation with it. This aversion is not definitively forgetful, because human existence remains exposed to the nature from which it averts “and from which man does not cease to have departed (Bataille 2007: 62).

For Bataille, this unceasing departure from nature is evidenced by “the horror of nature, which was the first movement of the process (…) that established humanity” (2007: 77). This horror becomes most eminently manifest in the form of our own abhorred natural waste: decaying corpses, vomit, faeces, urine, menstrual blood, the odour of sweat, etc. (Bataille 2007: 61–88). Whilst from the perspective of nature, there is nothing extraordinary about these dejecta (faeces are simply a resource for the continuation of organic life, as are rotting corpses),Footnote20 they invoke disgust and abhorrence in us, because they serve as a horrific reminder of a nature with which we no longer coincide inasmuch as we have averted from it.

If technology induces this aversion or departure from nature, it also serves to contain the horrors associated with not having ceased this depart from it. Think of sewer-systems, toilets, tampons, deodorant, cemeteries, etc. Such containment is rather successful, particularly in highly technological societies (see Scanlan 2005), but is never flawless and definitive, e.g., when we occasionally encounter an unflushed, rancid toilet, or are overwhelmed by the fetid stench of a passing garbage truck. In those cases, when technological containment momentarily hampers and we are confronted with our natural waste, we usually shudder, flush the toilet, avert ourselves once more, and go about our business. Technology then both induces the departure from nature, and serves to contain its consequent horrors, thus affording human existence to mostly forget about its unceasing departure.

What does this have to do with the Anthropocene? In the Anthropocene, we are confronted with the waste that technology itself dejects in its aversion from nature and the general economy. We have seen how it is due to this aversion that the Earth becomes inhabited as symmetric oikos, which the Anthropocene concretely demonstrates by the expansion of the human oikos via the large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only because of the (symmetric and infernal) coupling of humans and fossil fuels that the Anthropos becomes the dominant geo-force (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section). Now, the waste of this combustive exploitation goes under the name of CO2.Footnote21 We propose that in the Anthropocene, it acquires a status once occupied by natural dejecta.

In order to see this, we must engage in a phenomenological exercise and investigate the experience of CO2. The first thing to note is that we neither directly see CO2, nor experience the horrific disgust as when confronted with vomit, faeces, or rotting corpses. We only have a remote experience of CO2—as data rendered in graphs. Be that as it may, in the Anthropocene, CO2 encroaches and becomes less and less remote. Consider the following graph on “Atmospheric CO2” (Fig. 2):

figure 2
Fig. 2

If we let this graph sink in, it becomes something other than just another graph depicting abstract and remote scientific data. Instead, put phenomenologically, it quite literally sinks in, namely into the very way in which we encounter the world, as it becomes concrete in the sense of growing together with everything we see, as if etched in our peripheral vision. The line above 400 ppm attaches itself to the trails of airplanes we see when looking at the sky, to the freight train carrying a batch of new cars to the harbour, to the warning light signalling an empty fuel tank, to the adverts for exotic holiday destinations, to the trees in the garden, the powerlines across the field, etc.

When pausing over what this (concrete, sunk in) graph actually says, one feels queasy to say the least—one dreads it and feels gutted. Why? Because in engendering global warming, CO2 stands as a stark reminder of how the symmetric, fossil-fueled, and now planetary oikos that we inhabit and usually take for granted, remains encompassed by the asymmetric Earth that constitutes it and momentarily grants it stable support. And through the fumes of CO2 that thicken the air, we behold the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth, the associated withdrawal of stable support, and catch a glimpse of how this stable support is but an exception to the rule of a deeply unstable and unsettled Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section).

It is for this reason that in the Anthropocene, CO2 can be ascribed similar status as natural dejecta. As with natural dejecta, there is nothing extraordinary about CO2 from the perspective of the Earth as such, since it is but one of many parameters of the cybernetic earth-system, including natural life for which it is a resource. Yet for human existence, it emerges as a horrific souvenir of unceasing departure. Where natural dejecta remind of a constitutive nature from which human existence does not cease to depart, CO2 horrifically reminds of how our oikos on the symmetric Earth does not cease to depart from the Earth that constitutes it and remains asymmetric to it.

The response to the confrontation with the horrific waste of CO2 follows along this parallel, as it consists in once more averting oneself by way of technology. In the same way that technologies like toilets and cemeteries contain natural dejecta, we can buy carbon compensation when booking a flight, drink ecologically certified coffee from “100% biodegradable” cups, and put up solar panels to contain CO2. In contrast to natural waste however, the Anthropocene testifies to a clogged toilet, no longer able to contain the flurry of waste. This is to say that technologically containing and thus averting from the waste called CO2 becomes increasingly impossible as the fumes linger. One of the dreaded lessons that earth-system science teaches is that CO2 is not simply present or absent, and cannot simply be flushed, since it figures as a parameter in all kinds of intricate cybernetic feedback-loops of the earth-system, including positive loops. As a simple example, if CO2 engenders global warming and effects the melting of the arctic, less sunlight is reflected, thus fomenting further warming, more rapid melting, even less reflection, etc. (ad nauseam indeed). Hence, whereas with respect to the horrific reminder of natural dejecta, technological containment affords human existence to mostly forget about its departure from nature and go about its business, the dejecta of CO2—the very waste-trail of this technologically fuelled departure—cannot be contained in this way, and therefore do not allow for forgetting about our unceasing departure from the asymmetric Earth.

What follows, in sum, is that while technology induces an aversion that proceeds towards symmetry and habitation of the Earth as a symmetric oikos, the waste-trail of CO2 engendered by this technological aversion compels—through the fumes—an experience of how human existence does not cease to avert from that from which remains asymmetric to it.

Conclusion: Asymmetric Exposure

Compounding the previous sections, we can interpret the Anthropocene as the time in which we are inescapably reminded of asymmetry, since the Anthropocene concretely shows that the technological, restricted symmetry is not definitive, but is instead confronted with what remains asymmetric to it. On the one hand, the Anthropocene appears as an effect of our technologically induced, forgetful diversion from the abundance of the general economy, where continued exposure to this constitutive abundance entails that under pressure, our symmetric oikos expands to planetary dimensions, and continues to do so, even in (twi)light of horrific CO2. We can take this as another indication of the pressurizing general economy, i.e., the asymmetric constitutive abundance from which symmetric human existence continues to divert, with no foreseeable end in sight. On the other hand, the very waste-trail exhausted by this technological diversion binds our eyes to a foreseeable end, as it compels—through the fumes—attention to the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth. The technological waste of CO2 thereby comes to serve as a horrific reminder of how our symmetric oikos does not cease to depart from the asymmetric Earth, whilst alarmingly signalling how it stands on the verge of in fact ceasing from this departure and collapsing back into its earthly bedrock.

From this confrontation between Heidegger and Bataille in the Anthropocene, we conclude that technology in the Anthropocene is ontologically forgetful, but not wholly oblivious. Retracing our steps, we saw Heidegger associating technological activity with the oblivion of being, since he considers it to be both “enclosed” and “closed off” from the ontological destining of cybernetics and its collective measure or symmetry of regulation (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). We refused Heidegger’s interpretation by arguing that the ontic-ontological Earth offers an experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being. Furthermore, since this experience is deeply entangled with technology, we intimated that technology involves an opening towards asymmetry, because its regulative symmetry appears as a counter-measure to the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth. At this stage, it should be stressed that such an opening towards asymmetry does not merely imply an awareness of something that technology cannot (yet) master and bring under its collective measure. Rather, due to its rapport with the ontic-ontological Earth as that what conditions our technological encounter with things, the stated opening towards asymmetry allows for an experience of our technological, regulative encounters as a mode of encounter that is itself ‘meted out’ by the process of concealing-unconcealing being. This then illustrates technology’s twofold ontological relevance insofar as it relates both to the (unconcealed) Earth understood as the symmetric oikos that conditions cybernetics which encloses technological activity, whilst concurrently relating to the Earth that withdraws (or conceals itself) from this enclosure by remaining asymmetric to it.

