Grief Encounter

Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising Human-Nature Relations (Abingdon: Routledge)

I’m fairly sure that Australia produces more essays on the Anthropocene per capita than anywhere else on earth. Most (not all!) of that Australian writing on the Anthropocene has a distinctive tone and orientation: a taste for relationality and interconnection, and an emphasis on communality and affective experience. Its ethical touchstones are principles of care and of living-with; it celebrates the embodied and the everyday.

British work on the Anthropocene has tended towards the empirical instead of the highly theorised (a thudding national stereotype, I know). North American contributors have perhaps been disproportionately concerned with the politics of universalism and with conservation issues, though such a high proportion of all work on the Anthropocene has come out of the US and Canada that it’s hard to generalise. But much more than those vague national tendencies, there’s a distinct Australian tradition of writing about the Anthropocene. I suppose there must be institutional and biographical connections tying it all together, though I don’t know what they are. Unarguably major figures in the environmental humanities like Val Plumwood, J.K. Gibson-Graham, and Deborah Bird Rose stand behind that tradition. Its main articulation so far, although there are a zillion articles, is the more or less all-Australian Punctum collection, Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene.

I’m temperamentally sympathetic to the Australian discourse on the Anthropocene. I appreciate its bonobo-like political outlook, and its rootedness in first-hand local research. I admire its full-blooded feminist sensibility, and in particular, the serious attention to the ins and outs of Indigenous Australian cultures and societies that’s a leading feature of much of the work. To the extent that I have reservations about it, it’s because I think there can be a whiff of intellectual harmlessness to it, and a shortage of actual position-taking. There are sometimes homilies in the place of graspable arguments. It can all get a bit bohemian, a bit fuzzy, a bit Lebowski-ish.

For Lesley Head, as for Claire Colebrook, Christian Schwägerl, and Stefan Skrimshire, an invocation of the Anthropocene is primarily a way of thinking about the future (whereas for me it’s been first of all a way of reckoning with the distant past). The Anthropocene, as it’s used by Head, is a counter-modernist trope: it’s what happens when you lose modernity’s faith in a linear, progressive march of time forward from a stable past. The “grief” of her title is the experience of losing trust in the unlimited possibilities of the future. It’s something quite different to the grief one might feel for the imagined pristine ecosystems of an illusory past: the latter is complicit in linear modernist time and thus a Bad Thing. Similarly, the “hope” is an alternative to modernist optimism about the future, an alternative that draws its strength instead from the “embodied practice” of the present (p. 75). Head’s Anthropocene is an experience of historical contingency, and of the looming threat of catastrophe—“an unimaginable time/space of potential catastrophe, of the undoing of modernity” (p. 49).

Head wants, in fact, to make a claim for the value of catastrophizing. She thinks that there’s a widespread cultural pressure not to dwell upon worst-case scenarios, and that that’s an undue constraint on responses to climate change. We need to “sit quietly with” our grief, she writes; “we need to learn how to have grief as a companion,” without succumbing to paralysis (pp. 32, 21). She recurs to the incident in which Ian Fry, a Tuvalan delegate at the Copenhagen climate talks, “wept” (or at least choked up) whilst addressing the gathered delegates in formal session.

All this leads on to a fairly diverse, even miscellaneous, set of chapters. Most of Hope and Grief is broadly about a nexus of issues to do with conservation ideology, weeds, novel ecosystems, land management, and rewilding. But there are other chapters dotted here and there on climate scientists’ private feelings about the future, and on the not-necessarily-terrible prospects for greening the suburbs of the developed world, plus some elements borrowed from a really good previously published essay on the Anthropocene and the Neolithic Revolution.

Amid all this, I bridled a couple of times. The No Lifeboats argument that climate change must inevitably reduce social inequality will keep cropping up amongst progressive types, despite all the evidence that the exact opposite seems to be true. In the coming crisis “there will be a forced reduction in the levels of inequality seen in late modernity, as the capacity to build up huge wealth through global capital disappears,” Head writes (p. 172). There’s a still stranger moment—in all fairness, a one-off, out of keeping with the rest of the book—when she decides that “to suggest that climate change is an impending catastrophe” in the presence of Afghan refugees “is definitely to talk from a position of privilege and affluence” (p. 108). First and worst, everybody. First and worst.

From erinaceus’s point of view, the most provocative chapter is the last one. In a way that recalls Latour’s state of war between the Earthbound or “People of Gaia” on the one hand, and the Humans or “People of Nature” on the other, Head proposes a contrast between the “Anthropoceneans” and the Moderns. The Anthropoceneans are “well-off citizens of the Modern world” who are conscientious enough to “try and remake ourselves” by turning to less destructive and less alienating lifeways (p. 167). The book’s critique of the existing order is essentially unwilling to go beyond that call for moral renewal: Head’s take-home proposal is that bourgeois environmentalism should adopt an outward-looking attachment to new forms of labour and habitat-making, in place of the dogmas of green puritanism. So “Anthropoceneans have relational not linear concepts of progress and causation.” They “understand how they are embedded in the earth.” They “live in uncertainty without stress.” They “are good at sharing.” And so on.

That means that Head doesn’t like the idea of “treading lightly on the earth”; on the contrary, what we need to do is to “maximise the conditions under which diverse life can flourish” (p. 170). For what it’s worth, I agree with that view as far as it goes. But if the qualities of tomorrow’s Anthropoceneans are presented as a free-floating list of desiderata, in the absence of any theory of social change… then all that’s just, like, your opinion, man.