One would think the latest reports documenting the lack of action regarding climate change, the continued and accelerating changes to the oceans and cryosphere, the deteriorating condition of the Great Barrier Reef, and the astonishing decline in avian populations along with the ongoing extinction of numerous other plant and animal species, should serve to focus […]The next ten years… — The Anthropocene Dashboard
PhD Candidate/Associate Lecturer
Nottingham Trent University
The question of how to live together harmoniously with our earthly co-inhabitants has never been more pressing amid the severe and worsening socio-ecological perturbations of the Anthropocene. Perhaps the most troubling is the systematic annihilation of our co-evolutionary kin that is the planet’s sixth mass extinction. In monopolizing the earth for ourselves- largely through neoliberal-capitalist socioeconomic systems predicated on ceaseless growth and consumption, spurring deforestation and related land-use changes, and the commodification of life itself for profit accumulation as an end-in-itself- a staggering 60% of monitored vertebrate species per 1970 levels have disappeared. Crucially, such loss is no mere epistemological phenomenon, as if these beings were quantifiable resources that could be recuperated, but a protracted event that marks the slow unravelling of cherished and irreplaceable ethico-political relations.
The aforementioned trends further stem from the long-standing tradition of anthropocentrism and its positing of humans as separate from and superior to the natural world and non-human entities, a legacy of the deep-seated Cartesian reduction of non-human animals to things acted upon, as not seeing but merely ‘seen’ by human subjects. If one conceives of politics as the manner by which society or the collective is arranged so as to enable its members to live well, then traditional conceptualizations have been woefully deficient in their arrogant exclusion of non-human others. Aristotle’s conception of the polis was famously logo-centric- a community predicated on its citizens’ abilities to speak, listen, and share a common vision of the good life. Similarly, Kant’s famed cosmopolitan proposal in Toward Perpetual Peace for a global citizenry bound by universal law and solidarity was thoroughly Western-Euro-centric in its exclusion of beings external to the human-world correlate. Kant regarded only rational beings as worthy of being treated as ends in themselves; non-rational beings (i.e., animals) had only “relative worth, as means” and were therefore regarded as mere things.
Such legacies are alive and well in contemporary political thought, which continues to construe the ‘cosmos’ far too narrowly. The non-human world is still posited- often implicitly and sometimes explicitly- as mere inert background to the unfolding human drama. In popular, policy, and even academic discourses, the natural world and other species are still framed matter-of-factly as resources for the satisfaction of human needs and desires. Yet, as Latour poignantly observes, the litany of ecological crises proliferating amid the Anthropocene in the form of super hurricanes, scorching droughts, raging wildfires, and rapidly vanishing flora and fauna constitute a ‘generalized revolt of the means’- protests by recalcitrant entities who no longer consent to being treated as mere inert objects for furthering human ends. Hence the fundamentally ethical imperative of a radical reconstitution of our common world, to be carefully designed by and for the long-excluded multitudes. As with the old schism between ‘Society’ and ‘Nature’, the ‘proliferating associations of nonhumans’ behind every human- and without whom we simply could not be- highlight the profound deficiencies of traditional conceptualisations of the cosmos and polis.
Both Latour and Stengers attempt to extricate themselves from these profoundly humanist traditions through their conception of cosmopolitics- ever-expanding assemblages of multiplicities of actants- human and non-human- that must be continuously negotiated and co-constructed. However, Latourian cosmopolitics perhaps affords a little too much primacy to the existing collective’s right, and indeed capacity, to decide, pending compromise and accommodation, who and on what terms is to be ‘welcomed’. In this case, new arrivals are to be welcomed pending the degree to which they can harmoniously mesh with existing actants by finding their rightful place in the collective, and on condition that they do not fundamentally disrupt the already-existing order. The query, ‘Can we live together?’, is posited as the sacred duty of those in the already-established collective rather than equally posed by external others. Moreover, the collective’s perimeter, however tentative, is still policed by those on the inside. It is here where Latour fails to direct sufficient attention to the violent, undemocratic, and therefore unethical implications of exclusion.
We must always ask ourselves who is left out and, crucially, from an ethical standpoint, what effects this might have on them. When Latour enquires as to what obliges one to “reserve the water of the river Drome for fish as opposed to using it to irrigate corn fields subsidized by Europe”, the answer doesn’t simply lie in whether or not we’ve taken into account all entities affected by such an act or in considering how excluding fish will affect the whole collective. Depriving the fish of water is ethically unacceptable because the fish needs water in order to live and flourish. Thus, a new ethic for the Anthropocene demands that we treat the vast profusion of more-than-human life on earth as singular and irreducible entities who matter in and of themselves, as political subjects worthy of inclusion and active participation in the earth collective, and crucially, as fellow earthlings who are with and not for us.
Erle C. Ellis
Global climate change, widespread extinctions, and pervasive pollution are just a few of the many symptoms of the global environmental changes produced by human activities. There is a growing consensus that human societies have emerged as a “great force of nature” that is shifting Earth into a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene 1, 2. Why? Biology alone cannot explain this.
While Homo sapiens does have some distinctive biological traits, stone tools and control of fire are not among them; both were common to ancestral hominins long before sapiens emerged among them. The central question of the Anthropocene, why did behaviorally modern humans gain the unprecedented capacity to change an entire planet, cannot be answered by genetic changes in human behavior. To explain why human societies scaled up to become a global force capable of changing the Earth and why there are so many different forms of human societies and ecologies shaped by them, explanations must be sought beyond the theories of biology, chemistry or physics. Here I introduce a new evolutionary theory, sociocultural niche construction, aimed at explaining the origins of human capacity to transform the Earth 3. As will be seen, this theory also explains why behaviorally modern human societies came to transform ecology in so many different ways over the past 50,000 years as they expanded across the Earth.
Like most ecologists whose work involves humans, my research has focused primarily on the ecological consequences of human activities, not the causes. In 2012, the editor of Ecological Monographs pushed me to go further, to explain why humans have reshaped more than three quarters of the terrestrial biosphere from their “natural” biome patterns shaped by climate, like tropical rainforests, grasslands, and deserts, into the urban, village, cropland, rangeland and seminatural anthropogenic biomes now common across Earth’s land (anthromes) 4.
My efforts to answer this question required a huge dose of social learning: a deep dive into evolutionary theory and a sustained effort at transdisciplinary synthesis across existing theories of niche construction, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, cultural evolution, ultrasociality, and social change. The resulting monograph presents a new theory, sociocultural niche construction, to explain the emergence of humanity as a global force that is reshaping ecology across the biosphere and weighs its implications for ecological science (anthroecology theory) 3.
In this article, I explain why cultural evolution is at the core of this theory, explaining why humans alone among multicellular species gained the capacity to change a planet and why different societies do this differently, as the result of sociocultural evolution (the social evolution of cultural systems), in which natural selection acts simultaneously on individuals, social groups, and societies causing long-term behavioral changes in them across human generational time (multi-level selection; explored in this blog post).
