Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Worldview: Anthropocene: A Non-Concept?

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by Amélia Polónia

A concept should serve to create a common understanding between scholars, a common language to facilitate communication among disciplines. Does this apply to the term “Anthropocene”?

The “Anthropocene” is without doubt a widely used term, not only among academics—from geologists, Earth system scientists, ecologists, and physicists to philosophers, anthropologists, and historians—but also increasingly in the media. It appears in scientific journals and a wide variety of papers, and at exhibitions and conferences. A quick web search leads to a wealth of interdisciplinary approaches. The humanities, social sciences, and “hard sciences” all seem to be discussing macro-realities or epiphenomena derived from this new concept: the “Anthropocene.” And all this has happened in a very short period of time since the term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer about 15 years ago (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000, Crutzen 2002).

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Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil, to clear forest for agriculture. Photo from NASA Earth Observatory.

But do all these people mean the same thing when they say “Anthropocene”? Originally, scientists such as the Dutch Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen employed the term to describe an era during which the biosphere fell under the determinant influence of a single species—humans. There are ongoing debates on whether the Anthropocene should be made an official geological time period and, if so, when this time period should begin. Those who claim that it should are frantically searching for Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points (GSSPs)—also known as “golden spikes”—which generally mark the beginning of a new geological period (Lewis and Maslin 2015).

However, the paradigm shift needed to accept that humanity is capable of bringing about structural geological change is so profound that it influences disciplinary fields far beyond ecology, geology, or Earth systems science. The Anthropocene is potentially a huge step for humankind given that, traditionally, the definition of new geological epochs has followed significant events that left a detectable trace in the geological record, such as the impacts of meteor strikes, the movement of continents, or volcanic eruptions. If this new epoch defined by human activity is accepted, humans themselves become comparable to these powerful forces, capable of acting on a planetary scale. From a religious point of view, humans suddenly become gods—dreadful gods, but even so, gods. This has provoked intensive debates as to the meaning of the Anthropocene concept and the “Age of Humans” it has ushered in.

More broadly, the concept of the Anthropocene encompasses a multitude of issues from biodiversity to changing perceptions of reality and sustainable economic growth, not to mention its philosophical and political implications. Seldom do concepts include such a wide range of trends, phenomena, and challenges that are so essential not only to humankind, but also to whole ecosystems.

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The Kudima wreck, a dive site near the Maldives, has been colonized by coral and is host to underwater species. Photo by Philippe Guillaume.

Thus the proclamation of a “new era” for the Earth system seems to go along with the announcement of a new era of sharing and transferring knowledge between “hard” and human sciences. The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene Working Group—the group responsible for examining whether the Anthropocene should be formally recognized as a geological era—has representatives from a wide range of disciplines, including historians. The human and social sciences rejoice because they have, finally, found a place among the “real” sciences. A question remains, however: with so many different approaches, are there any common denominators defining the “Anthropocene”?

It seems that only two remain: first, that humankind is responsible for the Anthropocene, thus positing humans as being at the center of the universe; and second, the reaffirmation of the ancient idea that the European and Western paradigm is responsible for all significant developments in history. The usual suspects are suggested as responsible for the events marking each of the proposed dates for the onset of the Anthropocene: European colonizers (according to the 1610 marker proclaimed by Lewis and Maslin in their 2015 article), the British (James Watt’s steam engine patented in 1776—Crutzen 2002), and the Americans (the beginning of the Great Acceleration between 1945 and 1954—Steffen et al. 2007; Zalasiewicz et al. 2015).

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Goose Creek Oil Field, Baytown, USA. US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accession no. LCCN2007661609, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007661609/.

It would seem that this “revolutionary” theory, the grand claim of the start of a new geological epoch and a new era of scientific knowledge, is based on a familiar concept: Europeans and Westerners as the leading agents of all worldwide developments. Just as they were traditionally held responsible for the First and Second Globalizations, the emergence of a scientific paradigm resulting from the Cartesian scientific revolution, and the rise of a dominant model of economic development, now they also become the main—or even the only—agents of a wholly new geological era.

