3. Against the Anthropocene
Published: 25.05.2015
in the series Anthropocene
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On May 16th, 2015, the “Paddle in Seattle” demo unleashed its kayak flotilla, a mass direct action against Shell’s Arctic-bound Polar Pioneer drilling rig temporarily stationed in the west coast city’s port. Word and images of the “S(h)ell no!” protest spread widely online, accompanying reports in indie media and some mainstream press, distributed by environmentalist and Indigenous movements, adding momentum to the popular challenge to extreme extractivism in the far North.


‘Shell No’ protesters take to the water on Saturday heading near Royal Dutch Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig near Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

These images visualize and energize the mounting antagonism between corporate industry’s pushing us into climate chaos, and grassroots campaigners’ opposition to the continued reliance on fossil fuel. As such, the action throws a wedge into the universalizing logic of the Anthropocene, a term that, as we have seen, suggests—falsely—that we’re all agents of climate change, sharing equally in its causes and effects.

“Our culture and livelihood is dependent on the bowhead, the walrus, the seal and the fish,” explains Inupiaq activist Mae Hank, as reported on the website of the First Nations movement Idle No More. “How can Shell go ahead with such a risky operation”—with a 75% likelihood of an oil spill with nearly impossible cleanup options, given extreme Arctic conditions—“when peoples’ lives are at stake?”1Reported in Idle No More, the Indigenous resurgence movement in Canada that supports “the peaceful revolution, to honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water”: http://www.idlenomore.ca/shell_no.

Indigenous Kayak acitivists: The Pacific Climate Warriors, 2015 (Twitter)

Hank’s statement, and the photographic documentation of the kayak action, together belie the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” that makes the case that “we” must seize the opportunity to create (read: geoengineer) a “good Anthropocene,” “decoupling” economic growth from environmental impacts. Bringing together eco-optimist luminaries like Stewart Brand, Erle Ellis, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, the group argues that, despite environmental setbacks, “humans” must continue down the path of modernization, using “their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”2Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger et al., “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” (2015): http://www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto/, 6. See also Jeremy Caradonna et al., “A Degrowth Response to an Ecomodernist Manifesto” (May 6, 2015), at http://www.resilience.org/, which points out that in addition to presenting factual errors, “Ecomodernism violates everything we know about ecosystems, energy, population, and natural resources. Fatally, it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. The ecomodernists, by contrast, brazenly claim that the limit to growth is a myth, and that human population and the economy could continue to grow almost indefinitely. Moreover, the ecomodernists ignore or downplay many of the ecological ramifications of growth. The Manifesto has nothing to say about the impacts of conventional farming, monoculture, pesticide-resistant insects, GMOs, and the increasing privatization of seeds and genetic material. It is silent on the decline of global fisheries or the accumulation of microplastic pollution in the oceans, reductions in biodiversity, threats to ecosystem services, and the extinction of species. Nor does it really question our reliance on fossil fuels. It does argue that societies need to ‘decarbonize,’ but the Manifesto also tacitly supports coal, oil and natural gas by advocating for carbon capture and storage.” It’s not surprising that techno-utopian Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, is among this group.

The “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” however, is nothing more than a bad utopian suggestion, based on a form of magical thinking that renews misguided industry-friendly efforts to overcome an earlier “limit to growth” environmentalism, first articulated in the early 1970s. Sickly sweet with optimism, the manifesto is basically an apology for nuclear energy that allows its authors to reassert the imperative of economic development, as if such an energy system will have no impact on Earth systems (counter to recent experience in Fukushima). What’s striking is that there’s no mention of social justice and democratic politics in this account, no acknowledgement of the fact that big technologies like nuclear fusion reinforce centralized power, the military-industrial complex, and the inequalities of corporate globalization, rather than the distributed self-sufficient economies and egalitarian local governance that tend to accompany renewable energy paradigms.

The Anthropocene thesis tends to support such developmentalist globalization, joining all humans together in shared responsibility for creating our present environmental disaster. Exploiting further its universalizing logic, the Anthropocene concept makes it easy to justify further technological interventions in the Earth’s systems via geo-engineering, as if the causes of climate disruption can be its solutions. In such narratives as these, anthropos distracts attention from the economic class that has long benefitted from the economic system responsible for catastrophic environmental change.