Bataille helps to further understand this technological opening towards asymmetry, since he articulates how technology induces a diversion that proceeds towards symmetry, but does not, due to abundance and waste, definitely accomplish a symmetric enclosure. On the one hand then, technology is forgetful, given how it induces human existence to divert from nature and the abundance of the general economy that constitutes it, engendering a forgetful entrenchment in the restricted economy and habitation of the Earth as the oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric. The Anthropocene concretely gives the reckoning of this, as the human oikos expands to planetary dimensions, rendering its forgetful inhabitant the dominant geo-force. Furthermore, inasmuch as it serves to contain the horrific natural dejecta that remind human existence of its departure from nature, technology affords forgetfulness of its own diversion.

On the other hand, in the Anthropocene, the uncontainable waste-trail of this technological diversion itself—CO2—emerges as the horrific souvenir that retaliates against forgetfulness. By way of its own dejecta, technology can then be said to come to terms with itself as it awakens a twofold memory, incriminating what technology diverts from (the asymmetric Earth and the general economy), and that it unceasingly does so.

We therefore conclude that the Anthropocene gives rise to a twofold conceptualization of technology according to which technology becomes ontologically significant. First, technology is conceptualized as always already and forgetfully “enclosed” in a symmetric relation between being and thinking. Secondly, technology offers a reminder of how its own symmetric enclosure results from an unceasing diversion from that which remains asymmetric to it. On the one hand, technology diverts from the asymmetric Earth as the ontic-ontological condition for the oikos that supports technology’s symmetric enclosure (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). On the other hand, technology diverts from the general economy to which this oikos remains exposed (“Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” section). This conceptualization is ontologically significant, because in coming to terms with its own forgetful diversion, technology fosters—through the fumes—responsivity to being, i.e., to what always already structures how we symmetrically encounter things, whilst remaining asymmetric to this encounter.

Such a conceptualization of technology is relevant for philosophy of technology in the Anthropocene, particularly in light of how various symptoms of the asymmetric Earth’s intrusion (e.g., global warming, atmospheric CO2, im-permafrost etc.) are now being met with technological responses. Examples include initiatives like ‘circular bio-based economy’ (see Zwier et al. 2015), ‘clean energy,’ up to ‘geo-engineering’ and the like (see Hamilton 2013). While acknowledging the asymmetry of the Earth, such initiatives are oriented towards symmetry inasmuch as they attempt to keep the asymmetric Earth at bay by (re)introducing runaway earth-system parameters into a regulative feedback loop, thus safeguarding habitability. We maintain that philosophy of technology cannot avoid acknowledging the need for such initiatives. Whereas the role of technology will increasingly consist in symmetric maintenance of our habitat by regulating the fumes exhausted by our technological modus vivendi, it is the vocation of the philosophy of technology to diagnose this modus, to see through the fumes and cultivate the question what today’s confrontation between technology and the Earth means for its forgetful yet responsive inhabitants.

  1. The concept of the Anthropocene has come to be interpreted in a vast variety of ways. Instead of exhaustively covering its many (critical and eulogistic) conceptualizations, we here limit ourselves to an interpretation of the Anthropocene as phenomenon. For a good overview of the discourse on the Anthropocene, see Lorimer (2016).
  2. Given the focus of this paper on phenomenology, technology, and the Anthropocene, our discussion of cybernetics will be limited to Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics as “foundational science”. The broader question regarding the relation between Heidegger’s cybernetics and other interpretations is therefore left open. For an instructive overview of such interpretations, see Hayles (1999).
  3. We thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing the approach of resilience thinking to our attention.
  4. We will return to the question of waste (here: the used-up coffee container) in the “Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” and “Conclusion: Asymmetric Exposure” sections.
  5. Heidegger himself links cybernetics and phenomenology when he discusses cybernetic “steering” as “phenomenon” in the seminars on Heraclitus, fragment 64 (see Heidegger and Fink 1979: 10–14).
  6. As noted, “cybernetic science” must here be ontologically understood as “foundational science”.
  7. This also shows how Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics can be read as a different articulation of his questioning of technology (see Heidegger 1977). In “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger writes: “[The] fundamental characteristic of [the] scientific attitude is its cybernetic, that is, technological character” (Heidegger 1972: 58). For an analysis of Heidegger’s questioning of technology in relation to the Anthropocene, see Zwier and Blok (2017); Williston (2017).
  8. What we here articulate as the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth resonates with what Isabelle Stengers has called “the intrusion of Gaia,” implying “the need to take into account a protagonist that will never recede into the background, and whose the [sic] stability ‘we’ will never again be able to take for granted (2015: 137). Given the complicated nature of the current discourse on Gaia (see Stengers 2009; Latour 2017; Crutzen 2004) further elaboration of this protagonist would exceed the scope of this paper.
  9. In literature on Heidegger, such unidirectionality is sometimes referred to as “onto-centrism” (see Blok 2016: 459).
  10. This is or course not to say that a tree no longer appears as impressive, beautiful, important etc., but rather means that such experience of beauty is inescapably bound up with the threat of global warming, thereby potentially inciting us to regulate the preservation or multiplication of trees.
  11. In his questioning of technology (see note 7), Heidegger articulates this as the “Danger of Technology” (1977: 27). For a discussion of this danger in relation to the Anthropocene, see Zwier and Blok 2017.
  12. As noted in “The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section, objective sciences such as geology and earth-system science have of course long since known about the fact of the asymmetric Earth (e.g., its being much older than human civilisation, more inhospitable than appears at first glance, etc.). However, whereas their propositions concern the Earth or earth-system as scientific object (and thus already unquestioningly enact a theorizing relation between being and thinking, see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), the experience of the Anthropocene wrests this knowledge from the objective, scientific domain. Phenomenologically speaking, the asymmetry of the Earth no longer merely concerns the ontic domain of a being called the Earth, but comes to pertain to the ontological, cybernetic relation between being and thinking as enacted in our contemporary encounter with the Earth and earthly beings.
  13. It may strike the reader that an explicit confrontation with Heidegger’s thematization of Earth remains absent here. On the one hand, this absence may be explained by the fact that although Heidegger speaks of the Earth on various occasions, it never comes under consideration in its Anthropocenic manifestation as the ontic-ontological condition for the destining of cybernetics—which is the central theme of this paper. On the other hand, we should note that the arguments presented here build on a more explicit analysis of Heidegger and the Earth as presented in Blok (2016). For a good discussion of Heidegger and the Earth, see Haar (1993).
  14. In what follows, we will interpret Bataille in light of the previous discussion of Heidegger, thereby aligning their often diverging vocabularies by casting them in the same mould. The idea behind such an alignment is that it allows us to address the issue of technology and asymmetry in relation to both Heidegger’s thought and the phenomenon of the Anthropocene. For a more generally oriented confrontation between Heidegger and Bataille, see Comay (1990), Lee Jr. (2007).
  15. Although relatively efficient (in comparison to higher organisms), plants also involve their own ‘burdensome’ ways, e.g. the fruitless sexuality of flowering plants (see Wendlin 2007: 39).
  16. Bataille of course does not put any of this in terms of ‘ontic’ and ‘ontological’ or in relation to Heidegger’s ontological difference. However, we maintain that Bataille’s differentiation of constituted beings and their constitution as such (the general economy) can—to a certain extent as we shall see—be aligned with Heidegger’s differentiation of being and beings. As will be argued, doing so is significant for understanding technology and asymmetry in the Anthropocene.
  17. With respect to this aversion, Bataille follows a Hegalian trajectory: “Man is the animal that negates nature: he negates it through labor, which destroys it and changes it into an artificial world; he negates it in the case of life-creating activity; he negates it in the case of death.” (2007: 61; see 52). For an elaborate discussion of Bataille’s Hegel interpretation, see Gemerchak (2003). For a discussion of Hegelian negation, the Anthropocene, and the Earth, see Zwart (2017).
  18. This is specific to humanity: immersed in nature like water in water, a lion neither forgets nor is reminded of the general economy.
  19. Elaborately analyzing Bataille’s (cultural) diagnosis of how this entrenchment and associated forgetfulness of the general economy came about—in which the rise of Protestantism, capitalism, and industrialism are central—is beyond the scope of this paper (see Bataille 1991: particularly 115–141).
  20. In this regard, Bataille also notes how “the [human] loathing of decay (…) is not shared by animals” (2007: 79).
  21. CO2 is obviously not the only form of waste exhausted by the anthropic geo-force, but it is arguably the most significant, as evidenced by the fact that the impact of other forms of waste are often expressed in CO2-equivalence (CO2-e).
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Authors and Affiliations
  1. Faculty of Science, Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen, Heyendaalseweg 135, 6525 AJ, Nijmegen, The NetherlandsJochem Zwier
  2. Department of Social Sciences; Subdivision Philosophy, Wageningen University and Research, Hollandseweg 1, Wageningen, 6706 KN, The NetherlandsVincent Blok
Cite this article

