Thank the Mouse Day

Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and how it Shapes our Planet, trans. Lucy Renner Jones (London: Synergetic)

Here’s my review of Christian Schwägerl’s enjoyable book, originally published in Green Letters, vol. 20, no. 1 (2016), pp. 104–7.

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In February 2000, Paul Crutzen travelled to Cuernavaca, just outside Mexico City, for the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP) annual conference. The IGBP was an international organisation coordinating research on Earth system science. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and vice chair of the IGBP, was one of the world’s most eminent scientists. He had received a Nobel Prize for his work underpinning the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. In Cuernavaca, Crutzen listened to researchers from the IGBP’s paleoenvironment project reporting on their work, referring frequently as they did so to the present geological epoch, the Holocene. He found himself suddenly impelled to speak out: “Stop using the word Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the… the… the Anthropocene!” (The precise form of his words varies slightly from telling to telling.) The delegates fell silent, but at the coffee break that followed they talked of nothing else. Their excited conversations were the beginning of a process whereby Crutzen’s moment of inspiration has come to shape the course of modern environmental thought.

Or so the story goes. The tale of Crutzen’s epiphany in Mexico offers an alluring starting point for accounts of the Anthropocene epoch, and it is true that these days, a decade and a half on, environmentalists of all stripes seem locked in debate—sometimes extremely heated debate—about the term that he proposed. Historians of science, however, are habitually wary of attributing transformative power to Eureka moments. Crutzen’s invocation of the Anthropocene fell within a long tradition of imagining a “human age” in the history of the Earth, and its purchase and influence depended upon the way in which it caught a sympathetic mood in the scientific culture of the early twenty-first century scientific culture—a mood illustrated by the existence of the IGBP itself. Nonetheless, the coining of the word has proved a landmark in ecological scholarship and politics. Scores of articles and papers have been devoted to contrasting expositions of the concept of the Anthropocene, and thousands more have at least drawn upon the term. Books are now starting to follow. Among them, Christian Schwägerl’s The Anthropocene most resembles Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene (Chatto and Windus, 2014) and Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age (Headline, 2014). All three take the concept of the Anthropocene as the starting point for broadly optimistic surveys of technological ingenuity and innovation in the face of the contemporary environmental crisis.

Vince’s book is the most accomplished of the three, a consistently illuminating account of grassroots climate adaptation based upon extensive travels through the countries affected first and worst by climate change. Ackerman’s The Human Age is a feast—perhaps eventually a rather too filling one—of artful prose, moving from speculations about the future of urbanism and agriculture under climate change to explorations of animal and artificial intelligence, prosthetics, and epigenetics. The virtues of Schwägerl’s The Anthropocene itself, meanwhile, include more extensive documentation than the other two books (although it lacks an index), and the most material on the idea of the Anthropocene epoch per se. Schwägerl is an environmental journalist, and he was one of the organisers of major exhibitions on the Anthropocene at museums in Berlin and Munich in 2014 and 2015. Here he draws on an abundance of curious research, with a reporter’s eye for an illuminating story and an engaging if utopian line of argument. He has made good use of his time spent with Crutzen (who provides a warm foreword): the book begins with a chapter of biography and ends with an interview between the two. Crutzen, now in his eighties, is among the most frequently cited and most creative of living scientists, and if Schwägerl’s account of him sometimes tends towards the hagiographic it is hard to demur very strongly.

For Schwägerl, the Anthropocene is at root a concept that sets itself against human/nature dualism. It names the participation of human beings within an intricately interconnected Earth system. That’s fine in itself; indeed, since the Anthropocene has quite frequently been lambasted as a dualistic and anthropocentric concept, it can hardly be said too often. On its own, however, it hardly makes the idea original enough to explain why so much debate has swirled around it. Instead, Schwägerl’s most distinctive contribution to the debate about the Anthropocene is the emphasis that he places on its opening up of temporal prospects. ‘From my perspective as a child,’ he writes,

my future had shrunk to a virtual speck under the threat of nuclear war. […] The Anthropocene idea opens the horizon to the next 2,500 years or the next 25,000, if not the next 250,000. For me, the Anthropocene is like a vantage point rediscovered: It creates the prospect of a deep future, of changes for the better. […] The Anthropocene is not a  ticking time bomb, nor is it an end-of-the-world scenario: rather, it is a beginning-of-the world scenario. (pp. 72–73)

