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MIND SNATCHERS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

Can Aspects Dawn within the Gulag Architectonic?

Académie d’été d’Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, 25 July 2017

Daniel Ross

‘I believe that he is suffering.’—Do I also believe that he isn’t an automaton? Ludwig Wittgenstein

If the aesthetic point of view implies its universalization, and if this universalizing goal implies in turn a cosmopolitics determined by the philosofiction of the wholly other, then these implications are also folded back into the gaze, to complicate it by marking within it the fold of an internal difference that only becomes visible at the limit. Peter Szendy

To be clear, what is at stake with the Neganthropocene is the problem of revolution: of the unavoidable necessity of imagining some kind of turn and transformation – but a revolution of a new kind, which must be realized in another way, however improbably[i]. No doubt this sounds obscure, a little foggy, perhaps, and, indeed, this revolutionary problem today involves two kinds of difficulties of vision, one of which is an easy difficulty, and the other of which is a difficult difficulty, so to speak.

The easy difficulty, which is still a difficulty, consists in imagining the unworld, or the end of world, the ultimate cataclysm towards which the Anthropocene may be hurtling: we can certainly understand, as Husserl pointed out, that it ‘is possible that entropy will put an end to all life on earth’[ii] and that this possibility is currently being hastened in an extreme way. What’s more, there is undoubtedly a will to conceive this possibility, just as our unconscious imagination must at some level want the nightmares that present to our sleeping selves the negative prospects that must be conjured so as to find within them a means of avoidance, a way out, a buried wish functioning as a spur. A significant portion of the culture industry is dedicated to the generation of such apocalyptic nightmares, but, of course, the motive is less prophylaxis than profit. Yet the difficulty remains of really imagining that such nightmares must concern us right now, when they are occurring at the microscopic level of gas molecule accumulations and the beyond macroscopic level of planetary systems.

The difficult difficulty, however, consists in really imagining the exit from this nightmare, in envisioning it, and so in finding the will to ‘protain’ a reasonable belief in such a revolution. This difficulty seems so difficult, and the belief to support it so unsustainable, that very often it seems almost impossible to avoid the temptation to simply luxuriate in the nightmares that have already been prefabricated on one’s behalf, or else to flee into denial, or to tend one’s own garden, or to fall into despair and, indeed, dread.

What is at stake with the Neganthropocene is, then, as Bernard Stiegler has said, the possibility of a ‘conversion of the gaze’ through which our very collective dread can function as just such a spur, through which it could effect a shift from the plane of the ordinary to that of the extraordinary, where it becomes possible, like a seer, to ‘see what is invisible’[iii]. If such a capability is not superhuman, it is at least ‘sur-human’ in the way Stiegler has also evoked, and that he relates to a vision of the cosmos that is ‘sur-realist’, in the sense of being a locality capable of harbouring highly improbable possibilities in which one can still manage to believe, the possibility of realizing such noetic improbabilities being the very definition of neganthropy[iv].

What makes the Neganthropocenic revolution so difficult to envisage is the unprecedented character of its spatial and temporal coordinates: on the one hand, it is absolutely urgent, while, on the other hand, it must be perpetual and undoubtedly requires vast amounts of time and patience to be addressed; on the one hand it involves, and must involve, a technical system that is planetary in its extent, while on the other hand it involves, and must involve, the vast plurality of local (sub planetary) social and cultural systems whose destruction is a major entropic factor. Any new neganthropic leap must address these dimensions, which are ‘telescopic’ both temporally and spatially: as Kant says in ‘The Conflict of the Faculties’, it must have ‘regard to the whole scope of all the peoples on earth’, where what such a regard reveals is ‘the prospect of an immeasurable time’[v]. Such is the planetary scope and immeasurable time of the Neganthropocene.

It is, then, a question of the conditions of possibility of such a conversion of the gaze, through which entropes could be converted to negentropes[vi] capable of releasing a revolutionary will of immeasurable spatiotemporal extent. The question of these conditions is raised – obscurely, perhaps – in Husserl’s reflections on the earth ark: if the world exists ‘in the ideality of infinity’[vii], beyond ‘what is experienced of the world from this or that side’[viii], and if, in the ‘primordial shape of its representation [that is, initially, in the beginning], the earth itself does not move’[ix], and if the earth, as our irreducible macrocosmic, terrestrial locality, is always where we are even if we are travelling to her moon, nevertheless, Husserl argues, after Copernicus and the telescope, it does in a certain way begin to move, in a sense that we would argue comes to involve not just its cosmic displacement but its Anthropocenic mutation. But this alteration in the shape of the earth’s representation, according to Husserl, does not follow automatically from the telescopic gaze, but only from a second moment, from the extra-terrestrial conversion that the gaze permitted by such an invention makes possible:

Only when we think of our stars as secondary arks with their eventual humanities, etc., only when we figure ourselves as transplanted there among these humanities, perhaps flying there, is it otherwise[x].

If this opens up a spatial infinity, what is remarkable about this Husserlian text is the way it concludes by opening the question of a temporal infinity, in a manner that extends Heidegger’s conception of being-towards-death outwards, beyond the I and, through world-historiality, towards the arche protention of an infinitely-temporally-extended we. More specifically, Husserl does so precisely on the basis of an understanding of memory as iterability and reiterability, that is, as the reproducibility of the copy and the capabilities enabled by this reproducibility. Husserl writes:

In the present, I as something present am progressively dying […]. But a unity by recollection permeates my life – I still live, although in being other, and continue to live the life that lies behind me and where its sense of being behind me lies in reiteration and the ability to reiterate. Thus the We lives in the reiterability and continually lives in the form of reiterability of history while the individual ‘dies’, that is, the individual can no longer be ‘remembered’ empathically by others, but only by the historical memory in which the subjects of the memory can be represented themselves[xi].

Here Husserl enacts a telescopic extension of spatiality reminiscent of the temporal extension of the ‘now’ he will describe in the account of internal time-consciousness, in order to found historicity on a ‘reiterability’ that gives the sense of a ‘unity’ permeating my life. The problem of the Anthropocene, however, is not that I am dying but that my and our actions threaten to lead to the dying of the biosphere, at least insofar as it is the necessary terrestrial support for the existence of the beings that we ourselves are. If this is so, then this movement in Husserl may contain the seeds of a spatiotemporal enlargement of spatial vision effective not just for an I, or even just for a we, but, step by step, for a technobiospherical system whose ‘unity’ must be thought not just in terms of the past, but of the future. The question becomes that of knowing what ‘reiteration’ this could be, and what view it opens up. Could it somehow be a question of Husserl’s ‘secondary arks’?

The extra-terrestrial and the philosofictive

Peter Szendy, too, approaches the question of the conversion of the gaze in Kant in the Land of the Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions. He notices, for example, that this is how the French Revolution functions for Kant in The Conflict of the Faculties: as an act of publicity capable of fostering ‘a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm’, or, in other words, an ‘aesthetic point of view’ through which ‘a revolution’s movement of worldwide expansion can be envisaged or seen in advance’[xii]. Kant argues that, for those who did not actually participate in the French revolution, he himself for example, apprehending the revolution via the aesthetic conditions of publicity may open up an even broader participation, one capable of extending the localized possibility of perpetual progress exposed by the French revolution to the macro-locality consisting of all the peoples of the earth.

That for Kant this worldwide extension of progress implies a cosmopolitanism resides in mankind’s unsocial sociability, in the fact that, as he says in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, people ‘cannot do without being together peacefully and yet cannot avoid constantly being objectionable to one another’: living together requires a cosmopolitanism ‘that is constantly threatened by disunion but generally progresses toward a coalition’[xiii]. What would necessitate a cosmopolitics would thus be the perpetual problem of managing the tendencies and counter tendencies involved in the relationships of care between the microcosms that we are and the macrocosms that we produce.

The problem is how to get from this ‘intra-terrestrial’ standpoint, which gropes in darkness, if not blindness, for progress towards coalition and coalescence towards progress amidst the clash of micro- and macrocosms, to an extra-ordinary standpoint, an ideality of infinity that would make possible a truly cosmic cosmopolitics. Szendy shows how the extension of this perpetual problem to all the peoples of the earth seems to imply the need for a cosmic gaze capable of encompassing this proliferation of standpoints within its purview, and, indeed, he goes on to find, in numerous key points in Kant’s work, an explicit evocation of this extra-terrestrial gaze, precisely in order to insist on the necessity and impossibility of picturing to oneself the character of the rational terrestrial beings that we hope to be. We require a wholly other gaze, we must imagine the telescopic gaze of the extra-terrestrial, intimately haunted by this infinitely faraway regard, if we earthlings hope to achieve a conversion through which to escape the local limits of our microcosmic preoccupations[xiv].

Kant says, for example, that human beings are incomparable, because we lack experience of any non-human rational beings to whom we might compare ourselves: ‘we have no knowledge of the non-terrestrial beings that would enable us to indicate their characteristic property and so to characterize this terrestrial being [that we are] among rational beings in general’[xv]. Szendy shows why this impossible necessity therefore means that the question of cosmopolitan revolution requires the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful, as a standpoint that can arise only from a process that is at once purely individual and yet inherently social: in short, it requires a process of psychic and collective individuation aiming, through a process of ‘universalization’, at consistences. But it also requires the sublime, because, as what exceeds the limits of the capacities of our imagination, the sublime is what causes every standpoint to tremble: only through this unsettling of every perspective, effected by the experience of the unimaginable, would it become possible to operate a ‘pure reason’ speculating in the direction of an immeasurable cosmology capable of authorizing an infinite cosmopolitanism[xvi].

What Szendy tries to do, then, is to sketch out a pathway ‘from the aesthetic to the political by way of a speculative cosmology’, finding that it is ‘as if the each-and-every-one on the basis of which the judgment of taste is oriented could include humanity as such only when taking a cosmotheoretical detour through the wholly other that inhabits extraterrestrial globes’[xvii]. And, insofar as this detour through the extra-terrestrial is necessary in order to imagine a cosmic cosmopolitanism capable of staving off the threat of disunion, of embracing the whole earth, and of doing so even beyond imagination and in the very failure of the imagination, Szendy refers to the imperative of cosmopolitical philosofiction. It will be a question, then, of asking how this cosmopolitical philosofiction, as the materialization of the pathway to a speculative cosmology, might marry or fail to marry with Stiegler’s surrealist cosmology composing microcosmic and and macrocosmic scales from the quantum to the astrophysical. What Szendy and Stiegler undoubtedly share is the thought that this irreducible fictive element means that such a cosmopolitics must be essentially aesthetic – cosmetic – and this is why Szendy concludes that, today, any revolution must be enacted on a ‘terrain where a war is being waged whose stakes are a veritable geopolitics of the sensible’[xviii].

The gaze of the clone

The terrain on which this cosmogeopolitics of the sensible is being conducted is the mnemotechnical milieu that, today, amounts to the sphere of what Heidegger called Gestell. But it is also each of the individual microcosms that are the psychic apparatuses of the processes of psychic individuation that each of us are in our inextricable entanglement with the complex exorganisms that we produce. But these exorganisms also produce us, and the possibility that our globalized technical systems might anticipate and post-produce our very psychic microcosm to such an extent as to automate the will itself is what threatens to make this geopolitical war of the sensible unwinnable.

Such an automation of the will may begin with a dream of permanent innovation and creative destruction, perpetually conquering new terrestrial markets and new psychic markets, but it has led, as Sloterdijk has pointed out, as if inevitably to a consumerism in which ‘what spirals out of control’ is ‘an end us devoid of ulterior motives’[xix]. Or descent into this vortex created by the automation of will and elimination of motive has now crossed a threshold after which we can indeed speak of an age of ‘post-truth’ – where the latter is nothing but the nihilistic symptom of a loss of the will to care for the difference that knowledge or truth makes.

The primordial possibility of such an age, however, ultimately derives from the fictive element involved in the way that the neganthropotechnical microcosms that we ourselves are apprehend the world, from the fact that every cosmopolitics involves a cosmetics – as Szendy says, a ‘touch-up of the sensible’[xx]. It is this fictive, cosmetic element that makes ‘post-truth’ possible, because it is both the condition that makes truth possible in the first place and what makes possible the conditioning of the apprehension of the world. The automation of the will destroys the capacity to engage in processes whose ‘ulterior motives’ include the production of veridiction: instead, we are left with the synchronization of experience in a way that tends to eliminate difference, leading to a combination of in-difference to the difference such truth-oriented motives make and the corresponding violent assertion of the hyper-difference of each-and-every-one’s own unquestionable ‘truth’.

For Szendy, all this is what dawns on the viewer of the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers: what one beholds, in that classic science fiction film from 1956, is a biopower of mechanical reproducibility, a hyper-synchronized process of ‘metamorphosis without change’[xxi], a biotechnological, pheromonal anthill effected through a dual movement that snatches bodies and creates a ‘sort of copy’. But what this strange form of mimetic contagion really concerns is the snatching of minds: it eliminates difference and establishes the reign of the ‘they’, of a transformed and reticulated race of an each-and-every-one about whom we could reverse Wittgenstein’s formulation: ‘we believe that they are automatons, but do we also believe that they are without suffering?’ For Szendy, for whom film is ‘above all an affair of point of view’, and ‘telescopic’ in the sense of being ‘stretched toward’ a distance ‘beyond points of view’, ‘however close it may be’[xxii], the virtue of Invasion of the Body Snatchers lies in having revealed the invaders who do not just come from outside, but inhabit and so condition our own point of view: the film allows our ‘indifference to be seen’ via the indifferent gaze of the clone, ‘as if the director’s lens were desperately trying to grasp the ungraspable difference between difference and indifference, the indistinct distinction that cannot be seen but that instead looks out at us, concerns us [nous regarde]’[xxiii].

The two-movie reality

I doubt there’s anyone in this room who isn’t familiar with the way that Stiegler uses Husserl’s account of the melodic temporal object to describe this fictive element in our apprehension of the world – the fact that secondary retention forms the selection criteria for the anticipation and post-production involved in primary retention and protention, which implies that ‘immediate’ perception involves an irreducible element of imagination – or the way he extends this analysis in order to demonstrate that tertiary retention introduces an element of controllability into the composition of primary and secondary retention and protention, opening up, through the exactitude of mnemotechnics, the processes of adoption and interpretation that lie at the root of politics, law and rational knowledge as the material transcendence (so to speak) of the mere aspects provided by individual viewpoints, but where the very same potentials for control also make possible the dissolution of such processes. The analysis of the temporal object, in other words, shows how tertiary retention is what, pharmacologically, opens up the prospect of an immeasurable time, precisely through the measurability it makes possible, and what always contains the threat of closing off that possibility, through the conditioning and control of apprehension in a way that reduces it to calculability.

What makes the melody such an exemplary case is not just that it is a temporal object in the sense that, like consciousness, it exists only in the time of its flowing through consciousness. This exemplarity further lies in the way that the experience of the aural temporal object also, in a sense, negates the question of standpoint. In principle, it does not matter where one is or where one is standing or how one is ‘physically oriented’ or how one may be ‘directional’[xxiv] in relation to the data being received through the aural physiological apparatus. The example of the melody works, and in fact works best, if one imagines oneself listening with closed eyes. Paradoxically, bracketing off the question of viewpoint is the very way of seeing that what determines the singularity of bearing aural witness is different horizons of expectation, rather than varying spatial coordinates, and that these different expectations derive from having had a singular past[xxv].

Stiegler addresses this, for example, in Aimer, s’aimer, nous aimer: if different witnesses provide different testimonies about the events of an accident, such as for example a traffic accident, it is, despite being first and foremost something they have witnessed in the sense of being something they have seen, less to do with their locations on ‘this or that side’ (as Husserl puts it) of the incident in question, and more to do with their different ‘performances’ of the act of witnessing[xxvi]. Or, when we watch a film, this account of what counts in the experience of the industrial temporal object has to assume that it is reasonable to discount the possibility that experiential differences are due in any fundamental way to where one is seated, or to differences in where we direct our ocular physiological apparatus in relation to the screen.

This assumption that we can bracket the question of viewpoint is, I believe, largely reasonable. And, in terms of the question of the ‘conversion of the gaze’, it may indeed be that the question of the conversion is more important than the question of the gaze. Nevertheless, given that the subject of these conversions are all those psychic individuals who are always localized microcosms, there may be more left to say about what difference it makes to this account if we choose not to take aural perception as paradigmatic. Is what counts in the extra-terrestrial gaze simply the fact that it observes from a viewpoint sufficiently broad as to be capable of taking in the multiplicity of terrestrial viewpoints in their multitudinous aspects? Or does such a gaze in fact see something else, something other, a genuine shift in the character of insight (or, rather, ex-sight) brought about by training its telescopes onto the terrestrial here but as if from the extra-terrestrial ‘over there’? And, in that case, would such a potential for extra-terrestrial ex-sight derive its potentiality from the fact that, as Heidegger claimed, ‘Da-sein is initially never here, but over there’[xxvii].

For Kant, as we have seen, the threat of disunion contained in unsocial sociability is itself the condition of possibility and necessity of cosmopolitanism. In the age of post-truth, however, the fictioning that surrounds every political narrative means that this threat of disunion functions more as a condition of impossibility: two utterly divergent audiences (where the condition of being an audience is what tends to eliminate the condition of being a citizen) perceive the very same mediatized political narratives, but they do so from what seem diametrically and rigidly opposed viewpoints. The fading away of every process of veridiction would then lead less to the fog of truth[xxviii], which is supposedly its ambiguous and impenetrable character in the state of war, than to a hardening, where this side and that side prove absolutely irreconcilable, a state of affairs that has been referred to by one commentator as the advent of a ‘two-movie reality’, a situation in which two movies play on one screen.

In light of this new two-movie reality, which should be understood firstly as a reduction to only two movies, a crystallized state of the union where the same givens lead to indissolubly hardened perceptual oppositions, and so to the materialization of the threat of absolute disunion, that is, uncivil war, in the rest of what follows I would like to make a case for thinking about specifically visual temporal objects, by referring not to Husserl but to Wittgenstein, and specifically to his notion of ‘aspects’. If, as has been suggested, the cosmopolitical question of the geopolitics of the sensible today concerns the conditions of possibility of a ‘new perspectivism’, then the question to be approached in the remainder of this paper is whether a perspective is or is not the same thing as a point of view.

The duck-rabbit

The duck-rabbit, which Wittgenstein calls a ‘picture-object’[xxix], is an example of a so-called ‘bistable percept’. Hence it is not, strictly speaking, a temporal object: it does not exist as a flow in time in the way as a melody. Nevertheless, one can argue that there is something essentially temporal about the way this image is apprehended, at least by ‘us’, in the sense that the mutual exclusivity of the duck and the rabbit is necessarily experienced across the span of more than one moment: hence Wittgenstein distinguishes the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect from the ‘dawning’ of an aspect[xxx]. To notice an aspect is to notice the dawning of a change, but the issue, of course, is to understand the character of this change, to know what it is that changes, what kind of movement this involves, and where this change is located.

What the bistable percept picture-object makes plain is the possibility that, as Wittgenstein puts it, the irreversible dawning of a second aspect (the duck or the rabbit) may be ‘the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged’[xxxi]. But if it is not the external stimulus that has changed, since, as in the case of a gramophone recording, the perceptual data remains identical across the time of a change in perception, nevertheless Wittgenstein insists that this does not mean that perception is merely something subjective:

And above all do not say “After all my visual impression isn’t the drawing; it is this—which I can’t shew anyone.”—Of course it is not the drawing, but neither is it anything of the same category, which I carry within myself. The concept of the ‘inner picture’ is misleading, for this concept uses the ‘outer picture’ as a model[xxxii].

There is no ‘inner picture’ that we might hope to divorce from the tertiary retention: the picture-object exists, or rather consists, in some place that we can locate neither internally nor externally. As Stiegler insists:

The image in general does not exist. What is called the mental image and what I shall call the image-object (which is always inscribed in a history, and in a technical history) are two faces of a single phenomenon. They can no more be separated than the signified and the signifier which defined, in the past, the two faces of the linguistic sign[xxxiii].

The secondary question raised here, of the relationship between the imagistic and the linguistic, is something to which we will return.

Wittgenstein thus describes the dawning of an aspect – somewhat imprecisely, it must be said – as ‘half visual experience, half thought’. To the extent that it is something produced in me, he says, it must be ‘a sort of copy, something that in its turn can be looked at […]; almost something like a materialization’[xxxiv]. And because we produce this copy of a tertiary retention, and because we can look at it, that is, reiterate it, are we not, he wonders, already involved in an interpretation of the picture-object?

