Post by Helen Pallett
It is perhaps self-evident that the advent of the Anthropocene, or at least its announcement, urges us to think deeply about time. Thinking the Anthropocene is simultaneously to situate human society in the context of deep geological time, to draw attention to the rapid changes wrought on earth processes in the comparative “blink of an eye” of human history, and also to consider the “event” that heralds the start of this new geologic era. Geographers have long argued that temporalities are irrevocably and complicatedly intertwined with, among other things, different spatialities. So what are the emerging spaces and spatialties that we might associate with the Anthropocene? Is there anything new here? And what do these spatialities mean for how we might understand and live in the Anthropocene?
These are the questions that occupied me when I attended the recent annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (London, 28-30 August). In particular I attended a double session on “Geo-social formations: capitalism and the earth”, organised by Nigel Clark, Kathryn Yusoff and Arun Saldana. I followed this up by watching Clark and Yusoff discuss the Anthropocene further on a panel including the geologist Jan Zalaziewicz and geographer Angela Last, chaired by Rory Rowan. Many of the reflections in this post were inspired by their presentations and conversations.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the Anthropocene is associated with a whole-earth spatiality. Geologically speaking the Anthropocene can only be officially designated as an epoch if evidence of its effects can be found globally. Furthermore, the heralding of the Anthropocene is predicated on the rapidly growing discipline of earth system science and modelling, which both enables and promotes a particular global gaze and produces a spatiality of interconnected globalism. Though the earth sciences have for centuries recognised and explored the linkages and connections between different natural and even social processes, this spatiality of complex interconnections and interdependency at the global level has only been made possible by high performance computing. The increasing thickness and frequency of transnational social connections has also helped to strengthen this emerging science and to produce a complementary global spatiality in diverse communities.
Secondly, as was pointed out particularly strongly by Kai Bosworth in the RGS-IBG sessions, the Anthropocene challenges geographers and other thinkers to understand the earth’s surface or lithosphere as a three dimensional space. Human society in the Anthropocene cannot be understood adequately through a horizontal geography and geopolitics of territories and travel. These lands and seas that we have charted and explored have not only rich topographies but also an underground of tunnels, caves, mines, bore holes and crevasses. The underground is the traditional territory and matter of concern for geologists, with its strata and fossils offering hints of the features and denouements of eras past. It is also through drilling into the lithosphere that humans were able to become a ‘geologic force’, accessing oil, coal and natural gas deposits. Indeed, these processes of drilling, digging and boring have been described as a fundamental foundation of capitalist society, blurring the distinction between below and above ground.
Thirdly, by challenging previously taken-for-granted boundaries such as the definition of a geologic era, the distinction between above and below ground, and the separation between social and geological processes, it has been suggested that the Anthropocene opens up a space for further confines to be transgressed. Nigel Clark suggested that the Anthropocene could urge a challenging of categories such as political territories in favour of other forms of political organisation and common life, whilst others have suggested that the Anthropocene challenges well-worn dualisms such as nature/culture. Stuart Elden (for an audio recording of his talk see here), took this a step further by drawing on philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s notion of ‘terricide’. Elden used this to discuss how the Anthropocene forces us to confront the potential annihilation of the earth, the literal destruction of space through human activities from nuclear war to anthropogenic climate change. This terrifying possibility has implications for how we understand human and non-human life.
My final reflection on the emerging spatialities of the Anthropocene relates to the new social formations and politics of cohabitation that it might initiate. Kathryn Yusoff discussed the notion of humans cohabiting with the earth, including not only non-human animals and biological objects and processes, but also deeply inhuman geological processes. She speculated that these radically different understandings of cohabitation and common life would be likely to change the nature of responsibility and produce new kinds of subjects. These novel cohabitations bring about new experiences and configurations of space in their conjunction of diverse temporalities and ways of being.
So space, that most geographical of concerns, is not a static object or passive backdrop in the Anthropocene. Rather it will chart, react to and stimulate other Anthropocene developments, and has significant implications for how we organise common life and academic endeavour.
Helen Pallett is a PhD researcher in the Science, Society & Sustainability group at the University of East Anglia, Norwich UK. She researches public participation in science policy and has interests in democracy, environmental politics, experimentation and reflexivity. She blogs at www.thetopograph.blogspot.com and is on twitter @HelenPallett.