Scene Setting

Jamie Lorimer, “The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed,” Social Studies of Science 47:1 (2017), 117–42

It’s a fun title, and the article doesn’t disappoint: this is now the best and most up-to-date short survey of scholarship on the Anthropocene, succeeding Noel Castree’s work.

Lorimer published one of those Such-and-such in the Anthropocene books a couple of years ago (Wildlife in the Anthropocene, in his case). But this essay is a far more substantial account of the discourse on the Anthropocene than the one he offered in that book. The bibliography runs to more than seven pages, and it’s dense with recent and significant scholarship.

The cut-off date for Lorimer’s guide seems to have been September 2016 (the article has been available since the end of last year; this blog isn’t usually quite as current as I’d originally intended). His boast that it’s based on “an extensive reading of the burgeoning Anthropo-scene literature” published up to that point (p. 118) is fully justified. It’s not comprehensive, though.

No harm no foul, but my book isn’t mentioned here. Nor is Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene, and there’s no reference to the explicitly Marxist tradition on the Anthropocene that clusters around that book (John Bellamy Foster, Camilla Royle, Paul Burkett, etc.), nor to the IGBP’s Global Change and the Earth System that’s Angus’s central point of departure within Earth System Science. The high theory tradition is likewise overlooked: there’s no Claire Colebrook or Timothy Clark in this survey, and Timothy Morton is barely mentioned. Malm and Hornborg’s “Geology of Mankind?” is included, but not Malm’s Fossil Capital (which might have been published too late); of the other left critics of the terminology of the Anthropocene, Lorimer has seemingly chosen not to bother with Naomi Klein’s and Rob Nixon’s high-profile but not very detailed objections. Dipesh Chakrabarty appears only with the “Four Theses,” and Jason Moore only with “The Capitalocene,” not Capitalism in the Web of Life. Two significant omissions are Christian Schwägerl’s The Anthropocene, important for its dialogue with Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun, so foundational both for Will Steffen and for the stratigraphic programme.

But a lot more is included, and Lorimer is a judicious and reliable guide to it. He loosely parses the “domain” of the “Anthropo-scene” into five themes: 1) “scientific question,” mostly the AWG; 2) “intellectual zeitgeist,” a rambling category from environmental policy to artworks; 3) “ideological provocation,” the ecomodernists and their left and feminist critics; 4) “new ontologies,” another melange of theorists including Peter Haff, Latour, Haraway and Nigel Clark; and 5) “science fiction,” including speculations about the future from within sci-fi and without.

A few minor quibbles. (1) It’s not really true that “the first and original mobilization of the concept of the Anthropocene is […] the scientific question currently being considered by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG)” (p. 119). That claim collapses the crucial distinction between Crutzen’s 2002 Nature article and the Zalasiewicz et al. essay “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” that inaugurated the stratigraphic tradition a full six years later. But that distinction, central to my thinking on the Anthropocene, is still one that almost no-one else outside stratigraphy seems to appreciate or care about as yet.

(2) It prejudges the issue to say that if and when the AWG presents a proposal to formalise the Anthropocene epoch, “the International Commission on Stratigraphy will be asked to pronounce … on a new epoch whose evidentiary base is alien to the epistemic conventions of stratigraphy” (p. 121), or that “the proposal for accepting the Anthropocene … requires an act of speculation somewhat alien to the retrospective periodization of the geosciences” (p. 128). The proposers will be explicitly making the case that the “evidentiary base” already exists, and that it’s fully compatible with stratigraphy’s established knowledge procedures. If the evidence is either “speculative” or “alien” to the discipline’s conventions, the proposal will have to be rejected.

(3) I’m not quite sure what Lorimer means by saying that “Latour’s recent writings maintain the affirmative tenor (if not the anthropocentrism) of forms of ecomodernism” (p. 127). The context makes it clear that “if” means “albeit” here (i.e. Lorimer thinks that Latour definitely isn’t as anthropocentric as the ecomodernists). But “affirmative”—does that mean “optimistic”? He surely doesn’t think that Latour shares the what-a-time-to-be-alive, checking-your-privilege-is-for-snowflakes spirit of the ecomodernists?

But these are details, and this is a really illuminating essay. Lorimer’s assessment of the “central interest across all parts of the Anthroposcene in the workings of the AWG” is especially judicious and helpful. My favourite thing about his discussion, though, is his sheer enthusiasm for the Anthropo-scene, an enthusiasm that it isn’t always easy to sustain when ploughing through the latest stolid and vaguely germane think-piece in some middle-ranking social science journal. “The Anthropocene,” he writes, “conjoins deep time with dramatic futures. It rekindles childhood enthusiasms for fossils, dinosaurs and science fiction that are not evoked by the rather dry logics of sustainability or biodiversity” (pp. 121–22). Erinaceus wasn’t one of those dinosaur-loving children, as it happens, but I know what he means. And for grown-ups:

The Anthropo-scene presents a rich cacophony of new and original academic work, marked by a refreshing epistemic and ontological pluralism often absent from comparable academic zeitgeists. Under the banner of the Anthropocene, within the AWG, at installations like The Anthropocene Project at the HKW, or in the pages of the Anthropocene Review, a great diversity of experts are beginning to find a new language to talk about planetary impacts. Geologists, artists and philosophers share platforms, terms, anxieties and audiences. While the lingua franca is of systems science, there is an epistemically polyglot tenor to these gatherings. (p. 133)

Idealised? Yes. But there’s something to that.

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