But, Wittgenstein then asks, ‘how is it possible to see an object according to an interpretation?’[xxxv] What more is involved in the ability to carry out such an interpretation, for Wittgenstein does indeed think that there is something more involved? If the dawning of the duck or the rabbit can happen in a flash, the immediacy of the occurrence of this aspect should not mislead us: as he then notes, there are styles of painting that immediately convey meaning to some people, but not to others (not to him). And so he concludes:

I think custom and upbringing have a hand in this[xxxvi].

The dawning of the duck or the rabbit depends on acquired knowledge of the form of these animals, but, more generally, it is inscribed in a process and practice of familiarization with a way of gazing. It is, in other words, overdetermined by the circuits of transindividuation through which we learn the capability that, alone, allows aspects to dawn.

What Wittgenstein is describing here, in his ‘description of what is seen’[xxxvii], is phenomenological intentionality, however far, in other respects, Wittgenstein’s philosophy may be from Husserl’s, starting with the technics of writing, which for Wittgenstein involved an elaborate, if not interminable procedure that began by handwriting into notebooks, followed by making selections from their contents, dictating the best of them to a typist, cutting up the typewritten paper, and rearranging the fragments into a new order, thereby treating them as quasi-picture-objects, and doing all this precisely in order to make it possible for new aspects to dawn[xxxviii]. Wittgenstein describes the intentionality involved in the dawning of aspects as ‘seeing as’: we can see this picture-object as a duck or as a rabbit; we can see it as ‘like this’ or ‘like that’. The relationship of such an account to the melodic temporal object is made even clearer when Wittgenstein himself raises the example of a musical theme, which, on different occasions, as he says, we can hear as ‘a march’ or as ‘a dance’[xxxix].

It is notable that the duck-rabbit image has also been used by the psychologist Jeffrey Alan Gray to indicate the ‘unconscious intentionality’ involved in the production of perceptual experience: that the duck or the rabbit ‘spring into consciousness fully formed’ shows that this production involves an intentional mechanism operating behind the back of consciousness[xl]. For Gray, this notion of unconscious intentionality, which is nothing other than an account of the intentionality of primary retention, is intended to bridge the gap between the neurobiological level and the conscious level, but without Gray recognizing that the selection criteria must be supplied by secondary retention, nor that what opens this gap in the first place is the third memory constituted by the process of exosomatization, that is, tertiary retention. Gray’s account does not convey the sense, in other words, that this apprehension of the image is necessarily inscribed in a history, and in a technical history. If we find ourselves tempted to make the same criticism of Wittgenstein, it is nevertheless also true that the latter’s account of the intentionality involved in seeing a duck or a rabbit, or in hearing a melody as a march or a dance, is an ability that

would only be said of someone capable of making certain applications […]. The substratum of this experience is a mastery of a technique[xli].

From this it follows that the aspect which dawns, the duck or the rabbit, is not just something that is in the bistable picture-object: it is ‘not a property of the object, but an internal relation between it and other objects’[xlii], or, as Szendy puts it, ‘the fold of an internal difference that only becomes visible at the limit’[xliii], which we must learn to apprehend. And Wittgenstein goes so far as to say:

And I can see it in various aspects according to the fiction I surround it with[xliv].

Here, however, we encounter a paradox. Wittgenstein had claimed, as we saw, that we see according to an interpretation, but, surrounding the object as we do with fictive elements, through which we seem to immediately see the object as this or that, Wittgenstein wonders if this is really to interpret what we see differently, or whether it is not, on the contrary, to ‘really see something different each time’[xlv]? He is inclined to conclude the latter: the dawning of an aspect really is seeing something different; it is, therefore, not quite a matter of seeing it according to a different interpretation.

Wittgenstein is reluctant to call this an interpretation, in other words, because the internal difference that becomes visible here does not, in fact, reach the limit of actual noesis. It is merely ‘having an image’, whereas to interpret is already to think. To see an aspect, Wittgenstein thinks, only involves the power of the imagination, even if, as he also thinks, it is, indeed, ‘subject to the will’[xlvi]. And, finally, even if this dawning does indeed involve an image whose aspect we can change at will, so to speak, it is also, in its initial occurrence, a change that, a dawning that, as Wittgenstein says, ‘produces a surprise’[xlvii], but for Wittgenstein this sur-prehension is not of a kind capable of causing the trembling of every comprehension, even if this is precisely how the duck-rabbit drawing – which is a picture-object, a quasi- or pseudo-temporal object, an image-object and (therefore) a technical object – functions for his own comprehension.

Aspect-blindness

Wittgenstein’s account of ‘noticing aspects’ is undoubtedly pertinent to the Stieglerian appropriation of the Husserlian analysis of the temporal object. By taking the duck-rabbit as a paradigmatic picture-object, just as Husserl took the melody as a paradigmatic temporal object, Wittgenstein succeeds in finding a case of identical repetition, as occurs in repeated listening to sound recordings. Wittgenstein’s example is a case of the post-production of primary retention applied to visual perception, but one that is, or at least seems to be, independent of the question of viewpoint, while nevertheless being dependent on the localized conditions of learned capabilities.

But of what use is his account of aspects for any theory or practice involved in the question of the prospects of the immeasurable time of the Neganthropocene? To answer this question, we need to pursue Wittgenstein’s account just a little further.

Having noted that seeing an aspect is more like an act of imaginative will than interpretative will, even if it remains dependent on the learned capability of seeing something as something, Wittgenstein wonders if there ‘could be human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something’, a potential problem he identifies with the name, ‘aspect blindness’[xlviii]. One might think that, with this notion of aspect-blindness, Wittgenstein is referring to the kind of visual agnosia that can occur as a result of brain injury, but, on the basis of his account of aspectival perception as inherently involving learned if unconscious intentionality, what is at stake here is, in fact, the loss of the transindividuated knowledge that enables someone to see something as something, or, in other words, the possibility of a kind of perceptual proletarianization.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s concern with aspect-blindness is not, in fact, limited to sense perception. He immediately extends the scope of the question of aspects, and hence of aspect-blindness, when he makes a direct connection between ‘seeing an aspect’ and ‘experiencing the meaning of a word’[xlix]. And this, in turn, is then framed in terms of a difference (even a différance) between the knowledge involved in the capacity to read and the ‘information’ contained in the words written on the page:

“When I read a poem or narrative with feeling, surely something goes on in me which does not go on when I merely skim the lines for information.”—What processes am I alluding to?—The sentences have a different ring[l].

Wittgenstein thus extends his account from a kind of visual blindness to a kind of linguistic blindness, itself capable of being generalized to logos as the symbolic, the logical, the sensational and the exclamatory character of noetic différance in general. Wittgenstein himself, in the passage where he describes the fiction with which the viewer surrounds the picture-object, points out that these perceptual questions are not simply questions for physiology, for, here, ‘the physiological is a symbol for the logical’[li]. Even if it is completely outside Wittgenstein’s intention to use the concept of aspect-blindness to diagnose an epoch or a tendency (and who can finally judge whether this is the case?), this concept nevertheless pertains (and protains), for example, to Frédéric Kaplan’s account of ‘linguistic capitalism’, that is, linguistic proletarianization[lii].

The virtue of this ‘concept of an aspect’ that is ‘akin to the concept of an image’[liii] (that does not exist), then, lies in the way it telescopes its way beyond the visual and the linguistic, to a kind of noetic generality. The dawning of another aspect is the capacity for surprise, for a perceptual act that sees the image with a wholly other gaze that makes every standpoint tremble, a telescopic, extra-terrestrial gaze with the potential to expose the philosofictive conditions of the two-movie reality. Is what Wittgenstein is describing by way of the duck-rabbit picture-object not, in this sense, a kind of not-necessarily-visual stereoscopy, a multidimensionality of apprehension, a relief, which alone makes possible, for example, the experience of the meaning of a word? This would be to bring Wittgenstein’s ‘description of what is seen’ into the orbit of Simondon’s account of ‘disparation’, for which:

To bring about a coherence that incorporates [the separate images of the left eye and the right eye], it is necessary that they become the foundation of a world perceived within an axiomatic in which disparation […] becomes, precisely, the index of a new dimension[liv].

As Stiegler shows in Automatic Society, Volume One, what Berns and Rouvroy call ‘algorithmic governmentality’[lv] is, above all, the ‘automatic and computational liquidation of disparation’[lvi], which means: the dissolution of all those forms of what Wittgenstein calls ‘custom and upbringing’, or, more precisely, the localized circuits and processes of transindividuation enabling disparation, that is, that make it possible to notice, as if from an infinitely faraway location, the stereoscopic depth and thickness of aspects, beyond ‘this or that side’, and where there can be no ‘horizons of expectation’ without this ‘index of a new dimension’. The telescopic, in Szendy’s sense, in this sense implicitly raises the question of the stereoscopic.

The ‘coherence’ of Simondon’s stereoscopic disparation, of course, is a matter of how the left and right retinal images compose, whereas Wittgenstein intends to show, through the mutual exclusivity of the bistable percept, the impossibility of conjoining, in a single ‘moment’ of vision, the two dimensions or aspects of the picture-object’s meaning. Yet this impossibility of overcoming the disunion of the duck and the rabbit does not mean that the two do not co-exist at some point, even if they do so in an ideality occurring only at infinity, which is, precisely, neither interior nor exterior – just as the conjunction of the image perceived by the left eye and the right eye should be, geometrically speaking, strictly impossible, meaning that, if linear perspective is undeniably ‘correcter’ than earlier forms of painting, nevertheless even ‘natural’ disparation itself is irreducibly fictive, and just as for Kant the sublime involves an experience of what exceeds the limits of the imagination. Sur-prehending the bistable percept as both-duck-and-rabbit, retaining both aspects, is, precisely, a question of striving to see, extraterrestrially, caught halfway between knowledge and non-knowledge, what is invisible, even if we may feel sure it is right there, like the figure in the carpet.

Furthermore, as Wittgenstein asserts, in a kind of reversal of Simondon that ends up making the same point, what is ‘natural to us’ is three dimensional representation, whereas ‘special practice and training are needed for two-dimensional representation’[lvii]: in terms of the representational gaze, then, the reduction to two dimensions is, in a strange way, also the index of a new dimensionality, one that has a long history. Perhaps in this way, too, the reduction to a two-movie reality might, in making plain the absolute failure of vision and imagination effected by the performative automation of the will, contain the potential to be transformed into a cure for our present-day overwhelming aspect-blindness. In any case, at stake in both Simondon’s account of disparation and Wittgenstein’s account of aspect-blindness is a strange kind of step beyond the ‘technically possible’, but what Wittgenstein makes clearer, perhaps, is that this irreducibly involves practice, training and technique, that is, circuits of transindividuation.

As we saw, Wittgenstein describes the step beyond information in rather vague terms as a matter of the ‘feeling’ with which we read a poem, and which gives it its ‘ring’. In addressing the question of the relationship of aspect-blindness to meaning, he asks whether there can really be any kind of ‘expert judgment’ through which the ‘genuineness of expressions of feeling’ can be adjudicated, and he answers, again rather imprecisely, that ‘correcter prognoses will generally issue from the judgments of those with better knowledge’[lviii]. But he immediately gives the kind of knowledge that this involves it’s properly Epimethean character:

Can one learn this knowledge? Yes; some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through ‘experience’[lix].

What Wittgenstein describes is precisely the singularity and infinity of the localized transindividual inasmuch as it is irreducible to the algorithmic. This is, he says, no longer a matter of technique, but what he means by this demands careful reading:

What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules[lx].

The question of aspect-blindness is that of the elimination of knowledge as the index of a dimensionality that opens the horizons of expectation which, in turn, grant the possibility of a judgment, with rules, but beyond facts, not without calculation, but exceeding every calculation. At stake is the possibility of being surprised by noticing another meaning in one and the same object, without changing anything in the object, which, in turn, opens the possibility of changing the rules, even if it is for a game we can never master, and so of materializing a new world, neganthropically.

How does Wittgenstein express this possibility? For him, of course, itis a question of language games, of why, in the game of experiencing a word, we speak not only of meaning, but of meaning it, that is, of the difference such meaning makes. For Wittgenstein, this is a question of adoption, of ‘taking over’ a meaning from one language-game into another. He writes:

Call it a dream. It does not change anything[lxi].

In this dream of learning and adopting a way of judging the ‘genuineness of expressions of feeling’, a dream that does not change anything, just as for Heidegger the extraordinariness of authentic existence is nothing other than a ‘modified grasp’ of the ordinariness of everydayness[lxii], an almost nothing that nevertheless changes everything, we can locate the whole problem of repotentializing disparation[lxiii], that is, of transforming the aspect-blindness of our ‘two-movie reality’ into a new cosmopolitics of relief, by surrounding it with a fiction capable of fostering the will required for any possible, improbable, Neganthropocenic revolution.

Conclusion

We now have a sense, then, of how to marry Wittgenstein’s account of the ability to notice the dawning of an aspect with Szendy’s account, drawn from Kant, of the need for a telescopic gaze opening a speculative cosmology on the terrain of a war conducted for a geopolitics of the sensible. For Stiegler, Husserl’s mistake was trying to exclude tertiary retention from the account of the intertwining of primary and secondary retention, a mistake Husserl went some way towards rectifying with his account of the origin of geometry in the techniques of polishing and writing. The import of this Husserlian revision, for Stiegler, is that the ‘large now’ of time-consciousness, by which there is no primary perception of the ‘present moment’ without an extension from the preceding moment and towards the succeeding moment, becomes the ‘very large now’ of geometry itself, which exists and can exist only in a transmission of the knowledge of geometry in an intergenerational we, a transmission that is itself possible only on the basis of a technical history. What Wittgenstein’s account of the bistable percept suggests, we are proposing, is that there is a kind of ‘large there’, an irreducible spatial enlargement that is not a matter of measurable quantities but of openings onto other dimensions of ex-sight, themselves technically conditioned and transmitted through what Wittgenstein refers to as custom and upbringing. Is not what Szendy is gesturing towards via Kant a kind of ‘very large there’, or, perhaps, a ‘very large over there’, whose condition of possibility would be the impossibility of limiting this character of ex-sight to noticing just this or that aspect of this or that image, given that the process of such a stereoscopic gaze telescopes its way in just the same way as the transcendental we of geometry?

If, today, the starting point of thinking is not awe or astonishment but dread, then among its most recent manifestations, in a vicious circle of symptom and cause, is undoubtedly the constellation of phenomena summarized by the ‘surprise’ election of Donald Trump and the sense of having definitively entered an age of so-called ‘post-truth’. In this constellation we see, feel and dread the depths of that war identified by Peter Szendy as being conducted on the terrain of a geopolitics of the sensible and requiring a speculative cosmology: it is a question of sensibility firstly because Trump’s election was the expression of a feeling, a feeling that can be understood only as a kind of suffering, and a suffering whose source can be understood only as an extreme form of proletarianization – the hyperproletarianization characteristic of the digital age.

Some might object that, therefore, this is no longer a matter of the ‘geopolitics of the sensible’, as Szendy claims, but rather, as Benjamin Bratton claims, the ‘geopolitics of the cloud’, and that the crucial cosmological fact is that ‘the stack’ is the ‘mechanism of a disruptive cosmopolitics’ leading to the ‘catastrophic homogenization’ of a ‘Megamachine’[lxiv]. No doubt this is a false alternative. What we are witnessing today is undoubtedly the takeover of many functions by very high-powered, data-intensive computation, whose unfettered character leads Bratton to invoke Schmitt for his own cosmopolitics, in the name of a ‘nomos of the cloud’ that, as Stiegler has pointed out, neglects the fact that for Schmitt nomos is firstly and above all a matter of the division of land, and so tied to locality and to the earth, an earth that, if it moves, always moves along with the neganthropotechnical beings that we ourselves are[lxv].

But even if this question of the geopolitics of the cloud is entirely legitimate, even if it means we find ourselves subsisting in a gulag architectonic (of data), imprisoning each ‘user’ within the segmented, particularized cell of their own prefabricated will, it bears remembering that this computational overtaking of functions continues to operate through ‘terminals’ that will for a long time continue to be screens. If these screens within the gulag architectonic can at times function as windows, if they frequently convey text, and if they always operate with data, they nevertheless also continue to make use of the synthetic power of the visual image. And, if anything, this is now more the case than ever, leading Hossein Derakhshan to argue that with Facebook, for example, we are witnessing a shift from a ‘books-internet toward a television-internet’[lxvi]. In the becoming-television of the internet, the network or the digital does not replace the audiovisual: as the platform overtakes functions, it absorbs the audiovisual. The ‘fuel’ powering the algorithmic governmentality of the platform capitalism presently materializing itself may be the data provided by users in the form of digital traces, but the means of solicitation and the products of this pheromonal system are, more than ever, ‘picture-objects’.

Does this ubiquity and indeed domination of the visual image legitimate the notion that we require a cosmopolitanism focused on the multiplicity of standpoints? The risk entailed by such a cosmopolitanism is of producing a kind of static perspective founded on a geometry that consists in simply measuring the distances between one point of view and another, and which threatens to end with a bad perspectivism of calculable (hence algorithmicizable) differences of interest. Hence it is against the false choice between the geometry of nationalisms and a homogenous internationalism that Szendy draws attention to the horizon of another dimension invoked by Marcel Mauss when he referred to the ‘inter-nation’[lxvii]. The twenty-first century translation of this bad perspectivism, as the geopolitics of the macrocosms of the nation-state becomes that of the macrocosms of platform capitalism, is the rise of macrocosmological ‘filter bubbles’ that harden into a two-movie reality progressively eliminating the dawning of aspects – until these bubbles explode.

If we can indeed diagnose those who voted for Trump as afflicted with a kind of suffering, and so as expressing a genuine feeling, however ungenuine the details of this expression, correcter prognoses (insofar as we remain capable of believing in the possibility of such judgments) depend on seeing that this was not just, not only, a matter of the expression of economic immiseration or the corresponding rise of an anti-systemic, anticosmopolitan, insular, nativist point of view, protesting  economic poverty is combined with and compounded by processes of immiseration both symbolic and noetic. What was expressed by this literally dreadful election was, in this sense, and more than anything, a desperate absence of point of view, a becoming-automaton that is also a suffering in which point of view is suspended, because to have a point of view implies an orientation, a reason, a motive or a rationality. In the two-movie reality, however, the real itself becomes irrational, without reason, if not without qualities, leading to a quiet or not-so-quiet desperation that begins to want the apocalypse, to want to see it – and to see it screened. Did the election of Donald Trump explode this two movie reality, or will the bubbles produced by its algorithmic filters continue to expand to a planetary scale that crowds out all stereoscopy and can ultimately only hasten the apocalypse of global aspect-blindness? Whatever may be the case, in the age of ‘post-truth’, when the real becomes absolutely irrational, that is, a very bad fiction, then, as Stiegler has argued, we must transform the very notion of truth, so that it can no longer be based on a relation to being, or even to becoming [devenir], but only to the future [avenir], which is to say, a new, rational (neganthropic) macro-economy[lxviii].

If the possibility of the Neganthropocene is the question of a revolution, what infinitely complicates the question is how to motivate a turn, a catastrophe, in a world without culture and so without cosmos, and how to foster this revolution before, during and after the catastrophe(s), and after the deluge (of data). If in the age of platforms this is still a question of images, it is not just a question of the geometry of spatial standpoints: somehow the visual image must move, must exist in time. And, again, if it is indeed a question of entropy and negentropy, then this can only be the question of a temporal process, a temporal struggle. And, finally, if no apprehension of space occurs in any way other than as an apprehension of space in time, opening through the temporal dimension an ex-sight of the possibility of experiencing a surprise capable of causing every comprehension to tremble, then, again, this can only be a question of the image in time, the image that moves, that is, that changes, even if it does not change. Only in this way can the question of Wittgenstein’s aspect-blindness be articulated with Szendy’s extra-terrestrial gaze, which is not the same as Kant’s, precisely because the question of the point of view of points of view is no longer, for Szendy, either universal or transcendental or theological, and because it remains within the localized sur-reality of the neganthropic struggle of microcosmological and macrocosmological points of view operating not just from different positions but on different scales of a ‘very large over there’ with a technical history. Hence we argue that the question of a conversion to and of an extra-terrestrial gaze, the question of a new revolutionary perspectivism becoming visible only at the limit, neces

Original text here


[i] Lecture delivered on 25 July at the 2017 Épineuil-le-Fleuriel summer academy. This is an extended version of the text, with thanks due to Bernard Stiegler for providing the author with his unpublished text, ‘Étre-là-bas: Phénoménologie et orientation’, which enabled some of the arguments presented here to be clarified. The lecture as delivered was entitled ‘Invasion of the Mind Snatchers’, but, in light of the author’s discovery of a forthcoming article with the same title by his friend Dominic Pettman, this title has been changed to respect this precedence.

