Monday, December 28, 2015

Definitions of the Anthropocene

Anthropocene Definitions – Power, Responsibility, or Something else?

Over the last year, the concept of the Anthropocene has received a tremendous amount of attention from sustainability, resilience and Earth system scientists. Recently, Melissa Leach, Robyn Eckersley, Andy Stirling, Victor Galaz, Johan Rockström and others have engaged an online debate exploring the meaning and political implications of using the concept Anthropocene. A central contention in this debate is the question whether the concept in itself invokes notions of power, agency and control that (inevitably) favor certain, managerial approaches to solving global environmental problems, which might be unsuitable for pursuing sustainability. Andy Stirling argues:
"I expressed serious concerns about the kinds of agency asserted in the notion of ‘the Anthropocene’. […] this mood of externally-oriented control can oppose and undermine the real values essential to Sustainability: instead laying the foundations for planetary geoengineering."
Responding to the argument that the control-oriented Anthropocene rhetoric reproduces rather than challenges existing power relations, Victor Galaz writes
“I worry however that claims about ‘the Anthropocene’ always contributing to an “authoritarian control agenda” not only is an unfair summary of the immensely rich governance debate emerging in different parts of the world. It also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Johan Rockström sees the Anthropocene more as a neutral label for a scientific fact – humanity having become the dominant geological force – and argues that the term is about responsibility rather than power.

While these debates are unfolding on a purely conceptual basis, I have been studying people’s actual beliefs about the Anthropocene, and might be able to shed some light on the evolving and multiple meanings of the term, at least for a specific group of individuals. Working with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, I have been surveying and interviewing participants of the Anthropocene Campus project, about 100 young, international scholars from the natural and social sciences, humanities, arts, engineering and architecture with an interest in the topic.

The data from this project offers very little evidence for Andy Stirling’s argument that the idea of the Anthropocene is inevitably associated with or supports notions of control, planetary management, and geoengineering. Neither is there any inherent notion of responsibility nor of optimism for the future (“hope for technology and human development”), as argued by the Breakthrough Institute. Instead of focusing on governance, the term tends to be used to describe the complex relationship between humans and the planet, where anthropogenic change often occurs in unexpected, unintended and currently uncontrollable ways. In other words, the Anthropocene describes a condition rather than a governance approach, and the condition is better described by the absence of than by an inherent tendency towards management and control.

Below I offer a brief analysis of definitions of the Anthropocene offered by Campus participants in three successive rounds of surveys and interviews. Asking for a definition might be the most boring research approach I could have come up with, but here it seems to serve a unique purpose – understanding the potentially massive political implications of new concepts with the power to change the meanings upon which our world rests. In a later post I will explore now these definitions change when you start talking about a ‘good’ or a ‘bad Anthropocene.’

Two observations about the definitions of Campus participants stand out.

First, for the most part they are Crutzen-Stoermer followers. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer’s initial definition of the Anthropocene kicked off this debate with a rather expansive and not very precise notion of the Anthropocene:
“The expansion of mankind, both in numbers and per capita exploitation of Earth’s resources has been astounding. [… ] Considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch.”   (P. Crutzen and E. Stoermer, 2000, IGBP Newsletter No. 41, p. 17)
Most people have latched on the idea of the Anthropocene as an epoch – a distinct period of time measured in geological terms. Campus participants used the term epoch, era, age, period and time without apparent awareness of the difference between those concepts for a geologist. Those using the geological terminology describe the time period they refer to in terms of human impacts on the environment or Earth systems functioning. In fact, for the vast majority of survey participants, the Anthropocene is a term to describe the relationship between humanity and planet Earth. So far, this relationship is neither one of collective human power and control nor of responsibility. It simply is.

Second, there are four distinct models of the Human-Earth relationship.

Interestingly, there is some subtle, but significant diversity in the way participating young scholars define the human-Earth relationship. There is terminological diversity with regard to all three essential components of such a definition: subject (who or what), predicate (verbs/relationship terms) and object (to who or what). Some of this diversity indicates more than just a preference for different words; it suggests that there might be distinct meanings.

The subject terms include barely distinguishable concepts of agents such as humanity, humans and humankind, but also human actions or activities, human systems, human interventions, and the interesting formulation “humans and their technological extensions.” While the former set of words refers to humans as a group that simply is, the latter focuses on things that we do and create.

The set of objects - entities humanity has a relationship with – mentioned by participants includes Earth, the planet, the (global) environment, earth systems, ecosystems, major natural processes of the planet, and geology. Interestingly, nature was not a very popular term; it only showed up once. Instead, young scholars predominantly use the terminology of the natural sciences grounded in systems and processes at a global scale.

It gets really interesting when we look at the relationship terms, which point to four distinct human-Earth relationship models that currently exist in different people’s minds:

  1. The first relationship model could be described as passive co-existence. The key terms include to be, to be connected, and to be entangled, none of which imply any activity on behalf of the human subjects. Humanity is seen as simply being in a relationship with the planet, but does not actively shape the nature of the relationship.
  2. The second model is one of interaction or mutual influence. Both humans and the planet are seen as acting or being active in a way that affects the other. This could involve a doing to each other or a doing with each other, although this formulation raises the difficult question in what sense Earth systems could be attributed with agency.
  3. The third model maintains this focus on activity or active influence, but instead of a mutual effect on each other, it focuses on the unidirectional influence of humanity on the planet. This impact model implies a one-way relationship, in which humans are acting on or doing something to their environment with global implications. If Earth systems in any way affect humans, this particular definition is not interested in those Earth-to-human effects. A version of this model places emphasis on the quality of this impact, suggesting that it is significant and sometimes negative. The relationship terms used for this version include primary, major, and dominant, but also terms like exploitation, transformation, and shifting or pushing the system beyond its boundaries. 
  4. The fourth model does away with a one-way relationship between humanity as an agent and the planet as its passive object. Instead, it suggests that humans are not producing planetary impacts all by themselves, but do so along with other forces of nature (co-production or co-causation). This is a subtle but important difference, assuming that humans and natural processes somehow coalesce or collaborate in creating certain changes on planet Earth.
Clearly, models 1 and 2 are afar cry from equating the Anthropocene with human control over nature. But even models 3 and 4 do not rely on concepts like control or intentionality. Rather, they are concerned with often seemingly uncontrollable, widely dispersed and diverse human activities that collectively shape planetary processes in often unexpected, unpredictable and unmanageable ways. Most participants are very concerned with the existing social, political and economic structures that keep human societies locked in existing patterns of living and working that produce planetary-scale impacts and the social inequality these structures produce. If Campus participants discuss geoengineering at all, they associate the idea with a ‘bad Anthropocene’ – something I will discuss here in more detail soon.

Of course, a definition is only one data point when it comes to meaning-making. If you’d like to know more, check back for future posts.

An expanded version of this post with a little more information about the research methods will soon be posted on the website of the Anthropocene Campus Project website of the HKW. And a more detailed analysis of Anthropocene beliefs of young scholars will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming volume Humanities for the Environment (HfE): Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice, edited by Joni Adamson, Michael Davis, and Hsinya Huang (Routledge Publishing 2016).

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