Zwier, J., Blok, V. Seeing Through the Fumes: Technology and Asymmetry in the Anthropocene. Hum Stud 42, 621–646 (2019).

Making Our Way in a World of Our Making: The Anthropocene, Debt-Money, and the Pre-emptive Production of Our Future

Matthew Tiessen 


The Anthropocene is a geological period defined by recent and ongoing human activities that invite decisive responses by humanity in order to grapple with contemporary and future ecological, biological, and social change. The Anthropocene can also be thought of as the era when it becomes clear that our desires, our ambitions, and our capacities for consumption exceed the capacities of our planet, our home. In response to this conundrum, we need a financial system and money form that reflects these new realities. In this chapter, I contend that these days the problem is not that money is necessarily limited or scarce (since it’s created out of nothing), it’s that it’s not usefully distributed and that those who control and allocate credit control the future. How, then, we might ask, will beneficial ecological change occur if private banks refuse to recognize that ecofriendly change can be economically profitable on a massive scale?

Anthropocenic Artifice and the New Natures of Control

The Anthropocene is a geological period defined by recent and ongoing human activities that invite decisive responses by humanity in order to grapple with contemporary and future ecological, biological, and social change. In this essay, I describe a variety of current “natural” and cultural scenarios and draw on some authors not typically associated with weather disturbances and atmospheric change (Deleuze, Shaviro, Marx) to argue that the concept of the Anthropocene is also one that has the potential to be mobilized in service of unanticipated and emerging forms of social, spatial, political, financial, and ecological control . Indeed, we can perhaps imagine a not too distant future wherein the apparent urgency of the Anthropocene era’s challenges may require global responses that bypass democratic deliberation and necessitate—or are said to necessitate—new expressions of global, regional, and local power . At the same time I want to emphasize that emerging modalities of control in the Anthropocene will likely be sold to the public as being in their interest (and in many instances that might in fact be the case). It is the potential proliferation of these emerging expressions of power in the name of the Anthropocene that, I want to suggest, we must approach with caution as we seek solutions to tomorrow’s social, ecological, and spatial challenges. Or as Simon Dalby puts it: “How the Anthropocene is interpreted, and who gets to invoke which framing of the new human age, matters greatly both for the planet and for particular parts of humanity” (2016, p. 33). Put differently, perhaps the question worth attending to as we hurtle into the future might not be whether humanity will experience a “good Anthropocene ” (Ellis 2011) or a “bad Anthropocene ,” but rather: What will the Anthropocene mean (prior to deciding whether it’s good or bad)? In other words, how will the Anthropocene be defined (not merely as a geological epoch but as a socio-cultural phenomenon or vector of control ) and, who will do the defining (and for whom)? So, although when faced with the problems posed by the Anthropocene , the temptation will be to find solutions and to solve problems, perhaps we’d be better served by asking questions, by reflecting on what agendas are afoot and on whose interests are being served.

Indeed, we could go so far as to suggest that emerging collective enunciations and mobilizations in the name of the Anthropocene have the potential to bring with them their own forms of what Deleuze would describe as “new fascisms.” For Deleuze, the old-style fascisms are no longer the threat they once were. Their tactics are too blunt, too obvious, too predictable. Like everything else, he observes, fascisms change and evolve with the times, and as we speak “new fascisms are being born … and prepared for us” (2006, pp. 137–138). These new fascisms are not only about the “politics and economy of war” but masquerade as seemingly progressive “global agreements on security, on the maintenance of a ‘peace’ just as terrifying as war” (p. 138). Deleuze warns us that “all our petty fears will be organized in concert, all our petty anxieties will be harnessed to make micro-fascists of us; we will be called upon to stifle every little thing, every suspicious face, every dissonant voice in our streets [and] our neighborhoods” (p. 138). It is the potential proliferation and emergence of these micro-fascisms—or some variant thereof—in the name of a phenomenon like the Anthropocene that, I want to suggest, we must be wary of.

Open for Business and the Perpetuation of the Same in the Anthropocene

Bloomberg recently announced to its plutocrat and wanna-be-plutocrat readers that “The World has Discovered a $1 Trillion Ocean!” This purported “discovery” is, of course, the “new” ocean that was once the ice-filled Arctic. The Arctic, Bloomberg writes, “is open for business, and everyone wants a piece” (Roston 2016). This is what the Anthropocene looks like through the eyes of the status quo, of those eager to extend our neo-fascistic present well into the future (with the support of our democratically elected and financially supported political elite). As Bloomberg explains:

there’s no doubting the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the unveiling of resources below, presents mind-boggling opportunities for energy , shipping, fishing, science, and military exploitation. […] The financial measure of opportunities available […] is difficult to estimate, but $1 trillion may be a solid first-pass. […] The Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the globe, [and World Economic Forum member Jan-Gunnar Withner notes that:] “These changes are like nothing we have seen. We don’t have anything to compare with it in history .” (Roston 2016)

I suppose this is a good thing, isn’t it? A new market primed for profit thanks to the Anthropocene ! It certainly fulfills the need for more of the status quo: infinite extractive growth on our finite and fragile planet (Brown et al. 2011; Jackson 2011; Mueller and Passadakis 2009; Pretty 2013). We can all speculate, of course, about who will benefit from this Anthropocene -induced windfall (and that the beneficiaries will certainly not be donating funds to fight climate change ). But where, we might ask, is all this money—a new 1 trillion—going to come from? The answer is a strange one indeed, one I think is important when grappling with the Anthropocene, and one that even mainstream economists are only beginning to fully grasp: The 1 trillion dollars the melting arctic promises will simply be brought into existence out of nothing—ex nihilo—by private banks in the form of loans made out to private corporations and investors (with interest owing, of course).

See, in today’s financial ecologies (Haldane and May 2011), 97% of the money in existence, namely digitally generated credit (rather than the comparatively small amount of paper money and coins that are created by governments) is created out of nothing by the banks when, for example, we sign on the dotted line for a mortgage, a student loan, automotive financing, credit card purchases, or government spending (Aglietta 1979; Benes and Kumhof 2012; Moore 19891979; Nichols 1992; Rochon 1999; Seccareccia 2012; Terzi 1986). In other words, there is no “borrowing” going on at all, there is only money creation, and—most importantly—the decision to create money/credit —for whom? for what cause? in support of what agenda?—is decided by a global banking oligarchy in accordance with its very specific and all too often short-sighted profit-driven agendas and priorities. And because all of this credit comes into existence with interest owing, there is always more debt needing to be paid back than there is money in circulation ; and because of this the creation of money—that is, the perpetual borrowing of new money into existence—must continue ad infinitum so that debts will be able to be paid, inflation will be able to continue, and the current financial state of affairs will remain afloat. This is why, for example, interest rates have recently been so historically low—to encourage not “borrowing” for overpriced houses for you to flip or rent out on AirBnB, but to encourage the manufacturing of the money needed to keep the system of consumption, 2% inflation, and infinite growth going. Or as John Smithin explains in a recently edited volume by monetary reformers Louis-Philippe Rochon and Mario Seccareccia on the role of money in our global economies:

