Lasse Gullvåg Sætre

By Lasse Gullvåg Sætre

Naming an epoch is not just for geologists, stratigraphers and climate scientists. It has also become the concern of “softer” fields, like feminism, science fiction, rap music, and the political rights of crustaceans.

To change an epoch

After years of deliberations, Paul Crutzen and the other members of the Anthropocene Working Group (WGA) of the International Geological Congress have concluded that the Anthropocene concept is backed by sound science and stratigraphy. The Earth is changing underneath our feet, and production of knowledge is changing with it. The term Anthropocene was popularized from year 2000 on, with Crutzen, the Dutch winner of the 1995 Nobel prize in chemistry, as central author. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, has worked actively for an official recognition of the Anthropocene period as a successor to the Holocene period in geology.

While geology and stratigraphy are traditionally “hard” scientific fields, geological questions are now engaging scholars from the humanities and social sciences as well. The WGA conclusion is part of assembling the geological concept “Anthropocene”, but naming contestations reveal the political fluidity of creating a new epoch. Coloring in the stuff and meaning of an epochal change can seem to be as much an art as it is a science. Scientific practices, esthetics, grand history, complex systems, ecological, and critical theory are all mobilized in a kind of parental naming conflict.

The word “anthropocene” comes from the Greek anthropos, meaning of human or man, and kainos, meaning “new”. The proposed Anthropocene epoch is characterised by humanity’s ability to act as a geophysical force, as powerful as volcanoes or tectonic plates. According to the term’s proponents, we have entered an epoch where mankind is the primary agent of geological change. With scientific rigour, the earth scientists and geologists at the WGA established that the Anthropocene is real, and is now being proposed to be taken up by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences. Humans have had a profound impact on the globe, and it might be time for them to be officially recognised on the Geological Time Scale.

Behind the Anthropocene

Stratigraphers map the Earth’s history by digging up and exploring the composition of the ground, ice and and other sediments. In stratigraphic terms, according to the geology mainstream, Earth is in the Holocene epoch. Identified by a “golden spike”, a stratotype, or something like a boundary object, the Holocene is set to be 11 700 years old. Its primary characteristic is the mild climate which has allowed humanity to thrive, enabling the agrarian revolution, and all subsequent innovations. Now, however, the Holocene epoch might be coming to an end.

In the close to 20 years since the term Anthropocene surfaced, it has already become real in many ways. The computer modelling done in climate science and the large scale geoengineering research being done today would seem like Science Fiction back then. Looking up from the ground, the atmosphere is changing as well. 2016 marked the year when atmospheric CO2 levels read above 400 parts per million (ppm) in the month of September. CO2-levels cycle through the year, and drop during the summer months together with the blossoming of a CO2-eating biosphere. The yearly atmospheric low can usually be found during the month of September, and while 400 ppm has previously been used as a point of no return, it was passed this year. Anthropogenic emissions are expected to cause massive changes to the climate, and acceleration events like melting of arctic methane containers are looming on the horizon.

So why not simply name the coming epoch the Anthropocene? Well, the devil is in the details. While the WGA agreed on the reality of the Anthropocene epoch by an overwhelming 34 – 1 vote, only a somewhat smaller majority wanted to propose the Anthropocene as the official successor of the Holocene, and for its inclusion into the International Chronostratigraphic Chart. An even smaller group, only 10 out of the 35, could agree that the primary signal of the Anthropocene is plutonium fallout, with the other members’ votes spread pretty evenly around alternatives like fuel ash particle, methane concentration or technofossils. No consensus has been formed concerning the timelines and requirements for properly defining the Anthropocene. There is, however, a general consensus around the bigger picture, as described by Clive Hamilton in the scientific journal Nature: “The new geological epoch does not concern soils, the landscape, or the environment, except inasmuch as they are changed as part of a massive shock to the functioning of Earth as a whole.”

The WGA is the result of a processes of collective knowledge productions from very different scientific elds. Making climate change factual is an broad social endeavour, and the Anthropocene debate is creating perspective changes in the art of the possible. Working scientifically on problems like the climate crisis, systemic boundaries, emerging infectious diseases and geoengineering, scientists go from assisting national governments and their respective populations, to addressing planetary questions in holistic systems. Going from nationalism to globalism can seem to have brought sciences to the face of political geology or planetary politics.

Naming the baby

When it was noted in 2014 that only 1 of the then 29 scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group were female, economist Kate Raworth tweeted: “The Anthropocene is bad enough. Spare us a Manthropocene!” While the membership has since been diversified, the core of the critique still stands. A new epoch should not be named after the Anthropos – The Human, unqualified and with a capital H!

This critique is far-reaching and has gotten many names. Gendering the Anthropos opens up questions about male domination of women. As Raworth sharply points out, women have been severely underrepresented in the spaces of knowledge production and power that led to this epoch. Along a similar vein, the name “Eurocene” has been proposed to capture our current predicament’s colonial roots and place a more fitting blame. What we have experienced can be seen as a Eurofication of the world.

Another critic of the “Anthropocene” label, Jason W. Moore, attacks what he sees as a Cartesian science of separation in the frontier. For Moore, our epoch is first and foremost a capitalist ecology. What we see today is the result of centuries of violent real abstractions, in bourgeois dualisms of nature/ society, mind/matter or objective/subjective. The creation of surplus value – capital that grows – is predicated on devaluation of different natures. Devaluation allows for exploiting and underpaying nature’s labor, seen here as human cooperation with other natures in the Oikeios (greek for of the household, but here taken from “Oikeios topos” in biology, the favorable place where a plant is found). Surplus value is produced under historically specific ecological configurations that lets nature work for capital.

