Thursday 8 December 2016

The Anthropocene, Eurocentrism and Consensus

The Anthropocene is, as they say, a contested concept. This contestation has rumbled loudly along a number of fault-lines – none louder (or perhaps faultier) than the dispute between Clive Hamilton, on the one side, and the likes of Erle Ellis and Mark Maslin, on the other.

For Hamilton, the Anthropocene has to be defined principally in accordance with the principles of Earth System science; specifically, with regard to the shift of system state brought about by industrialised human activity. 'Industrialised' is the key term. The mere fact of human beings affecting their surroundings – something recognised for centuries – is beside the point.

For others, however, this is precisely the point (e.g.). Ellis and Maslin argue that an industrially-defined Anthropocene:
"[…] ignores thousands of years of human impact on Earth. To declare the start of human transformation of Earth in the 1950s fails to take into account the continuous nature of human-induced changes to our planet. Underlying such a claim is the view that only Earth’s most recent human populations possess the capacity to change Earth. Such thinking instils a Western, white-male, elite-technocratic narrative of human engagement with our environment that is counter to contemporary thinking in the social sciences."
While sharing many of these authors' convictions, I must confess that I find this claim to be rather misguided.

First of all, I agree with Hamilton that an 'early' Anthropocene defined in terms of human capacities for soil erosion, fire-based agriculture or continent-scale extinction is basically incoherent. It has to be defined explicitly in relation to a tipping point or shift of magnitude or the whole concept becomes basically arbitrary.

However, this is the least of the problems. The Anthropocene as a term has been widely criticised, not least by social scientists, for its construction on the Greek 'anthropos' – i.e. humanity. Since causality entails responsibility, a great many have pointed out that it is not humanity as such but, rather, that most industrialised, capitalised tranche of humanity that has brought about the new epoch.

Ellis and Maslin attempt to turn this critique on its head by suggesting that a denial of the 'early' Anthropocene entails a denial of the "capacity" of "all but Earth’s most recent human populations" (presumably they mean industrialised societies) "to change Earth" (note the capitalisation and absence of 'the,' conveniently blurring 'surroundings' and 'planet').

So, non-industrialised humans are left out of the Anthropocene club. Is this an exclusion or an exemption? Ellis and Maslin presume the former. It must be humanity as such that defines the Anthropocene – to say otherwise reinforces the narrative of "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic"…

While I would not presume to pronounce what the "contemporary thinking in the social sciences" is, I  suspect more than a few social scientists would take issue with this on any number of levels. It is like saying that nineteenth-century Indians, as human beings, had the capacity to colonise the British – undoubtedly true but also completely beside the point. There is a whole historiography on why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China before Britain. It could have done; it didn't.

This rather perverse universalist guilt-trip evaporates the moment one considers the question of magnitude.  Yes, humans have always "shaped the environment" – so have all mammals, animals, life. So what? Not every meteor strike is geologically significant, some are. Same principle.

It seems to me that the 'early' Anthropocene, if it is to make any sense whatsoever, must adhere to the following: The arrival of industrial humans was inevitable. Take pre-industrial humans and industrial humans follow as if it were a logical consequence. This is the only way all these myriad diversities can be lumped into the same boat.

And 'diversity' is the final point. Ellis and Maslin make a plea for the place of social scientists at the natural science table:
"It is time for the Anthropocene Working Group to move beyond its current status as a typical stratigraphic working group, formed of invited volunteers without a formal membership process or by-laws. 
We instead call for a dedicated scientific institution, perhaps called the International Anthropocene Commission, to coordinate this. It could be set up and funded by the International Union of Geological Sciences, Future Earth and the United Nations. Half its members should be drawn from anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, geography, paleoecology, economics and philosophy."
In broad strokes, this is something that I would be sympathetic with. However, there is a crucial difference between geology in particular and the social sciences and humanities in general. A single community-approved timescale is the backbone of the former, it is more or less irrelevant to the latter. Non-geologists can do their work without this consensus – and they will do, whatever happens.

Ellis and Maslin are right to point out that the institutional inauguration of a "human epoch" is an event with much broader and more profound consequences than the parochially geological. However, their strategy of blurring boundaries helps no one. Geology is not landscape ecology and it is not at all clear why it should be.

Above all, defending a post-1750 or post-1950 Anthropocene in no way, shape or form entails the presumption that non-industrial peoples are somehow 'in harmony with nature' or any of that outdated claptrap.

The "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic" concern is an important one but, in this case, thoroughly misconceived. Certainly, this means that more dialogue is needed between natural, social, political and human sciences. However, this is already happening without the forms of consensus that are the peculiar prerequisite of geology.

Dialogue doesn't mean collapsing differences. On the contrary, it requires heightened sensitivity to them.