The first step in understanding why humans change environments is the recognition that all species do this to some degree. This is known as ecosystem engineering in ecology. More importantly, these alterations can have evolutionary consequences. This is the theory of niche construction, in which organisms alter their environments, for example, by building nests or by producing chemicals that inhibit other species (allelopathy), producing an ecological inheritance– which may be beneficial, detrimental or neutral to their adaptive fitness, and/or to that of other species sharing their environment 5. Niche construction theory makes evolution a two-way street: organisms do not just adapt within environments that they cannot alter, they also alter their environments, producing ecological inheritances and altered environments that may require further adaptations.
In ecology, cultural inheritances are defined as heritable traits transmitted through social learning 6, 7. By bringing cultural inheritances together with ecological inheritances and other forms of genetic and nongenetic inheritances, we arrive at the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) mentioned above. The EES holds that the phenotypic traits of organisms are produced by a combined suite of inheritances, the “inclusive inheritance”, composed of cultural, ecological, genetic, epigenetic and parental inheritances that evolve together to produce evolutionary changes in phenotypes 7, 8.
The implications of coupling cultural and ecological inheritances together in a single evolutionary theory are profound even for nonhuman species. However, for behaviorally modern humans, in which cultural inheritances determine both the organization of societies and their strategies for utilizing and transforming their environments, the implications of the EES are absolutely transformative. Moreover, the EES also includes multiple modes by which inheritances may be transmitted, from the vertical transmission of genetic traits from parent to progeny to the horizontal transmission of inheritances across unrelated individuals within a single generation – common to both cultural traits and gene transfers across microbes – to the oblique inheritance of traits from older to younger generations, enabling horizontal transmission of inheritances across generations and their accumulation over the long-term.
A key prediction of the EES is that when environments vary rapidly, within the span of a single generation, this tends to favor adaptive traits that are inherited horizontally and obliquely, like cultural traits (or horizontal gene flow among microbes) over traits transmitted vertically (like genetic traits in multicellular organisms passed from parent to offspring), because this produces greater phenotypic plasticity in adapting to environmental changes within a single generation. As a result, the EES predicts that cultural traits (and other forms of horizontally transmitted traits – like bacterial genes) will tend to be selected for in highly variable environments.
Given that humans, even those living in hunter gatherer societies, are among the most potent of all ecosystem engineers, their environments tend to change rapidly, within a single generation, through use of fire to clear vegetation, by massive hunting and foraging pressures, and the propagation, management and dispersal of species 9. Human ecosystem engineering behaviors also tend to be socially learned and socially enacted (produced by cooperation within and among social groups), highlighting the adaptive importance of cultural traits and their interplay with ecological inheritances in defining the evolutionary processes of behaviorally modern human societies and their socially engineered environments.
While there are many social species, the sociality of behaviorally modern humans is exceptional. Our capacities for social learning and the accumulation and evolution of cultural inheritances are unrivalled, and have produced societies structured largely by socially learned social relationships that include dependence on non-kin individuals for survival, marking our species as the most social of all, Earth’s first ultrasocial animal 10. To survive and reproduce within behaviorally modern human societies, it is necessary to socially learn the requisite behaviors for interacting with both kin and non-kin individuals and within and across social groups and societies, such that human adaptive fitness is a function of culture, not of biology 11. Individual, group and societal behaviors vary profoundly both within and among societies, including strategies for ecosystem engineering, exchange of food and other resources among kin and non-kin, forms of social organization, and even the modes of social transmission of culture (e.g. languages, technologies, ritual practices, artistic expressions, etc.).
In behaviorally modern human societies, direct interactions with the environment to gain sustenance and other necessities by foraging, farming or even shopping at the store, may be optional; sustenance and other necessities may be gained through complex social relationships among unrelated and unknown individuals – like when you go to the grocery store to get food without ever setting foot on a farm. The human niche, the way that humans as a species utilize and transform environments to survive and to reproduce, is thus largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across, and by social groups and societies. Long-term changes in the construction of the behaviorally modern human niche, the structure and functioning of human societies and their transformation of environments, is the product of evolution by natural selection acting on the individual and groups via social modes of sociocultural niche construction.
This perspective is not entirely new either. Charles Darwin noted that human cultural traits appear to evolve much more rapidly than biologically-determined traits 12. This is clearly one of the main reasons why human societies have evolved so many diverse and complex cultural forms and why they have changed so much over the mere 50,000 years since behaviorally modern humans first spread across the Earth. Hunter gatherer societies, some of which successfully sustain themselves today even in the face of pressures from larger scale societies, are generally composed of small bands of mostly related individuals and rely on remarkably complex sociocultural toolkits including social hunting, traps and projectiles, resource sharing, niche broadening (expanding the range of utilized species when preferred species are driven extinct), food processing, the clearing of vegetation using fire to increase success in hunting and foraging and even the propagation of favored species- the first stages of domestication.
Agricultural societies have built on these complex sociocultural strategies to develop even more novel and transformative ecosystem engineering regimes, from domesticated species, tillage, and irrigation to manuring and the marketplace. They have also developed larger and larger social groupings with more and more complex and unequal social organization requiring increasingly diverse and specialized social roles, from urban dwelling craftsmen to traders, taxmen, the utilization of ever more complex tools and technologies enabling even greater modification of environments, and the harnessing of domestic livestock and water power to supplement human energy. Industrial societies have scaled up even more, developing massive and rapidly growing populations, global trade in food and other resources, the use of fossilized biomass and even non-biomass forms of energy to supplement and eliminate human energy in ecosystem engineering, food and resource sharing, and even communications.
Across societies, sociocultural evolution has been accelerated by both the ratchet effect and by runaway processes of sociocultural niche construction. In the ratchet effect, multiple cultural traits may become aggregated into a single complex cultural trait, such as the “recipe” to produce a bow and arrow, and this complex trait may then be transmitted horizontally as a single trait from one society to another. Even greater bursts of sustained evolutionary change – sociocultural regime shifts – can also occur through runaway sociocultural niche construction, in which the social and environmental changes produced by cultural + ecological traits, such as the cultivation of soil leading to long-term fertility loss, must be adapted to by even more transformative cultural and ecological traits, such as the harvesting and utilization of manures to maintain soil fertility, locking societies into a continuous cycle of increasingly transformative change in their sociocultural niche.
Human ultrasociality changed the Earth. While evolution is never linear or progressive, there are some remarkable general long-term trends in human social change (see Table 3 in Ellis, 2015). Over the past 50,000 years, the potential scale of individual human societies has grown from a few dozen individuals to several hundred million. The potential productivity of a single square kilometer of land has been increased through cooperative ecosystem engineering from sustaining less than ten individuals to sustaining more than one thousand. Energy use per individual has expanded by a factor of more than 20 times through use of non-biomass energy, mostly from fossil fuels. The flow of materials, energy, biota and information across human societies has become essentially global. And human individuals now live nearly twice as long on average as they did in the Paleolithic.