[ii] Edmund Husserl, ‘Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature: The Originary Ark, the Earth, Does Not Move’, in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p. 131.

[iii] Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks (New York: Zone, 2006), p. 117.

[iv] Bernard Stiegler, ‘The New Conflict of the Faculties: Quasi-Causality and Serendipity in the Anthropocene’, Qui Parle 26 (2017), p. 79.

[v] Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties (New York: Abaris, 1979), p. 161.

[vi] On the concepts of ‘entrope’ and ‘negentrope’, which are perhaps fictive names for what Stiegler refers to as ‘stereotypes’ and ‘traumatypes’, see Daniel Ross, ‘Moving Images of the Anthropocene: Rethinking Cinema Beyond Anthropology’, delivered July 2015, available at: <https://www.academia.edu/29677705/Moving_Images_of_the_Anthropocene_Rethin king_Cinema_Beyond_Anthropology_2016_>.

[vii] Husserl, ‘Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature’, p. 117.

[viii] Ibid., p. 119

[ix] Ibid., p. 118

[x] Ibid., p. 127

[xi] Ibid., p. 131

[xii] Peter Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), p. 96.

[xiii] Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 236, quoted in Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, pp. 47–48.

[xiv] Also crucial to Szendy’s account is his reading of Carl Schmitt, for whom the possibility of this overarching, extra-terrestrial gaze is the fantasy that must be rejected, in favour of a more mundane account of nomos as rooted (though this choice of word may not be fair) in the question of the earth (of its land and of its sea). There is not space here for consideration of this aspect of Szendy’s work, which forms a kind of mechanism for a ‘course correction’ in his reading of Kant, but it is worth noting that, in 2004, in his apocalyptic reflections on the ‘Straussian moment’, a youthful Peter Thiel summarized Carl Schmitt’s anti-Kantian anti-universalism in the following terms: ‘Absent an invasion by aliens from outer space, there never can be a world state that politically unites all of humanity. It is a logical impossibility.’ Peter Thiel, ‘The Straussian Moment’, in Robert Hamerton-Kelly (ed.), Politics and Apocalypse (East Lansin: Michigan State University Press, 2007), p. 199.

[xv] Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, p. 225, quoted in Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, p. 47.

[xvi] This is also a question of the relation between man and nature in Kant, which draws the question into the orbit of the concerns of the Anthropocene in a way that is more direct than can be found in Szendy. Without being able to discuss this here, in ‘Moving Images of the Anthropocene’, I described this in terms of the Kantian account of aesthetic ideas, in the following way:

The first of these questions, that of the socialisation and collectivisation of aesthetic ideas, is not, in this classical period, thought in terms of process. The question of what process mediates between the individual and the collective does not arise, and there is instead a resort to the assumption of shared pre-existing cognitive capacities. The second of these questions could be spelled otherwise as referring to something like the cosmological significance of sublimity. But without an understanding that this generation of the infinite is a question not just of the aesthetic play of imagination and the understanding but instead has techno-aesthetic or phenomeno-techno-aesthetic conditions, the answer to this question gets caught in aporias of nature: the human being, in its transcendent appreciation of nature, becomes a kind of nature of nature, the nature of the human being being to seek nature’s purposiveness beyond nature itself. And because this ultimate purposiveness is understood as that of rational human being grasped as the nature of nature, it is inconceivable to such a way of thinking that this purposiveness could ultimately become a source of misery, let alone that this immiseration might prove to be not just that of humankind but of ‘nature’ ‘itself’. Despite the degree to which Kantian aesthetics thus opens up these two questions of the indeterminate and the infinite, in the end they fail to lead to a consideration of the temporality of aesthetic processes. And this failure is ultimately due to the repression of any consideration of the aesthetic artefact as such.

[xvii] Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, p. 79.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Peter Sloterdijk, In the Interior World of Capital (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 209.

[xx] Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, p. 150.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 83.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 129.

[xxiii] Ibid., 84.

[xxiv] In the sense referred to by Heidegger in Being and Time when he states that ‘Da-sein has […] the character of directionality. Every bringing near has always taken a direction in a region beforehand from which what is de-distanced approaches so that it can be discovered with regard to its place.’ Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Albany: State University of New York Press), §23.

[xxv] The formulation ‘horizons of expectation’, it should be noted, is essentially spatiotemporal

[xxvi] Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 61–62.

[xxvii] See Heidegger, Being and Time, §23. And see Bernard Stiegler, ‘Étre-là-bas: Phénoménologie et orientation’, unpublished.

[xxviii] Thinking here of the fact that Husserl wonders what difference it would have made to our cosmological conceptions had the earth’s atmosphere been foggy rather than transparent and the stars therefore invisible. Husserl, ‘Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature’, p. 129: ‘Indeed, in fog they are invisible. Thus it could have been through all historical periods – we would have lived therefore in a generational historicity and could have had our earthly world, our earth and earth-spaces, flying and floating bodies there, etc., everything as before, only without visible starts that could be experienced by us. Perhaps we would have had an atomic physics or a microphysics, but not an astrophysics or a macrophysics. But we would have to consider to what extent the former would have been changed.’

[xxix] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), p. 194.

[xxx] Ibid., p. 194.

[xxxi] Ibid., p. 196.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Bernard Stiegler, ‘The Discrete Image’, in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), p. 147.

[xxxiv] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 199.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 200.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] See Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1990) p. 319.

[xxxix] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 206.

[xl] See Jeffrey Alan Gray, Consciousness: Creeping Up on the Hard Problem (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 40–46.

[xli] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 208.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 212.

[xliii] Szendy, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, p. 88.

[xliv] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 210.

[xlv] Ibid., p. 212.

[xlvi] Ibid., p. 213.

[xlvii] Ibid., p. 199.

[xlviii] Ibid., p. 213.

[xlix] Ibid., p. 214.

[l] Ibid., p. 214. On the relationship between information and knowledge, see Bernard Stiegler, ‘The New Conflict of the Faculties and Functions: Quasi-Causality and Serendipity in the Anthropocene’, Qui Parle 26 (2017), pp. 79–99.

[li] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 210.

[lii] Frédéric Kaplan, ‘Vers le capitalisme linguistique. Quand les mots valent de l’or’, Le Monde diplomatique (November 2011), available at: http://www.mondediplomatique. fr/2011/11/KAPLAN/46925. See also Kaplan, ‘Linguistic Capitalism and Algorithmic Mediation’, Representations 27 (2014), pp. 57–63.

[liii] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 213.

[liv] Gilbert Simondon, L’Individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 1995), p. 206, quoted in Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society, Volume 1: The Future of Work (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), p. 128.

[lv] Antoinette Rouvroy and Thomas Berns, ‘Gouvernementalité algorithmique et perspectives d’émancipation’, Réseaux 177 (2013), pp. 163–96.

[lvi] Stiegler, Automatic Society, Volume 1, p. 130.

[lvii] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 198.

[lviii] Ibid., p. 227.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Ibid.

[lxi] Ibid., p. 216.

[lxii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), §38, p. 179 of the German pagination.

[lxiii] Stiegler, Automatic Society, Volume 1, p. 134.

[lxiv] Benjamin Bratton, ‘The Black Stack’, e-flux 53 (March 2014), available at: <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59883/the-black-stack/&gt;.

[lxv] Bernard Stiegler, ‘Five Theses after Schmitt and Bratton’, The Neganthropocene, forthcoming.

[lxvi] Hossein Derakhshan, ‘The Web We Have to Save’, Matter, available at: <https://medium.com/matter/the web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426>. And see Ross, ‘Moving Images of the Anthropocene’.

[lxvii] Szendy, Kant in the Land of the Extraterrestrials, pp. 139–40.

[lxviii] Bernard Stiegler, ‘Au delà de l’effroi’, text for Académie d’été d’Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, delivered 24 July 2017, unpublished.

Not Just Pussy Hats on the Climate March: Feminist Encounters with the Anthropocene

By Catriona Sandilands

Original article: LA Review of Books

Anthropocene Feminism by Richard Grusin (editor)

ALTHOUGH THE TERM Anthropocene was reputedly coined by biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the early 1980s, the person generally considered responsible for its entrance into public discourse is Paul J. Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist whose work on the hole in the ozone layer won him a Nobel Prize in 1995. The term, in growing popular use since Crutzen’s work at the beginning of the millennium, is daring: it names human beings (Anthropos) as a geological force, meaning that human activity in the form of, for example, colonization, industrialization, resource extraction, and urbanization, has registered in and on the earth in a way that physically marks the present moment as no longer part of the Holocene epoch that began nearly 12,000 years ago. Although the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not yet, at the time of writing, formally designated the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, the concept has gained considerable traction as a way of capturing and dramatizing the almost unthinkably immense impact that human beings have had on the planet. Perhaps especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (which, even if fully implemented, would still lead to a predicted three degree global temperature rise), it is worth taking stock of this concept: is it useful to think of people as a collective force when the actions of particular people, claiming to act on behalf of particular groups of people (“Pittsburgh, not Paris”) seem to weigh so heavily on the future?

The precise beginning point of this epoch — the “golden spike,” as it is known — is subject to scientific debate. Does the Anthropocene start with the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1945? Or does it begin with the Industrial Revolution, which saw, among other things, exponential expansion of the extraction and deployment of fossil fuels? Or is it the Neolithic Revolution, with its development of sedentary agriculture and significant accompanying increases in human population and social complexity? The choice of where to place the spike in the past is significant, as will become apparent below. Even more importantly, however, the term Anthropocene names and gives lithic solidity to widespread anxiety about the present and future of the world as we know it. Beyond critical resource depletions, beyond global-scale pollution, beyond mass extinctions, and even beyond climate change, the Anthropocene names the present moment as a crisis of the earth itself.

Feminist thinkers have taken issue with the idea of the Anthropocene almost since its inception: to name the human as a geological force is to mask the fact that not all humans share equal responsibility for the current course of anthropogenic destruction. Moreover, the processes of industrialization, colonization, urbanization, and extractivism that lie at the heart of the idea of the Anthropocene as an epoch are clearly bound up with issues of gender, race, class, and colony. At one level, failure to name the epochal “force” more precisely takes crucial attention away from the specific anthropogenic activities and relations that are the largest engines of planetary ruination. Sociologist Jason Moore has, as a result, suggested the term “Capitalocene” as a considerably more accurate reflection of the fact that the specific form of global economic and social organization that is capitalism — in which the planet and its human and more-than-human inhabitants are arranged and exploited primarily in order to maximize wealth and power for the few — should be singled out for its transformative effects. At another level, as anthropologist Anna Tsing has pointed out, the monolithic human behind the Anthropocene is really just another version of the white, male, colonizing, modernist Man that is a large part of the problem in the first place. This Man fashions himself as separate from, and over and above, a (feminized) Nature that comes to be treated as nothing but a universe of inanimate raw materials whose sole purpose on earth is to fuel his interests, and this Man needs to be displaced in any attempt to grapple with the social, economic, and ecological relations that have brought the earth to its current epochal crisis. Taken together, these critiques suggest that a feminist perspective on the Anthropocene (or Capitalocene, or one of several other terms currently available including my current favorite, the darkly humorous “Plasticene”) should emphasize the fact that gender, race, class, and colonialism are, both structurally and conceptually, part of the geologically scaled problem: how Man treats Nature, and how capitalism metabolizes the more-than-human world on which it depends, cannot be separated from the inequitable and exploitative social relations on which Man and capital both also rely.

Although you might not know it from most popular media representations, many feminists have been saying these sorts of things for quite a long time. Ecofeminists have, for nearly 30 years, pointed out connections between the patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist exploitation of the more-than-human world and the oppression of women, people of color, and Indigenous people. More recent work in new materialist feminism has, moreover, effectively challenged many of the exceptionalist conceits of humanism — especially the idea that the agency of Man is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the matter that is the rest of the world — and opened important conversations and collaborations between the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Geology and quantum physics, for example, have also been properly feminist territories for some years, as matter has come to matter in feminist politics. Still, the new anthology Anthropocene Feminism comes as a welcome and provocative addition to the conversation. Drawing on presentations from a 2014 conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, editor Richard Grusin has assembled a strong collection of feminist thinkers to tackle the question of what it means to put together the terms Anthropocene and feminism at this geopolitical moment. How does feminism, which has long insisted on challenging the category of Man invoked in the Anthropos, now find itself forced anew to “address the definition of the human as a geological force, the embrace of the naturalness of ‘man’”? In addition, how does feminism, which has also long insisted on the importance of situated, historicized, and socially liberatory forms of analysis, grapple with the contention that “humans must now be understood as climatological or geological planetary forces that operate just as nonhumans would, independent of human will, belief, desires [and politics]”? Perhaps beginning, for the reasons noted above, from the assumption that the Anthropocene needs feminism, the anthology also asks whether feminism now requires “a new formulation specific to the age of the Anthropocene, a new historical or period designation […] [that takes up] an altered relation to — an increased attention to or concern for — the nonhuman [or ‘more-than-human,’ or ‘inhuman’] world.” In other words, it isn’t only that the Anthropocene needs to be rethought through feminist theory; it’s that feminism is forced to reconsider its schematics for thinking of power, gender, and resistance at the current moment.

Although the individual contributions to Anthropocene Feminism are quite diverse (in particular, a chapter by feminist geologist Jill Schneiderman and an interview with artist/computer scientist/engineer Natalie Jeremijenko open the conversation about a feminist Anthropocene to the natural sciences), two major themes emerge as central to the rethinking that characterizes the collection. First, there is no question that an Anthropocene feminism must confront the ways in which lifeand death are at stake in contemporary bio- and geo-politics, here meaning life both beyond and within the human (i.e., both the more-than-human world and the specific human lives erased in the conception of Man). Michel Foucault wrote, famously, in The History of Sexuality, that “for millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.” In thinking about life and death in the Anthropocene, several authors respond specifically to this idea of biopolitics. Elizabeth Povinelli notes that the specific mechanisms through which politics now organize and control life are sufficiently transformed from Foucault’s formulation as to warrant new figurations that take into account “the possibility that humans are responsible for the death of all life on the planet […] rather than the killing or letting die of specific human populations” (her emphasis). Indeed, she proposes the term geontology to represent the extraordinary intensification of biopower involved in both mass extinctions and the proliferation of biopolitical logics into the realm of nonlife, creating new assemblages of power/knowledge/matter that move well beyond older tactics of organizing and specifying life and living. (I am reminded, here, of Donna Haraway’s comment in the mid-1980s that Foucault’s biopolitics is a “flaccid premonition.”) Lynne Huffer, similarly, brings Foucault and Judith Butler together in conversation with new materialist feminists, especially Elizabeth Grosz, to consider the inevitably historically specific unfolding of life, even as that life clearly exceeds and complicates any particular historical conception and organization. “Foucault,” she writes, “allows us to rethink life not as a timeless metaphysical substance whose features are derived from modern biology but as a strange, nonhuman writing we might read and ‘think differently’ in shifting interplays of space and time.” This project is, for Huffer, foundational to rethinking more-than-human ethics in the Anthropocene.

The second, very powerful theme in Anthropocene Feminism is the clear, collective emphasis on geocapitalism as the particular mode of bio-/geo-political organization in which all of these different struggles for life and death take place (the concept is shared, the term is not). Claire Colebrook, for example, responds to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that “had humans not embarked upon the intense depletion of planetary resources that has resulted in the Anthropocene, human enslavement would have been worse than it has been”: the movement of globalism and humanism (and even feminism) that has accompanied Eurowestern capitalist modernity is precisely linked to the mass exploitation of geological resources (especially fossil fuels) and more-than-human lives. As Colebrook writes, “the idea of a life that could develop to its utmost potentiality without incurring debt or death to itself is both what drives technological-industrial investment and generates the delusional idea of a life without expense, loss, or misprision.” Rosi Braidotti notes that feminist movement into an ontological and political embrace of nonhuman life (zöe) may thus resist, but cannot be separated from, the increased penetration of capitalist investment into these same forms of life: “the biogenetic structure of contemporary capitalism […] produces a paradoxical and rather opportunistic form of postanthropocentrism on the part of market forces which happily trade on ‘life itself.’” Even more directly, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr point out that differentials — the inherently exploitative structural inequalities such as gender, race, and class that enable capitalist accumulation — are not, as Chakrabarty argues, effaced in a new epoch of humans as a singular force but are, rather, recreated and intensified in the Anthropocene because of its inherently capitalist nature. Although they acknowledge that the term Anthropocene “might be thought of as a struggle for a cognitive grasp on a unification of human and natural history,” they warn us not to allow that link to obscure the presence and impact of the Capitalocene.

These insights are extremely important. Moreover, they go a long way toward creating a more sophisticated feminist ecology that rests on both historical materialism (the emphasis on the world-making effects of capitalist economic, social, and biopolitical relations) and new materialism (the emphasis on the agential participation of more-than-human beings in this unfolding process). What is missing from the anthology, however, is also extremely important. Although individual chapters refer to biopolitical concepts developed by Black feminists (Stacy Alaimo, noting the contributions of Sylvia Wynter) and consider the centrality of historical and ongoing colonialism to the Capitalocene (Myra Hird and Alexander Zahara, whose chapter on waste as a vector of colonialism in the Canadian Arctic is a standout in this regard), the absence of sustained engagement with Indigenous, postcolonial (except for Chakrabarty), and people of color perspectives on biopolitics and capitalist fashionings of life in the Anthopocene is pretty stunning. This is especially so for an Anthropocene feminism that purportedly begins with a move to demonstrate the vital differences (or differentials) that lie behind the idea of Man as a singular force; attention to racial and colonial biopolitics, and thus more deeply to what Wynter calls multiple “genres” of the human, will allow, as Alaimo advocates, for a much more “politically forged and conjuncturally specific conception of the Anthropos [that will] enable new modes of struggle for social justice, environmental justice, climate justice, biodiversity, and environmentalisms.” Anthropocene feminism requires more than pussy hats on the climate march; it requires rethinking of feminist politics itself in, and from, new genres.

¤

Catriona Sandilands is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University (Toronto).

China in the anthropocene: Culprit, victim or last best hope for a global ecological civilisation?


Joachim H. Spangenberg

Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research

Joachim.Spangenberg@ufz.de
BioRisk 9: 1–37. doi: 10.3897/biorisk.9.6105

Abstract

The anthropocene is the age where human influences are determining the development of the planet’s ecosystems and thus the bio-physical basis of future human civilisations. Today China has become the world’s largest economy and its worst polluter with per capita greenhouse gas emissions surpassing the EU average, the world’s largest consumer of all kinds of resources. Even regarding the aggregate contribution to climate change (historical emission residues included), called the climate debt, China has not yet, but will be most probably climbing the top position rather soon. At the same time China is the world’s largest victim of environmental change, including air and soil pollution, water and land scarcity, biodiversity loss and climate change. Thus not only slowing down the increase but reducing emissions should be a top priority for China, and it is: the government has taken some bold steps. China is the world’s largest investor in renewable energies, has the largest afforestation program, and leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emission reduction. As the largest polluter it has extraordinary opportunities to improve the global state of the environment – is it the world’s last best hope for establishing a global ecological civilisation? Some implications regarding the Chinese environmental policy are discussed, some strengths highlighted and some weaknesses identified. However, despite their magnitude, the efforts–and in particular their implementation are not yet sufficient. We suggest three additional steps which could help China to begin reducing its climate debt within a couple of decades, define a long term perspective for policy planning and adjust its growth model to the challenges of the anthropocene.


Keywords
China, pollution, climate change, land use, HANPP, biodiversity, ecological debt/climate debt, CO2, methane, politics, Common but differentiated responsibility, Earth System Science, environmental justice


Introduction

Naming a new epoch signals earth system change, i.e. a point in time when (ubiquitous) local change in aggregate has begun changing the global system, ending the previous period in which human civilisation emerged, the Holocene. If the term Anthropocene was originally proposed as “a strategy for getting the public to appreciate the extent to which humans were destroying the world” (B. Smith according to Balter 2013), one might consider the beginning of the anthropocene as the time window when evolutionary adaptability of biodiversity and ecosystems could no longer keep up with human alterations of the environment(s).

Such a threshold would coincide with escalating anthropogenic energy consumption, a peak in the human appropriation of net primary production (Erb et al. 2013, Krausmann et al. 2012), with a quantity of materials mobilised by humans, the anthropogenic material flows, exceeding natural flows (Schmidt-Bleek 1994, Peduzzi 2014), and with other drastic alterations in ecosystems mainly caused by land use intensification, including in agro-ecosystems. As a result, humanity as a whole is exceeding the planetary boundaries, leaving the safe operating space of humankind (Rockström et al. 2009).

