Anthropocene: The human and political implications of a new geological epoch

Date: 21 Oct 2016
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Interview with Christophe Bonneuil, June 2016. Historian at CNRS and co-author of The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, (Seuil, Point Histoire, 2016)
With Stéphanie Leyronas (AFD) and Clémence Lobut (AFD)
June 2016

How and when did the concept of Anthropocene start and what does it cover?

Christophe Bonneuil: The word "Anthropocene" was used for the first time in February 2000 by Paul Crutzen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer. It actually bears witness to the fact that "The human footprint has become so vast that it rivals with some of Nature’s great forces in terms of impact on the Earth system".  The term was then adopted by scientists from a variety of disciplines working together on "Earth system" science .

The Anthropocene is a new era in Earth’s history, in which human activities have become a force which is shaping the planet. The word Anthropocene comes from "Anthropos", human, and "kainos", new. It therefore literally means the new age of humans. Under the impact of human activities, Earth has changed geological regime of existence. The extinction of biodiversity and dwindling forests, the change in the composition of the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans and the modification of nitrogen, water, phosphorous, etc. cycles: our planet has been altered and is leaving the Holocene, a period of a little under 12 000 years since the last Ice Age.

Man’s footprint on earth is flagrant: humans move around more soil, rock and sediments than water and wind combined, 90% of photosynthesis is carried out in areas which are more or less managed by humans, the weight of humans and their livestock represents 97% of the weight of terrestrial vertebrates, which leaves only 3% for the other 20 000 vertebrates on the planet, birds, reptiles, amphibians or mammals, the number of large earthquakes has multiplied by 20 in the United States compared to the 20th century due to the exploitation of shale gas and melting polar ice is changing the interplay of forces on the earth’s crust to the point of modifying global volcanism, etc. Humans are therefore not only behind climate change, as is now fully recognized, but also behind a geological force which influences both the history of our Earth and natural factors such as variations in solar activity or plate tectonics, for example. The Anthropocene is the sign of our "geological" power and also the sign of our political impotence.

Has the new geological age been recognized scientifically?

C.B.: Despite increasing consensus within the scientific community and in the political sphere, geologists have not yet officially validated it as a new epoch. At the International Union of Geological Sciences, the International Commission on Stratigraphy keeps the official chrono-stratigraphic calendar of the 4.54 billion years of our planet up-to-date. The commission created an Anthropocene Working Group in 2009, and will publish its report in 2018, and in 2020 the Union will vote on whether or not to validate the new epoch. But should we wait for geologists before we start talking about a new regime of existence of our Earth? To understand what is happening to us, should we limit ourselves to the criteria of "solid" evidence provided by stratigraphers? The bubbles in ice cores and the composition of the atmosphere may be important markers, in the same way as the extinction of biodiversity, the acidity of oceans and the cycle of water, carbon and nitrogen.

For Jan Zalasiewicz, President of the Anthropocene Working Group, "The Anthropocene is not only a question of knowing if we can detect human presence in stratigraphy, it is a question of the Earth changing as a system". This reflects a systemic view of the Earth as a set of compartments: the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the biosphere, etc. which are interconnected by constant flows of matter and energy.

The use of this term is intellectually audacious as we only have a few centuries' hindsight on the Anthropocene, as opposed to the Holocene (several thousands of years) and the Pleistocene (several million years). For specialists from ecology, geology, climatology, oceanography or atmospheric chemistry, who have grouped into this new interdisciplinary field of "Earth-system sciences", there is however no shadow of a doubt: the Earth has changed compared with its balance during the Holocene. What is happening is not only a global ecological crisis, but also a geological revolution.

What political stories have developed from the concept of the Anthropocene? And how does it enlighten us on our methods of production and consumption?  

C.B.: Our methods of consumption were already criticized at the time by Diderot or by socialists like William Morris in the late 19th century. But however old these critiques, they were not capable of diverting the trajectories of our societies. The consideration of the concept of the Anthropocene and the phenomena it covers varies greatly from one political current to another. From a naturalizing vision dominated by international scientific arenas to an eco-Marxist approach, the conclusions in terms of political projects can be radically different. These different outlooks are linked to a more scientific debate on the date when we went from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Four geo-stories appear particularly interesting to me in as much as they all give us different insight into our methods of production and consumption. They describe distinct moral and political schemes and visions of our societies and invite us by means of specific political agendas to venture down distinct paths.

