Politics of Nature


A new type of rock found off the coast of Hawaii made of volcanic rock, seashells, and plastic. http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2014/06/rocks-made-plastic-found-hawaiian-beach .

“It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism…” – Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time.

A few weeks ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that called on the world to end its reliance on fossil fuels by 2100. “Since the 1950s, many of the observed changes [in the climate system] are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the report’s authors wrote, and concluded: “human influence on the climate system is clear.”[1] The report is one of many documents that speak to a question currently plaguing contemporary science: To what extent has human activity impacted the earth’s processes, and how should we characterize these impacts? One answer to this question is the concept of the Anthropocene. “Anthropocene,” as a scientific term, gained traction around 2000, when atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer used it to describe a geological epoch in which human activity has led to environmental, geological, and atmospheric change on a global scale. In the Anthropocene, the two argue, humans have assumed the role of a major geological force.[2] Crutzen and Stoermer locate the origins of the Anthropocene around 1784 (making it coeval with James Watt’s steam engine, itself a metonym for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and argue that it is an epoch in which we still live.[3] Since the article’s publication, the concept has sparked heated debate among scientists: Is there such a thing as the Anthropocene? If so, what kinds of evidence should we marshal to substantiate it?

Ultimately, as a question of geology, the Anthropocene's fate rests with the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a working group within the International Union of Geological Sciences. For geologists, the telling mark of a new geological epoch is a “golden spike,” or a sharp change in the fossil or chemical record that indicates a change in geologic strata. This group is tasked with assessing whether the term is: a) “scientifically justified”—in geological terms, that the golden spike of the new epoch is “sufficiently large, clear and distinctive;” and b) “useful as a formal term” for scientists.[4] (Notably, the group is largely comprised of geologists, but also includes historians John McNeill and Naomi Oreskes; one can’t help but wonder what Martin Rudwick would have to say on this whole phenomenon.) The working group is slated to vote on the term’s legitimacy in 2016.

Archeologists have also weighed in on the debate. These scientists largely embrace the idea of the Anthropocene, but argue that such an epoch should be dated back about 11,500 years ago to coincide with the emergence of agriculture (which, coincidentally, has heretofore been the accepted moment of the start of the Holocene).[5]

Climate scientists also locate the Anthropocene’s beginnings in the Industrial Revolution, but surprisingly argue that the best evidence in favor of a new geological era is not the marked increased global temperatures, but the decline in biodiversity, as this decline can be identified in the fossil record. (Indeed, in much of the discourse, climate change is generally downplayed as an Anthropocene indicator in favor of geological evidence.)

It has long been a standard line of argument to say that modernity—via capitalism and the exploitation of the earth’s resources on an industrial scale—was contingent upon, and gave rise to, a radical separation between man and nature. As Raymond Williams tells us, the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution were deeply dependent on “seeing nature quite clearly and even coldly as a set of objects, on which men could operate.”[6] This is the classic dichotomy between “nature” and “society” that Latour has long pointed to as a false distinction.[7] And indeed, the Anthropocene upends of much of this rhetorical work humans have done to distinguish themselves from the natural world. Pace Latour, however, I believe the Anthropocene collapses this distinction in ways heretofore unforeseen by scholars. Here, humans—via industrialization—are now so much a part of the natural world that they have become their own force of nature; in the logic of the Anthropocene, we broke free from nature only to come dominate it on its own, natural, terms and scales. The irony is not lost – capitalism as the ultimate naturalizer? But it is one of the many contradictions now inherent to our current state of affairs.  