Recent and not-so-recent historiographic revisions should make us, the Western history and science makers, aware of the limitations of thinking about the world only from our centripetal point of view. Prolific writings in global history or world history, mostly by non-European scholars, reveal, for example, the role of Asia in the making of Europe (Lach 1965), or how worlds have long been connected in an intricate way, even in the “First Global Age” (Subhramanyan 1997, 2007; Polónia 2015). Locality, polycentrism, and circulation are likewise concepts that help us to understand how science was not created in the West and transplanted elsewhere, but was forged through interactions and encounters in many localities, which shaped both knowledge itself and those who produced it (Raj 2007, 2009, 2010).

From this scholarship, we have learned about how the West—and more precisely the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American worlds—settled on monolithic patterns of science and labeled them as unique and revolutionary, totally forgetting the contributions of other European  (e.g., Portuguese and Spanish) cultural universes (Bleichmar et al. 2009). The way non-European cultures have also been excluded from the perception of what counts as “scientific knowledge” ought to be a warning to those seeking to define the Anthropocene as yet another in a long line of paradigm shifts that have the same small group of actors as their epicenter.

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Rice terraces, Indonesia. Photo by Tun.

Are the “other” worlds and the “other” ordinary citizens as enthusiastic about the idea of this “Anthropocene?” What does the expression mean to them? Should scientists not take into account truly global phenomena, resulting from a less linear and a much more complex paradigm than the one determined by colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, or the Great Acceleration? Perhaps scientists are being too presumptuous in ascribing large-scale phenomena—this time maybe even a new geological period—to such a small part of humankind and of the world.

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Dual Power. Dungeness nuclear power station, UK, versus wind power. Photo by Simon Ingram.

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Simpson Desert, Northern Territory, Australia. Photo by tensaibuta.

 

 

Bibliography

Bleichmar, Daniela, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan, eds. Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009, http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=8836.

Crutzen, Paul J. “Geology of Mankind.” Nature 415, no. 6867 (3 January 2002): 23, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v415/n6867/full/415023a.html (login needed).

Crutzen, Paul J.  and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter, no. 41 (May 2000): 17–18, http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf.

Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. https://books.google.com.co/books?id=0x1Io6VOuAIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bibliogroup:%22Asia+in+the+Making+of+Europe%22&hl=es-419&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj5ytXNgqXOAhVIBsAKHe2LDQYQ6AEIOzAD#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519, no.7542 (12 March 2015): 171–80, http://anthropoceneinstitute.com/sites/default/files/Nature_Defining%20Anthropocene.pdf.

Polónia, Amélia. “Think Globally, Act Locally: Environmental History as Global History in the First Global Age.” Asian Review of World Histories 3, no. 1 (January 2015): 43–66, https://sigarra.up.pt/flup/en/pub_geral.show_file?pi_gdoc_id=508418.

Raj, Kapil. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9780230507081.

Raj, Kapil and  Mary Terrall, eds. “Circulation and Locality in Early Modern Science.” Special issue, British Journal for the History of Science 43, no. 4 (2010). Introduction by Kapil Raj available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40962587?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

Schaffer, Simon, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo, eds. The Brokered World: Go-betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820. Uppsala Studies in the History of Science 35., Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2009, http://www.shpusa.com/shp_books/brokered-world/.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36, no. 8 (December 2007): 614–21, https://www.pik-potsdam.de/news/public-events/archiv/alter-net/former-ss/2007/05-09.2007/steffen/literature/ambi-36-08-06_614_621.pdf.

Subrahmanyan, Sanjay. “Connected Histories: Toward a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia.” Beyond Binary Histories: Re-Imagining Eurasia to C. 1830, edited by Victor Lieberman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999: 289–315.  Article version available here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/gurminderkbhambra/research/iasproject/1/2/subrahmanyam_connected_histories.pdf.

Subrahmanyan, Sanjay. “Holding the World in Balance: The Connected Histories of the Iberian Overseas Empires, 1500–1640.” American Historical Review 112, no. 5 (December  2007): 1359–85, http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/content/112/5/1359.extract.

Zalasiewicz, Jan, Colin N. Waters, Mark Williams, Anthony D. Barnosky, Alejandro Cearreta, Paul J. Crutzen, Erle Ellis, et al. “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optimal.” Quaternary International 383 (5 October 2015): 196–203, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618214009136.

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