Contemporary changes are very fast, often abrupt, as compared to earlier transformations by agricultural practices which have evolved over centuries or even longer periods, and thus have offered opportunities for species and species interactions to co-evolve in cultural landscapes (Settele and Spangenberg 2013). The resulting in managed equilibrium-type systems were mostly of high value for conservation, sustainable production and/or cultural ecosystem services. Consequently, the speed and scale of change destabilise the dynamic equilibria characterising the Holocene, and the Earth system threatens to flip into a new (more or less) stable state less accommodating to human civilisations (Rees 1999). Biodiversity loss and climate change are but the most obvious and pressing symptoms of this process of global environmental change. Thus deceleration of change to gain time for evolution (Settele and Kühn 2009) and preventing breakdowns in ecosystem services (Heong 2009) would be key objectives for future-proofing human civilizations and their biological and agricultural basis in the anthropocene (Settele and Spangenberg 2013).

Section 2 describes in some detail the challenges of the transition to the anthropocene, and the driving forces behind it. Section 3 identifies the most relevant nations, and China as a key driver of the process. However, China is not only a driver, but also a major victim of the process, as illustrated in section 4. This insight is growing rapidly in China itself, and the world’s most populous country and largest economy rather naturally has not only a moral obligation, but also the capabilities to take decisive action, beyond the existing policy measures and the ambitious policy goals already formulated. Thus section 5 asks whether China is our last best hope for stabilising humankind’s survival conditions before crossing severe tipping points of the global ecosystem. Section 6 suggests three strategic options how to turn China, on top of its current efforts, from a climate villain into a climate hero. Section 7 offers a brief outlook.

The challenge of the Anthropocene
Driving Forces

The 1950s mark the beginning of the modern international era, the decade in which the modern internationalised world emerged. This is not only testified by the founding of global institutions like the United Nations Organisation UNO (1947) and the World Bank (1946), but–at least as important–also by the beginning of official bilateral development aid programs following the liberation of many so-called Third World countries from colonisation. Even more important in our context, it was the time of the emergence of modern communication and transport, providing for the first time mass access to telecommunication, television, cars and air transport (for the 19th century globalisation of communication and trade see Standage 1998). Both communication and transportation were conditions for outsourcing and globalising supply chains; together with development aid and foreign direct investment FDI they induced a rapid global spread of information and innovation replication (Fischer-Kowalski and Amman 2001). Globally, industrial and labour cultures began to converge towards a standard developed in the early industrialised countries.

Regarding resource consumption, the 1950s have been described as the great acceleration; a phenomenon that started 20 years earlier in the USA and took hold throughout the industrialised countries, capitalist or socialist, before being transferred to the rest of the world. Economic growth reached unprecedented levels and became the leitmotif not only for the industrialised countries and a yardstick in their competition, but also for their former colonies gaining independence in the 1950s and 1960s. A de-colonising global economy, the East-West competition for more economic growth (in which the socialist block was leading in the 1950s – remember the ‘Sputink Shock’), escalating consumption in the West in the 1960s, a shift from coal to oil in the affluent countries, and the Green Revolution coincided, accelerating the global biological and cultural homogenisation. While the outpacing of evolution followed with a certain delay, its reasons are to be found in this decade and the economic changes it saw emerging in most of the world.

The increasing human impact due to ever faster change had two driving forces–technological progress, increasing wealth and population growth amplified resource consumption, and the internationalisation of exchange, both communication and trade, led to the rapid spread of innovations regardless where in the world they had been developed. In their interplay, they enhanced the speed as much as the scale of change to levels unprecedented in earth history–except for the few global catastrophes caused by massive asteroids hitting the planet. Physically this development was based on the massive expansion of energy consumption and the transition from biomass to fossil fuels, first coal and in the 1950s shifting to oil and later complementing gas. In the early industrialising countries different patterns of fossil fuel use coincide with certain stages of the transformation to an industrial society and with changing trajectories of societal development (Fischer-Kowalski and Amman 2001, Wiedenhofer et al. 2013). Other drivers of change growing simultaneously with fossil fuel use include the exponentially increasing consumption of metallic and mineral resources (Schmidt-Bleek 2008). In particular, the extent of and the changing patterns and growing intensity of land use (Bringezu et al. 2012, Haberl et al. 2009, Spangenberg 2007) played an important role, not least promoted by the green (grain), the blue (fish) and the white (milk) revolution (Spangenberg 1991). It was in particular the combination of escalating resource use and these revolutions and their positive feedback loops which caused, with a time lag, the destabilisation of ecosystems by overburdening their evolutionary and adaptive capabilities. Thus it was not one big decisive change but the confluence of globally dispersed, ubiquitous accelerated local changes, synchronised through ideology, technology, power and finance, that caused a massive qualitative change of the global socio-economic-environmental system as a whole.

Today 15% of the world’s population have successfully completed the transition from an agrarian to an industrial (and now post-industrial) society, in the course exhausting if not destroying the capacity of global CO2 sinks, overburdening the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and–worst of all–accelerating the loss of biodiversity by a factor 100 and more (Rockström et al. 2009). On top of this, 60% of the world’s current population are undergoing the same transition from agricultural to industrial societies, so far mainly following the Northern development trajectory. The globalisation of this “normal development paradigm”, from agricultural societies assumed to be poor to presumably affluent industrial societies, was propelled by national elites and international financial institutions. As a result, the number of people in absolute poverty has decreased significantly (while the number of people in plain poverty increased), the majority of them now living in middle income countries. Poverty has become a social group problem rather than a developing country problem, making established development concepts obsolete. The solution can no longer be increasing the wealth of a country, but must include redistribution within countries, usually not only of income but also of assets, depending on the national situation.

Pressures: Biodiversity loss, climate change and the ecological debt

The agricultural revolutions, by increasing growth in line with extraction (harvest) did not significantly change the share of natural primary production appropriated by humankind. Although correlations between HANPP and biodiversity loss have been described at smaller scales (Haberl et al. 2004), increased human appropriation was probably not the cause of the disruptions in ecosystem functioning: species loss has accelerated throughout the globe, while the level of HANPP declined in the industrialised countries and remained rather steady in South East Asia (see Erb et al. 2009 for the global distribution of HANPP and Krausmann et al. 2012 for data from the Philippines). Nonetheless the steady but very high levels of HANPP can be read as indicating a high level of anthropogenic pressures on ecosystems (Haberl 2013). Avoiding an increase in HANPP by increasing external input, however, came at a cost: the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles were expanded beyond the planetary boundaries (Rockstöm et al. 2009, Krausmann et al. 2012). Intensive, often irrigated agriculture in particular in Asia (Figure 1), together with urbanisation and industrialisation, sent water, energy and mineral consumption skyrocketing, undermined water availability and quality and turned agriculture from a net energy provider into an energy consuming industrial sector. This links the agricultural revolutions to the second major threat to ecosystem stability and sustained ecosystem service provision besides biodiversity loss, which is of course climate change (Rockström et al. 2009). Besides industrialisation and growing consumption, logging, irrigation agriculture, aquaculture and intensive animal husbandry significantly increased the emission of potent greenhouse gases like methane (CH4), laughing gas (nitrous oxide N2O) and carbon dioxide CO2.

Figure 1. Agriculture on the Chinese Loess Plateau, 2013.

The most important greenhouse gas is CO2, responsible for about half of the warming effect, followed by CH4, causing about 20% of global warming and N2O with about 6%. Their dynamics are quite different: while CO2 has an average atmospheric residence time of about 120 years, methane’s residence time is 9-15 years, while its radiative forcing (RF) is 25 times higher than that of CO2, but less than that of N2O (298 times, 114 years). As a result of these differences, the contribution of individual gases (and thus of their emitters) to what has been called the climate debt differs significantly in and between countries. This debt has been defined as the remaining climate change effect of the accumulated historical emissions of a country, taking both the RF and the residence time into account (Martinez Alier 2002, Smith et al. 2013). The climate debt is strongly influenced by recent emissions as they are least subject to the residence limit effect, and is a key component of the broader ecological debt.

Methane concentrations in the atmosphere have reached three times the pre-industrial level of about 600 ppb, and continue to rise. Globally, more than 35% are directly or indirectly caused by cattle breeding and some 15% by other biomass use. About half is caused by leakages in extraction, transport and processing of natural gas, including incomplete combustion during flaring of technically not recoverable gas; data for methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing are not yet available.

2013 is the year in which atmospheric CO2 concentrations crossed the 400 ppm threshold–up from 349 ppm in 1987, the year the Brundtland report was published (and the last year when the annual average CO2 level was less than 350 ppm, the level recommended for stabilizing the Holocene climate) and from 356 ppm 1992, at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. At the Cancun climate negotiations 2011, the countries of the world agreed to commit to a maximum temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to consider lowering that maximum to 1.5° in the near future. To give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C, scientists tend to recommend stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at about 350 ppm CO2eq by 2050 (IPCC 2014). To achieve this, global GHG emissions have to decline by about 2/3 until 2050, with industrialised countries’ greenhouse gas emissions declining by 4/5 or more to about 2 t/cap*yr. Fossil fuel consumption would have to be reduced accordingly. Even remaining below 2°C does not guarantee avoidance of all significant adverse impacts, but if exceed, they are projected to become much more severe, widespread, and irreversible (for current impacts see EEA 2012); if the current global trend of increasing CO2 emissions continues, cumulative emissions will surpass the 2°C limit within the next couple of decades. The climate system would then be likely to cross more dangerous thresholds that could trigger large-scale catastrophic events (IPCC 2014).

Pursuing a 2:1 chance of limiting global warming to, or below, 2°C above preindustrial levels, limits the world’s “carbon budget” (the maximum permissible emissions) to no more than 1.000 Gt (Giga tonnes, 109 metric tonnes) of carbon to be released into the atmosphere from the beginning of the industrial era to the end of this century, of which 531 Gt had been emitted by 2011. Factoring in other climate pollutants than carbon dioxide brings the overall cumulative budget 200 Gt down from the 1012 tonnes of carbon, leaving just 269 Gt of carbon as the remaining budget–the result of two lost decades (IPCC 2013). The total proven international fossil fuel reserves, 2,860 Gt CO2eq according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook (IEA 2013), are a multiple of the permissible extraction. Consequently, to stabilise the environmental conditions of the Holocene, 2/3 to 9/10 of the proven reserves will have to be left in the ground, as “unburnable carbon” (Meinshausen et al. 2009) or “unburnable fuel” (The Economist 2013a). Burning all proven reserves would result in an atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeding 550 ppm (and more if unconventional and so far not economically viable resources were extracted, or new fossil fuels discovered), and to dire consequences. Thus Peak Oil, although threatening, will come too late to rescue us from climate change.

Thus, if governments are determined to implement their climate policies, a focus on efficiency, although important, will not be enough, but capping resource use and subsequently decreasing it will be required. However, this urgent turnaround is hampered by the fact that most of the fossil fuel reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms like Gazprom und Rosneft (Russia), Petrobras (Brazil), Pemex (Mexico), Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), or Sinopec, CNPC und CNOOC (China); they contribute significantly to public revenues, about 2*1011 US$ in the OECD countries and unknown amounts in the emerging economies (Haas 2014). Thus while reserves would be left in the ground if governments took their own policy objectives seriously (The Economist 2013a), economic interests dominate. A similar bias is detectable for private energy companies, representing about a quarter of the world’s fossil reserves: their shareholders and investors expect a return. Markets are valuing companies as if all their reserves would be burned, and investors treat reserves as an indicator of future revenues. They therefore require companies to replace reserves depleted by production, even though this runs afoul of emission-reduction policies. If the reserve replacement ratio of fossil-fuel firms falls below 100%, their shares tumble down: an analysis by the UK HSBC bank found that effective climate policy targeted at a maximum of 2° warming would cut the stock exchange value of Australian mining companies by half. As a consequence, although companies already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C), the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies, with a market capitalisation of 4*1012 US$ at the end of 2012, spent 6.74*1011 US$ on developing new reserves; ExxonMobil alone planned to spend $3.7*1010 a year on exploration each year 2014-2016 (The Economist 2013a). This is a squandering of financial resources for securing those fossil reserves necessary to propel CO2 emissions above 550 ppm–an intention nobody admits to have, despite investing billions of dollars for it (Haas 2014).

China the culprit–in a global context

Past economic growth in China has been lifting hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty, and was the main contribution to reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals MDG at least in some respect. It will make China the world’s largest economy already next year, in terms of purchasing power adjusted GDP. Purchasing power parity PPP is calculated by the International Comparison Programme to make national GDPs comparable despite exchange rate fluctuations and diverging domestic prices, by counting a hair cut or a bus ride as equivalents in all countries. It’s latest report, issued April 30th, 2014, but based on 2011 data, suggests that China will be surpassing the USA by 2015 (The Economist 2014a).

This enormous success has led to a massive increase in resource consumption; China’s industries are consuming 40-45% of the world production of copper, steel, nickel, aluminium and zinc. China today imports half the planet’s tropical logs and raises half of its pigs (The Economist 2013b), with significant environmental and social impacts in China and in the countries of origin. At the same time, the massive growth fuelled an accumulation of wealth not only lifting the poorest out of poverty but also establishing a new class of super-rich, swelling the ranks of the world’s billionaires. Today 358 US$-billionaires, 1/5 of the global total are situated in China (The Economist 2014b).

Air pollution–the most frequent reason of premature death–and water security are amongst the best known environmental pressures in China, together with land devastation by mining and the impacts of intensive agriculture. This, and the logging of forests from the 1970s to the 1990s, contributed to a massive threat to biodiversity in China, a megadiverse biodiversity hotspot. However, as these factors, despite their global relevance, primarily affect China itself, they are discussed in section 3, while in this section the focus is on global effects, in particular climate change.

In total, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)–the main cause of global warming– increased by 3% in 2011 and 1.4% in 2012. According to the 2013 report “Trends in global CO2 emissions”, released by the EU Joint Research Centre JRC and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), the top emitters contributing to the global 34.5 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2012 are: China (29% – only a quarter of the emissions is for export production, making China still the biggest emitter if embodied emissions in global trade are factored in), the United States (16%), the European Union (11%), India (6%), the Russian Federation (5%) and Japan (4%). However, in the European Union CO2 emissions dropped by 1.6% in 2012 to 7.4 tonnes per capita (t/cap) while in China (without Taiwan) average emissions of CO2 increased by 3% to 7.3 t/cap. The increase in China, although low by historical standards, was equivalent to two-thirds of the net global CO2 increase in 2012. Between 2000 and 2012, China has accounted for about two thirds of the increase in global CO2 emissions, living through the coal and oil phase of development simultaneously; modern energy sources have surpassed traditional bio-based ones (Haberl et al. 2009, Erb et al. 2009).

As a result, China’s CO2 emissions per capita were comparable to those in the EU and by 2014 most probably have surpassed them, making a reduction of about 70% per capita a necessary longer term objective for both, China and the EU. China’s CO2 emissions per USD Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are almost double those of the EU and United States and similar to those of the Russian Federation (Olivier et al. 2013). The United States remain the second largest emitter of CO2, with 16.4 t/cap, despite a significant decline due to the recession in 2008–2009, high oil prices and an increased share of natural gas from fracking (the methane balance of fracking is so far unknown). Only a few Near East countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, and isolated islands like the Falklands/Malvinas have higher emissions per capita (Olivier et al. 2013). Coal is the most important fuel, in China and globally, and the most important source of CO2 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. City power plants contribute to global warming and to local air pollution: Harbin, Heilongjiang province (top, 2010) and Taiyuan, Shanxi province (bottom, 2013).

The strongest short-term economic effects of effective climate policies phasing out hard coal use would be felt by the world’s major coal exporters, which in 2012 were Indonesia with 383 Mt = 32.8%, Australia with 302 Mt = 25.9%, the United States (106 Mt = 9.1%), Russia (103 Mt = 9.1%), Colombia (7.0%) and South Africa (6.2%) (IEA 2013). The longer term impacts on producers would arise due to the foregone income opportunities from mobilising and marketing reserves of hard coal (anthracite, bituminous and sub-bituminous); here China itself would be affected economically, holding the world’s 3rd largest coal reserves. Globally, reserves in 2011 were: USA 207.1 Gt (30.0%), Russia 146.6 Mt (21.2%), China 95.9 Gt (13.9%), India 56.1 Gt (8.1%), Australia 39.2 Gt (7%), and Ukraine 3.9 Gt (4.6%) (end-2011 data, WEC 2013). On the other hand, coal (besides oil) is a major factor in the balance of payments and a burden for the major importers, all of them in Asia (2012: China Mainland 278 Mt and 65 Mt Taiwan, Japan 184 Mt, India 158 Mt, South Korea 126 Mt, and Germany 44 Mt) (IEA 2013). Their national economies including the consumption capabilities of consumers would benefit significantly from saving the money spent on these imports.

The Chinese climate debt looms even larger, and with it the responsibility and the future (at least moral) obligation for compensation, when methane emissions are added to the balance. More specifically, in 2005, the last year for which figures are available (Smith et al. 2013), the USA was responsible for 25.1% of the global climate debt from fossil fuel incineration (net anthropogenic emissions) and China only for 11.1% (Russia: 8.5%, Germany 5.1%, Japan 4.8%), but regarding methane already in 2005 the USA/China relation was the opposite. China’s share in methane climate debt was the world’s largest at 18.4%, while the USA was responsible for 9.6% of the global accumulated methane based climate debt, followed by India (8.2%), Russia (7.4%) and Brazil (5.5%). In total (CO2 plus CH4) the ranking changed little, but the distances between countries were shrinking (which most probably has changed the ranking to the detriment of China now, nine years on). The country shares of the global environmental debt were 18.4% for the USA and 13.8% for China, followed by Russia (8.0%), India 5.3% and Germany (3.5%).

Add to this the greenhouse gas emissions from land use change and forestry (LUCF), and the picture changes again: 16.3% of the total climate debt including all the factors (CO2, CH4 and LUCF) were allocated to the USA in 2005, 13.8% to Europe, 13.4% to China (including Taiwan), and 8.0% to the former Soviet Union (Smith et al. 2013). In the nine years since China has certainly surpassed Europe and most probably caught up with the USA’s climate debt level, as the latest emissions are most effective. As a result, the argument that other countries with a long industrial history have higher aggregate impacts is no longer valid as in 2014 most probably the world’s largest climate debt rests with China, and so does the responsibility for climate impacts around the world. Furthermore, despite its moral plausibility, the argument was not ethically valid from the outset as claiming the same right to pollution means justifying own misbehaviour with others’ misconduct, which is no ethical or moral legitimation at all. Today, however, China is not playing catch-up anymore; it is by now doing more damage to the global ecosphere than any other country, with only 1/4 of its CO2 and hardly any of its CH4 and LUCF emissions resulting from export.

When China started its race to the top, the capacity of the atmosphere was already half consumed by nations which underwent the industrialisation process earlier, and by no means any longer available. This justifies a demand on the early industrialisers to set a precedent in emission reduction, but not for any other country to repeat their mistake and become, in a moral sense, at least as guilty as they are. Any effective international climate protection policy would have to respect the different situations (focus on different greenhouse gases and industrial sectors), but also acknowledge the need for support for countries and regions most affected by structural change due to the phasing out of fossil fuels. Also for a number of countries national climate adaptation and risk reduction strategies may need external support. Early polluters have a moral duty to provide such help as part of their wealthy has been built by exploiting the sources and sinks no longer available to the later arrivals.

China the Victim–glimpses on impacts the anthropocene has for China

Far from claiming to be comprehensive, this section highlights some of the key pollution and environmental degradation problems China is struggling with. The transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, of which China is a major driver, is causing significant challenges domestically. Besides being culprit, China is also a victim.

The burden created throughout the development process is rather unevenly distributed in the country; economic, social and environmental development are not in a balance. Provincial improvements in aggregate sustainability indices are in most cases due to the socio-economic development, most often with deterioration or stagnation in the environmental dimension (Hara et al. 2009). Those in between, inland but not distinct border regions, with limited resource endowments and semi-stable environments suffer most in environmental terms, without much economic compensation: they exhibit the highest NPP loss. Coastal areas build wealth from imported resources and technology, border regions generate limited wealth, in between regions have to (over-) exploit their own mineral, fossil and biological resources to generate intermediate levels of wealth (Zhao et al. 2011), not least by exporting them to wealthier, more industrialised provinces (Feng et al. 2013).

Air pollution

The urban air in China has long been known as the world’s worst, but in the latest WHO list of most polluted cities there is no Chinese one amongst the top ten any more–Iran, Pakistan and India have conquered that sad crown. And this is not just because the situation got worse in those countries: the air quality has improved in many Chinese cities (except in spike periods like the one in Beijing 2013) and is now at levels commonplace in Japan in the 1970s and in Germany in the 1950s, and improving further.

