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date: 10 December 2022

Anthropocenefree

Anthropocenefree

  • Amy Johnson, Amy JohnsonNorthumbria University
  • Chris Hebdon, Chris HebdonYale University
  • Paul Burow, Paul BurowYale University
  • Deepti ChattiDeepti ChattiHumboldt State University
  •  and Michael DoveMichael DoveYale University

Summary

The Anthropocene is a newly proposed geological epoch that situates humans as geological agents responsible for altering Earth systems as evidenced in the geological record and directly experienced through the earth’s changing climate. There remains significant debate regarding when humans manifested change in Earth systems, as well as how human influence in planetary processes is evidenced geologically. As of 2022, “Anthropocene” has yet to be adopted as an official category of geological time by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geologic Sciences. Its influence has nonetheless outpaced academic debate, informing politics, policies, and opinions worldwide. In this context, anthropologists engage the Anthropocene simultaneously as a coupled biophysical and geological fact and an imaginary shaping human relations to Earth and environment. While upholding the validity of the Anthropocene as a reflection of accelerating planetary-scale environmental changes, anthropology is notable for asking critical questions about how the concept is developed and mobilized and what mainstream interpretations of the Anthropocene hide from view about life on our changing planet. Anthropology has been especially sensitive to the ontologies of time latent in the Anthropocene debates, recognizing the plural ways time is lived globally and how the concept of the Anthropocene interacts with ideas of past, present, and future. Moreover, in concordance with the standpoints of Indigenous theory and feminist and queer studies, and in conversation with critical scholarship of power and justice, anthropology has contributed to ongoing discussion about the criteria used to evaluate the Anthropocene’s beginnings, advancing discussions about the complicity of political economies of capitalism, colonialism, and plantations in the production of the Anthropocene. The engaged ethnographic approaches central to contemporary anthropology have thus deepened understanding of how the proposed Anthropocene epoch is lived and how its framing is changing human relations to environment and responsibilities for Earth’s future.

Subjects

  • Histories of Anthropology
  • International and Indigenous Anthropology
  • Sociocultural Anthropology

Introduction

Anthropology, as a discipline uniquely devoted to the study of the human, has become central to the production of knowledge about the newly proposed geological epoch of the human, the Anthropocene. The term “Anthropocene,” popularized by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000), refers to the “time of Homo sapiens.” Its conceptual development follows longstanding internal debate within the earth sciences about the potential for humans to alter fundamental aspects of Earth systems (Davis 2011). For while the ability of humans to greatly modify environments is uncontested, the dramatic planetary-scale changes experienced over the past century, such as global warming, rising seas, extreme weather, and species extinction, have renewed scientific attention to the boundaries and scale of human influence on Earth’s biological and geological processes.

Homo sapiens have existed as the lone example of the human species since at least forty thousand years ago when the last of the Neanderthals were replaced or absorbed into our species. Almost all our time alone has been experienced within the Holocene Epoch, the warm interglacial period covering the past 11,650+ years of Earth history. The Holocene arguably provided a cradle for the development of modern humans. It is coincident with the Neolithic, a growing reliance on domesticated plants and animals, the rise of cities, global migration, and the very rapid, exponential growth in human population. Yet, evidence suggests that within this same time period, human activity introduced changes to the earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and other systems. The Anthropocene therefore demarcates an epoch distinct from the Holocene, one in which human activity can be synchronously traced through virtually all planetary processes, as recorded in geological markers, such as ice cores and stratigraphy, and experienced directly through the earth’s rapidly changing climate.

Agreement on when modern humans became geological agents, however, remains elusive. For geochronologists and chronostratigraphers, the challenge of naming the Anthropocene has thus far hinged on how and where to mark the start of it in reference to a “conceptual surface of identical time around the globe,” one signified by markers in sedimentary deposits and other geological materials which predominate globally, rather than just regionally or locally (Zalasiewicz et al. 2021, 2). The geological approach to the Anthropocene depends on synchronicity, or the locating of traces of human activity which predominate worldwide at the same time, signifying a so-called “golden spike” for the Anthropocene in the geological record. Many currently trace this time to the “great acceleration” of human resource use since around 1950, typified by the deployment of nuclear weapons and introduction of plutonium and chemical compounds from metals and plastics into Earth systems (McNeill and Engelke 2014; Steffen et al. 2015). Others locate it further in prehistory, proposing anthropogenic fire as a possible early benchmark given its effects on greenhouse gases (Glikson 2013, 91).