To “keep the show on the road” in the future […] it is clear that there is always going to have to be more borrowing activity [to keep inflating the economy], from one source or another, essentially ad infinitum. Given the structure of this financial system, and the specific nature of its money, the fact is that someone, somewhere, must always be willing to go into debt in order to generate profits for others. This statement is not an attempt to indicate that capitalist monetary production is nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme.” That is not the point at all. It is merely a logical statement about the arithmetic of this particular social technology . It is the way things are, given the assumed set of social relations, or social ontology. (Smithin 2013, p. 47)

Keeping the “show on the road” is what the status quo maintaining Bloomberg headline—which purports to be about new “discoveries”—is really about. So in the age of the Anthropocene let’s begin to take seriously, as Canadian economist Mario Seccareccia does, the fact that economic production itself is “a process of debt formation” (1988, p. 51) and that in today’s world the ex nihilo manufacturing of bank credit is the dominant mode of financing production and of ecological destruction (Seccareccia 1996). “The flow of investment spending in a monetary economy is primarily a process of debt formation,” he observes. “That is to say, in order for capital accumulation to proceed, firms must first become indebted to the financial sector, the purveyor of credit advances” (Seccareccia 1988, p. 51). And what better medium to encourage debt /credit creation than an all-new geological era—the Anthropocene !—with all its costs, expenses, emergent risks, security needs, and disciplinary imperatives?

I have written elsewhere about the significance and power of privately owned banks who have been granted the ability to create money out of nothing in potentially infinite quantities (Tiessen 20132014ab2015) and touch on this topic here because questions related to who gets to create money, and for what purpose, are critical if we are to pursue an ecological future —let alone an Anthropocene —that isn’t simply another, greener, or greenwashed, version of contemporary, extractive form of capitalism (Common and Perrings 1992; Spash 2012). In other words, when we begin to imagine what might be possible in, or what forces might shape, the Anthropocene , we must not lose sight of the fact that whoever is in control of bringing (i.e. loaning) money into existence with a few keystrokes on a computer gets to decide what that money is being created for (Nesvetailova 2014). Consider that all wars, all coal plants, all oil rigs, all nuclear weapons programmes, and all tar sands projects begin with a signature of a borrower willing to take on debt and risk and the deposit of newly created money into someone’s bank account by a bank in service of profit; consider too, that all the world’s solar panels, wind farms, hospitals, universities, organic farms, etc. get created the same way. Who is doing the choosing and for what purpose? The purpose of creating loans is, primarily, the pursuit of profit, preferably short-term profit. So, who is making today’s ecocidal loans? Who will make them tomorrow? What are their names? Who will profit most from the Anthropocene as a concept, rallying cry, public policy issue? Which banks? Loans for how much? What are the terms? When will the loans be created? Why do we allow such decisions to be made by purely financial interests in search of pecuniary gains and shareholder value? How is the public served when profit is the dominant paradigm? How does the environment benefit or lose? In sum, it’s worth pondering the fact that most of today’s institutionalized barbarism and eco-destruction—a vast majority of life’s most heinous crimes and catastrophes—were facilitated through bankers’ use of computers, privately and digitally created money, credit checks, and crediting international bank accounts. Even Marx understood the potential for the credit -creators to preemptively impose upon us the future ’s imperatives with their money-conjuring power. As he explains:

the banking system, by its organization and centralization, is the most artificial and elaborate product brought into existence by the capitalist mode of production […] Banking and credit , however, thereby also become the most powerful means for driving capitalist production beyond its own barriers and one of the most effective vehicles for crises and swindling. (Marx 1981, p. 742)

Contemporary financial orthodoxy —and power—is worthy of our attention because of the fact that when the control of credit creation is in private and for-profit hands (Eisen 2016; Schnurr 2016), our collective ability to design our Anthropocene —or any other geological era of our own making that we deem name-worthy—democratically or strategically is short-circuited and taken from us. Indeed, under the current global financial apparatus the public interest—if recent financial history is any indication—may not even exist. Indeed, the public’s role, it often seems, is simply to pay interest!

Perhaps most disturbingly, tomorrow’s Anthropocene may have, in a very real way, already been foreclosed in so far as the banks will be the ones who decide what it will look like by making financial decisions they are able to benefit from. The economist Richard Werner has done a lot of recent work explaining to mainstream economists—many of whom ignore the role of credit money—about the role of money in an economy, the role of debt, the ways money is actually created, and the relationship of these processes to power. Crazily, most mainstream economists do not actually consider the way money’s created or who gets to create it as being significant enough to be included in their financial models. This is a problem since, as Werner explains, “Recognition of the banks’ true role [in the economy] is the precondition for solving many of the world’s problems, including: the problem of recurring banking crises, unemployment, business cycles, underdevelopment, and depletion of finite resources” (Werner 20142015). Werner explains (at length) the current global money situation as follows:

The empirical facts are only consistent with the credit creation theory of banking . According to this theory, banks can individually create credit and money out of nothing, and they do this when they extend credit . When a loan is granted by a bank, it purchases the loan contract (legally considered a promissory note issued by the borrower), which is reflected by an increase in its assets by the amount of the loan. The borrower “receives” the “money” when the bank credits the borrower’s account at the bank with the amount of the loan. The balance sheet lengthens. Through the process of credit creation 97% of the money supply is created in the [world] today…. Not surprisingly, the use to which bank credit is put to determines its effect, namely whether bank credit is extended for productive, consumptive, or speculative purposes. One reason for the neglect of the institutional and operational details of banks in the research literature in the past decades is likely the fact that no law, statute or bank regulation explicitly grants banks the right (usually considered a sovereign prerogative) to create and allocate the money supply. As a result, many economists, finance researchers, lawyers, accountants, even bankers, let alone the general public, have not been aware of the role of banks as creators and allocators of the money supply. (Werner 2014, p. 71)

Remember too, that governments are also beholden to the whims of the financial gatekeepers in so far as the agendas the political classes put into motion require the borrowing of money which, in turn, requires those agendas being vetted—in one way or another—by those who have been given the right to create money for us (and their friends the credit -rating agencies). Perhaps a new era of public banking or government-issued money (as articulated, for example, in the “Chicago Plan” following the Great Depression) could allow for greater democratic governance and “people power ” to be expressed through financial means (Benes and Kumhof 2012; Dittmer 2015)? Regardless, private domination of money creation needs to change by incorporating public financing in the public interest for public purposes (such as responding to Anthropocene issues).

Criticisms of monetary orthodoxy are rarely outright or overarching criticisms of money and banking in and of themselves, but they do critique the often invisible mechanisms of power and control that preemptively allow those in control of credit (not to mention those capable of shaping rhetoric related to speculative futures, e.g. the Anthropocene ) to pull strings behind the scenes. Based on their decisions regarding investment capital, interest rates, profitability, return on investment, etc., the financial sector will decide what our world looks like tomorrow (and—unless real change occurs—the powerful mechanism they use will remain for the most part unknown to the public). The crucial question here is how do we live sustainably in a world of scarcity when money can be produced by for-profit entities infinitely (restricted only by banks’ ability to contain or off-load, risk). Indeed, it is money’s ability to be “automagically” created that is the real ecological risk. Moreover, the potentially destructive capacities of money and the infinite elasticity of credit creation are compounded by the fact that as resources get more scarce they also become more profitable (Baveye et al. 2013; Clark 1973).

My cautions about the potential uses and abuses of the concept of the Anthropocene are in light of the potential profits to be made off of multiple aspects of this ecological adventure. After all, the banks benefit by creating money for both oil exploration and oil spill cleanup. In response to this conundrum, we need a financial system that reflects these new realities. Moreover, as economist Mathew Forstater observes, the problem is not that today’s money is limited or scarce (since it’s created out of nothing), it’s that it’s not usefully distributed and that those who control and allocate credit control the future (Forstater 2003; see also, Wray 2015, p. 147).

