Five Maxims

Throughout this blog so far I’ve stayed pretty close to the arguments I made in The Birth of the Anthropocene. But in each post up till now I’ve also tried to add something new, rather than just reprising what I’ve already said in print. Since this will be the penultimate post on Made Ground this year, though, it seems a good opportunity to give a more explicit summary of the book itself. If you haven’t read The Birth of the Anthropocene but you’d like to know what its argument is, for the purpose of citation, disagreement, or mere curiosity, this post is for you… 

On pp. 108–10 of the book I boiled down my version of the Anthropocene epoch to five maxims or principles. (My version: an underlying point, though it ought to be too obvious to count as another maxim, is that the word Anthropocene means various different things in the hands of various different writers.) I haven’t changed my mind yet about any of the five, even if the second and the third are hardly distinct from one another, and even if the fourth and fifth might be better put the other way round. Here they are, in their original order:

First maxim. The Anthropocene epoch is a neocatastrophist concept. As the Oxford dictionaries put it, the neocatastrophist thesis is that ‘geological features and the evolution and extinction of living organisms have been influenced to a great extent by sudden and powerful natural events occurring at intervals, rather than having been mainly the result of slow continuous processes.’ The recognition that the Channelled Scablands in Washington, US were formed by gargantuan floods—an idea that met with prolonged resistance because it unnervingly recalled Noah’s Flood—is an archetype of the neocatastrophist turn in the Earth sciences, as is the theory that the land dinosaurs were undone by an extraterrestrial impact (even if volcanism also played a role in their demise).

Neocatastrophism has become the new normal in Earth science research since the 1980s or so. Where the planet had once been thought to evolve with stately slowness, it’s now seen to be characterized by unstable feedback loops that can bring about intermittent, relatively abrupt transitions between relatively well-defined geobiochemical states of affairs. That neocatastrophist paradigm is the essential basis for the idea of the Anthropocene, because it makes plausible the idea that an epoch-level change of state can have taken place in just the last few centuries, and can have been triggered mostly by changes in lifeways among just a single species. The idea of the Anthropocene epoch adds another item to the list of things (bolides, plate tectonics, and so on) that can occasionally spark rapid reworkings of the whole Earth system.

Second maxim.  The special properties of human beings are not the ultimate cause or origin of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is not “the time when humans control the planet.” The hypothetical end of the Anthropocene epoch need not be identical with the time when humans stop “influencing” or “dominating” or “being in charge of” the Earth system. Instead, intervals of the geological time scale are defined on a principle of sheer difference: the Anthropocene state of the Earth system is one that is different from the Holocene state of the Earth system, just as the Phanerozoic eon is defined by its difference from the Proterozoic. For now, the ecological configurations of this barely-begun Anthropocene epoch involve a multiplication of the influence on the biophysical world possessed by some human actors. But don’t get unduly hung up on the mere name: the Anthropocene is emphatically not a dualistic concept in which humans are set against nature.

Third maxim. It’s best to regard human societies, rather than “humankind” per se, as the distinctive world-making force that’s at work in the emergence of the Anthropocene epoch. Just as the Anthropocene is not a dualistic concept, so it isn’t a universalist one that implies that we humans are all in it together. Ecological transformations are provoked by the relations—class relations, trade relations, legal relations, power relations of all kinds—between relatively discrete and structurally antagonistic groups of human beings. And human societies aren’t made out of pure will and intellect, but out of bundles of human and nonhuman agents. One society is a bundling of humans, dogs, hazelnuts, needles, sarsen stones, deer, and sheaves of reeds. Another society bundles together microprocessors, blast furnaces, humans, phosphorus, rubber, corn, and radio waves. The interplay between those more-than-human social forces characterises the arrival and evolution of the new epoch. The Anthropocene is a new configuration —new in relation to the epoch that it supplants—of biogeological forces, and human-to-human relationships are inevitably amongst those that are reconfigured.

Fourth maxim. The only real matter of practical concern is the time of transition into the Anthropocene, not the Anthropocene epoch in general. We may imagine the Anthropocene as lasting indefinitely far into the future: for a hundred thousand years, say, or at any rate for far too long for anyone to sensibly worry about what will happen in its latter stages. What the world is experiencing is not so much “the Anthropocene” as the birth of the Anthropocene, the period of disruptive change between one geological epoch and the next. I’ve referred to the “end-Holocene event,” by analogy with the “end–Permian event” and so on that geologists identify at the end of other geological intervals. That transitional event could be said to have begun in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, and we can imagine it carrying on for at least the next seven generations (that is, throughout the life of the moral community to which we are bound, according to the definition usually attributed to a Native American thinker or thinkers). To witness the birth of a geological epoch is to be deeply enmeshed in one specific moment of geological history, not to be given an impartial grandstand view on the whole course of geologic time. So environmental politics should be concerned with influencing for the better the course of that transition into the new epoch over the years and decades ahead, not with impossibly grandiose dreams of conjuring into being a “sustainable Anthropocene.”

Fifth maxim. The reason that the idea of the Anthropocene epoch is something more than a piece of geological whimsy is that deep geological time has announced itself as a political factor. The evidence is found in newspaper headlines like the one I wrote about last week: “Planet at its hottest in 115,000 years thanks to climate change, experts say.” Human societies have always existed in relation to deep time in the simple sense that they are subject to evolutionary forces that have played out over geological time spans. But lately they have been plunged into deep time, willy-nilly, in an altogether new way, as matters of everyday political discussion become incomprehensible except with reference to timescales of bewildering vastness. When green politics has to confront geological time: that’s what makes the birth of the Anthropocene.