The geological concern to establish a single time has conflicted with scholars with expertise in multiple times and temporalities. While not in principle disagreeing with facts about the explosive increase in Earth transformation over the past century, anthropologists have been skeptical that stratigraphy alone is able to define “the human age” with scientific adequacy (Castree 2017). In part this is a disagreement between those scholars who see their task as “objectively” defining a new time and those scholars who see such a definition as inadequate insofar as it ignores relations to other times, such as how different people’s biographies have differently connected to global history and vice versa. As Mathews notes,

Anthropological responses to the Anthropocene are marked by a concern with the dangers of the narrative of human mastery or Eurocentrism and the risk of antipolitical concealment of the differential harms that global environmental change poses to the poor, to people of color, and to residents of the Global South.

These concerns turn on which materialities and meanings count in the conceptualization of an epoch. Is the Anthropocene “set in stone” or set as well in other traces such as historical evidence and cultural memory, and who decides?

Proposing alternative global markers, some have argued that the American Indigenous population collapses following European colonization—which may have altered global climate for centuries—should be taken as a more informative time for the beginning of the Anthropocene (Ruddiman 2003; Zalasiewicz et al. 2021). The collision of New and Old Worlds between 1492 and 1800 is presented by Lewis and Maslin (2015) as a compelling period for the Anthropocene’s beginnings. They identify a low point of CO2 in glacial ice dated to 1610 and argue that this occurrence reflects the “near-cessation of farming and reduction in fire use” after the population collapse in the Americas, resulting “in the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland with a carbon uptake by vegetation and soils estimated at 5–40 Pg within around 100 years” (2015, 175). Lewis and Maslin go on to state that the intensive uptake of carbon over this short interval represents the most significant dip in preindustrial atmospheric CO2 levels for the last two thousand years.

Davis and Todd (2017) support Lewis and Maslin’s dating of the Anthropocene to 1610 and colonization. For Davis and Todd (2017) underscores how contemporary ecological crises in North America originate from systems of extraction and dispossession begun in the colonial period, while also facilitating thinking with Indigenous knowledge about the Anthropocene in ways that push beyond Western and European epistemologies (Davis and Todd 2017, 764). Lewis and Maslin’s (2015) “Orbis Spike” (from the Latin for “world”) is a satisfying convergence of geophysical science, Indigenous knowledge, and social science analysis of the political economy of the world-system, demonstrating the multiple disciplinary and intellectual traditions being brought together to make sense of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch.

Social scientists and humanists have tended to question the idea that geologists alone can adequately periodize time given time’s plural interpretations. Many examples could be given. One common view in western Amazonia, for example, is that in the beginning of time the world was full of humans who, because of quarrelling over family and food issues, transformed into plants and animals. This enabled them, in new skins, to live without kin conflict (Swanson and Reddekop 2017). In this view, the age of humans is the oldest time rather than the newest. The present time of complicated living and destruction is seen as an era of dehumanization, rather than the apotheosis of humanity (Hebdon 2021). Anthropologists argue that understanding such cultural standpoints is essential to effectively communicating and conceptualizing science in the world. How, for example, might Amish farmers be moved or not by exhortations that, to respond to the Anthropocene, they need to accept environmental regulations and adopt new technologies (Welk-Joerger 2019)?

As of 2022, the Anthropocene as an epoch has yet to be officially adopted as a unit of geological time by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geologic Sciences. In some ways scientific agreement on the Anthropocene is less relevant than it may at first appear. As an imaginary and a substantiation of observed and evidenced planetary changes, the Anthropocene has escaped the confines of academic debate and regulation. It informs politics, policy, and opinion worldwide, generating new ways of understanding and governing human relations to environment and responsibilities for the future of planet Earth.