For William Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist from the University of Virginia, it was in the Neolithic, 5000 years ago, that humans emitted - through deforestation, rice paddies and breeding – enough greenhouse gases to modify the trajectory of the Earth’s climate. The origin of the Anthropocene was thus agriculture and those responsible the human species as a whole.

A second possible beginning was proposed in 2015 by climatologist Simon Lewis and the geographer Mark Maslin in the magazine Nature. They suggested that our new geological epoch should begin with the European conquest of America. This birth of globalisation was to decimate the Amerindian population and resulted in 60 million hectares of fields returning to wasteland and the forest and a drop in the carbon concentration in the atmosphere of around 279 ppm in 1492 to around 272 ppm in 1610. European colonialization and budding capitalism could also be behind a new geological force. These two scenarii are nevertheless fragile ones: the Holocene probably ended neither 5000 years ago nor in 1610 because the concentration of greenhouse gases, even though it varied at these two periods in time, did not leave the Holocene range of values.

It was only in 1809 that this concentration exploded and exceeded Holocene values to reach 290 ppm at the end of the 19th century and 400 ppm currently. It would appear that the Earth’s atmosphere left the Holocene at the beginning of the 19th century. With the massive use of coal, the carbon accumulated in the lithosphere over hundreds of millions years was projected into the atmosphere in the space of a few decades, hence Paul Crutzen’s proposal to place our derailment out of the Holocene with the Industrial Revolution, new models of development by colonisation and economic competition.

Lastly, and this is the possible 4th beginning, some consider that the carbonisation of the atmosphere has taken place slowly and progressively since 1800, with no clear spike and no "golden spike". For geologists to accept a new epoch, they need to search for more precise markers. Jan Zalasiewicz, President of the Anthropocene Working Group at the International Commission on Stratigraphy, considers that radio-elements, which had hitherto been unknown on Earth, and which were jettisoned by the first nuclear explosions in 1945 are a very accurate stratigraphic marker. In this fourth scenario, the fracture is marked by the sheer enormity of the power race during the Cold War which turned the whole planet into an experimental laboratory. The age of waste and the expansion of the mass consumption society.

Can a change in designations bring change?

C.B.: The Anthropocene allows an essential raising of awareness: we are not going through an environmental crisis but a man-made geological revolution. It sheds light on the observation that Earth is currently experiencing conditions which have been unknown for thousands and even milliers ? of years. Human beings have never had to face such a situation. The last time there was such an amount of carbon in the atmosphere as there is currently was during the Pliocene, between 2.6 and 5 million years ago. At the rate we’re going, half the animal and plant species will have disappeared by 2100. The last comparable extinction dates back to 65 million years ago, when three quarters of the species including the dinosaurs disappeared because of a meteorite. Homo sapiens is 200 000 years old: along with our children we must face up to planetary conditions that no human has ever faced before. Leaving the Holocene is not only a geological phenomenon but a new human condition. This leap into the unknown is not due to a meteorite or any other external event, but due to our own development model, which while it claimed to be tearing itself from the limits of the planet, has actually met them head on.

Nevertheless, there is a real danger of this concept becoming a vector of demobilisation, apathy and depoliticization. According to the current classical story, the human species supposedly unintentionally destroyed nature in the past to the point of altering the Earth-system. It was only at the end of the 20th century that scientists actually opened our eyes to this. This is false and depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It is therefore necessary to politically understand this concept. It could be significant as it challenges the conceptions on which modernity was founded.

Our geological swerve challenges the reliability of our vehicle and the relevance of our map. It challenges our modern visions of the world and our relationships with the Earth. For the philosopher Bruno Latour, the Anthropocene is this “the most decisive philosophical (…) anthropological and political concept that has ever been produced as an alternative to ideas of modernity”. The modern project was to tear history away from nature, seen as resources or environment and separate from man; to free the future of mankind from any natural determinism. This project failed due to the fact that the disruptions inflicted on the Earth have stormed back into our lives and our geopolitics and refers us back to our attachment through thousands of links to the potential power of the Earth and life.