Capitalism, having previously expanded on the back of the “four cheaps” – labor-power, food, energy and raw materials – is now facing a time when their abundance is coming to an end. Though successful in revolutionizing the environment many times over, capitalism-as- ecology only work when the boundaries it creatively destroys cheaply supplies labor and capital on the other side. The impact now being recognized in geology as the Anthropocene comes from breaching a boundary with no such prize. And so we can be said to be late in the epoch of capital: The Capitalocene.

Changing history

Without any real consensus on when the Anthropocene started, what it is comprised of, or even what it should be called, scientific clarity comes easily only in science fiction. When author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the terraforming trilogy of Mars in the 1990s, he articulated and extrapolated the expansionist ideology of the time. In 2015 he returned to the topic of planetary colonization in “Aurora”, but here describes an ideology that has changed with the times. The book tells of a tale of a generational spaceship hurtling through space, in search of virgin lands for humanity to colonize. The hostility of living in space and meeting other planets is beautifully contrasted to our heroine ending the book returning to the Earth. Playing in its waves, baking in its sun, it becomes so obvious that although broken in many ways, no place can provide better operating conditions for humans.Historian of science Donna Haraway agrees with Moore that the term Capitalocene is a better t than Anthropocene for our current epoch. Still, she is of the opinion that most of the proposed alternatives are too narcissistic, because they all suggest naming the epoch after ourselves. This seems to Haraway an unwarranted and self-centered humanist bias, in a time where hundreds of species face extinction every day. If we are to undo some of the wrongs we have done, and abort our initiation of a sixth mass extinction event, human praxis needs changing. If we want a new epoch to be something other than Capitalocene or Anthropocene, we should debate what can replace it. Haraway suggests the Chthulucene.

Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.

No novice of the naming game, Haraway is taking the Greek khthôn, meaning what is in, under or beneath the earth, and formulates a view predicated on creating our future now. For her, the primary concern is that which lies beyond the Anthropocene or Capitalocene. Naming our period is about “thinging” things and “worlding” worlds, about making unexpected collaborations and combinations in what remains of the biosphere. Corals and invertebrates help bringing the earthbound into consciousness, and for Haraway we must make kin of all of them.

Naming the epoch after the uncontrollable forces of the deep emphasizes how it is not the planet itself that is being destroyed, but rather the conditions for humanity’s continued existence on it. The Chthulucene is meant to invoke not only the need for stopping our destruction of the planet, but also that we have to learn to live with what we have already done. She contends that we must urgently learn to think, that we must change the story. What Haraway describes as “tentacular thinking” is supposed to make human exceptionalism and bounded individualism unusable in the best sciences. Chthonic politics seeks out ways of making composting sexy, to create new desires more in tune to the situation and to steer history in a new trajectory.

Signal-to-noise ratio

Haraway is co-creating new ways to speak about climate change, in a time where it seems it is urgently needed. While in reality much can already be too late, some authors warn against speaking too loudly of this, in fear of preaching impending doom to an increasingly passive population. The authors discussed above do the opposite: They stare into the abyss. Others see current politics becoming an obstacle to any form of sensible environmental regulation. Do all too human political agendas blind us from seeing the real dangers of our time? Has politics become a distraction from what really matters? Novelist Amitav Ghosh claims this, in his latest book “The Great Derangement”, as he describes drought and environmental degradation leading up to the Arab Spring. Ghosh argues for the ethical responsibility of political writers to articulate the ecological unraveling happening around them, and relate world events to ecology.

The debate is even being reflected by pop culture, where we can find similar tensions. At first listen it sounded like a human-to-human problem, when rapper Mick Jenkins delivers lyrics about U.S. black oppression, citing Eric Garner’s last words; “I can’t breathe”. In the music video to the song called “Drowning”, the Chicago based artist makes the chronic connections between social and ecological problems more obvious, when he is in the river, being drowned. Like the slogan made famous by the police violence protesters, the act of drowning has this broader connotation to it. We can all relate to the common and phenomenological experience of not being able to breathe air, as it show this ultimate devaluation of life. Submerged either by rising oceans, water dam constructions or slave owners, the connection between the dominance of people and environment becomes clear. Like with good art, we get a glimpse of something yet to be, the ecological and sociological problem seeming clear and solvable. Nevertheless, politics under water does not work. The video shows the stumbling of thinking when the brain is deprived of oxygen, the illusion breaks, we are left with raw fear, despair and heavy doses of drug-filled lyrics. System scale existential threats were maybe too great a challenge for mere humans to handle, after all. What better occasion to turn over grey rocks, and see with octopus eyes? The naming debate around the Anthropocene is, if not birthing new worlds, at least generative in that it has inspired rethinking of the past, present and future. After engaging with the authors above, what stands out to me is the planetary perspective change embodied by the debate. As far as I can see, this part of it problematizes and opens up whether science can afford to treat local acts of oppression and ecological self destruction as separate issues. Should the name reflect what Moore would have it, one ecology of growth by exploitation, webbed into a living biosphere, now meeting its limits? Or is it in fact better named in terms of a post-human feminism, by learning to listen to those who today are being silenced, after hot compost tḧat can be dug into, formed new alliances with, and create what today only can be understood as magic?

The debate discusses the social meaning of the earth shaped rock hurtling through space, with its geosphere of distinct history, and a biosphere patterned by cooperative and exploitative processes that continue to shape its economies and environments to this day. It opens up the eld of geology to outsiders, so before the International Commission on Stratigraphy takes up the Anthropocene or shuts it down, you can also be a geologist and influence the decision. You might have many years to do it yet, as the concept is still unstable. But to have any effect, it should happen before we are too far down the irreversible road of those who have been called the “carbon liberation front». So go ahead, you name the baby.

This article was first published in the January 2017 edition of Teknovatøren.