Dominance in the Anthropocene

In a the comments to a previous post by Michael- on the Anthropocene, Kai asked me a few questions. I’d like to begin to answer those questions, and this is a beginning. The best way I can think to answer them is in a few posts, so this one needs to be considered a kind of introduction. Here, I want to discuss how the Anthropocene is defined and touch on its relation to ontology and politics.

The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Homo sapiens, the breed of hominid that we are categorised as, has existed for a mere 200,000 years of this time. Despite our relative youth we have come to directly influence some 83% of the Earth’s land surface. A large part of this is dedicated to the production of wheat, maize and rice and to an ever expanding urban environment that marks the planet with industrial centres and a cicatrix of bright illuminations. In the last 150 year of our 200,000 year history we have consumed 40% of the Earth known oil reserves; the amount of atmospheric nitrogen contributed by fossil fuel combustion and the production of fertilisers out-paces that produced by all ecosystems; over 50% of the freshwater available on the planet has been appropriated for human use. The effects of human geointerventions are well known: extinctions, desertification, acidification of the seas, the irradiation of the crust and the oceans, global warming and the climatic effects this is having and will continue to have on all habitats. The Anthropocene, “the Age of Man”, is not an Enlightenment-style celebration or inauguration of our sovereignty as mastery over the natural world. Instead, it is an accusation and a judgement, a judgement of some humans against all human activity.

Periodisations, regardless of the facts to which they point, are never factual neutralities that are articulated dispassionately from a place of safety. There isn’t to be any disembodied Cartesianism or distanced beautiful soul in announcement of the Anthropocene. The establishment of a new geological era with its own bio-chemico-physical nexus of affects, the Anthropocene is more than mere finger pointing. It does more than say- “hey, look at the Earth’s crust. There is human detritus all through it!” What would the point of that be? No, the point is to establish that human activity is the cause of this new era. Periodisation is often seen as a particularly Marxist-Hegelian fetish in philosophy; a desire for carving history into this and that moment so as to produce a coherent linear narrative that both makes sense and can make sense. Is the Anthropocene just another period? Does the Earth care what we name it? To whom is the declaration addressed? These are the important questions.

The name isn’t the thing it names. I’m sure we all agree on that. The old distinction between the for-us and the in-itself. We’re all coming after the critique of correlationism after all. So when we name the name of the Anthropocene, what is this name referring to? It seems, quite naturally, to be referring to the geological period. But its more than that because it also names the intimate combination of geological time with human historicity. Paul Crutzen, who popularised the name, has written that it refers to finding humans in the geological record but also to the fact that ‘We humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth’ [1]. Particularly this is thought of as the ‘human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth’ [2]. For Crutzen, the evidence in polar extraction of carbon that we have deposited is only one variant of considerations of what the Anthropocene is, an era that must also include our capacity to manage life and habitats, to synthesis chemico-biological entities and to “read” and manipulate our own genetic code. He and his coauthor extend this to the radical alteration of planetary biodiversity not only as anthropogenic extinctions but also the way in which we redistribute biome populations across the surface of the planet. This occurs consciously by reintroducing species that disappeared from their endogenous habitats and nonconsciously via cooling and heating of various climatic regions. Beyond this, Crutzen and Schwägerl also comment on the possibility of imminent technological intervention in synthetic biology that might produce new entirely human made life forms.

According to Crutzen the Anthropocene began in the very late 18th Century, at a moment coinciding with the invention of the steam engine in 1784 [3]. Timothy Morton provides the exact date in a lecture as 1790, the year the thin layer of carbon now detectable in the geological record was deposited into the Earth’s crust: the anthropic finger print, the smoking gun that says this is when we showed up so that even if we disappeared we would remain. The material trace of the species-activity coincides with the emergence of industrialisation in the industrial revolution, a process usually dated as beginning in 1760. There is a truism that it takes 30 years for new technologies to transform from being concentrated in the hands of an elect few to being produced for mass consumption. In this positing of chronology of the Anthropocene we see this radically accentuated into the movement from an elect few sites to the materiality of the Earth itself.

There are those who contest this version: This is a global narrative that wants to to be a nice neat periodisation just-so story, one that lays the blame at the feet of capitalism and its destructive capacities. The argument of these critics is that pre-industrial geointervention had a more sustained drawn-out impact on planetary systems. Part of this is because although the population was significantly smaller in pre-industrial societies the intensive use of agricultural methods were already ecologically unsustainable. For these critics the industrial hypothesis misses the point that ‘the greatest damage we do to the Earth, and thus by far the greatest threat to our own survival, comes from agriculture’ [4]. Similarly, Jared Diamond [5] has argued that agriculture was an horrific ‘mistake’ and a ‘catastrophe from which we have never recovered’. Chief among the charges is that the agricultural revolution instigated monoculture and the clear of forest and draining of wetlands. Biodiversity gave way to bioidentity via process of purge and destruction that was maintained by ploughing, the introduction of natural predatory species, and, later, through the use of herbicides. Summarising this position Stuart Brand has claim that ‘[t]o an ecologist, or to a Gaian for that matter, agriculture is one vast catastrophe’ [6]. Agriculture is seen as either a mistake or an evil insofar as it is a deviation from natural processes:

while Palaeolithic human systems did indeed transform most of the terrestrial biosphere, this was mostly in directions the biosphere had already seen before. Agricultural human systems are another matter [7].

