Sunday 20 March 2016

Not just another Anthropocene book: "The Shock of the Anthropocene" by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

I must admit that I feared the worst. For a while now, perhaps since the RGS-IBG conference last September, I have been experiencing something like Anthropocene overload. So many opportunistic declarations of it being the new, big, scary/wonderful thing; so many furious denunciations of the very idea (some convincing, many not); and so few substantial intellectual contributions to the debate, one way or the other.

From various sources, I had heard that a new book by a pair of French historians titled The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us was worth reading. Published in French in 2013 (as L'événement anthropocène: La Terre, l'histoire et nous), the English translation has been with us for a few months now. Finally, last week I got my hands on a copy and got to reading.

Initial impressions aggravated my underlying Anthropocene fatigue. Chapter 1: "Welcome to the Anthropocene" – if I see another op-ed or book chapter that opens with this line, I think I will get a headache. On the upside, my list of "-cene" neologisms has been extended by six. Here's the list from before, assembled from various sources over the past year or two:


And now I get to add, from this book:


However, my fears and prejudices were wholly misplaced. Bonneuil and Fressoz have written a meticulous, timely and much-needed work. Neither seeking to dismiss nor diminish the Anthropocene as an event, nor propounding it with the giddy overexcitement of so many popularisers, nor contenting themselves with pointing out the obvious criticism: that it is in no way "anthropos" in the sense of the human species as a whole that has brought about this event (although they do make this point, and well).

It is a rich and complex text, one that I will not attempt to summarise in any great detail (read it!). The book consists of 11 chapters, divided into three parts. The first outlines the Anthropocene concept and debates around it; the second criticises the concept with regard to the grand narrative it has tended to promote; the third, and most significant, part of the book weaves together a quite encyclopedic synthesis of historical knowledge (some of it based on original readings of primary texts, much of it tying together the vast but somewhat scattered relevant literatures), encompassing intellectual, conceptual, environmental, economic, political, geopolitical, sociological, ecological (and more) histories.

The most original argument it makes, I think, concerns its refutation of various theories and grand narratives that have been popular since the 1990s (and have become heavily associated with the Anthropocene concept). Specifically, ideas like Ulrich Beck's reflexive modernisation, Peter Sloterdijk's explicitation and Bruno Latour's modernist constitution. All, the authors argue, share the presumption that in recent decades we have witnessed the raising to awareness of the consequences of technological, scientific, industrial and economic productivity in a way that is somehow unprecedented.

Against this, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue most forcefully that:
"The problem with all these grand narratives of awakening, revelation or arousal of consciousness is that they are historically wrong. The period between 1770 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society." (76)
They continue:
"[…] it is clear that the moderns possess their own forms of environmental reflexivity. The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing." (196)
In all kinds of ways, the intensive worldly awareness said to be characteristic of the Anthropocenic future is shown to have precedents in the early days of the Industrial Revolution (and after). The sensitivities were never absent, they were repressed, forgotten, scrubbed out – hence "Agnotocene." And so the post-1990s cry of "but we did not know!" rings hollow. Ignorance, no less than knowledge, is also something produced; it also has a history.

This is an agenda-setting work, however it is also a modest one. The authors admit that their analysis, thorough though it is, is only preliminary. It closely parallels (though thankfully does not overlay!) much of what I am working on for my PhD thesis. There are some points on which I find myself in disagreement. By emphasising, with evident justification, continuities that had been repressed or forgotten, they merge and run together some important distinctions that still need to be identified and understood. (This is more or less the criticism made of their work by Jacques Grinevald and Clive Hamilton in their important article from last year.) Moreover, there are some points of detail that, on the basis of my limited learning, seem to be questionable. (This will need more work on my part.)

A more nuanced version of the explicitation/reflexivity thesis could still be made, pointing out that it was never a question of a binary shift from unawareness to awareness but rather a gradual trend from one to the other. Therefore, pointing out precedents does not, in and of itself, disprove the thesis. One would also have to demonstrate a comparable degree of incidence – i.e. just because examples can be found does not mean that they had anything like the same degree of influence or importance as they do now.

Bonneuil and Fressoz have certainly assembled, via well-established historical literatures (see, for example, the works of Richard Grove or Clarence Glacken) but also under their own steam, a compelling archive of examples to bolster their claims. Nevertheless, I am inclined to wonder to what degree the ideas and practices identified can be said to have suffused the societies in question. My own work will look at political and geopolitical thought during this time period and, from my research so far, the explicitation/reflexivity thesis might still have some life in it from this point of view. Another interesting angle, one that I am slowly investigating through my own work, is to think about science fiction (and perhaps other genres of speculative fiction) as potential benchmarks or tests of incidence and influence. As Kim Stanley Robinson put it, commenting on his trilogy of novels on climate change (published between 2004 and 2007):
"If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused."
Is this something that could only be said in the 21st-century? My feeling is that it would be far too simplistic to answer this question with either a yes or no answer.

The point of a book such as this is clearly not to achieve finality or answer every question. However, if you are going to read just one book on the Anthropocene (besides the one by my supervisor, obviously), The Shock of the Anthropocene is very much worth your consideration. The synthesis they assemble, the sources they bring to light, the heuristics they offer, and the provocations they make – all render this, in my perhaps not disinterested view, an important book indeed.