A number of theories have been advanced to explain why human societies gained these unprecedented scales and capacities, from the competitive advantages of large scale cooperation in warfare 13, to the increasing economies of scale in dense populations 14. No doubt the many evolutionary patterns of human sociocultural niche construction have emerged in response to many different pressures – and even at random – but multilevel selection acting on human cultural inheritances is the ultimate shaper of both the great diversity and the unprecedented scales of the human sociocultural niche.
Sociocultural niche construction theory is still at an early stage of development. It is critical to remember that like biological evolution, sociocultural evolution is a process, not a destiny. The future remains fully open to surprise – the large scale societies of today could quickly go the way of the dinosaurs. Given current trends in environmental disruption and growing social inequality, such outcomes seem increasingly plausible. Nevertheless, as contemporary societies advance in their ability to understand the ultimate causes, not just the consequences, of their transformation of the Earth, this knowledge has the potential to enable societies to seek and implement social strategies aimed towards sustaining both themselves and nonhuman species more successfully and to make progress toward more desirable futures.
The call to recognize the Anthropocene as a new epoch of geologic time confronts us with the need to understand and better guide the dynamics of human societies as a global force reshaping the Earth System. Long-term changes in human social organization, cooperative ecosystem engineering, exchange relationships, and energy systems are now tightly coupled with long-term changes in the Earth System that are altering ecology across our planet in profound and possibly permanent ways. While it is possible that for most people on Earth, times have never been better, the opposite is true for most other species.
In an increasingly anthropogenic biosphere it is essential to shift the paradigm. Humanity has emerged as a global sociocultural force. We and all other species now live on a used planet reshaped by generations of our ancestors. On the one hand, human societies are polluting air, land and sea, changing Earth’s climate and expanding into the habitats of other species, driving them to extinction. But the opposite is also true. Societies have managed to reduce their pollution, restore habitats, conserve species, and may yet implement the massive shift in energy systems that could circumvent catastrophic climate change. It is time to go beyond the idea that somehow a “balance of nature” will pull humanity back towards some safe harbor and move forward to embrace the sociocultural tools and the “cultures of nature” in which human societies become better both for humans and for all the rest of Earth’s species that must now live together with us on a used planet.
- Steffen, W., P. J. Crutzen, and J. R. McNeill. (2007) The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36: 614-621.
- Waters, C. N., J. Zalasiewicz, C. Summerhayes, A. D. Barnosky, C. Poirier, A. Gałuszka, A. Cearreta, M. Edgeworth, E. C. Ellis, M. Ellis, C. Jeandel, R. Leinfelder, J. R. McNeill, D. d. Richter, W. Steffen, J. Syvitski, D. Vidas, M. Wagreich, M. Williams, A. Zhisheng, J. Grinevald, E. Odada, N. Oreskes, and A. P. Wolfe. (2016) The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351: aad2622.
- Ellis, E. C. 2015. Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere. Ecological Monographs 85: 287–331.
- Ellis, E. C., and N. Ramankutty. 2008. Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6: 439-447.
- Odling-Smee, F. J., K. N. Laland, and M. W. Feldman. (2003) Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton University Press.
- Laland, K. N., J. Odling-Smee, and M. W. Feldman. (2000) Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23: 131-146.
- Danchin, É., A. Charmantier, F. A. Champagne, A. Mesoudi, B. Pujol, and S. Blanchet. 2011. Beyond DNA: integrating inclusive inheritance into an extended theory of evolution. Nat Rev Genet 12: 475-486.
- Danchin, É. 2013. Avatars of information: towards an inclusive evolutionary synthesis. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28: 351-358.
- Smith, B. D. (2007) The ultimate ecosystem engineers. Science 315: 1797-1798.
- Hill, K., M. Barton, and A. M. Hurtado. (2009) The emergence of human uniqueness: Characters underlying behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 18 :187-200.
- Sterelny, K. 2011. From hominins to humans: how sapiens became behaviourally modern. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366: 809-822.
- Mesoudi, A., A. Whiten, and K. N. Laland. 2006. Towards a unified science of cultural evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 329-347.
- Turchin, P. 2015. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books.
- Bettencourt, L. M. A. 2013. The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.
It seems the only response to the vogue for Anthropocene thinking is ambivalence: yes, we are finally –perhaps – thinking beyond our own time and interests, but we are doing so by way of a parochial conception of the species (‘anthropos’), accompanied by a resurgence of seemingly counter-humanist rhetorics that are all too human. Calling the Anthropocene the ‘capitalocene’, to name just one gesture, restores earlier political narratives that explain human history by way of a trajectory of labour, and allows the goodness of the notion of the proper polity to remain in place. The Anthropocene is not a simple invocation of ‘humanity’ or ‘the human,’ but an explanation of a now-universal predicament, generated by the historically, economically, culturally and politically singular mode of being of some humans. The logic of the Anthropocene and its mode of universality is akin to that of the universal history of Anti-Oedipus: there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the history of capitalism and humanism, and yet once that history has taken place capitalism’s system of abstraction, exchange and axiomatics enables the comprehension of all previous social assemblages; all other social forms are now seen as different from capitalism to the extent to which they impeded radically deterritorialized exchange:
… it is correct to retrospectively understand all history in the light of capitalism, provided that the rules formulated by Marx are followed exactly.
First of all, universal history is the history of contingencies, and not the history of necessity. Ruptures and limits, and not continuity. For great accidents were necessary, and amazing encounters that could have happened elsewhere, or before, or might never have happened, in order for the flows to escape coding and, escaping, to nonetheless fashion a new machine bearing the determinations of the capitalist socius. …
…if we say that capitalism determines the conditions and the possibility of a universal history, this is true only insofar as capitalism has to deal essentially with its own limit, its own destruction—as Marx says, insofar as it is capable of self-criticism (at least to a certain point: the point where the limit appears, in the very movement that counteracts the tendency). In a word, universal history is not only retrospective, it is also contingent, singular, ironic, and critical (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 140).