Even Bruno Latour, otherwise given over to adopting Anthropocene vocabulary (and liberally using its universalizing rhetoric of “human agency”3See for instance, Bruno Latour, “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History vol. 45 (2014), 1-18., recognizes its propensity to disavow the differential responsibilities of climate change: “Hundreds of different people”—such as Indian nations in the Amazonian forest; “poor blokes in the slums of Mumbai”; workers subjected to long commutes owing to lack of affordable housing—“will at once raise their voice and say they feel no responsibility whatsoever for those deeds at a geological scale,” Latour notes.4Bruno Latour, “The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe,” in Facing Gaia:

Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature (2013): http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/wakefield15/files/2015/01/LATOUR-GIFFORD-SIX-LECTURES_1.pdf, 80.
That is, even as he validates the concept so long as anthropos signifies—against its very terminological implications—a differentiated “people with contradictory interest, opposing cosmoses,” even “warring entities.”5Latour, “The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe,”  81.

Yet we might challenge the viability of this conceptualization altogether. And visual culture against the Anthropocene is one reason why. For the growing photographic record makes clear how there exists significant rejection of the term’s conceptual bases in today’s social movements, particularly given the numerous images embedded in independent media that depict the destructiveness of the industrial fossil-fuel economy and its catastrophic impact on diverse “human” communities, including Indigenous people and rural working classes.

Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller, 2015 (Kennedy Miller Productions/Warner Bros.)

One obvious example is the rebellion taking place around the Albertan Tar Sands and its related Keystone XL oil pipeline. This example is significant not only because it represents a massive befouling of the environment, but also because this is not a case of industrial accident or oil spill, as was Exxon Valdez in 1989 or BP’s Deepwater Horizon in 2006.6See also Antonia Juhasz, “Thirty Million Gallons under the Sea Following the trail of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” Harper’s Magazine (June 2015). Her exposé traces the ongoing impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which, in 2010, gushed over 100 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. After accompanying a team of scientists as they collect animal, plant, water, and sediment samples from the seabed’s fragile ecosystem, she contests BP’s claim that there has been “very limited impact from the oil spill on the seafloor.” “If you short-circuit the bottom,” Dr. Samantha Joye, a biogeochemist at the University of Georgia, tells Juhasz, “you threaten the entire cycle. Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.” Nor is it yet another instance of the corporate media’s many spectacles of post-apocalyptic futures reveling in the “bad” Anthropocene, as in the drought-ravaged, violence-obsessed, and resource-scarce scenario of Mad Max: Fury Road.7Amelia Urry et al., “Mad Max: Fury Road may be the Anthropocene at its worst—but it makes for pretty sick cinema,” Grist (15 May 2015): http://grist.org/living/mad-max-fury-road-may-be-the-anthropocene-at-its-worst-but-it-makes-for-pretty-sick-cinema/ Rather than focusing on the failures of industry and those dystopian visions, which serve only to divert us from the real problem at hand, Tar Sands development concerns the normal, accident-free running of petro-capitalism that is itself bringing disastrous effects on us—with some affected more than others—in the present.

As explains Eriel Deranger, activist and spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, tar-sands oil extraction represents a mode of strip-mining that produces a viscous, dirty crude, or diluted bitumen, and is considered the most ecologically destructive project on the planet.8See the Gaia Foundation’s report, “Canada, Alberta Tar Sands—The Most Destructive Project on Earth,” at http://www.gaiafoundation.org. Also, see Eriel Deranger’s presentation at the “Rights of Nature” conference at Nottingham Contemporary on January 24, 2015, which accompanied the exhibition in 2015 that I co-curated, available at http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/event/rights-nature-conference. Indeed, the industrial ecocide has rendered Fort Chipewyan, home to Indigenous people living in the Athabasca river region and its boreal forests, a toxic wasteland. Likewise, minority and low-income communities living on the edges of the massive petrochemical infrastructure in Houston—which stands to be connected to Tar Sands extraction by Keystone XL—suffer greatly elevated risks of contracting leukemia and cancers owing to oil industry exposure.9As explains Juan Parras, founder of the group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (http://tejasbarrios.org/): http://bridgethegulfproject.org/blog/2012/houston-residents-worry-about-burden-keystone-xl-pipeline-local-neighborhood; http://www.gaiafoundation.org/canada-alberta-tar-sands-the-most-destructive-project-on-earth; and Wen Stephenson, “Keystone XL and Tar Sands: Voices From the Front Lines,” The Nation (February 4, 2014): https://www.thenation.com/article/keystone-xl-and-tar-sands-voices-front-lines/.

