Notes from the Anthropocene #1
On September 21, 2014, nearly 400,000 people took part in the People’s Climate March and Mobilization, winding their way from Central Park through Midtown Manhattan and ending with a block party celebration on the city’s mostly empty West Side (flooded during Sandy). Cleanly subdivided into six categories of political subjects—indigenous and environmental justice groups up front, a medieval combination of scientists and priests in the fifth, and finally “Here comes everybody! L.G.B.T.Q., N.Y.C. Boroughs, Community Groups, Neighborhoods, Cities, States, and more” in the sixth—the march called on the United Nations Climate Summit and governments around the world to steer a course towards appropriate “climate action” and “climate justice” on behalf of the groups neatly represented like meats and cheeses on a Hormel party tray. The following day, former anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street activists, many on the payroll of this or that N.G.O., attempted a mass civil disobedience action on the blocks leading to the New York Stock Exchange. When the orchestrated non-violence of Flood Wall Street met the orchestrated non-brutality of the NYPD, ne’er an arrest occurred and the organizers called it all off, going home and turning the streets over to a few hundred unofficial protesters who were determined to be peacefully taken into custody.
As the United Nations met later that week to talk about talking about limiting global temperature rise to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) through a reduction in carbon emissions while simultaneously making economies, cities, and networks resilient, the People’s Climate Summit website released its own numbers: 400,000 people, 1,574 organizations, 50,000 college students, 5,200 articles, and 7 celebrity selfies. Homemade and mass-produced signs, puppets and inflatables, polar bear costumes and globes, thousands of buses whose bills were footed by non-profits and Gofundme.com, a pony-tailed Leo DiCaprio parading around as the U.N.’s Messenger for Peace, with a special focus on climate change issues. A success, they say, in launching the climate justice movement, a success as quantifiable as the parts per million of the upper safety limit for the atmosphere. As the march quickly faded into most New Yorkers’ memories, as when a million of us marched against the war that happened anyway, a variety of non-questions circulated to try to cement the march’s legacy. Was it too radical? Not radical enough? Too little too late? A photo-op? A corporate greenwash with the help of the “non-profit industrial complex”? 1 Non-questions for a non-world. Simply put, the Climate March was a blast from the past, mobilizing a set of political techniques and priorities that have literally been left behind by reality, by the new common in which we find ourselves.
A new epoch is certainly at hand; one need only trace the fault lines from the glacial barricades of Kiev’s Maidan across the radioactive swamp left by Fukushima’s failing ice wall to the “Winter is Coming” graffiti of Istanbul’s Gezi commune. Everywhere this age speaks its exhaustion, in the massive human efforts to break through and in the falling of idols. The once coherent subject around which the world was ordered stands in ruin as a neurotic information node whose closest relationship is with a cellphone or iPad. The claims to mastery over the world are being literally washed away by rising seas, while terminal diagnoses of our civilization proliferate as quickly as fantasies of the end (see the Walking Dead’s Terminus). As Brad Evans and Julien Reid describe it in their book Resilient Life, “We are living out the final scenes of the liberal nightmare in all its catastrophic permutations,” an epoch that is sensed just as much in the collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet2 and the bamboo barricades of Hong Kong as in the desertification of the Amazon rainforest and the death vows of the Lakota in the face of the KeystoneXL pipeline.3 Some people say the world is ending, but we say it is just a way of life, a certain order of things.
Ironically, it is geologists who have already arrived at this conclusion, by way of atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen’s “launch[ing] a small hand grenade into the world of geological time scales.”4 Crutzen, formerly most famous for his Nobel Prize-winning research on the depletion of the ozone layer, used the term the Anthropocene in 2000 in a newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.5 Since then geologists such as Jan Zalasiewicz have taken up the term, forming the Anthropocene Working Group (A.W.G.) to prepare a proposal for its inclusion in the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s official geological time scale. Etymologically the Anthropocene designates the “epoch of man”—a triumphal crowning of the liberal subject and its way of life, dated unsurprisingly from the middle of the 18th century. Stratigraphically the Anthropocene designates that Man has become the most powerful geological force on the planet, meaning that our measurable physical impact on sedimentation is more powerful than the oceans’ tides or the movement of mountains. Though in many popular accounts the Anthropocene is often reduced to the impacts of global warming or other processes contributing to climate change, geologists have focused on a series of metrics in addition to these such as deforestation, the acidification of the ocean, mass extinction, urbanization, the reshuffling of the biosphere, and the homogenization of environments. As such the perceptible triumph of man and his civilization, its coming to the fore as the most powerful force on earth, can best be measured in a catastrophic impact.
In light of the Anthropocene, geologists have also begun reshuffling their own rubrics, expanding the purview of paleontology from the organic to the inorganic and from the past to the present with the introduction of “technostratigraphy.”6 According to Zalasiewicz and colleagues Colin Waters (Principal Mapping Geologist at the British Geological Survey) and Mark Williams (Professor of Palaeobiology with Zalasiewicz at Leicester), technofossils7 may well stand as the most convincing evidence of the epoch’s environmental signature. In the first-ever instance of geoscientists using anything other than biological fossils to help classify a chronostratigraphical unit, the A.W.G. are not looking at dinosaur vertebrae frozen in amber or ancient leaf imprints found in stone, but at critical infrastructures and cities like New York itself, which they see as “one of the most extensive, durable and geologically distinctive aspects of the Anthropocene” (Williams et al, 399) and thus as representative index fossils of the epoch’s recent, current, and near future. Whereas palaeontology has always been about studying past geological artifacts, the objects now under consideration as Anthropocene fossils—the key evidence in the Anthropocene dossier—are those of our present-day, still-functioning civilization. Thus for the first time in history, geologists are now dating an epoch in the present tense, studying contemporary, still functioning, infrastructures as fossils, studying the constituent elements of our civilization the way they once studied the remains of a long-vanished life form.