Capitalism makes sense of its prehistory, enabling a universal and all-encompassing narrative that explains every other social form as its precursor. One might say the same for Deleuze and Guattari’s mode of philosophy: its grasp of life in all its stratifications, all the ways in which it unfolds to infinity, takes place from a singular history of philosophy (from Greece to the present) that is then able to consider philosophy as such, and art as such as having a potentiality not limited to its Western or human form (1994). This brings us to the heart of the inclusive disjunction of the Anthropocene. It might seem as though commitment to the problem of the Anthropocene requires either that we abandon post-humanism and post-colonialism and accept a unity of the human (however retrospective), or we refuse the all-inclusive narrative and insist on attributing the force of the Anthropocene to some humans (the Capitalocene, the Corporatocene, the Plantationoscene). Deleuze’s and Guattari’s philosophy insists both that we accept (at least) a 1000 plateaus, or all the different stratifications that make sense of the whole (including geology, semiology, military history, literary history, epigenetics, metallurgy, musicology and zoology), and that one of these strata – philosophy, emerging from a world of humans and capital – has the capacity to think stratification as such. I would suggest that this is a fruitful way to think about the Anthropocene; it is not the narrative of all narratives that explains and justifies a series of other narratives (including Marxism, feminism and post-colonialism). It is both yet one more way of understanding the whole existing alongside any others, and a way of organizing and subsuming all others. One might imagine, in the manner of a counter-factual, another history of humanity that did not generate the resource-depleting and ecosystem-transforming practices to the degree of intensity that would yield geological inscription (and such forms of humanity did, and still do, exist). However, once one has ‘arrived’ at a certain Anthropocene awareness, all those other modes of humanity not only appear to be proto-Anthropocene, but also caught up in its ultimate effect. And yet, it is just this seemingly nuanced notion of the Anthropocene, and its subsequent qualifications that generates a hyper-humanism, along with a hyper-moral reterritorialization. ‘We’ are now all human.
This is not to say that one should blithely accept a single, guilty but now repentant ‘anthropos.’ Nor is it to suggest that one accepts the partial attribution of the Anthropocene to some humans, and then turns to those innocent humans (or another human potentiality) to offer an escape from the Anthropocene. It is, rather, a way of thinking about intensifying the tendency of the Anthropocene, and to move from its re-territorialization (the creation of a unified humanity, even if only some were responsible), to a higher deterritorialization. Just as one might, from the vantage point of late capitalism, write a universal history of the emergence of ‘our’ specific grasp of abstraction from this singular history, one might ask what other stratifications might be imagined, after the Anthropocene.
If I invoke stratigraphy in the title of this essay I do so in order to intensify the geological stratification that opens the thought of the Anthropocene. From a geological perspective, stratigraphy allows humans in a certain time-frame to discern a broader and inhuman history beyond their ken. One might say that doing so is an occurrence of deterritorialization: an aspect of the earth becomes a way of coding, reading and generating another temporality (beyond the human history of the earth). This temporality, as given in the positing of the Anthropocene, is that of a species emerging and then altering the very conditions and scale through which it has come to exist and understand itself. But rather than geological stratification and deterritorialization as the time and frame that makes sense of all others, one must resist the reterritorialization that would allow this stratification to co-opt all others. Far from displacing ‘the human’ the geological stratigraphy of the Anthropocene has subsumed and restored earlier grand narratives, especially Marxism which has benefited from this regained human unity. Other stratifications are possible: rather than humans reading the earth, recognising a history of capital and industry, and then dividing humanity according to those guilty of destruction of the earth as a living system opposed to the meek who shall inherit the earth, one might think of other planetary scales where organic life has no prima facie value. Or, one might consider non-human minor modes of stratification: both those in which there is no sense of the human (societies thinking in terms of the relations among human and non-human persons, or societies of living forms that do not include humans). When Deleuze’s writes of stratigraphy, it is not in reference to a single timescale of geology but a mode of reading that diverges into multiple and incompossible lines. What lines of time does an image or perception unfold? (Deleuze 1989, 243-44). Everything is stained with prior histories, potential accounts of emergence, layers that open multiple and mutually destructive futures. If we read the earth in terms of geological strata, then we conclude that a species emerges, takes its toll on its own conditions of life, ends a certain mode of life, and then humanity comes to a close. While the Anthropocene posits a single geological time read through the strata of the earth, there are Indigenous cultures that inscribe the space of the earth and its various dimensions within a milieu of non-human life (rivers that are the outcome, or depict the shape of, past battles between lizard spirits and bird spirits); even Ancient Greek myth placed this world and its human relations after the event of a battle of the Titans.
In this essay I would like to pursue the possibility of resisting both an uncritical zeal for the Anthropocene, and of an all-too-easy dismissal. But rather than situate the problem between the Anthropocene and its possible others (the capitalocene, the corporatocene, the misanthropocene), I want to draw upon Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of inclusive disjunction (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 154); rather than an either/or forced choice, one might see any field as composed of contrary tendencies which, when stabilized or stratified, nevertheless see each strata with one side facing organization and another side opening out to deterritorialization (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 4). To stratify is to mark out a difference, but also to be proximate with forces tending towards the collapse and proliferation of differences. Rather than say that we must accept the judgment of the Anthropocene or choose some other scale or frame, it is possible to accept the stratigraphy of the Anthropocene and see it as existing with divergent and incompossible non-Anthropocene worlds. Put more simply: it is the case that there is a species that calls itself ‘man’ and that discovers itself to be an agent of geological force; it is also the case that there is no such thing as ‘man,’ and that planet earth has sustained forms of life (human and non-human) that are not folded around a conception of universal humanity or species being.
Deleuze was critical of arguments that were structured by the logic of ‘on the one hand…. on the other hand,’ or that distributed judgment according in terms of more or less agreement. Such a mode of thinking, he argued, was ‘thermodynamic’ – as though questions could be resolved by establishing a golden mean, accepting the concepts we are given and negotiating the pros and cons (Deleuze 1994, 225). The reverse of such an equalization and homogenization (where we accept the terms of a single plane and then negotiate its limits and violence), is a fractured judgment maintaining the full force of incompossible worlds (that not only have multiple strata, but that stratify differently). Each unfolding of the world bears its own coherence, but may be utterly incoherent and impossible in relation to the other (Deleuze 1993, 67). One can affirm that history and life have proceeded in such a way that there is now one globe, one humanity and no escape from species-thinking; and also affirm that ‘the human’ is but one fragment of a world that is composed of different modes of existence, including human and non-human persons, and timescales that map neither onto the deep time of the Anthropocene, nor the time-frame of the history of humanity, nor of philosophy as it understands itself. (Deleuze’s own work may seem to privilege the trajectory of Western philosophy finally arriving at the capacity to release itself from the delusions of a privileged plane of transcendence, finally becoming one again with the world, immanence and pure perception; and yet, his work is one of the few attempts to define truth not as relative within a single plane of man or culture, but as true for every different unfolding of the world: not the relativism of truth, but truth of the relative [Deleuze 1993, 61].) This embrace of incompossibility is a way of finding a path beyond bad conscience; incompossibility is not quite the opposite of ‘either/or’ logic, but its multiplication: humanity is doomed, and there is no such thing as humanity, and we must insist on the inescapable unity of the humanity, and we must destroy any illusion of unity, and we must bid a happy farewell to this hapless species, and we must resist all notions of ‘game over,’ and refuse the exisgency of saving ‘ourselves’ at all costs. All of these imperatives – if accepted – have a way of composing the whole, but all are accompanied by other stratifications. Rather, then, than thinking of tipping points, stark choices and wake up calls, we might question the implicit ‘we’ of the Anthropocene (a ‘we’ that is at its most forceful precisely when it refuses any simple ‘anthropos’ and aims to inflect ‘the’ Anthropocene with smaller-scale but still compatible and human narratives, such as the story of capitalism.)