The anthropology of the Anthropocene has tended to be reflexive, asking what defining a new time should mean in practice, in large part out of a well-founded understanding that what is “set in stone” is not always the whole story. In this regard, anthropologists have increasingly argued for an Anthropocene with multiple views of this epoch, while also insisting on an integrative proposal for a more scientifically adequate and pluralized single definition in dialogue with colleagues inside and outside the academy. The breadth of research topics, locations, theoretical concerns, and methodologies presented in Anthropocene scholarship in anthropology underscores the concept’s broad appeal as a “problem space” of thought and action (Moore 2016), a way of noticing the imbrication of human systems and biophysical/geophysical processes (Mathews 2020), and a catalyst for exploring life on a changing planet (Tsing et al. 2017).

The literature drawn together here foregrounds the diverse intellectual traditions contributing to the anthropological study of the Anthropocene. Although anthropologists approach the Anthropocene from different perspectives, and with different ethical and theoretical commitments, there is shared interest in the history and development of the Anthropocene concept, its chronological demarcation, and its application as a universal category of experience. Additionally, it is noticed that anthropologists continue to gravitate toward climate change or anthropogenic global warming as a key dimension for entering the Anthropocene debates, likely reflecting the discipline’s historical interest in emic understandings of climate and growing involvement in climate research and policy nationally and internationally (Dove 2014). Critical anthropology scholarship carries these concerns forward by considering how the Anthropocene, as a concept and a biogeophysical reality, alters understandings of time, grounds ontological and political standpoints, and shapes power relations and the practice of environmental justice. Together these concerns build a politically and environmentally resonant foundation for anthropology’s engagements with the Anthropocene epoch as it is lived and imagined.

End Times and the Anthropocene

Some of the most thought-provoking debates in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology, concern the fundamental point upon which the Anthropocene is based: a before-and-after point in time in human relations with Earth systems, particularly climate. Bauer and Ellis (2018, 215) write, assailing the concept of a clean historical break:

To reinforce the notion of a historical binary, of an “Anthropocene divide,” by precisely dividing the history of the earth into a time in which human social engagement with the production of environments is globally consequential from a time in which it is not, flows strongly against contemporary understandings of both human-environment relations and the coupling of human activities with Earth systems from prehistory to the present.

The idea of such a historical divide has wide-ranging implications for how we think about the past, future, and present, as well as how we confront the possible end of human life or, at least, the end of current modes of living. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin (1968) famously critiqued the idea that time as history is simply a linear progression. He argued that events in the present make earlier events historical—that is, the present makes the past historical, it makes the past into something that does not simply affect the present, but something that the present itself remakes. In the case of the Anthropocene, the development of this concept has indeed involved a historicization of previously ignored parts of the past. The development of the idea of the Anthropocene, and the warming planet that has driven it, has prompted a search for the pivotal historic moment when this process commenced, a moment whose existence or significance was not previously suspected.

Chakrabarty (2009, 206) argues that the idea of climate change itself has affected our sense of history, because, in recognizing the human impact on the global environment, it collapses the previous sense of a separate nature and culture. By implicating humans in the earth’s geophysical processes, climate scientists have recast the human as more than a biological agent. If the dichotomy of nature and culture was integral to our concept of history, its collapse means the end of history as we know it. In consequence, Chakrabarty (2009, 197) says, the future has been placed “beyond the grasp of historical sensibility.” Whereas, following Benjamin, we would say that the Anthropocene makes the past historical; following, Chakrabarty, we would say that it makes the future nonhistorical.

There is some empirical basis for Chakrabarty’s view of anthropogenic climate change as something unique in human history. For policymakers and climate change activists, this claim of uniqueness helps to mobilize resources in the battle against it. But this comes at a cost. If we view anthropogenic climate change as the end of history, this separates us from millennia of human experience with climate, climatic variation, and climatic perturbation, extending back to Hippocrates and beyond (Dove 2014). It suggests that the millennia of human experience dealing with climate is not relevant to the current crisis.

