What is the Anthropocene? – Reflections on Temporality

The purpose of this short essay is to introduce distinctions – distinctions which help us approach and diversify the problematic captured by the concept of the ‘Anthropocene.’ All this serves to establish the importance of temporality for understanding what is at stake, finally, in any scientific-political program conditioned by the Anthropocene thesis. The distinctions in question are a) between the Anthropocene as a scientific thesis and a cultural movement; b) between the environmental movement and the Anthropocene thesis more specifically, and c) between various forms of human temporality.

As is well known, the term ‘Anthropocene’ serves to propose a new, distinctly anthropogenic, epoch in geochronology, a subdiscipline of geology which, among others, backdates the age of rock formations, and aims to provide a macroscopic picture of the natural history of planet Earth. In its most neutral form, ‘the Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geological epoch in which human industriousness leave an objective mark on planet Earth as a whole.

However, to leave it at that would be to understand the Anthropocene as an interesting but local matter of a highly specialized subdiscipline: geochronology. One cannot fully grasp the meaning of the Anthropocene concept at this level. So, we introduce our first distinction. On the one hand, the Anthropocene is a scientific hypothesis formulated from within the existing norms of scientific discourse. As such, its acceptance relies above all on clarity of formulation, compatibility with existing knowledge, and the protocols of empirical method. On this level, it should also be remarked that the correct form of the ‘Anthropocene thesis’ is still under debate in the scientific community.

On the other hand, and this is where things get much more reflexive, the establishment of the Anthropocene thesis is also taken to condition a new epoch not in natural history, but in the history of our understanding of the relation between science, industry, politics, and environment. Here, the establishment (of some version) of the Anthropocene thesis is taken not as one scientific result among others – a statement about our natural environment –, but as an impulse to commence a new epoch in the (reflexive) position of humanity in relation to nature. The stronger this impulse for new beginnings, the more open and unfinished its proposed solutions – at least at first. Needless to say, the Anthropocene thesis in its full radicality implies that many of our concepts – nature, technology, Earth – are placed under suspicion.

The language on this second side is one of (collective) activation, reflexivity, care, subjectivity, ethics. This stands in contrast to the language of the first side, which concerns rock formations, geological epochs, modeling, and hypothesis testing. We would be wise to be vigilant about this distinction as well as to constantly check the relation between the two sides. It is certain that they do not stand in a simple relation of logical consequence, where the scientific ‘discovery’ of the Anthropocene would itself necessitate a new ethico-scientific stance.

To a large extent, the impulses gathered under the heading of the Anthropocene are continuous with those of the wider environmental movement. Both are fundamentally engaged in an (often scientific) critique of modern industrial society and aim for a paradigm change in science and politics. This raises the question: what does the Anthropocene thesis qua rallying cry add to environmental thought? In what ways does the Anthropocene go beyond environmental politics?

I will now briefly sketch an answer to this question, delineating some unique aspects of the Anthropocene as a new overarching category for environmental and ecological politics. To a large extent, what is new in the Anthropocene was implicit in earlier efforts, so there is no hard opposition between these projects. Nonetheless, the significance of such a shift in emphasis and framing should not be underestimated.

The concepts of ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ both strongly emphasize the spatial side of the matter. The environment or ecosystem are, after all, places in which we humans dwell. As the narrative goes, we must discover the natural environment as an extension of the spaces we live in, such that we can accept our stewardship over it. Nature is no longer a totally abundant resource for us to exploit; rather, it is itself a place that needs to be tended. Since Western imperialist civilization had been painfully forgetful of this fact, the environmental movement seeks to reconstitute the environment as a place which lies within the stewardship of humanity. Depending on one’s orientation one might emphasize different facets. One might stress the rational framework necessary to ‘manage’ nature’s resources sensibly, putting nature in the framework of economy – oikonomia: the management of our dwelling. Or one might stress the benefits of leaving nature undisturbed. But in both cases, ‘environmentalism’ privileges nature as a variety of places in the present now that require our care.

To put it simply, the Anthropocene shifts the emphasis to the temporal side of the matter. If ‘environmentalism’ privileges the cyclical temporality of the management of the household extended to include nature, the Anthropocene emphasizes deep historical temporality. And this includes both human history and natural history. This is indeed the meaning of the term Anthropocene: the epoch of natural and human history in which human technology altered the face of the earth. As such, the name indicates the very intertwining of human history and natural history. Before the Anthropocene, the relation between the two types of history was without real interaction or tension. But now, the history of human civilizations and technology intervenes in natural history.

The temporality of most human activity is best understood within the horizon of everydayness (Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit). Projecting a few days into the future, tending to our business, doing what one does. Companies and institutions are no different in this manner except that they tend to extend their temporal horizons somewhat. Where individual humans mostly orient themselves inside a timeframe of days and weeks, institutions regularly inhabit a frame of months or years. This relation to time seems to be the norm for humans. This temporality is mostly indifferent to the larger historical scheme. Moments in which a deeply historical awareness has an activating effect in our daily life are rare. But the possibility is certainly there. Historical temporality is a special and rare case of everyday temporality.

It seems to me that the Anthropocene thesis is of this order. It retrospectively identifies a historical event (the beginning of the Anthropocene) as the anchor point for collective activation in the present. But unlike other examples of humanity drawing inspiration from the domain of history (e.g. when the Russian Revolution drew inspiration from the failed Paris Commune), the Anthropocene thesis concerns both human history and natural history. As such, the Anthropocene marks the first attempt to extend human historicity (our capacity to ground our present-day activity in an awareness of our history) to include the domain of natural history strictu sensu (the history of the planet Earth). In other words, it means that we do not merely accept our stewardship over nature in the present. We also accept 1) our active involvement in the history of nature and 2) our capacity to activate ourselves not only by human history but also by natural history. The Anthropocene thesis makes an event at the intersection of natural and human history a defining condition of our own contemporary situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.