What the Anthropocene seems to have imposed upon us is one mode, temporality and logic of stratigraphy, where the deep time of the earth’s discernible layers becomes the privileged scale for other times and spaces. (We might affirm that ‘other’ cultures have the same insights, but all truths assemble on one plane, the plane of the earth read geologically, with each strata indicating a before and after.) But there is another way to think stratigraphically that does not accept the plane of thought as it is so constituted; one might think beyond the plane of a universal human history where the final realization of our species being includes us in a global polity whether we like it or not. Are we really thinking if we accept the value of a concept (such as ‘the Anthropocene,’ or ‘the human’) and then qualify all the ways in which either the concept or our attempts to respond to it will fall short? Rather than accept the globe and its stratifications as the strata that explain all others, one might say – following A Thousand Plateaus – that events should be considered stratigraphically, as creating thresholds that tend in contrary directions; concepts, events, and encounters create multiple tendencies that unfold various worlds, some of which are not readable in terms of the the other. This is not to say that everything is relative; it is to say that the complexity of concepts requires acute analysis and that a concept’s contrary tendencies should be intuited precisely rather than distributed into degrees of more and less. I would therefore suggest that one of the ways in which we might think fruitfully about the Anthropocene is by first rejecting the moral axiology it has seemed to prompt, where one is compelled to be either for the Anthropocene’s trumping of all other scales and worlds, or against its reiterated and unthinking use of the global ‘anthropos.’ One should not be compelled into the distribution and compromises of this (still too blunt) concept of the Anthropocene.
One might refer to this logic of distribution (especially in its most refined deconstructive mode) as one of necessary impossibility or the double bind. Without – say – some concept of humanity in general, or even the Anthropocene, one would not be able to negotiate questions of justice and inclusion at the global level, and yet that very gesture of inclusiveness and recognition violently excludes modes of existence that neither comport themselves to the world with a strong sense of ‘the human,’ nor contribute to the earth-system-altering forces that initiated the Anthropocene. One might say, if one were to accept distributive thinking, that one cannot do without ‘humanity’ as ‘we’ look to a future that may be violent for us all, even if that very gesture constitutes a violence in its own right. One would see concepts such as the Anthropocene as being insufficiently capable of capturing all the differences among humans, while also creating too much difference between ‘the human’ and others. Negotiating the Anthropocene by way of deconstruction would see this necessary impossibility as fruitful, messianic and radically futural; what appears as impossible offers itself as the grandest of futural possibilities (Keller 2015, 100). It may well be that generating the notion of ‘anthropos’ as the single species united in its destructiveness attributes blame to an unjustifiable (and non-existent) humanity in general, but this same violent attribution also opens a thought of the future when justice and recognition will have a greater extension, beyond any of today’s hegemonic forms of the human. While the concept of the post-human seems to have been rendered problematic by the claims of the Anthropocene by requiring us to return to the unavoidable reality of the human (Chakrabarty 2009), one of the more robust ways of approaching the human as a problem would be by way of deconstruction’s recognition of a necessary complicity with metaphysics. Deconstruction is not (as Zizek has claimed) simply a form of ‘common sense’ that sees a conflict between universals and particulars (Zizek 1992, 29); on the contrary, it refuses to simply settle with common sense’s conflicts, and insists on a virtual ‘humanity to come’ that would always disturb any actual or closed ‘humanism’ (Burns 2013, 138). It does not abandon the infinite force of concepts; it does not rest with notions of ‘humanity in general’ being unattainable, but it does recognize that the unavoidable violence of inclusion is the only way to avoid a ‘worse’ violence of no ethics at all, of abandoning the thought of every single other in any thought of who ‘we’ are (Thomson 2005, 65). Even so, deconstruction is a highly sophisticated instance of negotiating concepts according to inclusion and exclusion, or the ethical and the violent – good and evil (Anderson 2012). In this respect at least, deconstruction seems to capture the dominant problem of the Anthropocene: on the one hand its extension covers over the difference of what humans actually are, even if – on the other hand – it is a way of thinking beyond narrow and enclosed cultural groupings. One way of thinking about the difficulty of concepts would therefore be by a form of judgment that distributes and divides the good from the bad: on the one hand the Anthropocene opens political thought beyond a timescale of cultures and states to consider the impact of humanity at the level of the earth as a living system, forcing ‘us’ to recognize impacts beyond the scale of politics in its human-human dimension; on the other hand, the very force of the concept – its operation at a strata that pays little heed to subtle cultural differences – repeats the blindness to other modes of existence that exacerbated Western industrialism’s ecology destroying historical trajectory (Dibley 2012). This imposed universality, or retrospective universality, or negative universal history is not at all mitigated by the qualification that the Anthropocene was the consequence of certain human histories and activities and not the human ‘as such.’ For it is precisely this differentiation of the human – its distribution and historicization according to narratives of capitalism, industrialism and colonialism – that sustains a single human history where some wage war on the milieu at the expense of others.
