Anthony Giddens in his The Consequences of Modernity would remind us that the condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative”— the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as beings having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place.1
Whether this combination of pluralism and the demotion of the sciences to one among several forms of knowledge is central to the vision of the post-moderns and their aftermath is beside the point. Yet, I wonder if the trend toward the return of those Grand Narratives under a new guise is peeping its head out of the post-modern quicksands? Recently in scholarship we’ve seen a new term, the Anthropocene, emerge which conveys the sense of human intervention across large spectrums of time and history. So much so that even the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has redefined itself spending over $45 million on an exhibit that palaeobiologist Scott Wing describes as a new story of human history: “We want to help people imagine their role in the world, which is maybe more important than many of them realize.”2 As Monastersky reports it:
This provocative exhibit will focus on the Anthropocene — the slice of Earth’s history during which people have become a major geological force. Through mining activities alone, humans move more sediment than all the world’s rivers combined. Homo sapiens has also warmed the planet, raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.
Given the magnitude of these changes, many researchers propose that the Anthropocene represents a new division of geological time. The concept has gained traction, especially in the past few years — and not just among geoscientists. The word has been invoked by archaeologists, historians and even gender-studies researchers; several museums around the world have exhibited art inspired by the Anthropocene; and the media have heartily adopted the idea. “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” The Economist announced in 2011.
Yet, not everyone is happy with this all-encompassing term, metaphor, hyperbole. As Monstersky will observe although the term is trending, the Anthropocene is still an amorphous notion — an unofficial name that has yet to be accepted as part of the geological timescale. That may change soon. “A committee of researchers is currently hashing out whether to codify the Anthropocene as a formal geological unit, and when to define its starting point.” Continuing he says:
But critics worry that important arguments against the proposal have been drowned out by popular enthusiasm, driven in part by environmentally minded researchers who want to highlight how destructive humans have become. Some supporters of the Anthropocene idea have even been likened to zealots. “There’s a similarity to certain religious groups who are extremely keen on their religion — to the extent that they think everybody who doesn’t practice their religion is some kind of barbarian,” says one geologist who asked not to be named.
The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen about a decade ago. One day Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds, was sitting at a scientific conference. The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that—officially, at least—continues to this day.
“‘Let’s stop it,'” Crutzen recalls blurting out. “‘We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.’ Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.” When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that Crutzen copyright the word. (see Age of Man National Geographic)
Copyright the word? A meme factory? A sort of property right against the corruption and degradation of life by humans to be copyrighted?
We learn that it was back in 2007 when Jan Zalasiewicz was serving as chairman of the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission. At a meeting he decided to ask his fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the Anthropocene. Twenty-one of 22 thought the concept had merit. So the question was: When it does, will human impacts show up as “stratigraphically significant”? The answer, Zalasiewicz’s group decided, is yes—though not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect. (see Masters of the Anthropocene podcast)
I think what we’re seeing is the great divide between the sciences and cultural theory breaking over us again. Whereas Crutzer, Zalasiewicz and their geologists are demarcating a stratigraphical epoch for purposes of studying the larger issues of scientific problems, the cultural drift is hijacking the concept and misplacing it into cultural critique and hype for purposes of academic politics – as a instrument for political and social critique of human impact on the environment. The two forms, scientific and cultural theory seem utterly at odds with each other. Sciences are just beginning the study of this problematique, while we are seeing an overloaded market of cultural critique using the metaphor and hyperbole of the Anthropocene: The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton; After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedidiah Purdy, etc.. Even Edward O. Wilson has hopped on board of late with a new apocalyptic work Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, telling us that “In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, says Edward O. Wilson in his most impassioned book to date. Half-Earth argues that the situation facing us is too large to be solved piecemeal and proposes a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: dedicate fully half the surface of the Earth to nature.”
Of course the scholarly treadmill of academia has hopped on board with the extreme metaphor of the sciences and will use it as a new fear tactic for promoting Climate Change agendas, this is to be expected. Just strange to follow these memes into their viral agent stage where now it is becoming almost a mainstay of discourse that will go by without a deep thinking process, but will become a part of our Facebook and Twitter blip cultural turn toward short drifts of hypersigns full of sound and fury… but will they mean “nothing” or “something”? Only time will tell… and, don’t misread my view of Climate Change: it is happening, but I’m against a certain type of hypercritique that hyperbolizes it into cultural parlance rather than bringing it back to the sciences.
- Giddens, Anthony (2013-04-24). The Consequences of Modernity (Kindle Locations 95-98). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
- Richard Monastersky. Anthropocene: The human age. (Nature International Journal of Science, Vol 519, Issue 7542)