Making the Anthropocene

Scott McLemee reviews some of the many books coming out this spring and summer with the term in the title or clearly hinted at as the focus.

April 5, 2019
Documentary that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018

A search of the Library of Congress catalog for the keyword “anthropocene” returns 479 items -- mostly books, although there is also a journal called The Anthropocene Review. So far, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a documentary that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, is not listed in the library’s database. (Update: In the hour or so since I started to write this column, the catalog added its 480th item.)

Paul Josef Crutzen, an atmospheric scientist and Nobel laureate in chemistry, was not the first scientist to suggest that the cumulative impact of human activity defines a distinct era in the planet’s history, but his use of the neologism at a conference in 2000 popularized the term. Divisions of geological time are usually defined in the millions of years (except for the long ones, of course). So the International Commission on Stratigraphy has been understandably circumspect about endorsing a label for a period that its own working group on the matter indicates has not even lasted four millennia yet.

Whatever its scientific status, the anthropocene started coming into its own as a cultural reference point over the past decade: it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, and a solid 25 percent of the Library of Congress keyword results are for books published in (or scheduled for) this year alone. And it has been turning up under far-flung subject headings. That a textbook on environmental microbiology would discuss the anthropocene is hardly surprising. But The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner? There’s a connection you don’t see coming.

In their spring and summer catalogs, North American university presses have a number of volumes with “anthropocene” in the title or clearly hinted at as the focus. Here follows a quick survey of a few of them. The publication dates are taken from the publishers’ descriptions, as is material appearing in quotation marks unless otherwise indicated.

Implicit in the very concept of the anthropocene is the question of whether it can continue -- and if so, for how much longer. Proposing we “contemplate that the threat we pose to the Earth might demand our own species’ demise,” the philosopher David Wood offers “an unfashionable but spirited defense of an enlightened anthropocentrism” in Reoccupy Earth: Notes Toward an Other Beginning (Fordham University Press, April). Humans are creatures of habit, and “while many of our individual habits seem perfectly reasonable, when aggregated they spell disaster.”

Enjoying the “privileges of reason,” Homo sapiens now “must demonstrably deploy it through collective sustainable agency,” which means cultivating new ways of life “affirming the ways in which we are vulnerable, receptive, and dependent, and the need for solidarity all round.”

Updated by the author for its translation from the German edition, Andreas Weber’s Enlivenment: Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene (MIT Press, March) takes aim at “Enlightenment-style thinking that strips material reality of any subjectivity.” It leads us to believe that “humans control nature” when in reality “humans and nature exist in a commons of mutual transformation.” Taking our seat in the “common household of matter, desire and imagination,” we may begin a profound transformation or “enlivenment.” The reference to Weber's work as being "updated" has a puzzling aspect, insofar as the whole argument sounds like a reprise of ideas developed by German philosophers 200 years ago.

One neologism does have a way of leading to another. Glenn A. Albrecht’s Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (Cornell University Press, May) provides an assortment of them, as “needed to describe the full range of our emotional responses to the emergent state of the world.” The most noteworthy is solastalgia, “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” -- as felt, perhaps, by residents of a neighborhood disintegrating from a lack of water, or from too much of it. Besides an enhancement in the language of feeling, the author champions “the revolution in thinking being delivered by contemporary symbiotic science.” On the other side of the anthropocene, the author sees the potential for a new period he calls “the Symbiocene.” Any reminder of an episode in the life of Patty Hearst is surely unintended.

For anthropologists to discuss the anthropocene seems like a matter of course. But the contributors to Anthropos and the Material (Duke University Press, May) -- a collection of papers edited by Penny Harvey, Christian Krohn-Hansen and Knut G. Nustad -- are at least as concerned with their discipline’s ongoing self-scrutiny as they are with the ecological challenges facing the cultures they study. The 10 ethnographic case studies making up the book “range from labor, economics and colonialism to technology, culture, the environment, agency and diversity,” focusing on “lively encounters between the human and the nonhuman.” The latter category entails nature and technology as well as those portions of a culture dedicated to transactions with supernatural worlds.

Worry about the anthropocene, in short, is no excuse for being anthropocentric. As it happens, the editors of Scientific American agree. “One problem with the term,” they wrote in December, “is hubris: naming a geologic era after ourselves suggests a certain awe at our own magnificence … A second indictment is that ‘Anthropocene’ implicitly blames the entire human race for a crisis caused by a relative few. Surely the 'Man of the Hole,' the last survivor of an uncontacted hunter-gatherer tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, bears less responsibility for our present predicament than, say, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was CEO of ExxonMobil.”

And then there’s the ultimate in lame evasions: blaming the destruction wrought on the planet on “human nature.” The Scientific American editorial’s author seems to pay indirect tribute to the Duke volume by directing us “to anthropologists, who point out that people have repeatedly figured out how to live within their ecological means and even thrive.” The question now is whether people in the most heavily industrialized and commodified societies in human history can also manage to do so.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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