Among the more interesting claims of this group of people are those made by Jared Diamond that around 12,000 years ago such deviation led to the capacity to stockpile food and thereby introduce the first social inequalities that would evolve over time into the structural material inequalities of today’s world (placing thermo-politics at the core of all inequalities). Yet these compelling political arguments operate on a different register to those ontological arguments about when the Anthropocene was born. If the Anthropocene refers primarily to the time when human activity and geological temporality intersect then it doesn’t matter when the activity that led to the Anthropocene began, what matters is when it became detectable in the Earth’s crust.

This seems like a ludicrously simply point. The Anthropocene as a period of history isn’t a narrative about human action that begin with the industrial or the agricultural revolution: it is a determination that at a given point in time the material trace of the geointerventions of our species-activity became indelible and disconnected from the continuation or discontinuation of that activity. The Anthropocene begins when we find ourselves reflected in the crust as in a noncorrelational mirror: when we look into the geological record we don’t find our own specular image reflected to us. Indeed, we look into the mirror and discover that it was never a mirror at all. If the Anthropocene is a narrative then this is because it is inserted into narratives. For the kind of theological animal and coping-being that we are this is essential. Facts always appear to us as fragments of stories. And in the stories of the Anthropocene, we aren’t the protagonist. In the stories about the Anthropocene beginning in agriculture we see political and ethical arguments that aren’t while attached with the ontogenesis of the Anthropocene seem to detect its birth in an equally linear, neat just-so story about leaving hunter-gatherer societies that are more to do with an ontological genealogy of the Anthropocene. In effect this story is telling us that the child was born at the same moment as its parents. This problem is the important one here, but in another post we might prefer to focus on these arguments proximity to those advanced by people like John Zerzan and primitivism- a pseudo-anarchism that would have us destroy all technological means of manipulating the world (including language), plunging us into our most primordial primate past.

Ontologically the agricultural fable also reintroduces the very nature-culture distinction that the facts of the Anthropocene have materially collapsed, and which our ecological-machinic philosophies are catching up with. Many of the critics of the industrial hypothesis will point out that it reproduces a dichotomy that goes: industrial=bad, natural=good. The supposedly natural pre-industrial past is also revealed as bad in the agricultural hypothesis and so industrial=bad, natural=bad. Except that the original dichotomy isn’t so much as deconstructed as temporally displaced so that it becomes industrial-agricultural=bad, hunter-gatherer=good. Far from undermining the bifurcation of nature into the natural and the cultural the agricultural hypothesis merely expands the cultural in order to privilege a more circumscribed and purified version of the natural. The myth of the Fall is retained with only a technical modification inscribed into the formative original sin, and the binary ontological domains are retained. By implication the human is seen to have betrayed or sinned against nature and turned to the production of the  evil cultural domain. This maintenance of the bifurcation is often deployed for admirable political ends but in partaking of the geophobic and somatophobic cleavages of humans from Earth these critics only serve to extend and exacerbate the problem they are trying to undermine.This is most clearly seen in the Ellis quote above where natural systems and human systems are seen as separate and where those human systems are implicitly some kind of aberration or defamation of the natural. Rather than producing a ground for claims to human responsibility such discourses seem better placed for despairing guilt that paralyses action.

Crutzen has already discussed early human’s skilled use of fire as placing us on the trajectory to the Anthropocene. As he says, fire kept predators at a distance, allowed us to cook our food and make it easier to eat and digest, increased our diet from vegetarian to omnivorous and (this claim is controversial) resulted in increased brain size and thus mental capacities.   What he doesn’t discuss is the way that the skilled use of fire didn’t arise from a disembodied consideration of how to increase food stocks or aiding digestion but from embodied experience. Fire showed up to us most likely as a threat: lightening striking trees, explosion, burning, heat. But from a distance it kept us warm and we probably noticed that food stocks and meat were altered by its presence. Maybe we ate and it tasted good. At some point we began experimenting and managed to make fire ourselves. The only reason this is possible is because fire showed up for us a danger and then a potential benefit, always as both: it can hurt but it can keep us warm and make food taste good. Fire appeared to us as it did in part because of its bodily significance to our species and we manipulated it because of the bodily possibilities it opened up and closed down for us (I’m necessarily leaving out the complex interaction of the fire’s chemical composition and its interaction with its fuel and so on). The point I’m trying to gesture at is already well known: humans are prosthetic animals that have always augmented themselves, that have always had a techne as part of our materio-metabolic engagement with the environment and our own flesh. The importance of this is that it positions us as always between any supposed bifurcation of being into natural and cultural insofar as it has always been part of our natural composition to produce cultural artefacts. There was never a fall and never a turn from one domain to the other. Is man-made fire natural or cultural? Does it exit one kind of being and enter into another? While we’re at it, does the ant colony comprise a kind of insect cultural artefact? Is the shape of a cloud some kind of atmospheric architecture aside from nature? The upshot of this line of thinking is that the nature-culture divide is completely rejected (although this isn’t the only or even the best reason for doing so- eg. flat ontology etc.). Whether you walk through a forest or a city, you are still in a natural environment.

