What was the Anthropocene? A Look into Its Narratives

This post is part of a multi-year project, Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks (University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the introductory post for the blog series, click here.

There is a rich tradition of scholars wryly undercutting the moment in which they exist through a clever use of the past tense. In 1988, for example, Lance Olsen published “Overture: What Was Postmodernism?” in the Journal of the Fantastic in Arts. By most accounts, postmodernism was not over at that point, if it ever was. The question, especially about postmodernism, suggests that the era was never truly instantiated in the ways dominant narratives typically presume. Or, the question suggests that understandings of what made the cultural moment the cultural moment were misguided or poorly defined. And so, I ask, “What was the Anthropocene?”

Some might object to my positioning the Anthropocene as similar to Modernism/Modernity, Postmodernism/Postmodernity, or any of the cultural movements that have stood as temporal markers. “Modernism and postmodernism are cultural movements organized in response to social trends,” the objectors might say, “whereas the Anthropocene is observable change to the Earth System literally grounded in geologic evidence of change.” Some might point back to Olsen’s explanation of postmodernism: “Postmodernism is less a historical period, however, than it is an attitude, a mode of consciousness, a way of perceiving” (Olsen, “Overture: What Was Postmodernism?”).

Can we rightly say that the Anthropocene is not so much a historical period but an attitude, a mode of consciousness, a way of perceiving?

We can, and I would argue, we must.

This is not simply a matter of semantics, but of ideology.

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“The Anthropocene,” as a moniker, does ideological work. What, then, does the Anthropocene do, and who does it do it for? In asking this, I’m not referring to the geologic epoch itself (this question has been taken up by many others justifiably concerned by the unequal distribution of social, economic, and environmental harms that will be exacerbated in the Anthropocene); instead, I’m referring to “the Anthropocene” as a term and a concept. And, in short, the Anthropocene narrative works to perpetuate the same systems (read: settler colonialism and white supremacy) that have given rise to the changes in the Earth System that bring about a new epoch. This happens by positing not just a universal humanity, but by presuming all humans organize time the same way (as teleological and/or linear progress). These ways of organizing time justify de-humanizing others for the sake of excusing social practices that hurt both the human and more-than-human world. This is the central tenet of diagnosing environmental racism and environmental injustice: some people are seen/figured/treated as worth less than others, which allows for toxic dumping, habitat destruction, and the loss of culturally significant species.

As Dana Luciano writes, “the Anthropocene” gives narrative form to a host of complex, massive changes like climate change. And, she continues, “like any well-told story, [the Anthropocene] relies upon conscious plotting and the manipulation of feeling.” This is where the burgeoning work of the Environmental Humanities can add to the conversation. If we are to understand the narrative of the Anthropocene—not just as an epoch but as a cultural moment or mode of consciousness—we would do well to understand the operations of the narratives it mobilizes and their ideological impact. Cultural critics are particularly well trained for such work, especially those who work in the field of literary analysis.

Luciano’s work focuses primarily on the so-called Orbis hypothesis put forth by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin in a paper written for the journal Nature. Lewis and Maslin postulate that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be marked by the moment of contact and colonization (more specifically 1610) in what is now South America. For them, this moment marks the beginning of human systems—colonialism, genocide, and slavery—that had demonstrable impacts on atmospheric composition. Drawing on Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of the 1492 event, Luciano concludes that the Anthropocene, as a narrative, “is precisely the problem it is now up to us to solve.” It perfectly exemplifies “the global dissemination of a specifically Western idea of humanism that posits itself as universal but endlessly defers the truly universal distribution of the benefits it confers” by legitimizing and covering over the racial and colonial violence done in its name.

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Lewis and Maslin’s proposal for the Orbis date has been rejected on fairly firm grounds (see Clive Hamilton’s “Getting the Anthropocene so wrong” in The Anthropocene Review, which argues that Lewis and Maslin’s 1610 date provides no significant evidence of a change in the Earth System per se—a definitional requirement of a new epoch). Yet, Luciano’s point stands: the Anthropocene is a concept that universalizes human impact in the pursuit of placing all of humanity into a singular moment in time. The process of naming and denoting this moment follows the same Western scientific processes that have produced the social systems that have engendered massive Earth System changes. These changes, in turn, have been continually justified by suggesting that some human lives are, at some level, expendable. In short, the Anthropocene exists—as a narrative and as a geologic epoch—because of settler colonialism and White supremacy, which are inseparable from Western notions of progress and prosperity (See Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” 2007).

Taylor McHolm received his PhD in the Environmental Sciences, Studies and Policy program at the University of Oregon. He is currently the Program Director of the Student Sustainability Center at the University of Oregon.