Money is, among other things, simply an enabler of human desire, and the Anthropocene can be thought of as the era when it becomes clear that our desires, our ambitions, our capacities for consumption exceed the capacities of our planet, our home. How, then, we might ask, will beneficial ecological change occur if private banks continue struggling to recognize that ecofriendly change can be economically profitable on a massive scale? And how will any eco-initiative that threatens the status quo be able to survive the financial power and policy decision-making capacity of the banks, particularly if they continue pursuing profit at all (ecological) costs? Deleuze understood the power of money to be used by its creators to shape the future . He wrote: “[b]eyond the state it’s money that rules [and] money that communicates” (1995, p. 152). For Deleuze and co-author Guattari, the money form—whether commodity money, credit -money (which we use today), central bank money, digital money, etc.—determines the ways ideologies, politics , and culture get expressed and shapes the dispositions and desires of those who are beholden to money’s built-in demands (demands like profit, repayment, etc.). For them, money itself is a tool for initiating, modulating, and multiplying desire . They observe that “the productive essence of capitalism can itself function only in this necessarily monetary or commodity form that controls it.” They posit that money’s flows map onto and determine flows of desire —both collective and individual: “It is at the level of flows, the monetary flows included, and not at the level of ideology, that the integration of desire is achieved” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 239). In other words, money’s effects precede and even determine ideology (what we often call neoliberalism, e.g., then becomes an effect of, or a response to, monetary phenomena since privatization of public infrastructure, e.g., is necessary because it isn’t usually profitable, and ballooning government debts are owing). That is, it is the bankers who are the enablers and instigators of the proponents of neoliberalism, and it is the bankers who are the gatekeepers that separate us from our desires and their fulfillment—whether we’re living in the Anthropocene or not. Moreover, it is we and our governments who give them permission—whether wittingly or unwittingly—to do what, thanks to us, they are capable of doing to the best of their ability! Deleuze and Guattari note too that “in a sense” it’s the banking system that “controls the whole system and the investment of desire ” (1983, p. 230), and highlight that a primary contribution of Keynes was his having reintroduced desire “into the problem of money” (ibid.). Indeed, given the financial sector’s current credit generating capacities we might imagine that in a world of ecological collapse and resource scarcity, despite periodic debt -driven and speculative catastrophes, the last thing standing will be a banker ready to offer a loan in order to extract interest from that final purchase at the end of the line for the predatory Ponzi scheme (Minsky 2015; Nesvetailova 2008; Tiessen 2014a).

For Deleuze and Guattari, engaging the question of desire through money, and considering money through desire is what “must be subjected to the requirements of Marxist analysis” since, as they posit, Marxist economists unfortunately:

too often dwell on considerations concerning the mode of production, and on the theory of money as the general equivalent as found in the first section of Capital, without attaching enough importance to banking practice, to financial operations, and to the specific circulation of credit money which would be the meaning of a return to Marx, to the Marxist theory of money. (1983, p. 230)

The most salient passages by Marx on money to which Deleuze and Guattari may be referring speak powerfully to our current macro-economic moment insofar as they examine the libidinal and affective dimension of what Marx called “vulgar economics”—a type of monetarily based economics wherein capital—as privately created credit —generates a debt that becomes “an independent source of wealth”; this form of usurious capital is, in Marx’s view, “a godsend” for the money “lenders” and capital owners since its profits are “no longer recognizable” and since the capitalist production process obtains via the affordances of the money form “an autonomous existence” (Marx 1981, p. 517). In such a money system, capital—as virtual production capacity conjured from nothing as credit with debt owing—“becomes a commodity” with a “self-valorizing quality” and a “fixed price”—namely “the prevailing rate of interest” (ibid.).

Marx observes that as interest-bearing capital (credit -)money gains a sort of nonhuman urgency (if not agency ) all its own, appearing magically “as a mysterious and self-creating source of interest, of its own increase” (1981, p. 516). Money as autopoietic flow of credit and debt parasitically preys on human desire , guilt, and greed. As Marx explains:

In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valourizing value, money breeding money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing, money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we have here only the form of this devoid of content. As in the case of labourpower, here the usevalue of money is that of creating value, a greater value than is contained in itself. Money as such is already potentially self-valorizing value, and it is as such that it is lent, this being the form of sale for this particular commodity. Thus it becomes as completely the property of money to create value, to yield interest, as it is the property of a pear tree to bear pears. And it is as this interestbearing thing that the moneylender sells his money. (Marx 1981, p. 516, my italics)

This passage by Marx echoes Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking about the role of money as an autopoietic medium of power and control and anticipates the ecocidal economic logic of credit money in the Anthropocene . Of course, perpetual growth cannot keep pace with the exponentially compounding growth of debt . For Marx in the Third Critique, money’s demands (for debt repayment) infect all that it puts a price on and all desires that it promises to fulfill. Money’s surplus value, Marx observes, accrues to it “as such”: “Like the growth of trees, so the generation of money seems a property of capital in this form of money capital” (Marx 1981, p. 517). Marx’s biologically based monetary metaphors are especially striking and provide fertile ground for describing money’s capacity for growth and capacity to subsume reality according to its logic; he explains that “interest is the specific fruit of capital, the original thing,” while profit—from actually selling goods and services with some necessary use value—becomes “a mere accessory and trimming added in [capital’s] reproduction process. The fetish character of capital and the representation of this capital fetish is now complete” (1981, p. 516).

Worth emphasizing, however, is that Marx perhaps misinterprets “vulgar economics” as being an “irrational” form of capital, when in fact, the cold rationality of this logic—perpetrated by private interests on public borrowers and debtors—is the height of sound and profitable thinking (at least if power, accumulation, and control are your objectives). This rationality—“this ingrown existence of interest in money capital as a thing” (1981, p. 518) or capital as that which “reproduces itself and increases in reproduction, by virtue of its innate property as ever persisting and growing value” (1981, p. 519)—is one that depends on mythologies, illusions, hopes, and dreams and, although the true motives are concealed, manipulates desire with—literally—mathematical precision: “the ability of money as a commodity to valorize its own value independent of reproduction—the capital mystification in the most flagrant form” (1981, p. 516). Credit-money, as Marx observes, is not unlike a parasite for centralizing power and wealth by expropriating the wealth of those to whom it is extended. Crucially, this is not a mistake, nor is it irrational! Credit —according to this view—is extended like the fishing net of a deep-sea trawler, capturing everything in its path and laying waste to the fertile sea floor (or ground) from which wealth was generated in the first place. As Marx explains:

Where the means of production are fragmented, usury centralizes monetary wealth. It does not change the mode of production, but clings on to it like a parasite and impoverishes it. It sucks it dry, emasculates it and forces reproduction to proceed under ever more pitiable conditions. Hence the popular hatred of usury, at its peak in the ancient world, where the producer’s ownership of his conditions of production was at the same time the basis for political relations, for the independence of the citizen. (1981, p. 731)

Again, Marx’s analysis could not be more clear:

All wealth that can ever be produced belongs to capital in its capacity as interest-bearing capital, and everything that it has received up till now is only a first installment for its all-engrossing appetite. By its own inherent laws, all surplus labour that the human race can supply belongs to it. Moloch. (1981, p. 521)

Sometimes theorists predict or at least pine for the end of today’s rapacious form of capitalism , expecting it to collapse in on itself or self-destruct. But, again the banks win since self-destruction and collapse are the very lifeblood of money and credit creation since it clears the way for new, more intensive rounds of money production (i.e. borrowing). Steven Shaviro, in a recent blog post, anticipates the banker-built Anthropocene of the near future as follows:

Among all its other accomplishments, neoliberal capitalism has also robbed us of the future . It turns everything into an eternal present. The highest values are supposedly novelty, innovation, and creativity , and yet these always turn out to be more of the same. The future exists only in order to be colonized and made into an investment opportunity. In other words, we cannot hope to negate capitalism , because capitalism itself mobilizes a far greater negativity than anything we could hope to mount against it. The dirty little secret of capitalism is that it produces abundance, but also continually transforms this abundance into scarcity. It has to do so, because it cannot endure its own abundance. And yet, none of these contradictions have caused the system to collapse, or even remotely menaced its expanded reproduction. Instead, capitalism perpetuates itself through a continual series of readjustments. Nearly all of us, as individuals, have suffered from these blockages and degradations; but Capital itself has not. (Shaviro 2013)

Of course, the readjustments identified by Shaviro are not readjustments at all but merely the perpetuation of the same—that is, the issuing of more credit by finance capital following the inevitable saturation of the debt carrying capacity of the financial Ponzi scheme. After all, capitalism is a complex adaptive system and credit -driven capital survives by perpetuating, reconstituting, and manufacturing new desires, not satisfying or satiating them. Or as Naomi Klein puts it in her book This Changes Everything: “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (2014, p. 18).