Just as the concept of the Anthropocene can alter our view of the past, resulting in greater attention being paid to some aspects, like the onset of massive human-driven releases of carbon into the atmosphere, and less to others, such as the human experience of climatic perturbation, so too can it alter our view of the future. Some scholars argue that the importance given to the natural sciences in climate change science, and their reliance on quantitative modeling, has reduced much discussion of the future to narrow “model-based descriptions of putative future climates” (Hulme 2011, 245; see also Moore, Mankin, and Becker 2015). Demeritt (2001, 318–319) claims that this constrains our view of the future by abstracting climate change science from social-economic structures and culture, which in the end forecloses discussion or imagination of alternative development paths.

Hulme (2011, 264) similarly characterizes much of the work in climate science to predict the future as “reductionistic,” because it isolates climate as the primary determinant of behavior and response. Ironically, just as the concept of the Anthropocene elevates human agency to a planetary scale, scientific models of climate change reduce the scope of human agency through a deterministic view of present and future action centered on climate. As Hulme (2011, 256) writes, “These models and calculations allow for little human agency, little recognition of evolving, adapting, and innovating societies, and little endeavor to consider the changing values, cultures, and practices of humanity.” The evacuation of complexity in climate change models is reflective of a wider trend in Anthropocene discourse that identifies humanity as a single monolithic actor disturbing planetary systems in a manner that erases social and economic inequalities and cultural diversity.

The ultimate, perceived loss of human agency in the era of the Anthropocene involves the trope of societal “collapse,” and its concomitant erasure of both pasts and futures. The case of the Norse settlements in Greenland is much discussed in the literature on collapse. Toward the end of the 10th century, Norse seafarers colonized Greenland, and at their peak they numbered over three thousand settlers. In the last quarter of the 15th century, however, one-half millennium after their founding, the Norse settlements in Greenland disappeared. When Danish missionaries went looking for them in 1721, Inuit hunters showed them crumbling stone church walls—the only remnants of five hundred years of occupation. The end of the Norse settlements is popularly attributed to the rigors of the Little Ice Age, and Norse settlers are framed as passive victims of a changing climate (McGovern 1994, 141). McGovern faults this explanation on multiple grounds: historic records show that this did not happen abruptly; it did not happen in a resource-poor environment; and it did not affect the aboriginal Inuit who shared occupation of Greenland at the time.

Greenland Norse society is one of the case studies in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse, which popularized this part of the climate change literature. His work did not find favor among most social scientists; Indeed, it prompted the publication, in 2009, of a counter-volume, Questioning Collapse, which problematizes the whole idea of “collapse” (McAnany and Yoffee 2009). In this volume, Berglund (2009) questions why we should see the five hundred-year Norse Greenland society as a story of collapse when it lasted longer than the United States has existed, and it endured for as long as its inhabitants could manage given the conditions.

Scholarship focusing on a case of supposed collapse in the ancient Near East similarly asks what is meant by the term “collapse”? Weiss and Bradley (2001), questioning the orthodoxy that global climate through the past eleven thousand years has been “uneventful,” present evidence of the historic occurrence of multiple, sudden onset but prolonged droughts. Under their impact, the abandonment of existing institutions and shift to radically different lifeways was “an adaptive response to otherwise insurmountable stresses” (Weiss and Bradley 2001, 609)—thus not collapse in the sense we may think.

The preoccupation with end times reflected in the idea of collapse is also mirrored in the idea of apocalypse, which Haraway et al. (2016) argue is implicit in the anthropogenic climate change discourse. They characterize this discourse as a “sacred theory of the earth,” which falls in a tradition of thinking about chaos, the fall, judgement, and apocalypse. The validity of this characterization is reflected in the fact that some Christian congregations reject the climate change discourse as a rival to their own “end-time” discourse. As Webster (2013, 75) writes of the way the climate change discourse is regarded in a Scottish fishing village:

It was God, and not man, who was said to be the agent of this future change. It is in this sense that global warming and climate change were seen by Gamrie’s Christians as a false eschatology that provided an alternative account of the end of the world to the one outlined in scripture.

These Scottish villagers argue that the work of Al Gore among others reveals the climate change movement to be a sort of millenarian cult.