But what sort of world might be beginning? There are a number of sore points in the debate about the Anthropocene. Crutzen has occasionally been accused, on the slenderest of evidence, of technocratic arrogance and a reckless enthusiasm for geoengineering. Schwägerl, drawing on their conversations together, sensibly rebuts that idea. It is plainly not the case that the Anthropocene is a Trojan horse for “an autocratic rule of academics”; on the contrary, it “poses a huge question about where power resides” (pp. 67–68, 194). Schwägerl is warmly enthusiastic about techno-scientific advance, nonetheless. He proselytises cheerfully for enhanced agricultural research funding, bioadaptive technology, green urbanism, “neo-nature” conservation, ecosystem services payments, and “open-source” biology—although for some reason he is repelled by synthetic biology and genetic engineering for medical purposes (which “embodies a brutish attitude towards life,” p. 164).

A second bone of contention has been the Anthropocene’s alleged universalism: a suspicion that the concept implicitly lumps together all human beings, from the Koch brothers to Mumbai slum dwellers, as if they are equally responsible for environmental degradation. Here Schwägerl’s response is more on the front foot: the Anthropocene’s supposed equalising tendencies might be ethically desirable rather than short-sighted, so “the Anthropocene could become a kind of forum in which all cultures have equal validity” (p. 65). That universalist spirit shows its downside when he lets through an occasional remark along the lines of his claim that “since the advent of the Internet, geographical borders have become virtually obsolete” (p. 131)—an assertion that no diplomat or military planner, let alone any refugee or labour organiser, would credit for a moment. At times, he seems to imagine that the future he hopes for has already arrived: “driverless cars can take us, as if by magic, anywhere we want to go; research laboratories make it possible for billions of people to give free rein to curiosity,” while “the mass-murderers of today can now expect to face the International Court of Justice in The Hague” (pp. 32, 76). (He means the International Criminal Court, which has so far convicted a grand total of two people.) When sketching a third persistent controversy, he chooses not to take a position. This is the debate about when the Anthropocene should be said to have begun: a few decades ago amid the post-war industrial take-off, or instead anything up to many thousands of years ago, on the basis of the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, the spread of fire-managed landscapes, the evolution of agriculture, or some other such prehistoric turning-point? Schwägerl remains neutral on the question, which might seem like admirable open-mindedness, but in fact rather misses the point. The “Anthropocene” means one thing to someone who thinks that it names the last sixty years, and something quite different to somebody for whom it names the last twelve thousand, so sitting on the fence gets you nowhere.

In any case, the final two thirds of The Anthropocene is really about the prospects for green technology in general, rather than the Anthropocene epoch in particular. That means its choice of topics can be capricious, but it is never dull, and even its eccentricities are likeable. In three separate places, Schwägerl envisages the establishment not only of an annual “Anthropocene Day,” but also of an annual “international public holiday” to celebrate the absence to date of a nuclear holocaust, as well as—my favourite—an annual “‘Thank the Mouse’ day” in honour of laboratory animals (pp. 218, 72, 168). More purposefully, he describes Crutzen speaking of “the creative strength that can be found in art and literature” as the chief source of hope for the future (p. 223). In a similar spirit, he writes of human-worked landscapes that, when seen from the air, look like “complicated scriptures, cancerous tumors, works of art, geometric patterns, military parades, bacterial cultures, or even large gardens” (p. 39). He imagines the earth melting away to reveal “just the infrastructure built by humans,” and how that would bring to light “an extremely delicate geological sculpture […] growing at present by 6 million metric tons of concrete a day” (p. 116). As Schwägerl helps to show us, we are just beginning to understand what new kinds of vision might be made possible by the idea of the Anthropocene.

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