Figure 3. A Air pollution in Tayuan, Shanxi province (top, 2013), and B in Beijing (bottom, 2009).

Recent studies confirm that Chinese government policy has played an important role in causing the pollution (e.g. by providing free winter heating via the provision of coal for boilers in cities north of the Huai River). Burning coal without environmental protection provisions has greatly increased total suspended particulates in the air, and in particular pollutes the in-door atmosphere (Larson 2010). As a result, Chen et al. (2013) estimate that due to such politically induced pollution the 500 million residents of Northern China lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy. This is a striking example how a policy introduced for social reasons, but without taking its environmental impacts into account, can turn out to be not only environmentally disastrous, but also be backfiring socially.

An additional source of sod, in particular in the Northern provinces, is the habit to burn left-over material from the harvest (mainly straw) in the fields, at about the same time as domestic heating starts. While returning biomass ad minerals to the soils is in principle recommendable, burning straw in the fields is not necessarily the best way of doing it. The dark clouds over the fields signal not only air pollution, but also a loss of organic carbon from the fields, and potentially damages to the habitats of organisms important for pollination and biological pest control.

Biodiversity

China as one of the megadiverse countries of the world faces particular challenges. For instance, the official Chinese Red List classifies almost 40% of the country’ mammals as threatened. The reasons are manifold, but the development pattern has played a crucial role. As a result of growing urban agglomerations due to population growth and urbanisation, lakes around cities have been degraded or lost, or replaced by artificial ponds with high ornamental but low biological value (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Cities encroaching on surrounding wetlands (and a power plant in the midst): Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 2010

Agricultural intensification contributed to the degradation or destruction of natural ecosystems, a development just like the one in Europe few decades earlier. Natural landscape elements suffered, such as wetlands, meadows, hedge rows and other small scale but biodiversity rich landscape structures (Figure 8). Widespread wetland and peatland degradation caused not only biodiversity loss, but also significant amounts of drying emissions of CO2 and CH4. Agricultural modernisation replaced a rich diversity of traditional cereal and vegetable varieties by a limited number of high yielding but not necessary resilient, fertiliser and pesticide dependent varieties from China’s excellent biotech laboratories. Less fertile areas–if not ploughed–suffer from grassland desertification due to heavy grazing, in particular in Inner Mongolia and Northern Gansu, with significant losses of grassland biodiversity.

Mountain areas suffered most from large-scale logging in Northeast China, Gansu, Sichuan and Quinghai provinces from the 1970s to the 1990s; illegal logging is still a problem. Reforestation programs, the world’s largest, affecting 10-15% of the agricultural area, were sometimes successful, but on other occasions suffered from a lack of economically effective incentives (Bennet 2008). On other occasions the economic orientation of local development plans led to afforestation with fast growing species as resource base for the pulp and paper industry instead of planting locally adapted species and varieties, resulting in low resilience tree plantations rather than healthy forests. This constitutes a problem in particular in the ‘Green Belts’ areas where forests have been planted to stop the encroaching desert (Li et al. 2009). A rather recent stress factor for natural and cultural heritage sites and their often unique biodiversity is the growth in domestic tourism; China is now the world’s biggest tourism market. Its spectacular but vulnerable landscapes, from wetlands at the origin of the Yangtze and the Yellow River via nature reserves (see figure 9) to cultural heritage sites like the rice terraces of Yunnan province, a UNESCO cultural world heritage site, attract tourists but mostly lack a biodiversity-conserving management.

Water

Severe water stress is commonplace in China; the water table in Beijing has fallen by 100–300m within two decades (World Bank 2009). The problem is fuelled by inefficient use on top of an uncomfortable hydrogeological situation: four fifth of the water is in the South, mainly in the Yangtze river basin, while half the population and two thirds of the farmland are located in the much dryer North. Even the massive South-to-North Water Diversion Project, transporting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River basin, can at best moderate but not solve this problem. Water shortage, increasing climatic variability and land use pressures (plus climate change) makes the deserts grow (Li and Huntsinger 2011). Despite Green Belt plantations, farmland dries out and might lay idle due to a lack of clean water supply, and crop yields are plateauing already (The Economist 2013b).

The widespread loss of wetlands contributed to the loss of 27,000 rivers in China (excluding Taiwan, as in most statistics), nearly half of all those estimated to exist in the 1990s, as detected in the water census published by Chinese authorities on March 26th, 2013. Climate, although likely an important factor (this three year study coincided with a multi-year drought in central and southern China, where dramatic drops in lake levels and a shrinking Yangtze River have been well-documented), experts agree that the problem is largely man-made. Besides land use change, overexploiting ground water for industry and agriculture, and destruction forests causing a rain shortage in the mountain areas for agricultural purposes have been named as reasons (Yan 2013).

The situation is made worse by the massive water pollution, rendering a significant share of the scarce water resources unsuitable for human use (Figure 5). For instance, for a full third of its length, the water of the Yellow River was deemed too polluted to be used in agriculture by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. Within the urban areas, safe drinking water provision is a serious problem: about half of all urban water supplies are unfit even to wash in, let alone drink. Official statistics also showed that 85% of the length of China’s six biggest river systems consisted of water deemed undrinkable even after treatment. The proportion of polluted groundwater rose from 37% in 2000 to 60% in 2013 (The Economist 2014d).


Figure 5. Water pollution in Gansu province 2012
Land

Land is a precondition for at least three kinds of ecosystem services: provisioning services/sources supply vital material and energy resources such as fossil fuels, water, minerals, fibres and food, regulating services/sinks provide waste absorption, waste water purification, water storage, buffering and regulating capacity, and socio-cultural services/ space provision, in particular for hosting human infrastructures such as settlements, production sites, transport infrastructure, but also gardening, recreation sites and places of worship (Erb et al. 2009). This “Triple S” of sources, sinks and space is currently at risk: at least 36,000 hectares, about 10% of China’s farmland, was found to be contaminated with excessive levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and chemicals in 2006 according to a document authored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China (the study became public in 2013; current Figures are not available) (Lin 2013). Long-term industrial pollution has resulted in the accumulation of agricultural chemicals, heavy metals, and non-biodegradable organic pollutants in the soils, with most of the pollution occurring in more economically developed regions. In some cities in southern China, half of the farmland was found to be polluted with toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, as well as petroleum-based compounds. In the Yangtze River Delta, 10 percent of the sampled farmland was found to be no longer suitable for growing crops, because of heavy metal pollution. As a result, 12 million tons of crops harvested in China each year were contaminated, which translates into 20,000 million yuan (2.300 million €) of economic losses every year (Lin 2013).

Furthermore, with economic growth land use for other purposes than agriculture is increasing, as the possibilities for decoupling land use from economic development are limited (Xue 2012a), national legislation was not implemented, land speculation was rife, fuelled by misuse of local power positions and widely spread corruption, with severe effects on local lifelihoods and food production capacities. One reason is the growth of urban agglomerations (Figure 6), another the fact that cities are historically often located on the most productive land (unlike protected areas which are located on land of average productivity) (O’Neill and Abson 2009). While conservation (reforestation) has had positive effects on water retention and reduced erosion, it reduced further the agricultural area. These factors combine with climate change, to the end that Chinese food security is at risk (Wei et al. 2009). Land use change, in particular sealing soil for settlements and soil pollution, also contributes to the loss of other ecosystem services beyond harvest, the provisioning service. Regulatory and socio-cultural services are affected, but damages so far not quantified.

Figure 6. Growing Megacities–Shanghai/Pudong 2010.

One economically rather marginal, but socially/culturally relevant and environmentally highly important activity is herding in Western and Northern China, an area with relatively low NPP and resource endowments, and a comparably low development standard (Zhao et al. 2011). With about 400 million hectares China has the second largest area of natural grassland in the world. Steppe degradation is a major ecological and economic problem, in particular in the Inner Mongolia steppe region, including the Inner Mongolia province and its neighbours from Gansu via Northern Shanxi and Shaanxi to Heilongjiang (Figure 7), because it reduces grassland productivity and leads to desertification (Tong et al. 2004).

Figure 7. Intensive cattle grazing (Yaks) and first signs of erosion near Lang Mi Su, Sichuan province 2012.

The change in herding practices, from a low-impact land use based on migratory herding, well suited for marginal soils and harsh climates, to a settlement-based way of living, keeping the animals in stables for several months and lorrying them to their up-mountain grazing grounds has severe consequences for culture, lifestyle, social cohesion and not least the fragile environment. As the herds are no longer migrating from summer to winter grazing places, the distance they cover on their hoofs (i.e. not being transported to another grazing place by lorries) and thus the area of land they graze has significantly declined, enhancing the use intensity on the area actually used (for the effects of herd composition changes induced by China in the neighbouring Mongolian steppe see Spangenberg et al. 2014). This is probably one of the main factors of ongoing destruction of top soil and subsequent erosion (Akiyama et al. 2012). Maps underline that large-scale patterns of steppe degradation were related to land use types, with climatic variations playing a minor role (Tong et al. 2004).

Take for instance Quianshan as an example. It was home to about 100,000 sheep in 2012, up from 40,000 in 1995, with the number still growing as market demand kept increasing the prices. In the region already ~90% of the steppe is damaged by excessive grazing, rural development and climate change (Cui 2012). The Chinese government has sought a solution in enforcing strict boundaries for 60% of the land exempt from grazing (including fencing). Economic compensation is paid for those prevented from using it, and financial incentives have been offered to limit the size of herds (however, they are not effective as the price of sheep continues rising with rising demand and limited supply) (Li and Huntsinger 2011). Local complaints are mounting as fencing is against all cultural traditions of the ethnic minority population affected. The restriction of grazing and migration areas has caused tensions; even a rise in crime is expected. Already now livestock theft is commonplace and hard to control with free running herds (Cui 2012). The traditional lifestyle with be finally terminated with new housing and herds kept in stables with feed and fodder imported from outside the region as it has already been practiced for instance in the Gansu province, creating deprived settlements of disrupted communities and thus a potential source of future social unrest.

Climate change

If by 2100 global average temperatures rise by 2.1°C (range 1.4–3.1°C), with atmospheric CO2eq concentrations around 450 ppm, the impact of this still optimistic scenario includes major threats, such as the begin of irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, subsequently (in the 22nd century) increasing global sea levels by about 7 m, affecting China’s richest provinces, economic hubs and harbour cities, and hundreds of millions of people, directly and indirectly (O’Hara 2009). As in China more people live at sea level than in any other country, Chinese climate policy must do both, contribute to minimising global climate change and provide pre-emptive adaption strategies to these challenges. A likely decrease of precipitation in already dry areas by 20-30% poses a risk for Northern and Western China, the expected major drop of crop yields in tropical regions would affect China’s South, and additional 15% to 40% of species could be facing extinction all over the country.

Social sustainability

There has been growing concern over the sustainability of China’s economic growth. The Chinese economy is strongly dependent on investment and exports (a quarter of the CO2 emissions is from export goods production), a pattern that has become increasingly economically unsustainable. The dependence on investment and exports results from insufficient household consumption, which, in turn, reflects rising income inequality and improving but still limited provision of social welfare–a problem of social sustainability. As the economy has been fuelled by public investment into infrastructure and productive capacity, investment into environmental protection had been neglected for decades. In this sense, the economic growth happened at the expense of the environment, and the investment not made earlier already causes significant macroeconomic cost, which will most probably increase rapidly over the next couple of decades.

After the early years, China’s development has been built on industrial development in a model of unbalanced growth. This has left the rural areas trailing urban areas in development. Rural residents earn less than urban residents, have inferior physical infrastructure, and suffer from poor basic amenities. These disparities have contributed to the extensive rural-urban migration. This migration, by leaving residences unoccupied, and depriving the country side of workforce and investment opportunities, has exacerbated inefficiencies in rural land use. However, while reducing inefficiency is an important policy objective in its own right, the current approach by the government suffers from major deficiencies. There exists a link between the relative impoverishment of Chinese peasants, due to declining agricultural prices, amplifying the flow of rural-urban migration, its depressive effect on industrial wages as rural migrants do not enjoy the same rights as registered citizens, the resulting increase in the profits’ share of the total surplus, and rising top incomes. The enrichment of urban top income households drives the increase in the urban-rural gap and fuels the resulting tensions, while labour’s loss of shares of national income ultimately accounts for the overall increase in the Gini index and is a potential source of social unrest.

Institutional challenges

Balancing the relations of nature, society and leadership was at the core of the “harmonious development” promoted by the Communist Party during the last decade. This multiple balancing approach, the Chinese version of sustainable development, has deep roots in the Chinese culture, with elements from Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism (Shi 2004, Xue et al. 2012). In reality, however, despite massive efforts (Xu et al. 2006), harmony with nature has taken the back seat, falling behind what is needed for China’s sustainable development. The underlying cause has to do with the weakening of China’s state capacity, a problem of institutional sustainability.

On the one hand, “good environmental law only gets you halfway there” as Pan Yue, vice minister of environmental protection, told the state media, highlighting a dear lesson of the last two decades on environment pollution politics. Public and civil society pressure, media and whistle blowers uncovering violations of the law, authorities both with a capacity and the willingness to act are required as well. In particular, the relative lack of enforcement personnel is an obstacle to be addressed if environment politics is to become rigidly effective.

On the other hand, and more fundamentally, despite the basically centralist governance structure, strong state and party organisations in the (rich) provinces mean that the national leadership has often been more in a moderating than in a regulating and enforcing role. With economic growth slowing down (a natural process for ripening economies, in particular as the labour force has almost reached its peak) the pressure was high to refrain from environmental measures perceived as hampering growth, supported and stimulated to do so by European and US Companies, and the US and the EU Chambers of Commerce. Both factors, local power and business pressure, limited the willingness of provinces and cities to neatly implement central government’s orders or legal acts, especially in booming provinces. The necessity to rule them in, in particular but not only on environmental issues, is the background to the current leadership’s campaigns both against corruption and for an ecological civilisation. Easier registration for NGOs (the opposite of what is happening in neighbouring Russia), public interest litigation rights to some NGOs, legal protection for whistle blowers (EU and USA could learn from this) and repressive tolerance towards public actions focussed on environmental issues (demonstrations, strikes, etc.) point to the same direction (The Economist 2014d). Their success demonstrates that China’s state capacity remains relatively strong and its ongoing strengthening will contribute to a more sustainable pattern of economic development.

China–the World’s last best hope?
Institutional change: adjusting development priorities

According to Prime Minister Li Kequiang, China must “declare war on pollution”, and end the “blind development” that has caused serious risks for human health, economic development and nature’s integrity. If indeed the struggle to eliminate such pollution is pressing as hard and proceeding as successfully as the one to overcome poverty, as he promised, both the Chinese population and the world would benefit. In particular, the new legislation announced on March 9th, 2014, toughening the 1989 environmental protection laws and due to enter in force in January 2015, represents not only ambition, but also a number of innovative measures to realise its intentions. It is paving the way for stiffer, possibly unlimited penalties for polluting companies, allowing for fines against polluters to increase daily until a violation is corrected (the one-time payment usual so far, as in Europe, had failed to be effective). It also allows for the suspension or shut down of repeated offenders (Saigon Times 2014), the detention of negligent executives, and penalties for officials failing to enforce the law (The Economist 2014d). The public interest litigation function of some NGOs, and the whistle blower protection rules, together with the encouragement of more critical reporting in official media, plus a certain level of tolerance on internet blogging on environmental and food security issues will help the case.

Measures announced are not only intended to secure private and public business pollution from large, mostly state owned companies; the foreseen massive investment in wind and solar energy has a similar effect. These measures, and the carbon tax to be phased in gradually; are indeed necessary and urgent. The planned investment of some 200 billion € over the next five years to clean up China’s air is most impressive by anyone’s standards. For all these actions, international collaboration and support is more than justified (e.g. by making patented green technology easily and freely accessible).

An ecological civilisation requires not only new infrastructure and production facilities as China is building them with a breath-taking speed on top of the existing ones, but also requires phasing out of environmentally, socially and/or economically unsustainable old installations: innovation is effective only if combined with exnovation. Plans to shut down outdated production facilities in highly energy intensive sectors such as cement, steel and glass making ahead of schedule are promising in this respect. However, as known from modern innovation research, such improvements tend to generate incremental rather than deep structural change. Sustainable development requires three kinds of changes: technological, social and institutional, with increasing importance of social and institutional innovation (Rennings 2000). While social innovation includes the prevailing consumption patterns, the core of institutional innovation is changing the selection mechanisms according to which certain developments, inventions and strategies become dominant, and others do not (Hausknost and Haas 2013). Therefore, it is probably of even greater importance than the innovation/exnovation dualism that–after years of discussion–the Communist Party decided to update its promotion criteria, making the environmental performance an asset to be considered in the selection of cadres for higher level positions, alongside the economic success. In particular this measure, combined with the threat of penalties for non-enforcement, are a carrot-and-stick approach which may be able to provide the effective tools to make the Prime Minister’s declaration operational.

Air quality and industrial emissions

Coal burning for electricity generation and in the energy intensive industries is the main source of air pollution. China has made unprecedented progress in reducing the energy intensity of its economy over the past three decades; in 2013 energy efficiency gains accelerated to a 3.7% decrease of energy consumption per unit of GDP, and a further increase of 3.9% is announced for 2014. The measures taken include efficiency programs, energy quota for state owned companies, and other laws and incentives. They have reduced the primary energy conszmption per unit of GDP from 800 t of coal equivalent (tce) per 1 million US$ of output, down to 390 tce in 2009 (constant 2005 PPP). However, China’s specific energy consumption is still above the global average of 300 tce (World Bank 2013), and the gap between China and the high-income countries is huge. For instance, the primary energy intensity of Germany’s economy was 167 tce per million US$. This is one of the reasons for the Germany’s high international competitiveness–although comparatively small it was the no. 1 export nation until 2011 and overtaken by China only in the wake of the Great Recession–which exemplifies the potential gains for China from further improving its energy productivity, reducing the demand for coal. Thus the 40-45% improvement 2005–2020 foreseen in the current planning is a welcome objective, but it will not easy to achieve: the power plant efficiency improvements are facing limits as the average thermal efficiency has increased from 31% in 2000 to 38%, the same level as Germany (the USA are flat at 33%); the technical maximum is about 45%. Thus efficiency increase in the energy sector, indispensable as it is, is insufficient if not combined with efficient energy use, a substitution of renewable energy sources for coal, and emission reductions from other sectors (including a more sustainable consumption). This requires a corresponding allocation of research funds–economic analysis has shown that there are important conflicts between public and private welfare concerning the direction of energy efficiency research. For enhancing public welfare, the concentration of research should be in greater use efficiency, whereas for the private welfare of the extraction industry (state owned or not) research in extraction innovation would be most helpful (Wils 2001).

An important sector that could benefit from energetic measures is road transport. While gasoline cars are a rapidly growing consumer of fossil fuels, diesel cars and trucks are not only a major source of PM2.5 in the cities, they also place a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure. Incentives to replace old, polluting and often collapsing heavy lorries with more sustainable means of transport are welcome. The sod emissions of old trucks, together with sulphur dioxide SO2 from the energy sector, are one main origin of the unhealthy smog. Therefore, the rapid reduction of SO2 emissions is a great achievement, with 3.5% reduction in 2013 and another 2% announced for 2014. A Harvard university study characterised the SO2 reduction programme of recent years as “one of the most swiftly effective air-pollution policies ever implemented anywhere” (The Economist 2014c).

However, as long as the efficiency growth lags behind the economic growth rate, the energy demand will continue to increase, and with it coal consumption and emissions unless the composition of sources is changed. This points to the urgent need to continue the rapid expansion of renewable energies such as wind and solar which will be needed to turn the trend on China’s CO2 emissions, bringing them back to sustainable levels by the second half of the century. The development of solar energy will have effects far beyond China itself; it could put the energy systems and politics of affluent countries in Europe and America upside down (Schleicher-Tappeser 2012).

Energy generation and climate change

China has been surpassing the USA to become the biggest investor in renewable energy, spending 50 billion € in 2012, three time the investment in Germany (in all three countries the need to modernise the grid is one of the key obstacles to more and efficient use of wind and solar power). In the meantime, the total installed wind energy capacity in China has surpassed the level reached in the EU. Although it contributes only four to six percent to the national electricity consumption so far, the acceleration foreseen in the five year plan (doubling the already high speed of expansion) can contribute to the desired turn-around. As the investment in solar energy is similarly striking, hydropower has been systematically exploited (sometimes even over the top, given the local social and environmental impacts) and other sources are being explored (e.g. tidal, geothermic), China has become the world’s largest investor in renewable energies research, innovation and installation. It may reach a peak of carbon emissions by the end of the decade, followed by a decrease in absolute terms.