The apocalyptic dimensions of climate change discourse are also interwoven in a variety of political discourses. It is apparent in the ways contemporary American politics frames extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic global warming in reference to nuclear attacks and weapons of mass destruction. Masco (2009, 22) observes how the initial response to Hurricane Katrina by media commentators in the United States was to consider how the event impacted the country’s ability to react to a nuclear attack. This was captured in then-President Bush’s remarks during a statement when conducting a review of the emergency response to Katrina: “We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there is WMD attack or another major storm” (quoted in Masco 2009, 23–24). Masco criticizes this nuclear discourse on the grounds that it blocks other logics about nature and security and thus other potential ways of dealing with climate change-related disaster. Similarly, Swyngedouw (2010, 219) interprets the apocalyptic vision of climate change in terms of its political power: his thesis is that apocalyptic imagery contributes to an apolitical populism. He argues that because climate change is presented as a global humanitarian cause, imagination about how to respond to climate change is being depoliticized. In other words, rather than calling upon radical sociopolitical change as a means to alter the course of climate change, Swyngedouw says that the institutions that caused climate change are being invoked to cure it. In his account, “Populism . . . does not invite a transformation of the existing socio-ecological order but calls on the elites to undertake action such that nothing really has to change” (2010, 223).

For authors like Masco and Swyngedouw, the discourse of apocalyptic climate change represented in apolitical populism or reactionary international security policy is limiting because it does not permit the seeing of different futures. In contrast, others argue that an apocalyptic discourse does permit us to see the future, whether for good or ill. Latour (2013) contends that apocalyptic rhetoric is powerful because it permits us to see a future that we cannot otherwise see, and which we need to see. He defends the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Anthropocene precisely because it enables us to think the unthinkable. On the other hand, Cons (2018) argues that the apocalyptic assumptions embedded in Anthropocene discourse and policy ultimately create “heterodystopias” (following Foucault 1998), sites where the predicted ill fate of climate change is determined to have already happened, thereby foreclosing mitigation options. He traces how heterodystopia is produced in Bangladesh, arguing that it contributes to a false impression that global climate change is contained to particular local spaces. This is seductive because it displaces anxieties over the future to sites and populations least responsible for the Anthropocene’s emergence and the continuation of harmful anthropogenic global warming.

Standpoints

Responding to the plural ways the Anthropocene is interpreted and experienced globally is a key concern of contemporary anthropology. Feminist and queer theory and Indigenous theory, among other intellectual traditions, have become important interlocutors for anthropologists invested in studying and supporting the varied ontological and political standpoints presented within the Anthropocene.

Feminist and Queer Theory

In many ways, the emergence of the Anthropocene has prompted a rethinking of core principles of Enlightenment humanism, which, while foundational to the growth of anthropology and related disciplines, has entrenched a view of nature as separate from human culture, effectively privileging the human over other forms of life. Anthropologists informed by feminist and queer theory carry critiques of Enlightenment humanism forward methodologically and theoretically in work that decenters the human as the primary subject for interpreting the Anthropocene. Informed by posthumanism and biopolitics, scholarship in this vein provocatively interrogates the biological and social boundaries of the human (Chen 2012), extending ethnographic attention to other-than-human beings (Tsing 2015) and the paradigmatic division of life and nonlife upheld in the extractive political economy of late liberalism (Povinelli 2016). At a theoretical level, philosophical and political conversations surrounding the decentering of human subjects have been generative for the discipline of anthropology as a whole, influencing recent turns toward multispecies studies and the geological that are explicitly responsive to the concerns of the Anthropocene (Oguz 2020).

In looking beyond the human, and beyond human futures, Homo sapiens is sometimes framed as a universally harmful, species-scale, actor. Ahuja (2015), expanding on the parasite metaphor of Serres (1982), for example, observes parallels in the ways humans and mosquitoes widen their territorial range and destructive influence as a cause and consequence of global warming. The abstraction of the human species as a planetary parasite, however, is challenged by research that unpacks the variegated responsibilities and experiences of the Anthropocene within and beyond the human species. Anthropologists informed by feminist and queer theory frequently connect the ecological and social harms of the Anthropocene to structural inequalities reproduced through interlinked political-economic systems and environmental practices, such as industrial capitalism and plantation economies (Haraway et al. 2016).

