PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature: 'Against the Anthropocene'

Scientists have been arguing for a new period in Earth's geological history, the Anthropocene. Cultural critic T.J. Demos offers a critical take on the concept, pro and con.


Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today

Publisher: Sternberg
Length: 132 pages
Author: T.J. Demos
Price: € 18.00
Format: Softcover
Publication date: 2017-07
Amazon

Since the turn of the 21st century, a number of scientists have been arguing for the designation of a new epoch in Earth's geological history, which they term the Anthropocene in acknowledgment of the impact of humans on the planet's evolution. While not yet officially approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the concept has been gaining acceptance not only among scientists but in the culture generally as the effects of human activity on climate, biodiversity, and other aspects of the ecosystem are increasingly apparent.

That humans are adversely affecting the Earth, or that there is even anything at all out of sorts with the planet's ecosystem, is a serious bone of contention in many quarters on the right. While the left readily accepts that humans are responsible for the apparent ecological crisis, how to characterize that impact is subject to debate and the central concern of Against the Anthropocene by T. J. Demos, cultural critic and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, and director of the Center for Creative Ecologies.

As noted on the popular website Welcome to the Anthropocene, the term was introduced into current usage in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer. But as Demos notes, various iterations of the concept date back to at least the mid-19th century when Welsh geologist Thomas Jenkyn introduced the term 'Anthropozoic' to describe the current epoch. The specific term 'Anthropocene' seems to date to 1922 when Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov appears to have proposed it.

The actual onset of the Anthropocene is also a point of discussion. Some scientists contend the new epoch dates to the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. Others place its origins back several millennia with the beginnings of agricultural cultivation and the domestication of crops in the Neolithic Age. Still, others posit the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of the Second World War while some specifically date 1492 as the year when the planet first came to be dominated by humanity with the connection of the planet's two hemispheres under European colonialism. Although not mentioned in the book, devotees of Frankfurt School critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (of which I confess I am one) might identify the mind/body split articulated in the mid-17th century by Rene Descartes as the fountainhead of the Anthropocene.

Trained as an art historian, Demos first takes up the ways in which the Anthropocene is visualized by various imaging systems and the ideologies that inform them. Following the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton, Demos divides these perspectives into two camps: the 'techno-utopians' who believe the problem can be fixed via geoengineering and the 'eco-Soterians' (named after Soteria, the Greek daimon of safety and preservation) who seek to work in concert Gaia's natural processes.

The geoengineering solutions offered by the techno-utopians propose to leverage the advances of science to rectify humanity's domination of nature with even more technological intervention, which some might argue is the root of the problem in the first place. The visual culture of the techno-utopians reinforces humanity's mastery of nature through digital satellite photography and data visualizations in the form of maps, graphs, and virtual simulations. Geoengineering projects tend to be proposed by major corporations and wealthy nations of the global North with support from the likes of the multi-billion dollar Gates Foundation.

Where techno-utopianism operates from the top down, eco-Soterianism works from the bottom up, offering a more critical, grassroots perspective, endeavoring not to 'fix' the Earth so much as to fix ourselves. Most of what Demos surveys in this regard is the action of eco-activists to resist techno-utopianism through direct confrontation -- for example, the 2015 blockade of Shell Corporation's Polar Pioneer drilling rig in the waters near Seattle -- and conscious-raising by artists to draw attention to the crisis through documentary filmmaking, exhibitions, and performance. Briefly surveyed here, this work is explored in greater depth in Demos' previous book, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Other manifestations of eco-Soterianism not explored by Demos are eco-friendly practices such as voluntary simplicity, organic farming, locavore consumption, and the like.

A bigger concern of Against the Anthropocene is to contest the very concept itself. According to Demos, a major problem with the Anthropocene concept is the way in which it universalizes the roots of the eco-crisis by situating it among the anthropos, i.e., humanity in general, when it is, in fact, the result of a specific set of actions taken by a specific set of individuals, which is to say unbridled global capitalism and its agents and beneficiaries, especially as connected to the exploitation of the environment in all its forms in search of ever-increasing profit.

A number of people have grappled with the question as Demos shows. The most direct connection is drawn by those who embrace the concept of the 'Capitalocene' -- the geological age of capitalism and its deleterious effects on the environment -- which tend to be distributed unequally geographically, socially, and economically to those who lack the wherewithal to resist. Though she doesn't specifically use the term Capitalocene, Naomi Klein identifies its eponymous economic system as one of the combatants in the battle for the future of the environment in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

While Capitalocene identifies the culprit and has the benefit of world-historical fact, it lacks a conception of the possibility of an alternative. A candidate in that regard is Donna Haraway's term 'Chthulucene', from the Greek khthon earth, drawing attention away from human-centered activity -- whether universal or particular -- to encompass a broader understanding of the planet's ability to persist regardless of whether it is homo sapiens or Blattodea (cockroaches) at the top of the food chain. It is ultimately humankind's mandate to thus work within the existential conditions of Gaia in all their complexity to ensure that another world is not only possible but guaranteed.

Other concepts have been proposed, positive and negative: the Gynecene, in recognition of ecofeminist reverence toward Mother Earth; the Plasticene, the age of plastic, for the artificial materials derived mainly from petrochemicals, which portend to outlast all manner of other fossils, to name two.

Whatever their merits from a philosophical perspective, none of the above-mentioned alternative designations appear to have the resonance and likely staying power of the term Anthropocene. Perhaps a compromise might be to propose an alt-Anthropocene movement in which the ecological dead-ender machinations of capitalism are actively resisted and replaced with more holistic ways of thinking and doing. The former being the province of thought-leaders, including artists; the latter being the province of social entrepreneurs, including 'citizen-designers'.

Regardless of the banner under which one chooses to act, act we must. The collective future of humankind depends on it.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.