Nature ’s Biological Benefits and the Cultivation of Future Eco-Desires

Recognition of the role of finance is critical if we are to move towards a more ecologically balanced Anthropocene . Dalby concurs, observing that the direction “we collectively push the planet in is shaped by human actions and decisions made mostly by the rich and powerful of our spacies” (2016, p. 35). But how might we begin, as Jedediah Purdy says, to become “different people ” (in Andersen 2015) in a way that puts us on course for a more ecologically friendly future ? Is it possible that the proverbial 99% could also play a part in steering or pushing our planet in an ecologically sustainable direction? Indeed, assuming a nonlinear and unpredictable future , today’s elite may not even be in position to “push” the planet of tomorrow. Regardless, one thing that will be important if we are to move towards a “good Anthropocene ” is for human beings to desire this future , whatever it may look like. These days, individuals in the West often gravitate towards material and physical experiences they believe to be pleasurable, holistic, healthy. Consider the explosion of consumer interest in such things as organic agriculture and animal products (Batte et al. 2007; Moser 2015), higher quality direct or fair trade coffees, and yoga (Askegaard and Eckhardt 2012). People are drawn to these things because they value what they perceive to be the mental and physical benefits they receive from paying a bit more for something a bit better and a bit more in tune with the environment that surrounds them. Sometimes people demand disruption, if the benefits are tangible enough and can be easily experienced. Consider, for example, such demanded or desired disruptions as the admittedly for-profit business models of Airbnb or UBER (both of which perpetuate contract labor and precarity). But how do we create parallel, desirable realities and societies appropriate to the Anthropocene ? This pursuit of quality, sensorially beneficial, and authentic experiences finds expression in emerging research on the physical benefits of being in natural environments, even urban natural environments. In Japan, for instance, doctors are prescribing “forest bathing” and researchers are increasingly finding that immersion in urban and/or rural greenspaces is biologically and psychologically beneficial to peoples’ health and wellbeing (Pietilä et al. 2015; Pröbstl-Haider 2015; Romagosa et al. 2015). Similarly, walking among trees has been shown to lower cortisol levels and feelings of stress (Thompson et al. 2012). Research in this area might inform our reflections upon the Anthropocene by providing us with scientific permission to engage with nature in ways we don’t normally do in our busy urban lives.

Again, it’s one thing for things to be good for us (like exercise), it’s another for things to be enjoyable or desirable. Perhaps in the future we will begin to address both our need of exercise and our “nature deficit disorder” (Louv 20082012) by getting outside and finding that we actually like it and that it feels good, and perhaps this engagement with natural environments and greenspaces could contribute to a desire for more conservation and less ecological destruction. If the public’s appetite for cage-free chickens can convince McDonalds to require that their chicken suppliers go 100% cage free within five years, perhaps similar consciousness raising in other areas can result from the intersection of scientific research and people ’s desire for more pleasure and less stress in their harried lives.

It strikes me also that a positive way forward is not so much to try to empathize with nonhuman agents and give voice to animal and plant agencies (as important as these may be), but rather to expand or enlarge our sense of what it could possibly mean to be a bit more anthropocentric: that is, to think of taking care of the earth as synonymous with taking care of ourselves. As the technophilic authors of, for example, the Ecomodernist Manifesto declare: “To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day” (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015, p. 6). This could mean trying to imagine a future for humanity that is, for example, not simply in service to capital. Or this could mean developing an increased recognition that we’re only harming ourselves when we destroy the ecosystems and environments that support us and give us life . Perhaps to think more anthropocentrically would mean developing a new appreciation for our integration with and interdependence on the world around us, to begin to imagine ourselves as biological beings composed of permeable membranes and flows, not to mention the nonhuman beings in our gut microbiome and beyond. How, in other words, can we as human beings better attune ourselves to earth’s flows? How do we create relationships with nonhuman others of mutual beneficence—the relationships that, as Spinoza might say, will begin to show us what we’re capable of doing. Or as Buckminster Fuller once famously observed: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

As Petra Hroch argues, one assumption about the Anthropocene , “as an account of the present moment,” is that it “forces us to confront […] the fact that further [conventionally] Anthropocentric thinking will not create a viable response to today’s eco-crises” (2014, p. 4). But is anthropocentrism capable of changing, becoming more expansive and integrative, becoming more open to the outside? Surely, if the great acceleration of ecological destruction we’re currently living through only began during the last century or two (speeding up post World War II), then our relationship to the natural world and to ourselves is one that can change drastically across times and spaces. This change will, of course, continue. As engineering and ethics professor Brad Allenby recently observed in the New York Times, the term Anthropocene “tends to reify humans as they are now” (2011). This, he observes:

may well require adjustment in the future , since the suite of emerging technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology , and applied cognitive science – is rapidly making the human a design space. […] And as humans increasingly integrate with the technology around them, and as the evolution of that technology continues to accelerate, it is questionable that what we will have in a couple of decades is still “Anthro” [as we currently understand it]. It is not just Earth systems, but the human itself, that are in the midst of radical and unpredictable change, and it is probably premature to evaluate what sort of system will come out of the process. (2011)

If anything, these unpredictable processes of change will result in the modification of ourselves, the modification of the environments that surround us, and the modification of our relationships to these environments and to our emerging identities. Whitehead once remarked that “Successful organisms modify their environment ”; moreover, he added, “Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.” This law, he observes, “is exemplified in nature on a vast scale” (2011, p. 256). We can only hope that these modifications of ourselves and the worlds around us will be as mutually beneficial as possible by the time the next geological era—human created or not—makes the Anthropocene just a bad—or maybe good?—memory.

figure a
Image 4.1
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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Tiessen .

Tiessen, M. (2018). Making Our Way in a World of Our Making: The Anthropocene, Debt-Money, and the Pre-emptive Production of Our Future. In: jagodzinski, j. (eds) Interrogating the Anthropocene. Palgrave Studies in Educational Futures. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

It Is Not an Anthropocene; It Is Really the Technocene: Names Matter in Decision Making Under Planetary Crisis

Front. Ecol. Evol., 30 June 2020
Sec. Coevolution

Oliver López-Corona1,2* and Gustavo Magallanes-Guijón3*

  • 1Cátedras CONACyT, Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), Mexico City, Mexico
  • 2Centro de Ciencias de la Complejidad (C3), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico
  • 3Posgrado en Astrofísica, Instituto de Astronomía, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico

We do not understand what we see but see what we understand. Words shape the comprehension of our environment and set the space of possibilities we can access when decision making. In here we make the case for the use of Technocene instead of Anthropocene using well-grounded arguments in basic scientific principles. We already know that the Earth system has co-evolved with life phenomena (i.e., the evolution of atmosphere chemistry). What the Technocene idea makes clear is that as modern human societies exhibit an enormous coupling with technology and for the first time in human history that technology has the potential to modify the very core processes that drive Earth System dynamics, then Technology must be considered as a new dimension of analysis in the study of Earth system in its coevolution with life and particularly human beings.