An aerial view of the Alberta tar sands development (The Pembina Institute/Chris Evans)

The Anthropocene, the geological epoch driven by vaguely generalizing “human activities,” fails to capture the divisions and antagonism at play here. Instead we might consider adopting a term like the “Capitalocene,” which appears more exacting. Proposed by Donna Haraway, the latter refers to the geological epoch created by neoliberal corporate globalization, and has the advantage of naming the culprit beyond climate change, thereby gathering political traction around itself.10See Haraway’s presentation at Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, the conference at University of California, Santa Cruz, May 8, 2014: http://anthropocene.au.dk/conferences/arts-of-living-on-a-damaged-planet-may-2014/. It is not native peoples, or impoverished communities, or underdeveloped countries who are subsidizing fossil fuel companies to a degree of $10 million per minute ($5.3 trillion a year) worldwide so that they can run their Capitalocenic enterprises, driving us all toward climate catastrophe, but rather the governments of over-developed nations, as reported recently by the IMF.11Nadia Prupis, “Governments Giving Fossil Fuel Companies $10 Million a Minute: IMF,” Common Dreams (May 18, 2015): http://www.commondreams.org/. Or, as Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything, “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”12Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Allen Lane, 2014), 18. It’s not that most of us are not implicated in one way or another—many of us, for instance, drive cars and live in energy-consuming homes. Rather, it’s the agents of the Capitalocene who are doing everything possible—including using their tremendous financial resources to manipulate governments through corporate lobbying—to remove sustainable energy options from even entering the discussion. “Ours is the geological epoch not of humanity, but of capital,” as Andreas Malm cogently argues.13Andreas Malm, “The Anthropocene Myth,” Jacobin (3.30.15): https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/anthropocene-capitalism-climate-change/.

In this regard, photography at its best plays a critical role in raising awareness of the impact, showing the environmental abuse and human costs, of fossil-fuel’s everyday operations, encouraging a rebellious activist culture, like that currently taking place in Seattle’s port, around which diverse communities and transnational organizations are building political alliances. Such imagery invites us to participate in what Isabelle Stengers terms the cosmopolitical present, alluding to the progressive composition of a common world, where commonality insists on thinking “in the presence of” those most negatively affected by governmental policies.14Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed., Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel (Karlsruhe and Cambridge: ZKM and MIT Press, 2005). In this regard, contemporary cosmopolitics necessitates thinking critically about the Anthropocene thesis in the company of “those who are so impacted by out-of-control, psychotic, bottom-of-the-barrel resource development, not just here in Canada, but globally,” as Deranger insists. “Indigenous people have become the canary in the coal mine. I don’t want my children to have to be the sacrifices for humanity to wake up.”15Stephenson, “Keystone XL and Tar Sands: Voices From the Front Lines.” Photography can help to show why.

4 comment(s)
Kieran Suckling
Posted 25.05.2015 at 23:28

Nice post T.J.

I very much agree with this particular problem you find with the name "Anthropocene". If that were the only problem, it would as you say, point toward something like "Capitalocene" being a better name (though one would still need to address the fact that seemingly non-Capitalist economies (e.g. Russia and China) have also exacted enormous damage to the planet with little regard for the Earth).

But there is another problem with Anthropocene that applies equally to Capitalocene and any similarly human-related name: the assumption that geological epochs are named for geological drivers. There are 16 officially recognized epochs, none of which is named for the driver of the epoch. They are instead named for the condition of the Earth's plants and animals in that epoch. Epochs and epoch names are biocentric. Epochs are defined by major global change in biodiversity composition. Within geologic periods, they are named by their recency. The Holocene, for example, names the "wholely new" meaning the species composition after the Pleistocene glaciation cycles.