The concept of the Anthropocene shatters the promises of perpetuating our economic system by modifying it at the margins. Industrial modernity, from renewable and living energies to coal which is an inert resource, has represented nature as a shopful of static resources: this is what the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk criticised as the "kinetic nihilism" of modernity. This no longer works because, by leaving the Holocene, our Earth has shown itself to be shifting. It is also the Descartes ideology of a rift between humans and all the other beings grouped into the all-purpose and externalising concept of "nature" which is plagued by the Anthropocene. Anthropologists Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros et Castro called this very particular Western way of distributing roles and capacities among humans and other-than-humans "naturalism", the Nature/ Culture split. And they highlighted both non-universality and non-sustainability. It is high time we invented or reinvented other representations of the Earth and its beings.

The idea of "Progress" also took a bashing after it swerved away from the Holocene. The Moderns’ promise of an intentional society which would do away with tradition and the past has failed and our future has never seemed so dependent on the past. The level of the oceans in 2300 will not so much depend on the choices of the 21st century as on our own today. The more we move forward on the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, the nearer we will be getting to "too late" and the future will be constrained and narrowed by the past – the complete opposite of the promise of progress as a futuristic wrenching away from the past.

It is also our conceptions of freedom, inherited from the industrial era, which must be rethought using a new form of geology. From Kant to Luc Ferry, our modernity had imagined freedom as breaking away from all forms of natural determinism, and concern for the Earth and nature as a reactionary idea. As Sloterdijk explains, this modern ideology was supported by an "ontology of the side-lines". For example, economic science acts as if nature was infinite. The food and heating and cooling circuits and ecological debt on which our modern edifices of Freedom were carefully hidden away from sight. Work tracing the global flows of matter, energy and waste, today and in the past, shows us how much all cultures, all social orders and all political systems are held together by the organisation of these flows. For example, Tim Mitchell showed that our model of representative democracy was co-built on fossil energy, none too glorious geopolitics and a destructive ecological debt with the rest of the world. How can we then reestablish a new, internally more democratic model which is less predatory regarding the rest of the world?

To live in the Anthropocene is to live in the non-linear and highly unpredictable world of responses to the Earth-system, or rather of the Earth-history. The Anthropocene is throwing the modern ideology of nature, progress, freedom and democracy into crisis, but the crisis is not only an intellectual one. A world at +2°, and even worse, at +3-4°, to which the voluntary commitments of Countries to COP21 are leading, will most likely be terrible for the large majority of Humanity to live in. For example, subsequent to a historical drought, a million people from the rural population went into exodus towards big Syrian cities between 2007 and 2011 and this was one of the trigger factors of the risings which were to subsequently result in the current war. The influx of migrants due to this war is probably only a small foretaste of future migration crises in the West Africa to Middle East band, the boomerang of our modern oil and climate-killing modernity coming back to strike us right in the middle of 21st century Europe. The UN has announced for 250 million climate refugees 2050 on this same trajectory.

Where modernity promised universal peace between men by dominating the planet, the Anthropocene announces the possibility of barbarity, and even the need for conflict. For Michel Serre’s Le contrat naturel and for many philosophers 20 years ago, the essential challenge was to reconcile humans and non-humans. It is striking to see how Bruno Latour’s latest book, Facing Gaia, steers away from this. After having appealed for peace, he calls for a confrontation of the terrestrials, or Earthbound, against the Moderns. The Moderns are also those who believe themselves to be separate from and above nature and they intend to pursue the process of modernisation believing that the Earth belongs to them. The Earthbound are those who know that they belong to the Earth and are part of this nature which is fighting back: Western city-dwellers committed to ecological transition, post-development or the fight to leave 80% of fossil resources in the soil; the rural and neo-rural population attached to a territory, forming with its occupants a "nature which is fighting back" against concreting, extraction and "modernisation"; common resources founded on systems of rules decreed by communities and which aim at protecting resources. Lastly, we can add to this coalition of traditional and new technologies: agro-ecology, cooperative wind-farms, etc. These coalitions of the Earthbound make up what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls the "third nature", a nature which resists, ignores, subverts and thwarts the second nature schemes of the Moderns.

Therefore, sometimes unbeknownst to the modern conscience of the scientists who address it and their "management" of an earth-system seen from above, the Anthropocene appeals to the mobilisation of the victims, rejects and those who count for nothing in this modernity which has destabilised the Earth.