Importantly, the resulting scholarship is not exclusively pessimistic. While anthropology has been influenced by apocalyptic narratives circulating in Anthropocene discourse, it is also the case that anthropologists are perceiving the Anthropocene as generative for worldmaking and the emergence of new kinds of human–environment relationships (O’Reilly et al. 2020). Collaborative research from the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (Choy et al. 2009) and initiatives such as the Feral Atlas digital project (Tsing et al. 2020) highlight instances of multispecies sociality and human ingenuity emerging in response to the Anthropocene, including within sites regarded as capitalist ruins. Feminist interest in interactions transpiring between humans and other forms of life in the Anthropocene has in turn precipitated a range of research on interspecies ethics (Kim 2017) and interspecies labor (Zhang 2020).

The optimism represented within scholarship of multispecies worldmaking is connected to criticism of another ghost of Enlightenment humanism disturbed by the Anthropocene: reproduction. For anthropologists informed by feminist and queer theory, heteronormative models of biological reproduction are harmful in two ways: first, in the physical addition of persons in a world burdened by an expanding, resource-consuming, human population; and second, in the social relations foreclosed by the privileging of biological reproduction. Haraway’s (2016) call to “make kin not babies!” responds to both concerns and has reignited interest in kinship within anthropology. In light of the Anthropocene, interpretations of kinship in the discipline are moving away from the biological to encompass relations that are fluid, multiple, and inclusive of nonhuman beings (Kirksey 2019). By decentering the human subject and giving ethnographic attention to the socialities enacted across species and inorganic entities, feminist and queer theories are changing how anthropology answers what it means to be human in the Anthropocene.

Indigenous Theory

Standpoints that value human–environment entanglements and multispecies sociality are becoming more mainstream in anthropology. Yet, they continue to run up against what Povinelli (2016) and others (Watts 2013; Yusoff 2013) concerned with the political economy of late liberalism identify as a key binary sustaining the Anthropocene: the division between life and nonlife. This is a central insight of scholars working in Indigenous studies who situate Anthropocene discourse in the context of settler colonialism and global imperialism. The tension between life and nonlife in the framing of the Anthropocene can be located, for example, in the ways in which technological interventions into planetary processes, such as geoengineering, are frequently proposed as solutions to anthropogenic climate change. While intended to correct the harms created by the insertion of human activity into planetary systems, these projects ironically gain traction by imposing distinctions between what is life and what is nonlife in order to justify new kinds of human activity into objectified and abstracted Earth system processes. Such projects reveal how narratives of human exceptionalism and mastery over nature and the inorganic remain a part of Anthropocene discourse and action.

Geoengineered “solutions,” however, largely fail to contend with the underlying political, economic, and social processes contributing to human-induced climate change. They likewise dismiss the knowledges and values of groups who have long lived with drastic environmental changes, notably Indigenous peoples facing long-term colonization. Indigenous peoples not only demonstrate how humans are caught in webs of interdependence and mutualism with nonhumans and environment, but offer ethical practices to guide relations with the other-than-human world (de la Cadena 2015; Kimmerer 2014). It is in this context that TallBear (2019) offers a Dakota model for being in good relations with the other-than human and Todd (2015) cautions against homogenous ontologies within mainstream Anthropocene scholarship that reproduce and elevate divisions between nature and culture.

The critiques raised by Indigenous scholars emerge from a shared recognition that debates about the temporality of the Anthropocene within science and policy circles miss how the Anthropocene’s emergence is inseparable from the material transformations wrought by colonization and capitalism (Todd 2015). Indigenous studies centers the role of colonialism as both a historical process and enduring contemporary structure shaping human–environment relations across societies, culminating in the appearance of the Anthropocene (Byrd 2011). It is for this reason that Davis and Todd (2017) call for a periodization of the Anthropocene that connects histories of land dispossession and genocide to the present environmental crisis. While noting how Indigenous peoples and societies are erased in conceptualizations of the Anthropocene, Whyte (2018) argues that “colonialism and capitalism … laid key parts of the groundwork for industrialization and militarization—or carbon-intensive economics—which produce the drivers of anthropogenic climate change” (Whyte 2017, 154).