This new wrinkle in the formulation of the nature/culture divide speaks to issues Dipesh Chakrabarty raises in his 2009 essay, “The Climate of History.” Chakrabarty argues that the modern climate crisis, in the context of the Anthropocene, demands a “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.”[8] Chakrabarty calls attention to another contradiction of the Anthropocene: As currently construed, Crutzen and Stoermer's periodization locates the beginnings of the Anthropocene in the Industrial Revolution, aka the birth of modern capitalism. At the same time, the Anthropocene, by definition, implicates humans, as a species, culpable for the current state of geological affairs. Herein lies the conundrum: If the industrial way of life is the cause of the Anthropocene, then why implicate the species as a whole for our current state of affairs? Chakrabarty questions the sort of Hegelian universal history that 'species’ implies (Are small-scale farmers in South Asia as much to blame for our current crisis as executives at Enron?); for him, capitalism may well be the more apt framework under which to operate when pursuing the history of climate change (although he ultimately and importantly refuses to reduce the whole of the narrative of human history to capitalism). Chakrabarty’s essay sparked a lively conversation among scholars--last year’s American Society for Environmental History conference included a roundtable of scholars who responded to the article, and Slavoj Žižek, in his 2010 Living in End Times, takes issue the idea of a "negative universal history" that Chakrabarty proposes as a possible way out of this contradiction--but the questions it raises are important ones: What does, or can, the Anthropocene mean for us as historians? Does it represent a new set of intellectual concerns and stakes, perhaps similar to those encompassed by global history, that is, the analytic categories related to capitalism and industrialization? (In this context, I wonder what the Anthropocene implies for historians who study pre-Industrial Revolution human-environment relationships?) Is it, as Latour might have it, an ethical question about how we relate to our technologies?[10] A new chapter in our imaginings of the meaning(s) of ‘nature’? In my next post, I’ll discuss two recent books—Ian Miller’s The Nature of the Beasts and Jussi Parikka’s Anthrobcene—that I feel fruitfully address these questions and successfully demonstrate how the Anthropocene can lead to dramatic and meaningful reinterpretations of the past.

[2] Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17-18.
[3] Crutzen recently announced that he has since changed his thinking about this periodicization, and now thinks the Anthropocene began much more recently to coincide with the beginning of the Nuclear Age. See http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059970036 .
[6] Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature” in Problems of Materialism and Culture (London: Verso Books, 1980).
[7] See Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
[8] Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 197-222, p. 201.
[9] Chakrabarty, 217.
[10] Latour, “Love your Monsters,” Breakthrough Journal (2012) http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters; See also Latour’s Artamis, or the Love of Technology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).


Fantastic post, Leah.

"Here, humans—via industrialization—are now so much a part of the natural world that they have become their own force of nature; in the logic of the Anthropocene, we broke free from nature only to come dominate it on its own, natural, terms and scales." - That's really interesting. Never thought about the Anthropocene as a means of attributing a natural historical, geological sort of inevitability to the effects of human society.

This brings to mind Hayden White's discussion of "Radical" and "Conservative" forms of the "tragic" emplotment in _Metahistory_. In both cases, a disaster or failed test makes the hero (and the audience) come to terms with the limitations imposed upon us by the world. In the former, we realize that the fall is of our own making, and maybe learn something about how we might behave in a manner better fitted to our world. In the latter, the fall is an inevitable consequence of the laws of nature and history.

I always thought of Anthropocene historiography as Radical, but as you point out here, it could equally well be taken in a Conservative direction. As if we didn't have enough to worry about.

Looking forward to reading the next installment!

Thanks, Evan! Bill Cronon has done a lot to introduce the work of White (and others) to environmental historians through his discussions of "declensionist" versus triumphalist narratives (for more on this, see his 1992 essay, "A Place for Stories"). In fact you've picked up on one of the core challenges of doing environmental history: where we choose to begin and end our narratives matters, not least because these choices have implications for how human action is portrayed. For example: Does our reliance on fossil fuels mean that we have irreversibly destroyed the earth? Or has it forced us to come to terms with the natural temporality of geological deep time in a way that makes us reconfigure ideas about our place in the natural world? Depending on how things turn out in the Anthropocene, the historical narrative of natural resource extraction may look very different fifty years from now.

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