Other options under consideration look less promising: enhancing the nuclear sector comes with high up-front investment, long-term capital fixation, uncertain but extremely high follow-up cost (decommissioning cost in Germany has surpassed 4,000 million € for one plant). The question of nuclear safety is a public concern, so a nuclear expansion strategy carries with it the risk of provoking multiple local resistance, if not even-for the first time-a nation-wide protest movement. Regarding energy provision and safety, nuclear power does not offer the “biggest bang for the buck”; without heavy subsidies, it would not be economical (compared to coal as much as to solar energy made in China). Also the investment in Carbon Capture and Storage CCS seems misguided: judging from the progress made over the last ten years and the projections for further development, CCS–if it works at all–will come too late to prevent a climate collapse. At the same time, it stimulates further coal use, potentially undermining China’s politically set goal to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources until 2020. It would absorb billions of Yuan which, if invested in energy saving and renewable energies, would have stronger economic, social and environmental effects: investments in renewables are more reliable, are expected to pay-off in a shorter period of time and have the potential to create employment and income opportunities in remote parts of Central and Western China. The energy consumption of CCS (one additional power plant to fuel CCS for each three providing electricity) and the technical uncertainty are additional economic arguments against CCS. For these reasons the CCS euphoria has already declined in most European countries (for instance Island and Norway cancelled their ambitious projects), but it still flies high in the USA– not because technology and cost calculations would be different, but as result of a path dependent development, an attempt to recuperate the sunk cost already invested, and a face saving measure for those who promised a solution to the climate problem from CCS: a sink for money, but not for carbon. China, given its governance structure, should be in a position to opt out of a strategy which was tested and proven to be no solution.

Both CCS and nuclear energy are burdened with economic and safety problems of their long-term legacies: nuclear waste disposal sites, as much as large underground high pressure CO2 storages require continuous surveillance. The resulting cost of guarding and maintaining the deposits for several hundreds to thousands of years are beyond any calculation, but most probably exceed any economic gain from these technologies. For other forms of geo-engineering the uncertainty is even higher, the success more questionable, the cost more worrisome and the side effects more dangerous (Scheer and Renn 2010, Gardiner 2011). For instance, technologies to cool the earth by reflecting sunlight may be able to decrease the temperature, but would result in changing weather patterns, including the possibility of a faltering or relocated monsoon, the main water source for more than 2 billion people, including significant parts of China. Even armed conflicts and pre-emptive strikes to avoid such developments have already been discussed (Grunwald 2010). Beyond CO2 and the energy sector, and CH4 and N2O which are discussed in the next section, some trace gases with extremely high radiative forcing are an element not to be neglected. Insofar the phasing out of hydrofluorcarbons HFCs, a particularly potent class of greenhouse gases, and the cause of stratospheric ozone depletion, is a much welcome voluntary action China has undertaken.

Agriculture and land use policy

Agricultural problems in China have a qualitative and a quantitative aspect. Regarding quality, a recent Greenpeace study found dangerous levels of heavy metals contamination on rice grown near mines and factories, underlining the need to rein in emissions to air, land and water, and ending the sale of contaminated fertiliser (The Economist 2014d). The environmental law will be of importance to address these problems.

On the quantitative side of the coin, the Chinese government correctly perceives the need to redress the rural-urban gap, and sees land consolidation as an appropriate approach not only to rationalise land use but also as an important component of rural development. This approach, together with a number of consolidation models, has been endorsed by many scholars.

China’s new family farm policy is intended to initiate and accelerate the shift from small farms of 0.5 to 5 ha to larger units, more efficiency and more mechanisation. However, US-like mega-farms are neither desirable for social and environmental reasons, nor are they possible. Unlike the Great Plains, much of China’s agricultural area is sloped requiring terrace construction to minimise erosion even in the loess plateau (see Figure 8). Furthermore, managing irrigation rice fields requires units of a maximum size of a few hectares to control the water flow, and the paddy dykes necessary to that behalf, while not excluding mechanisation, still limit its dimensions. Other downsides include that oversized fields, managed not by transplanting but by direct seeding require more of the expensive and energy intensive external inputs and show a declining input/output ratio (Pan and Pan 2012). Farming incomes could be increased through reduced cost and their reliability enhanced by reduced vulnerability to pest infestations by changing the land management to methods such as ecological engineering (restrictions to insecticide use, less fertilisation reducing the attractiveness to pests, larger distances between plants resulting in higher tillerage), substituting pesticide use for supporting biological control mechanisms and organic for chemical fertiliser (Gurr et al. 2012). Such fields are less prone to plant hopper infestations than conventionally managed fields, which pose a serious threat to food security in particular in Southern China–ecological engineering is enhancing food security and by reducing soil and water pollution also food safety (Gurr et al. 2012). The system of rice intensification SRI technique has some commonalities with ecological engineering (except for the biocontrol), and reduces water demand by keeping soils wet but not necessarily flooded throughout the growing season (Noltze et al. 2013). This could be a significant contribution to relaxing China’s water stress.

Reducing external inputs, together with quality standards and control, can also contribute significantly to halting soil pollution in China, which is another reason for concern regarding food security. Airborne soil pollution will be reduced in future by programmes to clean and reduce emissions from energy generation and heavy industries initiated for other purposes.

Figure 8. Agriculture in Xiyang, Shanxi province, China 2013.
Biodiversity

Effective biodiversity conservation requires both, protected areas as a retreat for sensitive species, but also between them a landscape which is not a “biological desert”. Ecological engineering in agriculture contributes to the latter by promoting a landscape management not pursuing a monoculture structure without any intermittent structures providing ecological niches.

China has established a number of protected areas, some of them registered under international conventions, such as the Ramsar Convention for the protection of ecologically valuable wetlands (see Figure 9). Although still more could be done, the size and the management of protected areas have been improving. Afforestation is taking place on a large scale (considered as the largest afforestation program in human history), but choice of species could be improved, with a focus on locally adapted ones. This would support biodiversity conservation while at the same time contributing to in the mountain region, both Gansu province 2012. more resilient systems (which can be expected to pay out economically as well, but only in the longer-term).

Finally, for a number of years sealing soil for settlement purposes has been restricted or more or less effectively banned (Xue 2012a, b), which is one reason for the absence of urban sprawl and the mushrooming of high rise buildings in the growing urban agglomerations (Figure 10). A similar space consumption restricting effect can be expected from continuing politically prioritising rail freight transport over road transport, although in both cases implementation could be improved.

Figure 9. Protected areas–International Ramsar wetland reserve near Siblungkeka, and a national reserve in the mountain region, both Gansu province 2012.
Figure 10. The trend to high rise buildings in urban construction, Shanghai 2010.
Social sustainability

China today is a rapidly growing middle income country, home to a segment of less than 10% of the population living in absolute poverty, a broad middle class and a small super-rich elite, including 20% of the world’s dollar-billionaires. This income polarisation causes a number of problems:

• The social discrepancies in a formerly rather egalitarian country cause dissatisfaction, if not protest. Internationally it is well known that income disparities contribute to conflict, violence and degradation of the social fabric (Wilkinson and Picket 2009).

• High wealth is a key driver of CO2-emissions; consequently, specific policies addressing the rich are needed (Hurth and Wells 2007).

Furthermore, if the Chinese development model were modified to reduce the export and investment dependency, private consumption would have to play a larger role. This requires eliminating the remaining pockets of poverty, strengthening the rural economy, and increasing the median income. Doing so will hardly be possible without redistribution of incomes and assets; growth alone will hardly be able to offer a solution (and has done the opposite in the past). To improve the average standard of living the consumption opportunities for the so-far underprivileged will have to be enhanced, and with it, unfortunately, resource consumption and emissions. This will hardly be possible without massive efforts towards social justice and dramatically increased resource productivity, and sustainable consumption (Lorek 2010, Lorek and Spangenberg 2014). In the past the Chinese leadership has reacted sensitively to social unrest, trying to address the causes of dissatisfaction. However, income and asset redistribution may be a different case as it inevitably produces winners and losers, and the would-be losers tend to be associated with the ruling political and economic/financial elites. Getting towards a more equitable income distribution will require true leadership.

From villain to hero?

China has shown unprecedented efforts to clean up its environmental performance, and plans to continue and even accelerate its progress. Nonetheless, regarding climate change, its net ecological debt keeps growing as its emissions are still the world’s highest, and efforts to reduce CO2 emissions will affect global warming only with a long delay, due to the 120 years atmospheric residence time of carbon dioxide. To avoid interference with the internal affairs of other countries, claim an international leadership role, and to meet its international obligations (Rio Principle 2: “States have […] the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”) China has to start reducing its climate debt rather soon, and stop building up its ecological debt soon after. Here three proposals are presented how this could be achieved: the methane strategy, capping inputs and developing a new growth model.

The Methane strategy–an example of common but differentiated responsibilities

Rio-Principle 7: “[…] In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities.”

So far rather neglected in climate protection policies, due to its physical characteristics methane CH4 could potentially play an important role in short-term effective Chinese climate policies. For instance, if between 2006 and 2050 the global CH4 emissions were reduced by about half the 2005 rate, due to its high radiative forcing RF the result by 2050 would be equivalent (in terms of RF) to a complete phasing out of carbon dioxide emissions over the same period (Smith et al. 2013). With its short residence time, the maximum effect would appear within a couple of decades, while in the longer run the extended residence time of CO2 and N2O dominates the climate effect of current emissions.

So if methane is such an important factor for global climate change, and was in 2005 responsible for 43% of the global climate debt, why is it not discussed more intensively? This is an example of not taking the differentiated responsibility seriously enough. For countries with a share of less than 25–30% CH4 in their climate debt, further reducing this limited contribution is not the most effective climate protection strategy due to methane’s limited atmospheric residence time, and this is the case for most industrialised countries. For instance, the methane share in their national climate debt is 23% for the USA, 21% for the UK and 16% for Germany, but 93% for Bangladesh, 83% for Vietnam, 81% for Brazil, 66% for India and 53% for China (Smith et al. 2013). Thus while early industrialised countries rightfully (and more or less forcefully) focus on reducing CO2 emissions, the developing countries and emerging economies would be well advised to focus on CH4 emission reduction (without neglecting a sustained, mid to long term effort to limit their CO2 emissions), as the most effective and efficient climate change mitigation strategy.

Globally CH4 emissions originate in equal parts from biomass production, use and disposal (with cattle breeding the dominant source), and from fossil energy production, distribution and use. Thus investment to minimise emissions from fossil fuel distribution systems are the first option for minimising CH4 emissions; they reduce losses and are therefore economically beneficial. Similar benefits arise when CH4 emissions associated with coal mining are captured and used as energy source. Reducing methane emissions from biomass use requires a broader strategy, including improved waste management (organic matter in waste disposal sites generates CH4), and by capturing and using the methane, a relatively cheap technology commonplace in Europe. Such measures can be implemented without deep structural changes of the economy, that is, faster and at lower cost than reducing CO2 emissions. Changing consumption patterns, minimising beef in the diet (pork and chicken are less methane intensive) is more challenging, but not impossible in a country like China (Feng et al. 2009). Most importantly, specifically for South and East Asia, agricultural management methods like ecological engineering and some elements of the system of rice intensification are social innovations which together with technical innovations like the choice of appropriate rice varieties may help reducing CH4 emissions. Integrating the low-methane producing varieties developed in China into such innovate land and crop management systems would be an important next step, with reduced N2O emissions resulting from less fertiliser use a welcome side effect.

As this would result in a higher labour force demand in rural areas, financial incentives for shifting to such methods may be a method of choice, combining rural income generation and environmental protection. China has extensive experience with such schemes and how they have to be implemented, not least from their use in the afforestation programs.

Controlling CH4 emissions can be the low hanging fruits to pick, buying enough time for the aggressive CO2 reduction strategies to become effective regarding the climate debt. It does not change the necessary carbon reduction targets, but makes it easier to achieve them.

Unburnable fuels–capping consumption

In the past China has formulated its climate policy targets as reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP, resulting in ever increasing emissions in absolute terms. As a result, despite massive efforts, China’s emissions per capita have now surpassed those of the European Union. What is urgently needed is a strategic plan how to bring back greenhouse gas emissions from more than 7 t CO2eq/cap (including CO2, CH4 and N2O but not LUCF) to the level the world’s atmosphere can absorb, about 2 t CO2eq/cap. It will require the combination of technical, social and institutional innovation on both the supply and the demand side. “Peak demand” does not occur on its own and must be brought about politically; only by getting “the Rich and the Dirty” under control can the dynamic of ever increasing consumption and pollution be reverted (Spangenberg 2014). In the context of increasing wealth concentration and poverty gaps, this subject is central to issues of social justice as well as environmental integrity (Hurth and Wells 2007). However, to avoid runaway climate change policies to cut demand are not sufficient; the must be complemented by supply-side policies to stem the flow of fossil fuels.

Leaving 2/3 to 9/10 of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground has been explained to be a necessity to limit the damages caused by climate change to a level human civilisation can probably handle; this is arguably the biggest challenge in shaping how we will live in the anthropocene. China still lacks a strategy in this respect, including a ranking of fuels to be used from by domestic extraction and from fuel imports. Economically, the book value of proven reserves should be written down accordingly (possible once priorities have been defined), by both public institutions and private corporations, even if that implies losing virtual value (the current overvaluation is similar to the one of the other toxic assets causing the 2009 banking crisis). However, the increasing cost of mobilising such reserves should make it easier to give up on bringing them to the market.

When deciding which kinds of fossil fuels to use, plausibly the most CO2 producing fossil energy carriers should be phased out first, notably lignite (brown coal). This would affect the lignite mining areas in Germany, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Inner Mongolia in China, where some of the largest lignite development projects are under way. Regarding reserves, Germany has the world’s largest ones (40.5 Gt), followed by Australia (37.2 Gt), the USA (30.2 Gt), China (18.6 Gt) and Serbia (13.4 Gt) (WEC 2013). Taking into account not only the lower caloric content of lignite and the resulting high specific emissions, but also other negative side effects and the emissions, lignite is the dirtiest fossil fuel. Add to this the high water consumption in open pit mining, the heavy transport loads on rail and road with all the resulting damages, and the high sulphur content which has caused acid rain particularly in Southern China, investment into lignite is incompatible with climate and general environmental responsibility. The second fossil fuel to be phased out would be hard coal (before oil and gas), affecting a wide variety of producers and consumers (coal is mined in over 100 countries), and in particular China which consumes more than half all coal produced on Earth (2011: China 50.7%, United States 12.5%, India 9.9%, Russia and Germany 3.3% each) and produced almost half of all coal on Earth (2011: China 49.5%, United States 14.1%, Australia 5.8%, India 5.6%, the European Union 4.2%) (Olivier et al. 2012).

Once the decision has been taken which kinds of reserves to explore and exploit, the choice must still be made where to do it, domestically as well as regarding imports. Such a decision should be taken not exclusively based on cost considerations, but on an assessment of social and environmental impacts associated with drilling and pumping oil or gas, and for digging coal in each place. Oil and gas extraction, and coal mining, even using the most modern techniques, will always be dirty business. There is no ethical, environmental or social justification for mobilising reserves with above-average environmental and social impacts, including deep sea oil, tar sands, or hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, destroying riverine delta ecosystems and other wetlands, densely populated farmland, or biodiverse forests. These are places uniquely unsuited for fossil fuel extraction, now and in the future. Halting the fuel frontier should begin in such fragile ecosystems as saving the most vulnerable locations from extraction would avoid huge ecological and social costs. For any mining or drilling operation outside these fragile systems, the environmental impact, in particular the carbon emissions, ecological degradation by specific land use practises and water consumption should be minimised, biodiversity and ecosystems conserved and the social, economic and environmental rights of local resident communities and minority groups safeguarded. Today, some countries are already taking steps to limit their emissions out of a necessity to increase energy independence as much as to reduce pollution.

A new growth model: Degrowth by design, not by disaster

Capping the carbon or total energy input (as foreseen by the Chinese government as a later step after first capping the CO2 output and charging for it) is necessary to complement existing policies and enhance their effectiveness. It requires a growth model in which the increase of resource efficiency Y/R is permanently higher than the economic growth rate Y: d(Y/R) > dY (R total national resource consumption, Y size of the national economy, Spangenberg et al. 2002, Spangenberg 2011). This in turn requires accepting limitations to national affluence (measured in terms of resources consumed), and for reasons of justice and social stability effort towards a more egalitarian distribution of income and assets.

While at first glance this this may sound like a development suppressing policy proposal and big challenge to China, at a second look it is rather an opportunity compared to a strategy of economic growth and the attempt of technical remediation. Today, the cost of soil degradation and health impacts of air pollution amount to 9% of the GDP per year, according to the World Bank. This Figure makes the reported growth rates seem rather hollow; net growth seems to have been in the lower one digit realm. Thus with lower gross growth rates to be expected, one way of securing economic stability is reducing the environmental and health cost, reaching a comparable gain in the standard of living (net growth) with much reduced GDP growth rates. Reducing air and water pollution, conserving biodiversity, limiting land use change and restoring fertile soil are immense tasks, but they have to be tackled with full force in order to sustain the basis for the country’s further development.

Nonetheless an abrupt and massive reduction of energy and resource consumption is no politically viable option. It probably would reverse economic growth into recession, and lead to a collapse of development, if not of the economy, due to a lack of physical inputs. Such a Degrowth by Disaster is the more probable the later the change course is initiated. The choice is between:

• demand side management through higher energy prices, behaviour change involving energy conservation, and lower economic growth but a number of cost saving fringe benefits such as avoidance of acid rain and reduced health care cost, a more healthy and productive labour force and less environmental motives for public unrest, versus

• supply side management focussing on higher growth rates and technology transitions– with probably limited gains for society as the transition investment absorbs the surplus from the higher growth rate.

The higher level of uncertainty lies with the growth strategy as it relies on the development and successful implementation of not-yet-existing technologies for climate management, such as CCS and geo-engineering, solutions expected to be available on large scale in due time and without undesirable side effects.

Outlook

Humankind is at a turning point, and a point of no return: there is no way back, and the prevailing development trajectory is a dead end street we drive down with ever increasing speed. Policies to accelerate growth are policies to increase the speed with which we are going to hit the wall. Having population growth, resource availability and planetary boundaries in mind, it is high time for implementing a development paradigm which allows for a high quality of life at about 1/10 of the current resource consumption. This will require the most ambitious and far reaching innovation program ever, including the “ex-novation” of obsolete, unsustainable technologies and installations. Not adding new and better technologies to the portfolio is what is needed, but replacing outdated, resource intensive production processes and factories, together with a change of consumer preferences towards “prosperity light”. The second element besides reducing the pressures through resource efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable consumption is deceleration of developments, social and technological, to provide nature the time necessary for ecosystems and species to adapt to and co-evolve with a changing environment.

Taking the differentiated responsibility approach seriously requires taking methane and LUCF into account when defining climate policy strategies. While this is a challenge, it also provides additional opportunities for effective climate policies for countries like China. One such option is a strong focus on CH4 emission reduction, which would have a comparably rapid effect on effective warming and thus reduce the climate debt much faster than a reduction of CO2 emissions can do, due to the necessary structural change of the energy and wider economic system, and the atmospheric residence time of carbon dioxide. It enhances the range of policy options available, providing additional short term effective affordable options. For instance, Green belt/ green frontier and afforestation programs are an example of how LUCF emissions can be reduced. They have been implemented by the Chinese government for a number of years now; however, to provide success in the long run, they need to be improved regarding the social and environmental standards applied (better compensation for peasant participants, stakeholder participation, technical advice and education, selection of local species instead of wood production for the pulp and paper industry, …) (Li et al. 2009, Bennett 2008).

