What was the Anthropocene? A Look into Its Narratives Part 2

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 first post from Lisa Sideris, click here.

The Anthropocene implies that all people exist under the same orientation of time and its purported linearity. For indigenous peoples, who operate on different calendrical models tied less to geologic strata and more to cultural memory and their own structures of the universe, it simply cannot be the Anthropocene. Kyle Powys Whyte offers such an alternative worldview in his essay “Our Ancestor’s Dystopia Now.” He demonstrates that, for his Anishanabe community, the dystopian future for which the Anthropocene acts as a harbinger exists not as a distant future, but as a lived present. For his ancestors, the notion of a world radically and existentially altered is not something to come, but something that happened many years ago. To suggest the Anthropocene exists at all is to disregard the plurality of human existence and experience in favor of a single narrative, a story that grants authorship and authority to a group of (mostly) white men who profess to speak for all humanity.

Scholars working in the disciplines of cultural analysis (and literary analysis, in particular) accept that narratives are not simply stories, but rather are ways of organizing life and life experiences. Narratives simultaneously reflect notions of reality and create them by offering a framework for understanding. In this moment, when a group of geologists seeks to position all of humanity under a single temporal scale, it is therefore necessary to engage stories that offer counter-narratives to the colonial frameworks that dominate the Anthropocene.

A number of great works of recent literature fit this bill and question the bedrock of white supremacy and settler colonialism upon which the Anthropocene—as both a cultural construct and as a geologic epoch— is built.

Mat Johnson Pym Cover 8501708

Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011), for example, creates an allegory of a world made by humans, tracing the role of the pastoral form and its celebration of an idyllic environment without labor. Through Pym, readers see clearly the argument that Raymond Williams made decades ago about the pastoral: ignoring labor means ignoring laborers. In the context of the US, with its legacy of settler colonialism and slavery, the move to create an idyllic paradise means being entirely blind to these systems. Pym weaves together strands of the pastoral literary form, race, colonialism, climate change, and an idealized/ignorant vision of the environment. In the novel, such weaving makes visible how the Anthropocene is as much a cultural product as the forms of environmental representation that have produced a vision of the Earth. Places of White relaxation and recreation, represented in the novel by a Thomas Kinkade-like painter manifesting his idyllic vision in a petroleum-fueled biodome in Antarctica, become spaces of racial and environmental violence. The labor performed to maintain the biodome is done in part by the novel’s African-American protagonist as a way of repaying the artist for taking him in out of the cold. Moreover, the heat exhaust from the biodome’s furnaces blows directly into underground ice tunnels inhabited by a mythical race (or species—this is part of how the novel engages the question of race) of white beings, causing the cave system to melt and producing an eventual war between the white beings, the narrator’s African-American exploration crew, and the artist who created the biodome. In short, racist fantasies of environmental construction come crashing down as the biodome explodes killing everyone and everything except for the narrator and his best friend. (If this all sounds crazy, it’s supposed to. The novel is a hilarious read.)

Sesshu Foster Book Cover

Another great example is Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005). The novel is written from the position of imagining the world as it might be, had the Aztecs defeated European attempts at colonization and became a global superpower. As such, the novel rejects Western forms of time and even subjectivity: there are two prominent voices in the book (which may or may not be the same person) in two distinct time periods of the universe (which may or may not each be real). The productive capacity of the book comes from its refusal to give the reader enough information to understand the multiple speakers and universes as alternative versions of one another or to either confirm or deny that one is any more real than the other. This destabilizes Western modes of understanding the world. In the book, alternate realities exist side-by-side, says the narrator, like 45s stacked up in a Wurlitzer jukebox. Alongside the numerous co-existing realties is the possibility of understanding time in numerous ways. In short, the narrative structure of the novel is determined by the “cyklikal notion” of Aztek time, which holds that there is no future, no past, and no present. (This messes with time in a similar way to Kyle Whyte’s phrasing of an ancestor’s future dystopia now – the narrator constantly says things like “this will have happened to me in the past”). As such, a linear narrative is nonexistent, and so too, to some extent, is plot (which in literary analysis we understand as story told across times).

This is key to the power of the book’s ability to draw attention to and disrupt how the Anthropocene and its temporal framework do the ideological work of further instantiating oppressive social systems like settler colonialism. Mark Rifkin, in his recent book Beyond Settler Time, notes that much contemporary scholarship and theory about Indigeneity relies upon an acceptance that native peoples “inhabit the same time as settlers . . . without ceasing to be authentic” (viii). This claim is, in large part, a necessary corrective to the lived reality of Native peoples being seen as forever vanishing, unable to be modern and forever relegated to a past when there were “real Indians” who were not sullied by the ways of the white man. The claim, in other words, counters a kind of purity argument that racializes Native people through temporalizing them, suggesting that the only “real” Indians are those who have never been influenced by non-Indians. So, the articulation that Native peoples are not resigned to the past is a necessary, even if somewhat painfully obvious, correction.

Mark Rifkin Beyond Settler Time

However, that correction is not without its own harmful results. Rifkin argues that “asserting the shared modernity or presentness of Natives and non-natives implicitly casts Indigenous peoples as inhabiting the current moment and moving toward the future in ways that treat dominant non-native geographies, intellectual and political categories, periodizations, and conceptions of causality as given—as the background against which to register and assess Native being-in-time” (viii). In short, this move disregards the worldviews of Native peoples, particularly their notions of existing in their own times and calendars.

Rifkin’s subject is not the Anthropocene, but his argument is aptly formed for use as a critique of it. The Anthropocene is a shared modernity taken to a planetary extreme. It forces not just Native peoples, but literally everything, into a shared time defined by the same processes and same positions of power that have been historically responsible for altering the Earth System. In the process, it covers up and potentially erases those worldviews that may be essential to dealing with the social and environmental crisis the Anthropocene names. Works of art and literature give us an opportunity to inhabit alternate realities, however briefly and imaginary. Through their study, we can also unravel the hidden narrative and forces within “the Anthropocene” itself.

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. He can be reached via email: attmcholm@uoregon.edu.