The erasures of Indigenous perspectives and histories from Anthropocene discussions are reflected in the widely circulating narratives of dystopian futures and apocalypse associated with Western framings of the Anthropocene. Yet, as Simmons (2019) describes, the Anthropocene can be considered as one of many apocalypses faced by Indigenous peoples worldwide. Rather than seeing this moment as a novel dystopia, DeLoughrey (2019) illustrates how the Anthropocene and empire are co-constituted phenomena, arguing that it is only through understanding their interconnections that we can imagine a livable future. On this point, Whyte (2018) warns that the apocalypticism surrounding discussions of the Anthropocene resurrects salvage science in so for as it presents Indigenous peoples as facing inevitable decline and disappearance because of uncontrollable climate change.

Indigenous anthropologists and scholars advocate for a decolonial approach to Indigenous climate change studies (Whyte 2018), which refuses settler conceits of political recognition, integrated knowledge, and the supposed benefits of settler capitalism, to offer new models for living that challenge the ethical and ontological basis of settler societies complicit in the Anthropocene’s emergence (Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014). What a decolonial Anthropocene will look like is being imagined and enacted by Indigenous scholars and those invested in futures that build on appreciation of human embeddedness within environments, their geophysical processes, and the sociality and ethics generated through multispecies relationships. It is no accident that calls for decolonizing scholarly and public understanding of the Anthropocene are coming as the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples and others impacted by colonialism and settler societies is receiving increasing attention worldwide. It is in this context that scholars are focusing more on responsibility for climate change and the production of global differences in wealth and power, both historically and in relation to future climate action.

Power and Justice

Anthropologists and scholars in related fields are thus asking how the Anthropocene reflects and reproduces inequalities between and within different human populations and between humans and other Earthly beings. Such inquiries necessitate a rethinking of complicity in the Anthropocene and the social, political, and economic context of the epoch’s emergence. In this regard, Nixon has productively challenged the standpoint that humans, at a species level, constitute a geological force by questioning who is the “we” in the statement “we the species” (Nixon 2017). Following Nixon, any analysis which wishes to tell the story of Homo sapiens as a collective actor in planetary processes must begin by unpacking the differential relations within human populations that generate uneven effects on planetary systems and geology.

Consequently, a growing number of anthropologists, in line with scholars in Indigenous, feminist, and queer studies, identify industrial capitalism as the economic, historical, and political system most accurately to blame for the current climate catastrophe (Haraway 2015; Sangari 2016). They argue that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is made possible by capitalism’s logic of disposability that renders most of humanity and all of nature expendable. Taking this observation forward, Moore (2017) points out the easy slippage between understandings of climate change as anthropogenic (caused by human activity) and the assumption that all humans are responsible. Rather than regarding climate change as anthropogenic, Moore proposes that climate change should be acknowledged as capitalogenic, that is, created by capital, with the Anthropocene renamed as Capitalocene. From this basis, it becomes clearer how the appropriation of natural resources and the labor of the colonized, women, and people of color, are not only central to capitalism’s proliferation, but contribute to the globally unequal experiences and effects of the Anthropocene today.

The search for responsibility in the Anthropocene’s emergence has also led anthropologists to concentrate on practices that have most changed human–environment relations at a planetary scale. Specifically, anthropologists pinpoint the development of large-scale monocrop plantation agriculture as a source of human entry into the planetary climate system. Research in this line argues that plantation labor sustained the growth and spread of colonialism and capitalism historically, making plantations the seedbed of structural inequality and environmental degradations experienced globally in the Anthropocene. It is also pointed out that all plantations—whether rubber, banana, soy, or palm oil—rely on intensive chemical inputs, forest/grassland clear-cutting and land reclamation strategies, and forms of coercive labor that combine to discipline landscapes and populations for the purpose of profit. Among other social and ecological effects, these ubiquitous practices result in irreplaceable biodiversity loss and high greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate and accelerate global warming trends and the deterioration of ecosystems. The term Plantationocene (Haraway 2015; Haraway and Tsing 2019) is thus favored by those who aim to keep exploitation, extraction, and dispossession at the front of public and scholarly engagement with the Anthropocene.