If, to cut carbon emissions, we need to limit economic growth severely in the rich countries, then it is important to know that this does not mean sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life–in the quality of life as measured by health, happiness, friendship, and community life, which really matters. However, rather than simply having fewer of all the luxuries which substitute for and prevent us recognizing our more fundamental needs, inequality has to be reduced simultaneously. We need to create more equal societies able to meet our real social neEds Instead of policies to deal with global warming being experienced simply as imposing limits on the possibilities of material satisfaction, they need to be coupled with egalitarian policies which steer us to new and more fundamental ways of improving the quality of our lives. The change is about a historic shift in the sources of human satisfaction from economic growth to a more sociable society. Wilkinson and Pickett 2010

Besides reducing the pressures by redirecting the drivers causing them, immediate rescue measures are needed. They need to be based on a foresight based governance/ management of social and ecosystems which make use of all available potentials and system characteristics to avoid system collapses by enhancing their adaptive capacities, including cultivating carbon sinks by ecosystem restoration. Strengthening the capability of the central government not only to pass legislation (pollution laws and thousands of decrees) but also to enforce their implementation, administratively and legally, may be a necessary step; independent reporting about the local situation–in Europe often a function of civil society organisations– would help the central government to gain a better control of the implementation of its policy measures on the ground and to further improve policy design. That the Communist party included the environment into its four focal areas (Ecological Civilisation) may further help the implementation of necessary measures, in particular as officials will be promoted with a view on their environmental performance, and will be held accountable for their overall execution of his position also long after having taken up other responsibilities. Any country aspiring a leadership role in 21st century should be aware that the majority of humankind, and in most severely G77 country inhabitants, will be negatively affected by climate change. A country that is causing havoc on their lands and people will lose the legitimacy of any such claim for leadership, regardless of its economic or military strength. Thus for social, economic, environmental and geopolitical reasons, a rapid transition towards a sustainable economy, making use of all available means, is an urgent necessity, for Europe, the USA and not least for China.

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful for the experiences he gathered and the discussions he had on visits to China on behalf of the Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research UFZ of the Division of International Nature Conservation, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in particular with Lennart Kümper-Schlacke, the EU-China Biodiversity Programme, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the European Commission. Two reviewers deserve gratitude for their helpful comments on the initial version of the paper.

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I am the fire and I am that which remains

David Wright

davidgwright52@gmail.com

We were staying at a friend’s house halfway down the New South Wales coast, partly as respite, an escape from the threat of fire that was lighting up the east coast of the nation, and partly as a staging post. Assuming the Currowan fire was past its peak and the highway was opening to traffic, we hoped to travel to our holiday home on 5 acres, midway between Mogo and Malua Bay, 4 and a half hours south of Sydney. It had been a family retreat for 35 years. It was full of stories. The ashes of my mother stood on a shelf in a corner, above jigsaw puzzles, Cluedo, Monopoly and playing cards. Every piece of furniture, every photo on the wall, every plate, cup, saucepan, bed, blanket and toy told a story. The bed bases made by my father. The hole in the fly screen above the kitchen sink, (legacy of a curious possum). Christmas decorations in a box on a shelf in the linen closet and three decades of discarded boogie boards in the laundry. Memories and stories continued outside the house. Trees, hills, rises and falls in the paddock, occasional streams, patches of thistle: the ‘briar patch’, home in recent times to a family of rabbits. Bonfire sites here and there. The tree shelter favoured by kangaroos. And, at the base of the hill below the house there was a dam. Home to eels and mosquitoes, a watering hole for horses and the roo family that traversed the valley. Here This was where ten-year old Jim caught an eel that escaped when it bit through his fishing line and five-year old Owen came back from his first solo tramp with leaches in his boots. And Martin, a friend and near neighbour, declined to help clear scrub on the far side. “Tiger snakes, mate” he said. Five acres is not a lot of land, but it is enough to wander. And wonder. Fallen trees to rest against, tree bark to crunch underfoot, perspective to be gained, imagination to invest: a vege garden (made safe from plundering animals), beehives, solar panels feeding the grid, a tyre swing, a tree house, a music festival perhaps, in our own little amphitheatre.

And yet, distance required that the place was neglected much of the year. Used mainly in school holidays, and not every school holiday, nor for the whole of the holidays. But surprisingly, despite neglect, it was in reasonable condition. Animals kept the grass down. Rain, when it came, kept the pasture a shade of green. Big, arcing gums and smaller mischievous wattles continued to grow, providing privacy and shade. We were almost invisible from the road. Not even Google Earth could spot the house. And the house itself: the walls were sturdy, the roof solid, the front deck sheltered us from the heat of the morning sun and the metal box fire kept us warm through winter. Occasional problems with spiders and rats and snakes and possums but these were manageable. Not a place we could, or would want to rent out, it was for us. I loved this place, and when my parents died I had the privilege of inheriting it, with my family. It became ours. And we loved it as much as they.

Then in the morning of New Years Eve 2019 the wind picked up a fire, burning south of Nelligan, 15km inland and 25km northwest of our place, and threw it in our direction. Since September fires had been raging to the north. Along the east coast forested bush had been primed by months of dry heat. The front of our fire must have been fifteen kilometres wide. The heat, reportedly immense, the air bristling dry, the wind pushed the furnace south and east. I doubt much could have been done. The south of Bateman’s Bay was clipped and some way south the north of the tourist town of Mogo was fiercely set on fire. Back from the highway, numerous houses in the streets of this long standing aboriginal Yuin town were destroyed, along with the recreation of a colonial goldmine and plenty of bush-bound dwellings. And while it skirted but did not ignite the famed Mogo Zoo, more than twenty houses on acreage, on our road, around the corner, exploded: a small portion of the 2,000 or so lost in the area overall.

There were three main torrents of fire that day. All driven by shifting winds. “It just picks it up and throws it at you” said Diane. The first came through from Mogo, through the catchment for the local dam, which backs onto our place. It savaged us and lots nearby, circled, then surrounded Malua Bay, as hundreds huddled on the beach, with children and horses and precious goods. Martin had to double back at 6am when he got the evacuation call. He went towards the fire to collect horses agisted on nearby properties. “Burnt hooves and frightened, but ok.” As in so many cases, the men held back, delayed their departure or doubled back for various reasons and the wives and children were sent to safety, to wait. And fear.

The Malua fire circled south. It enclosed Mackenzie’s Beach It took out everything in North Rosedale, then wound back in our direction again. Another flame front came from the south, it landed at the outskirts of Broulee, which was perfect fodder for fire, flat, open, dry and unprotected, but before much damage could be done the wind tripped this one north as well.

One couple who stayed by their house, towards the sea, across the ridge from our place, saw the fire cross three times as they circled their house with hoses putting out embers for over eight hours. Despite protective clothing their arms, hands and faces were pock marked with burns. Soles of boots melted. Their house survived. Diligence, location, luck and shifting winds. And four sheep survived on another neighbour’s block. While their wooden pole house was condemned to burn, despite three days of hard graft preparing for fire. The sheep gravitated to the gully, and in the mud and moisture managed to live.

We were called by Diane, who was among the last to leave. It was about 10am. She just said, “it’s gone.”

I wasn’t able to go down for ten days. The highway and local roads were closed and most burnt sites were declared too dangerous. When it became possible the journey was through devastation. Outside the towns the highway was lined by burnt forest from south of Nowra almost to Moruya. And that was only the highway and only the route I travelled. Inland, north, south, southwest the devastation must have been unimaginable. In two hours of driving I saw houses that had been saved, some miraculously surrounded by burnt trees and many that had been destroyed and kilometre after kilometre of forest after forest after forest after forest blackened otherworldly. Finally, at our place tree remnants, stumps and logs, were still smoking. I parked on the road and walked down the drive. Fences wrecked. Huge black stalks of trees everywhere. The sky seemed to reflect the darkness. Life in black and grey. The gate was open, the sheds alongside a ruin. The wood that framed them had vapourised. Burnt, buckled metal strewn across the ground. Woodwork tools and steel framed cabinets charred, split apart and discarded, as if, no resistance, no significance. Only the metal trunk my father bought back from WW2 was identifiable. Baked, but identifiable. Then there was the house.

A few months later I was asked to talk in an online seminar organised by the University of Lucknow, India, celebrating World Environment Day. Previously, I had written a book chapter that concluded, “The Anthropocene is not something that is occurring out there. It is local, it is everyday and it is personal. In effect, I am the Anthropocene, and I take responsibility.” The theme of the Lucknow talk was derived from this: we are living the circumstances of our own creation. We are it and it is us. With this in mind I chose to talk about the fires. In retrospect, I had no choice. I was still amidst them, constantly calculating them, they were over this shoulder, then that. This dream, this conversation, this child’s fear, this child’s silence. As a family we seemed to be inhabited by them. In trying to explain my connection to the flames and the social ecology of their creation, I wanted to move my Indian audience beyond what which they already knew. And an Indian audience knows a great deal about the relationship between society and ecology. Their gap between the natural world and human experience is far less cultivated. We in Australia, who encounter the world through screens, hide death behind doors and spend much of our time in urban spaces deliberately designed to keep the natural world at bay, do not tolerate sacred cows in peak hour traffic in the same way as Indians do. In taking responsibility I wanted to treat the fires as something other than a natural event or an alien other arriving to bedevil. I wanted to acknowledge our complicity: our intelligence and our creativity, in relation to fire. In effect, our contribution. I wanted to acknowledge it as damage we did to ourselves. I said,

This is my nature, my land, it was a place for my family, my people, my history, and it is my fire. I live in it and through it. Val Plumwood, an Australian eco-feminist was taken by a crocodile 20 or so years ago. She escaped. She said it was her fault. She said she was in the crocodile’s territory. Was I in the fire’s territory? Or perhaps my house was. Or am I wrong to give fire characteristics of this kind? Learning? Responsiveness? Perhaps they should be given to the wind that blew the flames or the drought that dried the land. Our wind, our drought and our flames. We live within a knowledge system: a complex web of inter-relationships that determines the form that life takes. And how it burns. We built our house. It burned to the ground. I am the fire, and I am that which remains.

The day I travelled down, ten days after the fire, I stood close by while a lone kangaroo, its brown fur soiled, perhaps singed, leapt across our newly darkened land. I saw other roos feeding by the roadside, when previously they would not have. I wondered the fate of the possum that broke the fly wire screen in the kitchen. What consequence, the fire?

I went to the support hub, set up in the aftermath to help those who had been affected. The Salvos made sandwiches. Numerous people asked if I needed to talk. My main priority was getting help to clear the debris, the remains, the tons of wrecked house, from the site and my questions saw me referred from one desk to another. Finally, when I was sent back to the desk I first asked at I gave up, solicited a sandwich and sat in the sun, watching army reservists play cricket with children.

By my next visit gum trees were sprouting new green through charcoal bark. Rain had fallen and burnt branches were caught in the flow of water and emerging growth. The debris remained, but not for long. A government agency cleared the house site. Thank you. What now? I surrendered. I placed the problem at a distance, beyond consideration. No thoughts of the future and despite irregular questions, no thoughts of rebuilding. Why? Why become this vulnerable again? The neighbour on the hill had a steel framed construction in process before the fire. He continued afterwards. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know him well enough to ask. I returned to Sydney.

Nonetheless, we booked a house nearby for the next school holidays. In that time we came and visited the site and wondered, mostly silently, how we might aid recuperation. We looked more than took action; talked more than did things. It was overwhelming. It was too much. Beyond action. We found fragments of memories scattered in the soil: parts of earthenware bowls, ceramic shards from the purple toilet, bits of primary school pottery. We looked for remnants of the new bathroom, installed in October. Specially chosen tiles and taps and… nothing recognisable. We wandered further. The water tank had melted. 100,000 litres must have cascaded down that hill. Two garden sheds were standing, blown out, the walls convex. Inside the metal ends of garden tools, a rake, a pick, a shovel and a mattock, their wooden shafts non-existent. Only a heavy metal post hole digger retrievable. The orchard nearby, that we had cleaned up two months before, unrecognisable. The hay shed no more than a roof turned into a corrugated iron floor. We bought gloves and a tree saw and heavy-duty branch cutters with the intention of clearing fence lines. A token effort. Bulldozer or, at very least a bobcat required. We sat on our haunches on the old house site and looked down and across the growing grass and the mystifying bleakness of the damage. And to an extent we remembered. Perhaps we were numb no more. Feeling somehow and missing the house and the holidays but more than that, the welcome comfort and convenience of a place we knew deeply – part of ourselves – as distinct from a holiday rental.

Finally, one day, we landed on the possibility of a way forward: an architect’s drawings of an earth-covered house, made of compressed earth blocks. Not only was it beautiful, two tunnels built into the slope, with a soil and grass roof, four bedrooms in one tunnel and the kitchen, dining and living space in the other, and a large sweeping front window that gathered acres of sun. Insulated by the earth, cool in summer and warm through winter, it was in the earth, almost of the earth, not an imposition, built on top. Perhaps this was the answer. Not a target, no exposed timber, not a fire cave to shelter in while fire raged but a house, a home, a perfect fit to an existing site with, according to the architect, near certainty it could survive a conflagration like the last one. Not a place to shelter in while fire raged, but a structure that would not burn to the ground. It would be the ground. Fire shutters would protect the windows; nothing flammable externally. My interest rose from three storeys beneath consciousness. The words mildly enthusiastic might even have been muttered.

We talked further with Steve, the architect. We discussed further possibilities. He sent images of options. The first was two tunnels in parallel, both facing north, with a linking door. Then two tunnels pivoted at 45 degrees, from the rear, one facing north, the other north east; then the tunnels pivoting at 45 degrees from the front with a covered deck providing the link; then parallel again, with one tunnel raised higher than the other to aid runoff and reduce water pooling between the tunnels. So, water pooling was an issue, which means waterproofing is also an issue, and then of course, water collection, because we are not on town water and there is no conventional roof. We talked more with Steve: a genuine, friendly guy, who seemed to know his stuff. We discovered he grew up in the same region as me, knew people I knew, knew people who knew my brother, who is also in the building game. This project was coming home. Then he set up a meeting with his builders on the coast: Harry, who seemed more like the project manager, who had the machine to make the special bricks needed to support the arch, and Frank who led the building team. They answered our questions, all of them, confidently, coherently, comprehensively. They worked to allay our nervousness, they promoted the concept, talked up the site as already ideal, minimal preparation required, reckoned the numbers of earth blocks needed, discussed septic tank and water storage practicalities, described the membrane designed to waterproof the ceiling and joked with us about parking cars on the roof, when finished. And they gave us an early calculation of cost – within budget – and projected a likely finish date. October 2021. “Ready for Christmas.” Fantastic. A practical solution, low impact, exceeding flame zone regulations and affordable. What about Council? “They love it.” They’ve already approved one? “No, they know about it. Four weeks max.” Nothing standing in our way. We imagined our place anew. The view once again off the deck, early morning as the fresh orange sun rose over the trees. The dew on the grass glistening, the magpies warbling, children stirring before rolling over and back to sleep again. Almost quiet. Almost alone. Almost safe and secure. Almost home. All that remained was the actual construction. 

Meanwhile, we booked a tradesman to replace most of the fencing. We arranged a bobcat to clear the line. It was done well. The first lump sum was extracted from the insurance payout. I imagined the ground being prepared for the slab, the slab being poured, and I imagined the truck delivering the first load of locally made compressed earth blocks. This was the earth’s response to the fire, an acknowledgement of the intersection of the social and the ecological, sensitively responding through aesthetically grounding human needs in gently sloping land. Minimising the intrusion, hiding us beneath the ground, looking out, not disturbing. Plants climbing up from below, threading their way through the soil atop the tunnels. Greenery sprouting. Wildlife feeding on our roof. Sacred cows in peak hour traffic across our five acres. I am the fire, and I am that which remains. Human ingenuity synchronised with the cycles of nature. A contribution to forward thinking: to planning for a collective, sustainable future.

Then the phone call came. Human ingenuity, too clever by half. Turns out Harry did not actually have the machinery to make the bricks. Turns out Harry had taken deposits from other people on promise of delivery of bricks, which he did not have the machinery to make. And Steve was refusing to deal with Harry and Frank had unwittingly become the vehicle through which other property owners were billed. And the flame proof underground house was burning down. This time there were no lightning strikes, the flames were lit by humans. This time it was arson. The results were the same. No house, no home, no dream.

The place remains, the land, and we are determined to preserve it and to pass it on. It never was and hopefully never will be just an investment, something to cash in at a later stage. It is valued, cared for and loved for what it is and what it might become one day with careful and considered stewardship. We know our neighbours down the valley, some of them, and our lives intersect as do our access roads, fence lines, pastures and spreading trees. And the animals that jump over and slide through the wires that divide us. They are joint responsibilities, so is our care for our place and our stories of our experience of the valley. All of us dispossessed of our houses, have shared needs. We talk of the present and we imagine possible futures. We hope, lose hope and hope again. This community, these affections extend further, beyond the physical immediacy of our individual and shared environment.

I teach. It has been central to my employment, and to an extent, my identity for thirty years. I have learned from remarkable people and places and experiences and I have integrated this sufficiently to be trusted to deal with the learning of others. I do this with commitment and a strong sense of responsibility. If I am to apportion the role of teacher to the land, to my place, to my environment then perhaps I need to apportion it commitment and responsibility as well. At the very least to respect this potential. Part of my human consciousness seeks agency in the world beyond. In other humans, other vertebrates and invertebrates, in living reality I seek understanding and inspiration. If I, and by ‘I’ I mean ‘us’, for as a species we are cojoined in love, are to survive, we need to do it in relationship to the world beyond our fences. Fire has no cognisance of fences, nor wind, nor drought, nor spreading green. All triggers for us to breath in, breath out and tell stories. I am the fire, and I am that which remains. And remains. And remains.

An Anthropocene Journey

The word “anthropocene” has become the closest thing there is to common shorthand for this turbulent, momentous, unpredictable, hopeless, hopeful time—duration and scope still unknown

By Andrew C. Revkin

Original article here

My reporting career has taken me from smoldering, fresh-cut roadsides in the Amazon rain forest to the thinning sea ice around the North Pole, from the White House and Vatican to Nairobi’s vast, still-unlit slums. Throughout most of it, I thought I was writing about environmental and social problems and solutions.

Lately I’ve come to realize that my lifelong beat, in essence, has been one species’ growing pains. After tens of thousands of years of scrabbling by, spreading around the planet, and developing tools of increasing sophistication, humans are in surge mode and have only just started to become aware that something profound is going on. The upside has been astounding. Child and maternal mortality rates have plunged. Access to education has soared. Deep poverty is in sharp retreat. Despite the 24/7 distilled drama online and on TV, violence on scales from war to homicide has been in a long decline.

It’s been only a few decades since science began building a picture of the back story to this spectacular ascent. It’s a story about how humans became such a potent environmental influence that a signature of our doings, for good or ill, will be measurable in layered rock for millions of years to come. By altering climate, landscapes, and seascapes as well as flows of species, genes, energy, and materials, we are sealing the fates of myriad other species. And, without a big shift from business-as-usual, we will undermine our own long-term welfare as well.

In 2000, after a century of earlier efforts by scholars, scientists, and at least one journalist (me) to give a name to humanity’s emerging role as a planet-scale force, one word emerged in a heated moment at a global change conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico—anthropocene.

It appears to be here for the long haul. After 16 years of percolation and debate, anthropocene has become the closest thing there is to common shorthand for this turbulent, momentous, unpredictable, hopeless, hopeful time—duration and scope still unknown.

The word is still so novel that no one has even settled on how to pronounce it; the British stress the second syllable and Americans the first. That seems appropriate, given that reactions to the emergence of the term—let alone the actual environmental changes it aims to describe—have come in all colors and flavors. There’s even been a spirited push for alternatives, some rather biting.

I imagine you’ve heard some of the competing words that have bubbled up. We’re actually in the greed-driven Capitalocene, the trash-choked Plasticene, the combustible Pyrocene, the self-loathing Misanthropocene, the testosterone-dominated Manthropocene—even the Obscene. There’s some merit as well as weakness in every label, including the word that sparked it all.

The anthropocene (both the word and the unfolding age) has so much Rorschach-like plasticity that all I can offer as guidance are my informed but subjective reflections based on what I’ve learned and unlearned in my long, quirky journey. I’d argue that what matters most is not resolving some common meaning so much as engaging in deeply felt discussions, fresh lines of inquiry, and new proposals for sustaining the human journey—all of which have been sparked by the emergence of this concept.

Origin Story

©NASA

To navigate this terrain, it’s best to start with the foundational anthropocene idea, as blurted out in February 2000 during a scientific meeting on human-caused global change. A prominent participant was Paul J. Crutzen, who’d won a Nobel Prize for helping identify the threat certain synthetic chemicals posed to the planet’s protective ozone layer. At the meeting, his frustration grew as peers described momentous shifts in Earth’s operating systems, but always anchored them in time by mentioning the Holocene. Holocene is the formal name for the “wholly recent” epoch of planetary history that began at the end of the last ice age 11,700 years ago.

At one point, Crutzen couldn’t hold back. He interrupted a colleague, as the scientist Will Steffen later described: “Stop using the word Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the … the … the … (searching for the right word) … the Anthropocene!”

In his 2014 book The Anthropocene, Christian Schwägerl describes how the room fell silent at first, and then the word became the center of conversation. “The scientists in that conference room in Mexico were profoundly shaken,” Schwägerl wrote. “[O]ne of the most frequently cited natural scientists in the world … was not only describing the past with this new term (something to which geologists are accustomed), but he was also redefining and connecting to the future … a new Earth sculpted by humans.”