I want to suggest that it is time to think stratigraphically about the Anthropocene, now that the Anthropocene has settled into a concept that seems to operate by way of distribution – calling upon ‘us’ to acknowledge its global force while nevertheless being wary of its violent disrespect for difference. Of course, in the narrow or literal sense, the Anthropocene is a concept of stratigraphy, but there is another multiple stratigraphy articulated and embedded in Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s work. In What is Philosophy? they argue for a time that is philosophical rather than chronological/historical, and that is stratigraphic in a manner that surpasses a strictly geological stratigraphy. We could say that one way of thinking about our present is at the scale of geology where something like the Anthropocene becomes possible, and some humans would constitute a species defined by a capacity to alter the earth as a living system. Alongside this stratification there would be others: thinking of literature as made up of stylistic periods, such that one could argue whether a text was Romantic or Modernist that would have little to do with its calendar date; Platonism, Kantianism, Epicureanism are not movements bound to a date, individual or school but exist as potentialities for anyone doing philosophy (with it always being the case that certain Kantians or Cartesians have little to do with philosophical history, or with reading specific authors). Outside of intellectual histories it would be possible to think of (at least) a thousand plateaus. The entire history of philosophy, of art, of politics and any other way of thinking time, exists virtually and is transformed with every new event. All these histories are not only different ways of spatializing time, stratifying and overlaying its differences side by side; they also converge and diverge. It is possible to tie the Anthropocene to industrialism, imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy, but there are also other stratifications When Deleuze and Guattari compose a seemingly sequential/chronological history – in Anti-Oedipus and its transition from primitivism to despotism to capitalism – their project is nevertheless marked by the theorization of ‘archaisms.’ The world we live in now – a world where there is nothing other than exchange, no value other than the capacity to enter into market networks (especially as the ‘knowledge economy’ takes hold) – is at once the expression of a potentiality for quantitative flows which in previous epochs had been warded off, at the same time as our world of the present is accompanied by the ongoing existence of despotisms and tribalisms. Such archaisms cannot be distributed geographically or geo-politically but exist alongside each other, stratigraphically: the far right in the United States is as committed to the free exchange of the market without intervention, as it is to a centralized, top-down and despotic control of bodies (including the prohibition on abortion, the teaching of creationism, and various other precepts). The virtue of thinking politics stratigraphically is evident when one thinks about other concepts, such as that of the ‘cultural dominant.’ The latter notion defines a period of time by the logic that captures most thought and behavior, and then explains residual or resistant forms in relation to the dominant. Such a conception is chronological and forward moving, and simply irreversible. Capitalism would emerge with the ongoing creation of networks of exchange, increasing consumer freedoms and the constitution of the subject, but would nevertheless allow some practices and spaces to lag behind. By contrast, stratigraphy – as A Thousand Plateaus makes abundantly clear – sees every event at every point in time in virtual relation to every ‘present.’ Not all these relations are actualized. It may well be that nothing is to be gained from seeing this grain of sand here and now in relation to the invention of the steam engine or the invasion of what came to be known as Australia, but the grain of sand, the steam engine and white Australia (like all events) converge and diverge. One may be able to read the planet in a pebble (Zalasiewicz, 2010) A.or a grain of sand, even if most of the universe is too dim and distant to be rendered with any distinction. Understanding Mahler’s symphonies requires intuiting the rhythms and refrains that compose emergent birdsong and animal territories, but those territories – in turn – are intuitable as refrains because of the compositions of every composer from plain chant and Bach to Mahler and Messiaen. One might want to object that art, however emergent its conditions might be, has a capacity to stand alone and be read and repeated beyond its context. One can listen to Mahler or Messiaen without ever having heard folksong or birdsong; but in such a case what is not being heard is fully real and virtual. Imagine if a text, such as Joyce’s Ulysses were the one text to survive the destruction of ‘civilization:’ everything that allows that text to make sense would no longer be readable, present, actual or retrievable, but would nevertheless have a virtual existence, which one refer to as sense. Perhaps there are events, perceptions, inscriptions and vibrations that would, if brought into relation, generate a whole new Shakespeare; if those relations are never actualized they are nevertheless fully real and virtual. What sense, then, might unfold from the Anthropocene considered as a concept? It may well be that for our actual world, with our inscriptions and perceptions the recent geological narrative of stratification gives an order to the history we have lived; but the movement of the Anthropocene and its grasp of the whole might, as a concept, open the thought of all the other ways in which inhuman timelines might stratify the present, creating different relations – even if those relations are not actual. What world might be realized if one thought of all the histories that did not take place, had white colonization not almost completely erased other non-humanist understandings of the earth? Rather than allowing one stratification to order all others, and then be inflected by sub-narratives (such as the history of capital, colonialism or patriarchy), one might superimpose a thousand tiny anthropocenes, or all the lived and unlived potentialities of the earth. Every point in the whole has the potential to illuminate the infinite and open whole of which it is but one perception, with every perception possessing greater or lesser clarity and distinction of the whole of which it is a creative part.
If A Thousand Plateaus is stratigraphic at the level of composition, it is so because it not only operates by way of a whole series of divergent scales, at once explaining the world by way of semiotics, then genetics, then forces of war or desire, but also because within each plateau the conditions of emergence and potentiality exist alongside actuality and generated stabilities. Rather than say that capitalism is a dominant with older residual forms still lagging behind, one can see any form or event at any time as existing alongside all others with different degrees and thresholds of actualization. This is what A Thousand Plateaus performs in its mode of composition, which is the realization of the mode of philosophizing described in What is Philosophy? The latter text adds another dimension to this task of stratigraphic thinking, the plane of immanence. The history of ideas for the most part presupposes a plane of the thinking self, while Deleuze and Guattari’s history in Anti-Oedipus explains social formations by way of the organization of bodies and relations of desire. By contrast, A Thousand Plateaus intimates, in a mode of reverse intuition, that each way of accounting for relations by way of the formation of a plane is an aspect of the plane of immanence, the plane that is nothing more than the ongoing and dynamic open whole of all these planes, the plane of immanence:
Can we say that one plane is “better” than another or, at least, that it does or does not answer to the requirements of the age? What does answering to the requirements of the age mean, and what relationship is there between the movements or diagrammatic features of an image of thought and the movements or sociohistorical features of an age? We can only make headway with these questions if we give up the narrowly historical point of view of before and after in order to consider the time rather than the history of philosophy. This is a stratigraphic time where “before” and “after” indicate only an order of superimpositions. Certain paths (movements) take on sense and direction only as the shortcuts or detours of faded paths; a variable curvature can appear only as the transformation of one or more others; a stratum or layer of the plane of immanence will necessarily be above or below in relation to another, and images of thought cannot arise in any order whatever because they involve changes of orientation that can be directly located only on the earlier image (and even the point of condensation that determines the concept sometimes presupposes the breaking-up of a point. Or the conglomeration of earlier points). …
Philosophical time is thus a grandiose time of coexistence that does not exclude the before and after but superimposes them in a stratigraphic order (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 58-59).
I quote this passage at length for several reasons. First, it offers a concept of stratigraphy that would be a ‘grandiose superimposition.’ In this respect one would think of the geological stratigraphy that generates the claim of the Anthropocene as historical and chronological. One of the dominant features of Anthropocene discourse has been its narrative and human frame: debates about just who the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is, and just when the shift in the living system of the earth occurred, accompany the strictly geological claim that there is a discernible strata. Indeed, one might say that the reason Deleuze and Guattari deploy the stratigraphic and geological metaphor is in order to exit the ‘before and after’ logic of metaphor. They are not transposing a geological concept onto philosophy, but they are intuiting the ‘grandiose’ force made possible by the concept. If one can think stratigraphically, then one would not say that philosophical concepts and periods are superimposed ‘like’ geological strata, but that superimposition or coexistence ‘is’ the plane of immanence, with all the temporalities, chronologies, histories and events of life existing at once – nothing is the ground or foundation for anything else. Second, and more specifically, if one can think of geological explanation and stratification as one layer of time, existing alongside the history of philosophy, and the history of social formations, and if this stratigraphic superimposition thinks as if there were no before and after, one would generate a new ethics and a new politics.
