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For and Against the Anthropocene

A review of 'Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today'

Since the turn of the 21st century, many scientists have been arguing for the designation of a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, which they term the Anthropocene in acknowledgment of the impact of humans on the planet’s evolution. While not yet officially approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the concept has been gaining acceptance not only among scientists but in the culture generally as the effects of human activity on climate, biodiversity, and other aspects of the ecosystem seem to be increasingly apparent.

That humans are adversely affecting the Earth, or that there is even anything at all out of sorts with the planet’s ecosystem, is a serious bone of contention to the point of denial in many quarters on the right. While the left readily accepts that humans are responsible for the apparent ecological crisis, how to characterize that impact is subject to debate and the central concern of Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today by T.J. Demos, cultural critic and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz and director of The Center for Creative Ecologies.

As noted on the popular website Welcome to the Anthropocene, the term was introduced into current usage in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer. But as Demos notes, various iterations of the concept date back to at least the mid-19th century when Welsh geologist Thomas Jenkyn introduced the term ‘Anthropozoic’ to describe the current epoch. The specific term ‘Anthropocene’ seems to date to 1922 when Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov appears to have proposed it.

The actual onset of the Anthropocene is also a point of discussion. Some scientists contend the new epoch dates to the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. Others place its origins back several millennia with the beginnings of agricultural cultivation and the domestication of crops in the Neolithic Age. Still others posit the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of the Second World War, while some specifically date 1492 as the year when the planet first came to be dominated by humanity with the connection of the two hemispheres under European colonialism. Although not mentioned in the book, devotees of Frankfurt School critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (of which I confess I am one) might identify the mind/body split articulated in the mid-17th century by Rene Descartes as the fountainhead of the Anthropocene.

Trained as an art historian, Demos first takes up the ways in which the Anthropocene is visualized by various imaging systems and the ideologies that inform them. Following Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton, Demos divides these perspectives into two camps: the ‘techno-utopians’ who believe the problem can be fixed via geoengineering and the ‘eco-Soterians’ (named after Soteria, the Greek daimon of safety and preservation) who seek to work in concert with Gaia’s natural processes.

The geoengineering solutions offered by the techno-utopians propose to leverage the advances of science to rectify humanity’s domination of nature with even more technological intervention, which some might argue is the root of the problem in the first place. The visual culture of the techno-utopians reinforces humanity’s mastery of nature through digital satellite photography and data visualizations in the form of maps, graphs, and virtual simulations. Geoengineering projects tend to be proposed by major corporations and wealthy nations of the global North with support from the likes of the multibillion-dollar Gates Foundation.

Where techno-utopianism operates from the top down, eco-Soterianism works from the bottom up, offering a more critical, grassroots perspective, endeavoring not to ‘fix’ the Earth so much as to rehabilitate humankind’s relationship to it. Most of what Demos surveys in this regard is the action of eco-activists to resist techno-utopianism through direct confrontation — for example, the 2015 blockade of Shell Corporation’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig in the waters near Seattle — and consciousness-raising by artists to draw attention to the crisis through documentary filmmaking, exhibitions, and performance. Briefly surveyed here, this work is explored in greater depth in Demos’s previous book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Other manifestations of eco-Soterianism not explored by Demos are eco-friendly practices such as voluntary simplicity, organic farming, locavore consumption, and the like.

A bigger concern of Against the Anthropocene is to contest the very concept itself. According to Demos, a major problem with the Anthropocene concept is the way in which it universalizes the roots of the eco-crisis by situating it among the anthropos, i.e., humanity in general, when it is in fact the result of a specific set of actions taken by a specific set of individuals, which is to say unbridled global capitalism and its agents and beneficiaries, especially as connected to the exploitation of the environment in all its forms in search of ever-increasing profit.

A number of people have grappled with the question as Demos shows. The most direct connection is drawn by those who embrace the concept of the ‘Capitalocene’,  the geological age of capitalism and its deleterious effects on the environment, which tend to be distributed unequally geographically, socially, and economically to those who lack the wherewithal to resist. Though she doesn’t specifically use the term Capitalocene, Naomi Klein identifies its eponymous economic system as one of the combatants in the battle for the future of the environment in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

While Capitalocene identifies the culprit and has the benefit of being world-historical truth, it lacks a conception of the possibility of an alternative. A candidate in that regard is Donna Haraway’s term ‘Chthulucene’, from the Greek khthon, ‘earth’, drawing attention away from human-centered activity — whether universal or particular — to encompass a broader understanding of the planet’s ability to persist regardless of whether it is homo sapiens or Blattodea (cockroaches) at the top of the food chain. Thus it is ultimately humankind’s mandate to work within Gaia’s existential conditions in all their complexity to ensure that another world is not only possible, but certain.

Other concepts have been proposed, positive and negative. To name two: the Gynecene, in recognition of ecofeminist reverence toward Mother Earth, and the Plasticene, the age of plastic, for the artificial materials derived mainly from petrochemicals, which portend to outlast all manner of other fossils.

Whatever their merits from a philosophical perspective, none of the above-mentioned alternative designations appear to have the resonance and likely staying power of the term Anthropocene. Perhaps a compromise might be to propose an alt-Anthropocene movement in which the ecological dead-ender machinations of capitalism are actively resisted and replaced with more holistic ways of thinking and doing. The former is the province of thought-leaders, including artists; the latter is the province of social entrepreneurs, including ‘citizen-designers‘.

Regardless of the banner under which one chooses to act, act one must. Humanity’s collective future depends upon it.

Vince Carducci is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies

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