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Technocene?

Ever since the seminal work of Crutzen (2002) where he proposed the Anthropocene concept as a new geological epoch, the concept has become very rapidly mainstream (Malm and Hornborg, 2014). Nonetheless, several critiques have been raised from different approaches. For once, Malm (2016) aims to develop a Marxist account of the planetary crisis, emphasizing the link with development (mainly carbon-centered) and capital accumulation. In the same line of thought, Moore (2016) has posed that beyond a technical geological focus of Anthropocene concept, there is a social reading of the idea developed in terms of the clear increases in scale, scope synchronicity, and rate/speed of environmental change, driven by capital accumulation. So, these scholars suggest that “Capitalocene” is a more historically appropriate term. Others as Haraway (2016ab) thinks that Anthropocene and Capitalocene are seen as lending themselves too readily to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions. In that sense, the Chthulucene (her proposal), alternatively considers “multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen – yet.” Then humans are no longer the only relevant actors.

In terms of capital accumulation as a driver of Anthropocene/Capitalocene, we consider that this is only possible by using technologies that allow orders of magnitude more energy extraction (primordially) and other natural resources than before Anthropocene/Capitalocene. In recent work, Burger et al. (2017) have shown that meanwhile, humans organized as hunter-gatherers exhibit an energy flux 102–103 watts/km2; energy flux in modern cities ranges from 105 to 108 watts/km2 and surpasses global primary productivity on land (105 watts/km2 global average). Without the underlying technology that allowed this energy flux increase, capital accumulation would not have been possible at all, even if wanted. Even more, seeing the environmental trajectory of non-capitalist countries such as China, one may wonder that if the predominant social system would be non-capitalist, does the same or equivalent planetary crisis would have been reached? With regard to Chthulucene, our version of Technocene is based on the Technobiont ontology (López-Corona et al., 2019) that incorporates a multi-species perspective (Holobiont) as well as both biological co-evolution and niche construction, considering genome, symbiont, social and environmental inheritance.

We consider then, that our Technocene construction includes, on the one hand, the main aspects of a historic perspective and some other fundamental concerns of social science, including even some elements relevant from culture and power theorization. On the other hand, it also covers a multi-species non-anthropocentric perspective relevant to the Chthulucene perspective. Nonetheless, it’s the greatest strength is the system dynamics perspective as we will develop below.

The concept of Thechnocene is not new as it has been used by anthropologist Alf Hornborg (Hamilton et al., 2015) and the sociologist Martins (2018) whose make a historical and critical review of the role of science in technological development, reviewing the relationship between nature and society from an interdisciplinary perspective. His analysis, which examines the need for political ecology, environmental anthropology and the relationship between science and society, is valuable for understanding different concepts such as the one proposed in this letter from the different disciplines: the Technocene.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this concept is built within the theoretical framework of anthropology. This implies that there is a strong political, social, sociolinguistic, and cultural burden. So approaching the Technocene implies implicitly considering a linguistic approach and therefore lexicon. In this sense, considering the notion of Tecnocene, from this perspective it is worth taking up the reflection of Sen (2019) who suggests reflecting on the appropriate words based on the direct consequences of human reality imposed on the natural and artificial order: “If the first nuclear detonation immediately called to mind the paucity of language to represent reality as awe-inspiring as the mushroom cloud, then the Anthropocene similarly asks us to fashion a new language and expand our vocabulary to bear the weight of our contemporary moment.” So it is appropriate to use words that reveal as closely as possible the ontology of the phenomenon.

Which is in accordance with the position of Esposito (2019), because just as an ecocentric approach offers epistemological changes to anthropocentrism, in the same way, a methodology that considers a technocentric approach also suggests to include concepts and notions that allow addressing phenomena of ecological order and social with ontological, epistemological and ethical-political changes.

In this Mini-Review paper, we use the notion of Technocene as an environmental concept, in which Environmental Sciences and Earth Sciences converge, and as Hamilton et al. (2015) had pointed out, the post-Cartesian Social Science too. At the same time that interdisciplinary science is intertwined to explain environmental phenomena such as global warming. In this sense, the discussion in the literature about the concept of the Anthropocene is important. For example, from the ecosystem sciences, Malhi (2017) explores the functioning of the biosphere and its interactions with global change; while from a cultural evolution perspective Boyd and Richerson (1996) have studied the development of this geological era. This, without neglecting Haff’s vision. Haff (2014) who also proposes six key rules that mediate human beings and technology in the Anthropocene. For us, it is clear that thinking about the concept of the Anthropocene is exceeded in the face of technological development and its environmental impact (Cera, 2017). So treating environmental problems and their research from an anthropocentric approach is not adequate. On the other hand, ethical and political problems must be treated in their right dimension (Hensel, 2017), and for this, it is necessary to take into account that we are technological subjects that develop economically on the transformation of nature.

Of particular interest is the work of Peter Haff about how different human technological systems such as communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems are interlinked and actually act to metabolize energy (mostly fossil fuels) in a sort of global emergent entity with similarities to the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. The author calls this the Technosphere, which he considers the defining system of the Anthropocene and most important in the context of the present work, he thinks it is influential and even model what we might consider most intimately and essentially human: our ideas, personal purposes, feelings, and dreams.

In the same sense, a direct antecedent of the importance of niche construction is the seminal work of Herrmann-Pillath who has pointed out how technology co-evolve with other components of human culture such as its institutions in parallel with behavioral and biological evolution, constituting a key element of niche construction. This recognition is incorporated in what we think is a novel ontology, the Ecobiont, discussed in our previous work (López-Corona et al., 2019) and that makes our understanding of Technocene somehow different to previous proposals because is not only about the dominium of technology that enhances the human capacity for niche construction; it is also about the dominium of a new Ecobion, the Technobiont.

A Systems Dynamics Approach to Technocene Concept

Our approach in this work is based on the recognition that Earth is a complex system, that is maintained in a unique state far from thermodynamic equilibrium through the co-evolution of its biotic and abiotic components by maximizing the entropy production, a process that might be a thermodynamic imperative (Kleidon, 2009Michaelian, 2012). The Evolution by natural selection considers one direction of this coupling but the other direction, Niche Construction, has been little studied. In previous work (López-Corona et al., 2019) we developed a new ontology, the Ecobiont, to take both directions into account.

The theoretical model for the Ecobiont ontology considers a set of interacting pools: genes (G), microbiome (g), and social (s); that co-evolve from some arbitrary time t to t’, through natural selection and niche construction. In contrast to how an abiotic component of the Earth system evolves from a pool of physicochemical components, biological and human systems do it with information stored not only in the genome (physiochemical component) but also in its culture, including technology. To make it clear, it is no longer only a matter of genome or even culture, now it is mainly a matter of how technology modify the evolutionary processes and even Earth System directly (i.e., Climate Change or Ozone Layer Depletion). Then, in order to fully understand the current planetary crisis and make good decisions about how to respond to it, we must be aware of this new extra and key dimension. In our framework, this will lead to a special kind of Ecobiont that captures the existence of human societies extreme coupled with technology. Considering that Burger et al. (2017) have shown that Homo Sapiens living in modern cities follow extra-metabolic energy scaling every other mammal do-follow, including hunter-gatherers that we called Classical Homo Sapiens (CHS), we proposed that those Homo Sapiens living in modern cities are in fact a different type of Ecobiont compared with CHS, we called them: Technobionts (López-Corona et al., 2019). This new (in geological time) Ecobiont type has turned itself into a dynamic driver for earth functioning that has overwhelmed the great forces of nature (Steffen et al., 2007).

Because of the above, here we propose that the Anthropocene new geological era, that is about to get formal recognition, is not the concept we need. For thousands of years, CHS co-existed with the rest of the Earth system’s components (biotic and abiotic), so the ongoing Climate or Biodiversity (Dirzo et al., 2014). Crisis are not caused by our human (Anthropic) nature but by an over coupling with some kinds of technologies that enhance unprecedented niche construction capacities. We consider that Technocene responds to the correct source of our current planetary crisis and point out to the proper path, not stop being humans or accepting the catastrophe as Anthropocene would imply, but to find configurations of technologies that take us back to the CHS track as possible, and away from tipping points that could transform the Earth System in an irreversible way (Steffen et al., 2018).