Rather than think of tipping points, of game over, of closing windows, or of opportunities (finally) for achieving justice and victory for all of us, now – we might think of those potentialities that are not of this world, and are not of our history. There is the time and history of the Anthropocene, a time and history of techno-science, human ‘progress,’ globalism, consumption, expansion and survival. There are other times and histories, including all those that were vanquished by colonialism and capitalist imperialism. Now, it may be true that appealing to those other planes of thought – where ‘the human’ does not operate as a ‘silent presupposed ‘we,’ and where the future of ‘us’ as a species does not control the imaginary – would do nothing to help ‘us’ survive. There have been, and still are, modes of existence that are not marked by a sense of ‘the human,’ and certainly not by a panic regarding the non-existence of human intelligence. In this respect one might oppose those arguments today that seek to sustain ‘man’ as pure intellect – either by fetishizing the future or privileging ‘intelligence’ as the definitive human potentiality – with styles of living (such as Australian Indigenous culture to name just one example) that see the past, time, space and the earth as populated and given meaning and sense by way of non-human persons. The ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is constituted through – among other things – a geological comportment to the world, and a capacity to read human time and survival within a frame of deep time. Anthropocene man is the man not only of universal history and species recognition, but also the man of sustained self-identity and ecological concern, where such concern is framed by the right to life. Today’s discourses of climate change ethics and Anthropocene studies are predominantly concerned with how ‘we’ would live on, including how ‘we’ might learn from other cultures. They reflect upon, delimit, accuse and unify the human from the point of view of the subject who surveys history and adopts the distance of critique and judgment. (Jacques Derrida, in response to Foucault, suggested that this hyperbolic violence of reason was unavoidable; any attempt to place Western reason within a broader history would itself be an act of unifying, critical and elevated reason [Derrida 1978.) Anthropocene man, the man who finds himself again as a geological agent, and then reflects upon his viability for ‘the’ future, operates as yet one more transcendence that organizes all other strata. What would it mean to think as if such an inescapable, universalizing horizon were one strata among others? We might ask whether ‘other’ cultures that don’t have a sense of ‘the human’ might enable the capacity to think of the world in a manner not divided between human and non-human, man and his others, universal humanity and its differentiation. Here, I think, we encounter one of the most difficult problem’s of Deleuze’s oeuvre, and (in a related manner) one of the most profound questions opened by the concept of the Anthropocene. As I have already argued, Deleuze was opposed to arguments that stayed within a certain distribution or orientation of thinking, and then negotiated ‘both sides’ of the argument: ‘on the one hand…on the other hand….’ The difficulty, therefore, is thinking beyond already constituted interior and exterior orientations of thinking. One might say that nothing marks Western thought more than the ongoing history of self-overcoming, of renewing oneself by way of an ‘outside.’ Philosophy must purge itself of all contingent, received, historically-bounded and specific attachments, constantly erasing its own presuppositions. One of the ways this has been achieved is by modern anti-foundationalism; if there is nothing timeless, necessary, natural or essential about thinking, then thought finds itself through a process of constant self-erasure. In practical form this often takes an anthropological turn; one might imagine other cultures or times without ‘our’ sense of self, without binary sexes, without concepts of ownership, without Romantic love, without a sense of ‘art’ or ‘mind’ or ‘guilt’ (and so on). Nothing would be more internal to the West than emptying itself of its own content by way of finding difference in ‘the other.’ When ‘we’ ask if there might not be a good Anthropocene, or whether climate change might not be the opportunity to find the justice we have always imagined, we are thinking as if there were only one time and only one history.
Despite Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari’s, own work offering an outside to thought that seems to repeat, yet again, a long tradition of thought re-finding itself by way of its own self-annihilation, I would suggest that something more provocative can be found in the stratigraphic method. If one were to take stratigraphic time seriously, one might think of other worlds and other forms of existence still existing in the present, regardless of their functionality or feasibility for our future. What might it be like to live as if one were not defined and sustained by the parochial desire for our own living on? Here is where the Deleuzian challenge to thought and its outside truly opens another space: thought has its own outside, and in this case the Anthropocene is predominantly the result of scaling ‘up’ or opening to a thought of deep time, but it is always a deep time unfolded from the point of view of man. If one thinks of stratigraphy beyond geology, one might not remain within the layers of time that are readable in the earth’s strata, but consider all those once-lived, no-longer-lived, possible and inhuman worlds that – from the present – can appear only as unthinkable or monstrous. To take just two examples: it appears that post-Apocalyptic culture can only envisage our future as a wasteland in which we yearn for the pleasures of the present. (One might think here of Oblivion , where the central character played by Tom Cruise has retained records that he plays wistfully, fragile books, a baseball cap and an astounding recollection of the last played Superbowl.) Beyond the popular imaginary and the ongoing discourse of what ‘we’ must do to be or become sustainable, there is also the high-brow assumption that the loss of what defines itself as ‘the human’ (intelligence) might be catastrophically risked and lost (Bostrom 2014). The more profound outside or radical exterior would deface what seems most intimate and interior, ‘our’ right to life and the value of life in what ‘we’ take to be its current form. What if living otherwise were something that would be more destructive than the attrition of climate change? What if, rather than holding on and eking out an existence as best we can, we were to act and think as if our world and our time were one among others and not the only life with a right to survive? Imagining those worlds that are not our own – whether actual, past, or virtual – might do nothing to restore or save the present, and might not offer anything for thought as it has defined itself so far. At a quite banal level one might say that Western thought and its accompanying practices of imperialism, colonization, barbarism and enslavement have destroyed many worlds and potential worlds that would not have generated what calls itself the Anthropocene, but even if those worlds cannot provide any exit from the Anthropocene for us, they might intimate an ethics that was genuinely affirmative of stratigraphic time. Such an ethics would think and act as if one’s time were not one’s own, as if a thousand other temporalities existed alongside every now. Rather then than thinking about recycling, minimizing one’s carbon footprint, purchasing a smaller car and buying local produce – all actions designed to sustain this present into ‘our’ future – one might act and think as if this present, with all its desires and interests were not worthy of our care.
Bostrom, Nick, 2014. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Burns, Shannon. 2013. ‘Hospitality to Trauma: Ethics After Auschwiz.’ Re-reading Derrida: Perspectives on Mourning and Its Hospitalities. Ed. Tony Thwaites, Judith Seaboyer. Lanham: Lexington Books. 131-140.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses.’ Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009), pp. 197-222.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. London: Athlone Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1994. What is Philosophy? London: Verso.
Derrida, Jacques. 1978. ‘Cogito and the History of Madness.’ In Writing and Difference Trans. Alan Bass. London and New York: Routledge. 36–76.
Dibley, Ben. 2012. ‘“Nature is Us:” The Anthropocene and Species-Being.” Transformations. Issue No. 21 2012 — Rethinking the Seasons: New Approaches to Nature
Keller, Catherine. 2015 Clouds of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Columbia.