Through their attempt at naming and measuring the epoch of man, studying cities and subways as fossils in real time, and conjuring future geologists from outer space to study a world in which this civilization has completely vanished, these geologists have called our entire civilization and its requisite way of life a ruin. It would be easy to read the “humanity” implied in the Anthropocene as the final expression of modern man’s vanity, one last Promethean blast, but doing so misses entirely what’s most decisive about the stratigraphers’ concept: the Anthropocene elevates liberal humanity to prime geohistorical agent, center of the world, but does so only in the moment of its historical collapse. Has there ever been a civilization that named itself after its most cherished principle in order to call the whole thing a failure?
The Anthropocene as name and as phenomenon: the completion of the West, modernity, and liberal humanism. Seemingly by accident, coming from the sciences but immediately overflowing their bounds of acceptability—constant pressure to avoid seeming too negative and to remain dispassionate in their work—the geologists have cleared away the web of confusion. Naming the epoch after its first principle-in-ruins, they force us to face our age in all its schizophrenia.
Even if the geologists can’t quite say aloud what the New York Times could publish—“that this civilization is already dead”8—they place us succinctly and directly in the present. The end of the world is not this or that disaster coming in the future—a biblical flood, the next hurricane, the collapse of Midwestern agriculture—nor is it a potential future extinction of homo sapiens. The end of the world is what we are living through right now. And whereas the deluge of newspaper accounts of “the collapse of civilization”9 focus almost primarily on environmental factors, we insist that the devastation named by the Anthropocene is just as much a spiritual, existential, human devastation as it is an environmental one. It is impossible to separate the collapse of ice sheets from the collapse of man. Yet here again, in the very name itself, the Anthropocene seems to exceed what is considered polite or acceptable to say.
From this angle the People’s Climate March and Mobilization looks a bit different. Rather than being a matter of too much clicktivism, too few paint bombs, or of making demands to an utterly discredited institution, the Mobilization was designed to function as a last ditch attempt to shore up the present. At work in the generation of a discourse of climate crisis and a climate movement is an operation that dims down the complex reality of our epoch to a single phenomenon—global warming as generated by increased ppm of CO2—and deriving from that a set of clearly representable subjects—from “frontline communities” to “climate activists”—and a set of core questions—how can this situation be managed and how can this way of life be saved from itself?—that in effect attempt to hold back the apocalypse one more day, while also holding back any possibility of redemption. Keeping us cocooned, trapped, within an eternal, frozen present.
As Lauren Berlant writes, “the present is perceived, first, affectively: the present is what makes itself present to us before it becomes anything else” (Cruel Optimism, 4). This series will explore our present, an epoch for which we lack precedents or words but in which we are, already, called and shaped. Its aim is to read the tracks in front of us from within the situation, to recognize the present as it unfolds and to trace the breaths and rhythms with which it expresses itself. As such, the writing may occasionally take on different forms—stories, letters, interviews, or whatever seems appropriate. Future topics include “Those Who Go West” in Japan, extinction obsession, France’s Zone A Défendre and other ZADs, hacker spaces, autonomy, “survival skills,” and more. We will read the signs of the time and open ourselves up to the forms of life that are already coming to replace man in this exhausted age. An age obsessed with the end because it wants to see the world reborn.
Pinto, Nick. “Last Month’s Climate Protests: Potent Message Or Toothless.” Gothamist. Oct. 13, 2014. Web
Goldberg, Suzanne. “Western Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse Has Already Begun, Scientists Warn.” The Guardian, May 13, 2014. Web.
Ibanez, Camila. “Lakota Vow: ‘dead or in Prison before We Allow the KXL Pipeline’ - Waging Nonviolence.” Waging Nonviolence. Mar. 13, 2013
Sample, Ian. “Anthropocene: Is This the New Epoch of Humans?” The Guardian. N.p., 16 Oct. 2014. Web.
Stoermer, Eugene. “Have We Entered the ‘Anthropocene’?” - IGBP. Oct. 31, 2014. Web.
Zalasiewicz, Jan, Mark Williams, Colin Waters, Anthony Barnosky, and Peter Haff. “The Technofossil Record of Humans.” The Anthropocene Review 1.2 (2014): 34-43. Web.
“Is the fossil record of complex animal behaviour a stratigraphical analogue for the Anthropocene?” Geological Society of London, Special Publications 10/2013;
See also Colin N. Waters, Jan A. Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Michael A. Ellis, and Andrea M. Snelling, “A stratigraphical basis for the Anthropocene?” Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395, first published on March 24, 2014.
Scranton, Roy. “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Opinionator Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene Comments. The New York Times, Nov. 10, 2013.
Ahmed, Nafeez. “Nasa-funded Study: Industrial Civilisation Headed for ‘Irreversible Collapse’?” The Guardian. Mar. 26, 2014.
Glenn Dyer was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana and now lives in Ridgewood, Queens. He is a historian, translator, amateur strategist, and part-time instructor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies. Glenn is also part of 1882 Woodbine, a workshop and organizing space for practical experiments in building autonomy.Stephanie Wakefield
STEPHANIE WAKEFIELD is a 2017 – 18 visiting Assistant Professor in Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College The New School. She has written extensively on the political and philosophical implications of the Anthropocene, 'living' infrastructure, and urban resilience in New York City. Her current research is on south Florida where she is exploring 'experimentation' as a mode of dwelling in the Anthropocene, and emancipatory possibilities offered by the concept of the 'back loop.'