The broader meaning of anthropocene, not captured in the dictionary, centers on how awareness (in theory) comes with responsibility.

Shortly after that meeting, Crutzen learned that Eugene F. Stoermer, an admired analyst of tiny lakebed diatom fossils, had used the word in the 1980s. The two scientists collaborated on an essay for a newsletter for Earth systems scientists. They laid out a scientific rationale for the term and explained why, even though there was no tradition of naming geological spans for their causative elements, in this case it was justified:

Considering these … major and still growing impacts of human activities on Earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch.

Crutzen and several collaborators refined the concept in subsequent papers. The term quickly spread, propelled in a dizzying array of directions as if filling a linguistic vacuum. It began popping up in peer-reviewed literature in a variety of disciplines and eventually spawned at least three scientific journals (and one magazine) using “Anthropocene” in their titles.

It’s not hard to see why reverberations, pro and con, built so quickly. It was an audacious notion to recommend that a human age deserved to join the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene as the epochs of geological history comprising the Age of Mammals. This stretch of time, more formally called the Cenozoic Era, began 65 million years ago, after the mass extinction that ended the dinosaurs’ age and enabled ours. And it could continue for a very long time—if the most powerful mammal, Homo sapiens, demonstrates it can turn the sapience in its name into a sustainable journey.

The proposal of an Anthropocene epoch was particularly audacious because it came from a chemist and an ecologist, not a stratigrapher. Stratigraphy is the discipline within geology that develops and maintains the official Geologic Time Scale and International Chronostratigraphic Chart.

In 2008, a group of stratigraphers and other earth scientists, led by Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, published the first careful assessments of the intriguing Crutzen-Stoermer hypothesis. Indeed, they found a concrete and durable human signature—literally. Tens of billions of tons of concrete are part of that signature, along with vast amounts of smelted aluminum and more exotic alloys, distinctive spherical particles of fly ash from power plants, bomb radioisotopes, 6 billion tons (and counting) of plastic, and so much more. In a 2008 paper, Zalasiewicz and others concluded that there appeared to be “sufficient evidence” for an Anthropocene epoch to be considered for formalization by the international geological community.

But a long road lay ahead. The following year, Zalasiewicz and some colleagues began assembling a working group on the “Anthropocene” at the invitation of one of the 16 subcommissions of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Those quotation marks around “Anthropocene” in the group’s name won’t disappear until some final judgment on the validity of a new epoch is reached.

In 2010 I was invited to join the working group, largely because of a quirky role I had played in the evolution of this anthropocene idea in 1992, when I essentially predicted Crutzen’s Mexico moment and what has unfolded since. Since 1985, I’d been writing articles about human impacts on the climate system. In 1991, I finally got a chance to synthesize what I’d been learning, in a short book that would accompany the first major museum exhibition on global warming, at the American Museum of Natural History. Closing out a chapter on the growing human impact on Earth, I typed an almost offhand proposal that we’d jolted the planet out of the Holocene:

Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene era for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene. After all, it is a geological age of our own making. The challenge now is to find a way to act that will make geologists of the future look upon this age as a remarkable time, a time in which a species began to take into account the long-term impact of its actions. The alternative will be to leave a legacy of irresponsibility and neglect that will manifest itself in the fossil record as just one more mass extinction—like the record of bones and empty footprints left behind by the dinosaurs.

The Human Age could continue for a very long time—if the most powerful mammal, Homo sapiens, demonstrates it can turn the sapience in its name into a sustainable journey.

I vaguely recall musing on how to spell my passing reference to a name for this age. (I can’t probe the floppy disks on which any trace of that process sits.) “Anthrocene” seemed more streamlined than other choices, and I was pretty naïve when it came to word roots in scientific terminology. It didn’t really matter. The book was published shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War and the planet-cooling eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Public attention was focused elsewhere. I’m sure no more than a few thousand people read it, certainly not Crutzen or Stoermer. It now floats on Amazon.com’s used listings for as little as one US cent (plus shipping, of course)—another kind of anthropocene shard, in a way.

Reflecting on this now, I’m quite certain that when I wrote “earth scientists of the future,” I was thinking generations, if not centuries, into the future. But it took just eight years for scientific rigor to be applied to the idea of an anthropogenic geological age. We do live in fast-forward times.

A fifth-grade classroom in Emerson School, Ann Arbor, Michigan ©Connie Weber

A fifth-grade classroom in Emerson School, Ann Arbor, Michigan ©Connie Weber

Language constantly evolves. In 2014, the word passed a significant milestone. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) adds batches of words four times a year. The 171 words added in June that year included all manner of obscurities (“cholestasis”), words reflecting trends of the moment (“selfie,” “flexitarian”), and “Anthropocene.”

According to the dictionary’s definition, the Anthropocene is “the era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth.”

Before including it, the OED editors had wisely let the word percolate for 14 years after it first entered widespread discourse. But I’d argue that they jumped the gun in one important technical way and missed the main, grander meaning of the word. That second point is not a criticism; it just reflects the plasticity and richness of this still-emerging neologism.

The technical problem with the definition? The word, despite having roots springing so directly from stratigraphic nomenclature, could still end up rejected as a formal “era of geological time.”

The Upper-Case Anthropocene

Golden spike emplaced in bed that is Global Standard Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Thenetian Stage.

©Stan Finney and Lucy Edwards

It was one thing for a couple of environment-oriented scientists, however lauded, to propose a new addition to those colorful stratigraphic charts familiar to millions of earth science students. It’s another thing entirely to gain the approval of a 60-percent supermajority of the leadership of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the sage timekeepers of geology—and then the grand overarching body, the International Union of Geological Sciences. The working group’s recommendation to the ICS, when completed, would be just the first step in that process.

Of course, the Geologic Time Scale is always evolving, given the continuing emergence of new discoveries in the field. But the charts are living documents in the same way the United States Constitution is a living document: changes are made only with extreme care and conservatism and following strict protocols.

Many influential stratigraphers have expressed deep skepticism that the Anthropocene deserves formal standing. For one thing, any new addition to the time scale must be useful to science. Calling an abrupt end to the Holocene could achieve the opposite, creating confusion in the literature. There are significant debates over when to mark the starting point or lower boundary of the Anthropocene in the time scale.

Other scientists are concerned about all those flavors and colors of meaning that surround the word outside of geology—potentially tainting the time scale with environmental messaging. One of the starkest challenges came last spring in a critique written by two influential geologists, Stanley C. Finney and Lucy E. Edwards. Its title laid out what they saw as a murky and open question: The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement?

Jan Zalasiewicz at an Anthropocene Working Group meeting ©Andrew Revkin

Jan Zalasiewicz at an Anthropocene Working Group meeting ©Andrew Revkin

There was some basis for such concerns. Many scientists and others pressing for a more sustainable human relationship with the environment had latched onto the word and idea as a rallying point. In a 2011 interview with Elizabeth Kolbert for National Geographic, Crutzen had put it plainly: “What I hope … is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.”

Now in its seventh year, the working group has been under pressure to complete its formal recommendation to the stratigraphic commission. Almost daily, emails fly back and forth among its 35 members, refining drafts of papers (including a response to Finney and Edwards) and planning next steps. There have been three face-to-face meetings of the group’s members, most recently in Oslo in April 2016.

Coincidentally, that meeting kicked off on the 46th Earth Day. We gathered around a long table in an ornate room at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in a mansion built a century ago by the famed Arctic explorer for whom the institute was named. For two long days, discussions led by Zalasiewicz and Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey centered on a review of the “arguments against formalization.” The 17 bullet points ranged from the technical and straightforward—“stratigraphic record is minimal … based on predictions … ”—to the testy and provocative—“[T]he Anthropocene is political, not scientific.” As if to remind participants of the gravity of the task, there was a plastic-laminated copy of the scale itself at each seat, along with the usual array of writing pads and pens.

My lack of familiarity with norms of stratigraphy prevented me from engaging too deeply, although I’ve been a minor coauthor on several of the group’s papers. What I think I’ve brought to the table is context. In a presentation, I urged the geologists to take comfort in knowing they’re hardly the first discipline to be thrust into policy relevance or to have their norms shaken by disruptive change. I clicked to a slide showing how the “tree of life” envisioned by Darwin had been utterly disrupted now that DNA sequencing allows a more complete view, particularly of microbes. Just days before the Oslo meeting, a new “tree” had been published in which, as Carl Zimmer noted in the New York Times, “All the eukaryotes, from humans to flowers to amoebae, fit on a slender twig” compared to a dizzying spray of lines of bacteria.

And now the revolutionary genetic editing tool CRISPR is poised to imprint humans’ ambitions on that tree at least as profoundly as fossil fuels have changed the physical world. I also noted that the sparring in the stratigraphy community strongly echoed fights that had first erupted in meteorology and climate science 25 years ago, as new lines of evidence and new tools, such as global climate models, pointed to a growing and disruptive human warming influence. “You’re not alone,” I said. But I stressed, using climate change as an example, that it is possible to separate the “is” of science from the “ought” of society’s choices. With some bumps and bruises, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had found a way forward. Now it was geology’s turn.

There was some irony in the stroll each day between our hotel and the Nansen Institute. It took us along the shore in front of a giant Jenga-block scramble of horizontal white towers that belong to Statoil. Norway’s mostly state-owned oil company has contributed substantially not only to Norway’s economy but also to global climate change. Even as Norway was adding incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles to take advantage of ample domestic hydro-electric power, the company announced plans to expand drilling in the Barents Sea to boost fossil-fuel exports. One got the impression that decisions made in that building would have a bigger impact on world affairs than any conclusions we produced.

But there was a second layer of irony there on the windswept shores of the fjord. The grassy stretch along the sinuous path was also a sculpture park. A vertical slab rose from the grass directly in front of the Statoil building, imprinted with an image of one of Easter Island’s moai—the haunting stone figures carved at the potent pinnacle of the great, but vanished, Rapa Nui civilization.

As August drew to a close, Colin Waters headed to the 35th Congress of the International Union of Geological Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, to summarize the group’s findings, including the results of a vote of members on critical aspects of the evidence for an Anthropocene Epoch. The key points? “Is the Anthropocene stratigraphically real?” Thirty-four yes, one abstention. “Should the Anthropocene be formalized?” Thirty yes, three no, two abstentions (one of which was me).

In deference to the long chain of approvals that lay ahead, he stressed the work plan, which includes a global quest for an appropriate site for a “golden spike”—an actual physical point displaying the evidence for a Holocene-Anthropocene transition.

We are creating the mother of all stratigraphic marker horizons

While many geologists worry that a human-etched epoch grants us too much power on the basis of too little evidence, a few think the proponents of the geological Anthropocene are thinking way too small. One such expert is Jay Quade of the University of Arizona. After decades of fieldwork and lab analysis on six continents, Quade—whose father and grandfather were geologists—seems to live, breathe, and eat insights from ancient rock. I met him in June at a Santa Fe, New Mexico, gathering of scientists focused on the Quaternary Period. He credited the efforts of Crutzen and scientists such as those in the “Anthropocene” working group for all that they were doing but said his reading of the evidence pointed to an even more massive unfolding geological transition. It could, he believed, be akin to—if not bigger than—the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 250 million years ago and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction that cleared out the dinosaurs and led to the Age of Mammals—and us.

In his keynote talk, he described the human-driven changes under way on Earth as “creating the mother of all stratigraphic marker horizons.” One slide took the audience 50 million years into the future, projecting what the human imprint would look like after such a span—kind of like what geologists see now in probing previous great events. Our anthropocene moment appears as a brief pulse of trash, rare earths, and the like—along with a profound constriction of mammal species—followed in future ages by a flourishing of surviving and newly evolved mammals. Are humans among them to assess that record? Time will tell.

The Lower-Case Anthropocene

Copenhagen 2009 climate talks ©Andrew C. Revkin

To me, the geological discussion, while vital, is not nearly as important as the wider discourse that has emerged around the word and its implications.

What makes this point in entwined human and planetary history special, and has made this word controversial, isn’t our potency. Cyanobacteria, through the evolution of photosynthesis, started flooding the atmosphere with oxygen more than 2.3 billion years ago. Some earth scientists call that the Great Oxygen Catastrophe. The result was a mass extinction followed, over millions of years, by an extraordinary flourishing of life attuned to that new atmosphere.

But cyanobacteria, as far as we know, weren’t aware of their power. And we are, at least haltingly, starting to recognize ours. It remains to be seen whether the current surge of human-generated carbon dioxide, along with our other environmental impacts, creates what future civilizations might call the Great Carbon Dioxide Catastrophe—or not. The wild card is us. The broader meaning of anthropocene, not captured in the Oxford English Dictionary, centers on how awareness (in theory) comes with responsibility.

There will never be a common comfort level with a word like anthropocene, or with the signals emerging from the biogeophysical world, or with what to do about it. In essence, we are all on different journeys through this consequential juncture in the intertwined history of human beings and their home planet.

Is this the beginning of our end, as some have argued, or the turbulent beginning of a potential new age of enlightened cultural and physical evolution? Can the anthropocene, or Anthropocene, be good?

In June 2014, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert addressed this question in a Twitter post. That year she’d won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sixth Extinction. She’d read “The Delusion of the Good Anthropocene,” Clive Hamilton’s biting critique of a talk I’d given on the prospect of a “good” Anthropocene at Pace University.

Hamilton, known for a dark view and a sharp scalpel, is a professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and the author of Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change, among other books.

Kolbert’s tweet distilled much:https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=479034758413164545&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.anthropocenemagazine.org%2Fanthropocenejourney%2F&sessionId=3fb3ff36e50af36ef05e93cd0e652184b0b35e1a&siteScreenName=AnthropoceneMag&theme=light&widgetsVersion=e9dfb5f%3A1627539779275&width=550px

In a subsequent conversation facilitated by the fine Grist blogger Nathanael Johnson, Hamilton and I clarified differences and found lots of common ground. He wasn’t seeking a “bad” anthropocene, for instance, and I didn’t see this as a good time for global ecology. But we agreed on the uniquely consequential nature of this moment and the value of discourse in search of common ground.

We also agree that the broader implications of humanity’s surging planet-scale impacts can be obscured by technical struggles or disciplinary turf battles over stratigraphic signals. As Hamilton wrote in a commentary in Nature in August 2016, “The new geological epoch does not concern soils, the landscape, or the environment, except inasmuch as they are changed as part of a massive shock to the functioning of Earth as a whole.”

The idea of the anthropocene resonates loudest within circles tussling over the best ways to chart a sustainable human journey. A leading proponent of the “Capitalocene” alternative, Binghamton University sociologist Jason W. Moore, has written that a focus on the anthropocene could “obscure more than it illuminates.” However well intended its supporters may be, they are—by presenting humanity as a single entity—glossing over the real drivers of both environmental and social degradation: inequality, commodification, imperialism, and more. His pitch for Capitalocene leaves out environmental ravages committed under Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, where destructive policies began under Mao well before that country’s own capitalist tilt. But his point will be vital to consider as discussions flow forward. Who is the “we” when we talk of common human responsibilities?

It took me more than 20 years of regularly using the word “we” in articles or talks on new scientific insights (“we’ve learned”) or global trends (“we’re changing the climate”) before I fully absorbed that, in several important contexts, there is no “we.”

It’s humbling for me now to reflect on the naïve, preachy way I framed my “anthrocene” notion in that 1992 climate book. The passage reads like a sermon. Who was the “we” in that paragraph? Did it include Pacific islanders or rural villagers in India and Africa who scrabble to make a living facing today’s climatic and coastal threats and who contribute no meaningful amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere?

The simplest sources of human variability are geographic and economic. If you’re poor and vulnerable or prosperous and protected, an epic storm has completely different meaning. In 2007, I was the lead writer of a special New York Times report describing humanity’s “climate divide” along these lines. A Dutch woman who had bought a riverside house that floats off its foundation safely in a severe flood said, “We’re looking forward to floating,” as if it were an amusement park ride. A farmer in northeastern India had a very different reaction as he surveyed waterlogged fields following an early spring flood on the Baghmati River. Three acres of wheat—a third of his income—were gone. Barley, mustard, and peas were ruined.

But I also learned in examining behavioral studies that there can be fundamental differences—shaped by deep-rooted behavioral traits—in how individuals, rich or poor, north or south, perceive environmental change. Are you an edge pusher or group hugger? You know the answer. The person next to you likely has a different answer. One body of research calls the source of differences “cultural cognition.” This is why there’ll never be a common comfort level with a word like anthropocene, or with the signals emerging from the biogeophysical world, or with what to do about it. In essence, we are all on different journeys through this consequential juncture in the intertwined history of human beings and their home planet.

There is one other area where the “we” question has emerged. Who is the “we” who should be making judgments on the anthropocene, even within the constrained scientific debate? Just as Jason Moore found fault with an overly simplified anthropocene distillation of human civilization, British environmental economist Kate Raworth found fault with the composition of the “Anthropocene” working group itself.

I had written a blog post following the second meeting of the group, in Berlin in 2014; I noted, somewhat in passing, that it was “very white, [w]estern, and male.” Raworth fired an apt salvo on Twitter: “The Anthropocene is bad enough. Spare us a Manthropocene.” She included a photo gallery she’d created of nine female experts in global change. In a welcome move, more women have since been added to the group, including Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, who combines a geologist’s and a historian’s perspectives.

It’s important not to get too caught up in this rarefied level of discussion. In the real world, however discomfiting this might be to those of us engaged with the word, I’d aggressively wager that at least 90 percent, maybe 95 percent, of humanity has not yet heard the word or considered its implications. Wealthy world citizens are insulated from environmental risk. The poorest are so caught up in survival that the future has little meaning. I haven’t found any polls yet testing awareness of the word “anthropocene.” But try a Google Trends search of “anthropocene, global warming, ISIS” and you can see the relative levels of attention.

In the meantime: Whatever you call this period of history, the biogeophysical and increasingly technological reality is playing out on scales that aren’t amenable to old ways of managing risks and opportunities.

Brad Allenby, a longtime analyst of sustainability and technology at Arizona State University, rejects the term Anthropocene entirely because it’s not nearly big enough to encompass what’s going on. He feels referencing geologic time presumes far too much stability and knowledge. “[A]s 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 50 or 100 years will still be anything like ‘anthro,’” he wrote on the aptly named Future Tense blog earlier this year. “We are trying to tie geologic time to a windstorm.”

A few years ago, after Allenby and I had an onstage discussion of the Anthropocene at Arizona State, a member of the audience proposed a hopeful architecture for the coming decades:

“The way I would like to see it … in, say, 100 years in the future, the London Geological Society will look back and consider this period … a transition from the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene.”

That has a nice feel to it. Fully integrating this awareness into our personal choices and societal norms and policies will take time. I’ve taken to encouraging people to meld urgency and patience, however irrational that might feel.

Reflecting on all that has passed and is to come, I see the prospect of slow but substantial and productive shifts in the human enterprise. They will come along with a rich array of perceptions and responses among and within communities—from the scale of global society to that of the stratigraphic community.

Will this happen fast enough? Who knows. But this is the human way. A big part of engaging with the anthropocene, to my eye, is engaging with and even embracing ourselves as individuals and as a flawed and variegated yet amazing species. In 2003, biologists identified “response diversity” as a source of resilience in ecosystems. I’d assert that the same characteristic is an asset in societies as long as they work to level playing fields, foster education and transparency—and communicate.

Perhaps the last thing the world needs is another word. But in 2011, I offered a name for that kind of engagement. It might make you chuckle, given my earlier effort at naming something, but here goes. Anthropophilia.

Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia was a powerful look outward at the characteristics of the natural world that we inherently cherish. Now we need a dose of what I’ve taken to calling anthropophilia as well.
We have to accept ourselves, flaws and all, in order to move beyond what has been something of an unconscious, species-scale pubescent growth spurt enabled by fossil fuels in place of testosterone.
In The World without Us, Alan Weisman created a haunting, best-selling, thought experiment—imagining a planet awakening after the vanishing of its human tormentor. The challenge: There is a real experiment well under way, and we’re all in the test tube.

We’re stuck with the story of The World with Us. It’s time to grasp that uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful, idea. Shall we form an Anthropophilia working group?

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Andrew C. Revkin has reported on science and the environment for more than three decades, including 14 years at The New York Times. He now writes the Dot Earth blog for the Times. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University, and a performing songwriter.

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About the Header Image: JR is a French photographer and artist who claims to own the biggest art gallery in the world—the streets of the world. His work is designed to catch the attention of people who are not typical museum visitors, mixing art and action and talking about commitment, freedom, identity, and limit.
The image used here is part of the Women Are Heroes Project and was created in an action in Phnom Penh, Open Eyes, Cambodge, 2009.
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