From all this we can ask whether the Anthropocene is the Age of Man or whether it is the geological era of mankind? I have to say I can’t see a difference. To suggest that the Anthropocene is the former might be to declare that the long awaited mastery of nature has been complete and that now, for the first time, we are able to say that history has begun, that communism is just around the corner. But I don’t see why. After all, the Anthropocene reveals just how far our mastery of nature is precisely not a mastery. We have been blind to much of the impact of our activity and even as it reveals itself to our eyes today we look away toward our own capitalist utopianism of infinite growth and technological fixes. We’re fast approaching water scarcity and already the air we breath is pathogenic. We poison ourselves and other species. We destroy the very conditions for our own supposed mastery while Earthquakes and tsunamis smash apart our atomic pretensions. To say that we have become dominant isn’t at all to say that we have become masters.

We see ourselves as masters in very short temporal spans. We have mastered coal extraction, perhaps…but we think so only until we see the then invisible but now very visible effects of processes of extraction and the burning of that coal. We transform matter but matter doesn’t lie waiting forever to be transformed, to be given form, to be shaped and welded by homo faber. Matter resists and acts back. We discover the object and the object discovered us. We invent the object and the object invents us. We rewrite the genome and the genome will rewrite us. A great symbol of one kind of mastery: the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What mastery? The unknown effects continue to play out. The point is that we’re much more like amateurs pretending to know they’re doing, trying most of all to fool themselves. The ‘geological age of man’ is the very fact of the human influence on core ecological and geological functions. But the one isn’t separable from the other.

The Anthropocene, aside from any stories elsewhere, is precisely an expression for the age in which an ontological assemblage composed of eco-geological processes and human species-activity emerges. The Anthropocene is a periodisation, undoubtedly, but it is also the horizon in which this new geocorporeal incorporeal- not reducible to human bodies or to  geological bodies but distributed across them- is formed. Thus the Anthropocene is not itself a being or a way of being but an ontological-existential horizon that determines and delimits the possibilities and potencies of bodies. At its heart, I see the Anthropocene as period that is also the name of a new way of the human species making contact with the geologic and the ecological in which there is a temporary asymmetry of spatial dominance. 

If the Earth doesn’t regard us as particularly dominant this is in part because it lack the apparatus to do so. Beyond that simple point, it is because we’re a blip in geological time. Nonetheless our species has become the dominant force on Earth in Earth’s various planetary systems. Yet this too must only be a short-term dominance. Climate change displaces our dominance as the planetary systems react to our interventions and we are placed into a reactive position, as Kai has it in a comment on a previous post. If our position is reactive it is because we’re forced into reacting to, managing, producing responses to the Earth own responses to our activity. We need to be careful here not to identify dominant with active and reactive with passive: both are positions of activity that are mutually implicated and implicating. Recall that for Nietzsche, active forces were those that sought to work only on themselves in order to expand, to grow, to express and create while the reactive forces were those that worked on the active forces to try and calm, domesticate, neutralise them. Our dominance has thus only ever been reactive, even at the height of our activity. If I have emphasised the temporal aspect of this dominance it is because it is a situation that can’t be extended indefinitely. As the most active force on Earth in the Anthropocene we are always also the most reactive force, attempting to bring under control active forces that can’t be brought under control in the last instance- not least because for the species and the planet the last instance is always extinction. Even in the spatial perspective it would remain the case that while we are the excessive element it is still an excess that is reactive.

This reply hasn’t touched on all the points that kai raised. Specifically, it leaves out my use of the concept of nature in reply to him. Suffice for now that to me nature isn’t a concept about harmony or the ‘green nature’ that human perceptual systems are capable of rendering. In a future post I’ll discuss what I mean by “nature”, and why I retain the term after it has fallen into philosophical disrepute. I think it is here, and in a broader discussion of active and reactive forces, that the concept of nature as I understand it will be better understood. Those will come soon.


[1] Crutzen, PJ. and Schwägerl, C. 2011. Living in the Anthropocene: Towards a new global ethos. Here.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Crutzen, PJ. 2002. Geology of Mankind. Nature. 2002. 415;23.

[4] Lovelock, J. 1991. Gaia: The practical science of planetary medicine. Gaia Books

[5] Diamon, J. 1987. The worst mistake in human history. Discovery MagazineHere.

[6] Brand, S. 2010. Whole earth discipline: why dense cities, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, restored wildlands, radical science and geoengineering are essential. London: Atlantic books. p.134.

[7] Ellis, EC. 2011. Anthropogenic transformation of terrestrial biosphere. Philosophical transcations of the Royal Society. 2011;369. pp.1010-1030.  (p.1012).

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