While race is acknowledged as central to capitalism, colonialism, and plantation systems, Anthropocene scholarship has been late to consider how race constitutes a core component of the Anthropocene’s genesis and experience. In response, Black Ecologies (Hare 2016; Vergès 2017; Yusoff 2018) critically outlines how the Anthropocene emerges as a distinctive racial formation tied to the dual extraction of environments and Black lives. Additionally, scholars examining climate change impacts, mitigation practices, and responses show that global warming and its attendant effects disproportionately impact people of color across the planet, affecting communities throughout the Global South (Lazarus 2012; Teaiwa 2014; Vaughn 2017) and industrialized countries of the Global North (Lennon 2017). Action-oriented climate justice and ecological justice research consequently raises awareness and produces greater insight about how the Anthropocene reproduces inequality, violence, and environmental harm for people of color (Davis et al. 2019). Importantly, scholars committed to climate justice often work alongside activists and in collaboration with communities to elevate issues of concern and create conditions for social, political, and environmental change—for example, through public and collaborative anthropology projects (Howe and Boyer 2019; Roane and Hosbey 2019). They work in tandem with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous studies scholars and others to challenge the liberal promise of universal equality and justice claimed by international climate change mitigation policies, prompting imaginative visions of human-environmental futures in the Anthropocene through decolonial and anti-Black Racism approaches.

Studies of justice, power, and responsibility in the Anthropocene importantly also extend beyond the human to include the multitude of nonhuman beings who share Earth as home. Haraway (2015) advocates for a “multispecies ecojustice” that embraces the full diversity and powers of life on our planet. While the dramatic effects of human-induced climatic changes are undeniable, Haraway reminds us that the original terraformers of Earth were bacteria, and therefore that interaction of all kinds of species have had profound impacts on planetary processes (see Kirksey 2019). Drawing inspiration from feminist science studies, speculative fiction, and climate science, Haraway invites us to think more capaciously about how to “live and die well as mortal critters” and suggests a new term for our age, the “Chthulucene.” A playful twist on H. P. Lovecraft’s tentacular creature, the “chthu,” the “Chthulucene” as a term connects humans to all other life experiencing a planet in flux, removing the anthropocentrism embedded in the language of the “Anthropocene.” While suggesting the name Chthulucene as a companion to Anthropocene, Plantationocene, and Capitalocene, Haraway insists that all names are simultaneously too big and too small. That is, they are only suggestive of the myriad ways in which we need to learn to make kin and make refuge for all those with whom we are Earth-bound.

Studies of the Anthropocene in anthropology highlight the totalizing and universalizing effects the term “Anthropocene” has had on popular discourses, imaginations, and practices responding to global climate change. By ignoring historic differences in human impacts on environments, it is argued that is has become possible for policymakers, politicians, and the public to avoid reflective inquiry into the structural drivers of climate change, namely the extractive logics of capitalism and colonialism which renders most humans and environments expendable. Mainstream framings of a diffuse “global” climate change that operate without recognition of the different levels of complicity in sharing the benefits of colonialism, capitalism, and environmental degradation essentially make any substantive policy action impossible. For, when everybody is supposed to be responsible for the Anthropocene and its social and environmental harms, effectively nobody is.

Further Reading

  • Crutzen, Paul J. 2006. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” In Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, edited by Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft, 13–18. Berlin: Springer.
  • Howe, Cymene, and Anand Pandian, eds. 2019. Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books.
  • Moore, Amelia. 2019. Destination Anthropocene: Science and Tourism in the Bahamas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Moore, Jason W., ed. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
  • Olson, Valerie A., and Lisa Messeri. 2015. “Beyond the Anthropocene: Un-Earthing an Epoch.” Environment and Society 6 (1): 28–47.
  • O’Reilly, Jessica. 2017. The Technocratic Antarctic: An Ethnography of Scientific Expertise and Environmental Governance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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