Somewhat New

J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP)

John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun, his environmental history of the twentieth century, is one of the Bibles of work on the Anthropocene—most of all among researchers in the physical sciences, I suspect. McNeill is a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, and he’s been publishing with them for a long time. He was the co-author with Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen of an influential early article (influential in the wrong direction, I think, but that’s for another time) called “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” But Something New Under the Sun deserves its status independently of McNeill’s later collaborations: it’s an extraordinary survey of environmental change in the twentieth century, in ecosystems of practically every kind. As the AWG has focused more sharply in on a mid-C20th golden spike for the Anthropocene epoch, McNeill’s conspectus has got ever more important to them, and to other researchers concerned with what the AWG is up to.

Still, Something New is a decade and a half old now. A lot has changed, both in environmental historiography and IRL. The obvious question, in the context of this blog: does this new book, with “Great Acceleration” and “Anthropocene” right there in the title, supersede the earlier one for researchers working on the Anthropocene? If you wanted to read just one book to give you a survey of the years when (you might be inclined to believe) the Holocene ticked over into the Anthropocene, should it be this one instead of Something New Under the Sun? The answer is… no. But it’s a useful supplement. Continue reading “Somewhat New”

Lights Out

Friday 24 June

No proper post this week: just sleep-deprived first thoughts. There is a half-plausible Left case against the European Union (for the member states in general, not for Britain in particular). But this afternoon, Farage’s victory feels absolute—victory “without a bullet being fired” as he shouted this morning, overlooking in the heat of the moment the assassination of Jo Cox. In comparison to Farage, even Johnson seems to me almost diminished rather than conquering—among the political class, at least, if not necessarily with the voters. Johnson was generally taken to be the leader of the Out campaign; his great gamble has (in a sense) paid out against the odds; and he may well be Prime Minister in a few months’ time. And despite all that, just now both he and the souverainiste ideologues—Redwood, Cash, Hannan, Carswell, Gove, Rees-Mogg (all of them linked by that same curious closely studied masculinity)—seem secondary to Farage’s achievement. Continue reading “Lights Out”

On Terra Incognita: Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” (part 1)

As I write, Paul Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” has 1727 citations on Google Scholar. There have been eighteen new citations already this month. If anything, they’re appearing with increasing frequency, fourteen years after the paper was published. “Geology of mankind” has become the essential point of reference in debates about the Anthropocene.

Two of the positions that Crutzen takes there have become famous, or in some circles notorious, among writers on the Anthropocene. Firstly, that the start of the Anthropocene might be placed “in the latter part of the eighteenth century,” a choice that has something to do with “James Watt’s design of the stream engine in 1784.” Secondly, that one appropriate response to the new conditions might be “large-scale geo-engineering projects.” Those two (far from dogmatic) proposals aside, Crutzen’s paper is most often cited, I think, simply as the representative source for the concept of the Anthropocene in general. It’s become a landmark, an indispensable part of the ancestry. Continue reading “On Terra Incognita: Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” (part 1)”

Kiln Time

Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015), 266-84

A decent rule of thumb: in anthropogenic ecosystems, the angels are on the side of pluralism and diversity, as against monoculture and industrial uniformity. Instead of miles of genetically homogeneous wheat and corn, or thousands of near-identical pallid pigs crammed into a feedlot, a genuinely functional food- or resource-producing landscape needs something more layered: multiple pollinators, multiple varietals, mosaics of planting, an element of mess. That’s the most basic principle of agroecology, and something like an article of faith for the green movement. In fact, I’ve argued that that instinct for pluralism can make a good starting point for green politics as a whole. Clark’s lovely essay draws attention persuasively to another, minor realm in which that same pluralist instinct is wanted. If we need plural ecosystems, we need plural pyrotechnic systems too. Continue reading “Kiln Time”

On Fossilization

Roy E. Plotnick, Felisa A. Smith, and S. Kathleen Lyons, “The fossil record of the sixth extinction,” Ecology Letters 19 (2016), 546–53

I’d like to go back to the thought experiment that’s at the heart of the stratigraphic Anthropocene: if alien geologists arrived to study the earth in some tens of millions of years, what traces of present-day ecological upheavals might they find? One of the most evocative characteristics of contemporary strata—albeit not the most immediately visible thing about them—would be the last-ever appearances of some species in the fossil record, the indicators of their extinction. But how many species would even leave such a record behind, and how many would simply vanish without a trace? Continue reading “On Fossilization”


The Birth of the Anthropocene comes out on Tuesday. You can read the first 17 pages on Google Books. If you’re tempted, and you’re in North America, you can buy it direct from the publisher for $30. Here in the UK, it looks as if prices start at just under £17 at the usual place the Book Depository has it at £16.56 inc. postage, with quicker delivery than Amazon proper, as of this writing. Enjoy!

Graham Harman says at the start of Prince of Networks that he “normally avoids ‘acknowledgments’ sections in books from fear of making his readers feel bored or excluded.” I think that attitude has a lot to be said for it. Even so, I’ve written an acknowledgements section on both of the occasions when I’ve had a chance to do so. But I kept both of them brief.

The internet, though, gives you room to stretch. So this seems like a good chance to say, a bit more fulsomely than on the first page of the book itself: thank you very much indeed to the many people who’ve helped to bring The Birth of the Anthropocene into the world. Continue reading “Thanks”