In this light, Capitalocene is also anthropocentric, though obviously in a less obnoxious way. A better name in my opinion is Homogenocene, referring to global the homogenization of species and cultures that define our time. In addition to being biocentric, it is also non-dualist. It sees cultures not only as drivers, but as victims along with the plants and animals. Finally, by identifying the problem rather than the purported cause, it lessens the likelihood that we'll falsely settle on the anti-cause as the answer. For example, many Marxists and Communists, while seeing themselves as anti-capitalists, are perfectly happy to endorse an industrialism that will continue the destruction of indigenous cultures, local places, plants and animals. Our goal, should not simply be to be other than capitalism, but to be other than homogenization. There are plenty of non-capitalist ways to keep destroying diversity.

I don't mean, btw, to imply that you are suggesting that anti-capitalism is enough. I'm raising the issue in a general way.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity

p.s. I gave the official rebuttal at the annual Breakthrough Institute conference in 2014, making many of the same points you do here. I specifically focused on how poor and indigenous communities will be the ones to pay for "mankind's" high-energy utopian future. The captains of industry won't be mining uranium in Marin County where the conference was held and they won't be flooding the Hudson River Valley with a massive dam. That will happen where it always happens: lands owned by indigenous and poor people. I was accused of being "romantic" as if indigenous and poor people don't exist right here, right now.

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Atomic Geography
Posted 26.05.2015 at 16:37

A companion piece to this might be "On Naming the Anthropocene" by Adrian Ivakhiv at the blog Immanence. In the post, Adrian makes the distinction between naming the Anthropocene as a way of naming something that exists vs as a way of naming something into existence. He also catalogs a variety of responses to how to name this.

I agree that photography can play a role in raising awareness of the impacts of Capital (or as I prefer Cyborg) culture. One of the problems though is the tendency of photography to make thinks look so beautiful. An example is "Black Maps" by David Maise. American Mine at BLDGBLOG including some of his photos.

So do such photos raise awareness or become part of Jodi Dean's Communicative Capitalism?

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TJ Demos
Posted 05.06.2015 at 05:41

Thanks Kieran for your responses. I do like the name of Homogenocene, for the reasons you describe. Perhaps we need several names, as one just isn't enough--certainly not the Anthropocene, though I certainly see it may very well be impossible to stop this horse now that it's out of the gate. I address this point--of the need for many names--briefly in my fourth entry. That said, I'm still partial to the Capitalocene, as it names the culprit and grants political traction, which I think is most of all needed these days. And I would include contemporary China and Russia in this global formation, just as different varieties. If you mean the time of the USSR and communist China, then that's definitely different, and I feel Malm's essay “The Anthropocene Myth” addresses this point quite well, and argues that we should keep the focus on Capitalism nonetheless. (By the way, there's also a significant strain of Marxist ecology that would never endorse the mastery of nature by Stalinist authoritarian socialism--John Bellamy Foster's book on Marx's Ecology is excellent in this regard). Thanks also for your historical points in relation to the "age of man," which I appreciate.
As for Atomic Geography, that's a really important point about photography's beautification function--which I address in relation to the work of Burtynsky in my fourth post... Thanks again for the responses!

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Paul Kneale
Posted 06.06.2015 at 01:18

I wonder if actually photography is part of the problem. To begin with, most camera technology is produced by capitalist giants such as Apple, Samsung,Nikon etc. Not only are these manufacturing processes in themselves highly destructive, making use of rare earth minerals etc., but the disposition they encourage toward fetishising the newest device's prowess is at the core of the desire cycle which renders large tracts of highly (or 'over') developed societies apathetic to their political agency.

These device-based, material scenarios coupled with the proliferation of so called 'social' networking online has led to a well noted deluge of of photography. An excess capacity of image production which is hard to reconcile to experience. Everything is pictured always. There's never any longer an episode of global importance that isn't caught on camera, and as a result there is a flattening effect, and an indifference to the photographic image that's inculcated by these scenarios as a coping or sorting mechanism. We scan. Disaster. Celebrity. The platforms themselves are flat. News blogs dont have a front-to-back ordering of significance. Ethics becomes a niche interest in this new geography of visual terrain. Perhaps it would be more radical to refuse to represent so directly. To clog up the feeds with images that didn't contain momentarily digisted narratives of good and evil. Maybe its a paradox that such ugencies can actually leverage visual indeterminacy as an affective apparatus? Disorient the invaders by removing the street signs like the Czech citizens during the Prague Spring.

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