Precautionary Approaches to the Technocene

For example, in terms of Anthropocene that does not explicitly acknowledge the current key role of technology but only its human origin, a solution to Planetary Crisis may be searched into the technology itself in some sort of red queen process, as not identified as an important component of the problem. This would be similar to trying to resolve antibiotic bacteria resistance problems only by looking for better antibiotics (technological focus) without understanding that abuse in the use of antibiotics (technology) is a big part of the problem. Focusing too much on technological solutions may get us into a never-ending circle of problems made by abuse of technology that is meant to be fixed by using more technology that would lead to new problems (maybe even worst problems). In particular, there has been recent attention to the Big Solutions approach in terms of for example geoengineering, which is regarded by advocates as a creative and responsible technological option in the face of a Climate Crisis (Thiele, 2019). Nevertheless, these calls for emergency geoengineering need to be analyzed with extreme care in a full interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary manner (Blackstock and Low, 2018) because this kind of re-coupling with new unproven technologies could carry out hidden systemic risk, so Precautionary Principle (PP) should prevail (Taleb et al., 2014). On the other hand, a Technocene perspective could certainly promote technology de-coupling or at least a higher level of technology selection, promoting less invasive ones. For example, in terms of Climate Crisis society could embrace voluntary resignation to certain types of energy use to match sustainable energy budgets like the one promoted by MacKay (2008).

Planetary changes have occurred several times on Earth System, modeling not only its dynamics but also life evolution. Consider the profound impact to Earth System dynamics that came from the emergence of the 3,700-mile planetary scar we know as the East African Rift Valley some eons ago, or how about some 4 million years ago, grasslands began to replace thick forests, and a dramatic pattern emerged in which our ancestors adapted to the unstable environment by the increasingly inventive use of technology and enhanced social cooperation (Dartnell, 2019). Because normally these changes take very long periods, we tend to ignore them from the human perspective, but when talking about planetary-scale technologies these changes could take only a few years.

So, should we be concerned about, for example, the results by Lei et al. (2019) who have shown a suggesting chain of evidence that both ML5.7 and ML5.3 earthquakes from 2018 in Sichuan Province China were induced by nearby Hydraulic Fracking activities? Nevertheless, although these new technologies as fracking should be considered under very high scrutiny, some “old” technologies such as hydraulic engineering, has already proved to have the potential of drive mayor ecosystemic changes. In fact, Williams et al. (2014) identify “Humans as the third evolutionary stage of biosphere engineering of rivers.” For the authors, the first two bio-engineering forces are oxygenic photosynthesis and the development of vascular plants with root systems. Then in third place comes human activities such as drainage, agriculture, the construction of artificial water bodies, the development of artificial water storage and flow regulation structures, and some second-order effects as changes in global-scale chemical and biogeochemical modification of terrestrial water bodies (Meybeck, 2003).

Sometimes even small and apparently innocuous technology can add up to produce huge effects, which is the case of human use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) often used in aerosol cans and cooling devices such as fridges, that was demonstrated was the driver of Ozone layer depletion. Discovered using 20 years of ozone levels measurements over the Antarctic stations of Halley and Faraday by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin, it was published in a foundational paper of 1985 that transformed the fields of atmospheric science and chemical kinetics and led to global changes in environmental policy (Farman et al., 1985Solomon, 2019). Even “green” technologies could lead to important planetary changes if implemented massively (Kleidon, 2016) as could happen with Eolic energy production that at the end of the day extract kinetic energy out of climatic systems, “Large-scale exploitation of wind energy will inevitably leave an imprint in the atmosphere” (Buchanan, 2011, p. 9).


In that sense, potential awareness induced by recognizing over technological coupling in Technocene or Technobiont concepts could lead to a more precautionary use of some technologies. The Technocene concept is well-grounded into evolutionary and Earth System Dynamics theories, poses a better set mind for decision making and bottom line, we sure cannot stop being Anthropos but we may certainly stop being Technobionts. A word of warning here, by no means we are proposing to neglect scientific or technological progress, nor we are thinking we should live as hunter-gatherers. We are merely saying that we need to take technological coupling into account when trying to understand Earth System Dynamics and that some types and intensities of technological coupling should be treated with the maximum application of the non-naive (this is key for not falling into misunderstanding) Precautionary Principle.

As pointed out by Taleb et al. (2014, p. 2), “a non-naive view of the precautionary principle is one in which it is only invoked when necessary, and only to prevent a certain variety of very precisely defined risks based on distinctive probabilistic structures. But, also, in such a view, the PP should never be omitted when needed.” For example, in small quantities even controversial technologies as nuclear plants which we know may be prone to catastrophic accidents (Perrow, 1984) don’t require to invoke PP. What Charles Perrow notice after his analysis of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 is that normal or systemic accidents, often catastrophic, are mainly inevitable in extremely complex systems like nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, even when terrible, the effects of one nuclear plant accident, don’t propagate to other nuclear plants and most of the worst damage is local.

In this sense, although it is known that the potential harm due to not only accidents as radiation release or core meltdowns but also by radioactive waste can be large. At the same time, the nature of these risks has been extensively studied, and the risks from local uses of nuclear energy have a scale that is much smaller than global (Taleb et al., 2014). On the other hand, we have geoengineering, an unproven new technology whose potential effects are clearly of a planetary scale and for which we don’t have any understanding of direct or indirect risks. Then, to make it very clear, our approach for the use of the Technocene term is not to limit, reject or demonize technology per se, but to promote awareness to only some type of technologies depending on their use, type of risk, scale and coupling with other Earth Systems compartments. Very similar to the idea of incorporating the defaunation concept and not only use the established loss of biodiversity. In addition, and maybe a more important perspective is that thinking of Technocene rather than Anthropocene, also opens debate and analysis of philosophical (ontological, ethical), political and social problems about Climate Change and other components of Planetary Crisis, enhancing a deeper integral understanding of it.

Finally, beyond this conclusion around Planetary Crisis and decision making, we consider that Technocene framework highlights the importance of co-evolutionary processes driven not only by natural selection but also niche construction, turning attention to a topic that has not received enough consideration, the great technological acceleration of the past 50 years, and how it has become an Earth System dynamics changer.

It also points to some very interesting theoretical possibilities because bottom line, it might be interpreted as a contextual statistical perspective of Earth System dynamics. Statistical contextually was developed mainly by Khrennikov (2009) as a modification of classical Kolmogorovian probability, that works as a formal framework for systems that are so context-dependent (coupled) that they should not be addressed separated but by an indivisible pair (system, context). In this sense, what we are suggesting is that because the potential planetary impacts modern human societies (over coupled with some technologies) have, any Earth System dynamics description is incomplete without the human technological context.

Author Contributions

Both authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.


This work was supported by the CONACyT fund M0037-2018-07, Number 296842, Cátedras CONACyT fellowship program (Project Number 30), and Sistema Nacional de Investigadores SNI, number 62929.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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Keywords: anthropocene, planetary crisis, decision making, precautionary principle, Technocene

Citation: López-Corona O and Magallanes-Guijón G (2020) It Is Not an Anthropocene; It Is Really the Technocene: Names Matter in Decision Making Under Planetary Crisis. Front. Ecol. Evol. 8:214. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2020.00214

Received: 12 March 2020; Accepted: 08 June 2020;
Published: 30 June 2020.

Edited by:Melissa Susan Roth, University of California, Berkeley, United States

Reviewed by:Jason Groves, University of Washington, United States
Hannah Fair, Brunel University London, United Kingdom

Copyright © 2020 López-Corona and Magallanes-Guijón. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Oliver López-Corona,; Gustavo Magallanes-Guijón,

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