Thomson, Alex. 2005. Deconstruction and Democracy. London: Continuum.
Zalasiewicz, J. A. 2010. The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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By: Daniel Stokols,
In 1969 scientists at the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully sent and received electronic data between two computers, one located at UCLA and the other at Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto. Later that year, two additional computers at the University of Utah and UC Santa Barbara joined the DARPAnetwork. From its humble beginnings in the Sixties, the Internet soon mushroomed into a global “network of computer networks”. Mobile communication technologies followed with the first commercially available handheld cell phones introduced in 1983. By early 2019, there were more than 4.5 billion Internet users and 5 billion mobile phone users worldwide .
Today’s cybersphere is vast in scope and
complexity, encompassing numerous digital information and communication
technologies (ICTs) such as computing hardware and software, and the Ethernet
and WiFi communication infrastructures that run the Internet and World Wide
Web. Mobile devices that send and receive email, voicemail, text
messages, video, and graphical data are also part of the cybersphere, as are
the web browsers, search engines, social media, and cell phone “apps” people
use to access commercial, recreational (e.g., online gaming, cinema), educational,
news, health support, and other “virtual communities”. The cybersphere further
includes the app-driven sharing economy, the Internet of Things (in
which billions of devices with sensors and IP addresses stream data to each
other continuously), GPS navigation, autonomous vehicles and weapons systems,
augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), robotic manufacturing and health care
devices, 3-D printing, “smart city” infrastructures, blockchain,
cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the Deep Web (not accessible through standard
search engines), and the Dark Net, or digital underworld. These
technologies all require rapid transmission and processing of digital data and
they now permeate every facet of people’s interactions with their natural,
built, and sociocultural surroundings. Connections between the
cybersphere and these other environmental domains are described in my recent
book Social Ecology in the Digital Age  and sketched in
Figure 1. Interconnections between the natural built, sociocultural, and cyber dimensions of human environments
The proliferation of cyber technologies since the 1970s has made it difficult to gain a comprehensive view of their scope and impacts on behavior, health, and sustainability. Researchers in particular fields address topics most closely related to their own disciplines. For instance, computer scientists focus predominantly on the structure and reliability of hardware and software systems; psychologists measure the impacts of digital multi-tasking and information overload on individuals’ cognition, behavior, and well-being; sociologists probe the influence of social media on political polarization and rates of cybercrime; neuroscientists track brain functioning relative to individuals’ immersion in digital communications; and sustainability scientists study the impacts of cyber technologies on electricity consumption, carbon emissions, and climate change.
These different lines of research have deepened our understanding of specific cyber technologies, yet it’s also important to move beyond discipline-based studies toward a more holistic, transdisciplinary view of the cybersphere writ large – the rapidly expanding portion of human environments comprised of multiple interrelated technologies. We need new concepts and metrics to describe our virtual surroundings. Viewing the cybersphere as a broad domain of environmental influence suggests several new research questions. For instance, what are the cumulative impacts of chronic exposure to cyber technologies on psychological and physical well-being over a specified period? The evidence from behavioral and cognitive research is mixed, suggesting that a person’s exposure to particular technologies (like social media, wearable fitness devices, virtual reality simulations) is linked to both positive and negative outcomes—for instance, using e-Health apps to achieve healthier lifestyles, or suffering identity theft on social media). How might we assess these varied outcomes of virtual life in relation to people’s encounters with diverse digital technologies over a given period? To address that question, we need to account for people’s exposure to multiple facets of the cybersphere such as the number and frequency of their digital communications (e.g., via email, text messaging, and participation in virtual communities such as World of Warcraft and Second Life; and the kinds of social media they engage with on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis .
New concepts and metrics for assessing individuals’ cumulative exposure to their virtual surroundings are shown in Figure 2. The near-cybersphere (situated in the inner circle of the diagram) consists of all the connections between a physical place (e.g., a bedroom, classroom, or office) and the various digital transactions that occur there. The links between physical places, on the one hand, and a person’s digital spaces, on the other, are referred to as real-virtual (R-V) environmental units. Connections between between real and virtual environments may be mutually complementary, neutral, or conflicted as depicted by the virtual settings in Figure 2 (V1, V2, and V3) that are linked to a real place-based environment (R1). Complementary R-V units exist when one’s place-based and virtual activities are well-aligned and mutually supportive (e.g., using online resources in a classroom setting to illustrate key points covered in lecture). In contrast, conflicted R-V units are where the activities in the real and virtual settings interfere with each other (e.g., checking social media or texting while driving a vehicle). In neutral R-V units, the place-based and virtual activities neither support nor contradict each other.
The R-V units shown in Figure 2 are attached to a single place, yet individuals participate in many different environments on a daily or weekly basis. To arrive at an overall assessment of people’s routine exposures to multiple R-V settings, the frequency and variety of their digital experiences across residential, work, neighborhood and other environments must be considered. It’s also important to weigh potential impacts of the distant cybersphere on personal or societal well-being. Although people are aware of the R-V cyberspaces they encounter in their daily lives (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Uber), they are usually not cognizant of the myriad digital transactions that occur in the distant cybersphere. Examples of remote cyber events are the navigation signals invisibly sent by orbital satellites to GPS-equipped vehicles, or the nefarious acts of cybercriminals in faraway places who commit identity fraud or disrupt local power grids and water distribution systems. Even though people are oblivious to these hidden cyber events, they can take a profound toll on personal and collective well-being.
A transdisciplinary conception of the cybersphere also is needed to estimate the cumulative impacts of digital technologies on energy consumption, greenhouse gasses, and societal sustainability. In the late 20th Century, some information scientists insisted that cyber communications were non-material or “weightless” flows of digital data [4, 5]. Today, however, we know that these invisible flows of data have a substantial physical footprint on the ground, as they rely heavily on a vast array of interlinked computers, “cloud” servers, WiFi equipment, smart phones and other devices to create, share, and store digital information [6-8]. These material features of our virtual world consume massive amounts of electrical energy and generate substantial greenhouse gases. Recent research suggests that the digital currency Bitcoin, alone, now consumes more than one-half percent of the earth’s energy budget and by 2030 digital communications technologies will consume nearly 50% of the world’s power supply [9, 10]. Whereas cyber technologies such as smart city infrastructures help to reduce waste and conserve natural resources, their burgeoning power requirements diminish some of their benefits. It’s estimated that the Internet of Things will subsume 31 billion interconnected cyber devices by 2020 . Yet, we still lack reliable measures of their future energy demands and the power requirements of many other technologies like autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and robotic manufacturing; nor do we have accurate estimates of their potential socioeconomic costs such as growing unemployment caused by workplace automation. A transdisciplinary, holistic view of the cybersphere is crucial for confronting these complex challenges in the coming years.
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