Critical Theory III: Anthropocene Refresher

this theory post brought to you by cute fauna
this theory post brought to you by cute fauna – specifically, the anemonefish.

The Anthropocene (discussed more intimately here) is a concept-phenomenon that proposing that we live in a geological period where humans have the capacity to shape the environment at a global, climatological scale. By “concept-phenomenon” I mean three things:

First, that it is that it is a conceptual way to approach a physical phenomenon. Nobel-prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and U-Michigan Biologist Eugene Stoermer proposed that the Holocene, barely out of its cradle in geologic time, is over, as humans have become a driving force on the planet; Crutzen identifies as the beginning of an Anthopocene where technologies finally enabled human participation in global climate systems. While the good dirt-nerds (a term of endearment, I swear) at the ISSC (International Subcommission on Stratigraphic Classification) continue to debate the geological implications of reclassification and their own internal politics, the use of the “Anthropocene” has political implications for urban resilience and the environmental movement (whatever that means now), let alone the way one might conceptualize the “self.”

saddleback anemonefish. while these cute lil' fellas are first and foremost a plot to get you to read more...
saddleback anemonefish. while these cute lil’ fellas are first and foremost a plot to get you to read more…

Second, that the mobilization of the Anthropocene concept has implications for the physical condition of the Earth. How a given human thinks about their capacity to reshape the or alter the earth is a question of the extent of human agency. The Anthropocene could be a pretty cool period where ethics come alive again and everyone has a god complex – hypothetically. More realistically, conservation efforts are one example of how humans attempt to mediate the indirect impacts of their existence on earth through direct action. Community-based conservation efforts not only recognize the double-edged sword humans wield to shape the planet, but they ways in which social dynamics and norms play into human engagement with the environment at all scales.

maybe we shouldn't hide from them as something to think with for a second?
maybe we shouldn’t hide from them as something to think with for a second?

Simon Dalby (2013) highlights the relationship between the Anthropocene and neoliberal productive modes. The great acceleration period is, for him, the last few generations by global capitalism – particularly the period since the middle of the twentieth century – and the primary activity of mass production and the location of labor. He emphasized that “decisions made by those who determine what gets made where, and how the terrestrial surface of the planet is used, now matter directly in terms of the future climate configuration.” (Dalby 2013, 29) Thinking about labor power through conservation is my (perhaps blindly optimistic/jejune) way of flipping Dalby’s framework on its head. More to come on Dalby soon – I like him.

megafauna and charismatic animals often become the icons of environmental campaigns. Clownfish are just "Nemo" to a lot of kids.
megafauna and charismatic animals often become the icons of environmental campaigns. Clownfish are just “Nemo” to a lot of kids. and that’s okay, particularly for overfishing awareness.

Third, and more trivially, the discussion of the Anthropocene is something of a phenomenon in itself. It’s a popular, fashionable concept getting a lot of critical attention – the use of the term has spiraled out of the control of the ISSC regardless of their conclusions. Many environmental historians at this year’s ASEH conference in DC were of the mind that the word has already taken on some critical use and we might as well just roll with it because it’s a useful concept. Personally I think environmental historians have been heavily engaged in similar concepts since the 1980s and they’re excited about a new shiny transdisciplinary thing. 

but they might not be the best representatives to talk about climate change.
but they might not be the best representatives to talk about climate change. no anemone fish here, guys. stop looking.
one of the many reasons I love using coral to think about the anthropocene is that coral bleaching is a visual phenomenon that is semi-proportional to the impact of anthropogenic climate change.
one of the many reasons I love using coral to think about the anthropocene is that coral bleaching is also a visual phenomenon  semi-proportional to the impact of anthropogenic climate change.
human impact is pretty damn legible at 20m below the surface
human impact is pretty damn legible at 20m below the surface. did you find the anemonefish?

This is a useful way for me to think about the Anthropocene, but if you think it over-complicates things let me know in the comments.

For this year, August 2015 to August 2016, I’m exploring questions about human agency in an era of global climate change my own way. As a Watson Fellow, I get to engage coral reef communities above and below the ocean’s surface as ask: what are the ways in which humans feel like they have agency in stopping/altering/counteracting/etc. the effects of global climate change? Specifically, I’m interested in groups that participate in coral restoration as designers, artists, activists and, as I’ve loved here on Koh Tao so far, family.

any questions? please send them to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.
any questions? please send them to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. comments section is good too. and watch for more clownfish at my Instagram, @readynotready.

Peace,

R

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