Throughout their existence, human beings have modified the geological conditions of the planet, and they continue to do so today. This is what defines the epoch that we call the Anthropocene, which emerged dramatically in the second half of the 18th century and continues today. The climate emergency is one result of these modifications.
The concept of the Anthropocene—anthropos means “human being” in ancient Greek— helps us to recognise the fact that human excesses are imperilling the planet. As the posthumanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti wrote, the Anthropocene involves a profound crisis in ethical and epistemological values.
The posthumanist critique provides important food for thought when it comes to facing the challenges of the Anthropocene. Firstly, because of its critique of humanism’s anthropocentric and individualistic conception of the human being. And secondly, because of the importance it attaches to the relationality of the world. Human beings are seen as completely interlinked with everything that surrounds them, so posthumanism cries out for an end to relationships characterised by an ontology of exploitation. The intimate association of human beings with everything non-human makes human life not only the subject, but also the object of the Anthropocene (Vermeulen, 2020: 60).
The effects of the human species on the planet have been felt since we first appeared, especially since the end of the Pleistocene geological era when homo sapiens entered the scene. Hunter-gatherers had an impact on the fauna and flora in the last 50,000 years of the late Pleistocene and the beginning of the following geological era, the Holocene. The extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, for example, was largely caused by human activity. The transformation of the land through agriculture began over 10,000 years ago, and age-old activities, such as mining and livestock farming, left clear traces on the land. The incomparably greater impact of the industrial revolution, however, and the subsequent development of human societies mean that we can consider the 19th century, with its exponential growth in human demography, as the most obvious starting point for the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene.
It could be said that the human species has become a geological force (Steffen et al, 2011: 843). In the Anthropocene, geological and historical periods coincide. The term, which originated in geology and is now widespread in the social and human sciences, became popular after it was used by the chemist and environmental science activist Paul J. Crutzen (2000) to draw attention to the increasing impact of human activity on the environment in recent centuries. This impact is so significant that it can be seen as a manifestation of a new geological era, following the Holocene.
The term Anthropocene and all that it implies cannot be disassociated from our characteristically anthropocentric mentality because, after all, it is difficult to disconnect our identity as a species and our own desire for survival from conservationist approaches to saving the planet. However, the idea of the Anthropocene is extremely useful because it helps us to recognize that human excesses endanger life on earth and highlights the need to promote radical changes in the way we should conceive and approach life.
It is essential today to work towards a political ecology, in an ecopolitical sense (Heise, 2008), for the Anthropocene. Theories of posthumanism, by providing us with conceptual tools that cause us to reflect on the place of human beings in the Anthropocene, can help us rethink the basic principles of our interactions with both human and non-human agents on a planetary scale (Braidotti, 2015). The importance accorded to overcoming anthropocentrism and dualistic thinking by posthumanism, and its relational ontology, greatly facilitates the task of confronting the challenges for the human species that the Anthropocene implies. It is important to see the Anthropocene not only as a reality we are experiencing, but as a problem to be solved.
The most advanced biological knowledge claims that there is no such thing as an individual in a biological sense The fundamental units of life are interconnectedness and relationship. Without these there would be no life (Haskell, 2017). This same idea is reflected in the field of social and human sciences in the term natureculture coined by Donna Haraway (2003) to deliberately avoid the nature/culture dichotomy that breaks up the very real continuity that connects human beings with the other forms of life that surround them.
What is the point of separating the human species or human society from the rest of nature? Is there any sense in saying that culture is different to nature? Where should we draw the dividing line between life and the synthesis of life made possible by the new biotechnologies? Today, genetic modification techniques have made it possible for goats to produce the silk of the spider’s web for commercial use. Are the spider’s web, the sparrow’s nest, and the termite’s intricate labyrinths artificial or natural products? One could posit that humans secrete cars, buildings or novels in the same way that the spider secretes its webs. They are processes that are perhaps complex in a different way to the spider’s web, but as they come from something natural, the human being, could human secretions not also be considered products of nature?
One of the most obvious realities of the Anthropocene is that climate change threatens the human species with disaster. This prospect calls into question the humanist myth of perpetual human progress, which, along with predatory interests in exploiting the planet, has given rise to denialist thinking about the climate emergency. Some question statistical data and claim that climate change is not due to human activity. And others assert that, although it is a reality, it is not necessarily negative and that human ingenuity will find technological mechanisms to redress it. Behind these arguments are very specific industrial, commercial and political interests. Among the main promoters of climate change denialism are large industries responsible for CO2 emissions and ultra-liberal political movements and far right political parties. Denialist beliefs are often not even a conviction in these parties, but are rather used as a strategy to combat environmentalism, which is seen to be a progressive ideology.
In speaking of the human species as a whole, we should not forget the fact that the responsibility for the worsening environmental health of the planet does not lie in an abstract idea of the human being, but in the worldviews underlying capitalist policies. For this reason, there are those who reject the term Anthropocene, preferring other terms such as Capitalocene. Quite apart from the terminology, however, the economic consequences of neoliberalism are clearly seen in the constant growth of social and economic inequalities, as well as in the constant worsening—once could already call it a disaster—of ecological conditions (Chomsky, 1998). “The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidence nor accident: the need of an ever-expanding market, and its growth fetish mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability” (Fisher, 2009: 18-19). It has been claimed that to build our infrastructures, 4,000 tonnes of land currently have to be moved for every human being (Vermeulen, 2020: 59), with the greenhouse gas emissions that this generates. But this is clearly just an overall statistic, since, while the most economically developed countries are responsible for huge volumes of CO2 emissions, the poorest countries on the planet produce hardly any at all. But they too suffer from the consequences of climate change, perhaps more so than others.
The reality of the Anthropocene is not only of interest to science; it has also stimulated the imagination of the creative world. The dystopian future that this new geological era portends is present in numerous books and films. Possibly the most painful vision, one which also serves as a warning, focuses on the consequences of a divide within the human specie. On the one hand, there will be those fortunate enough to enjoy a comfortable position under the new conditions which the Anthropocene has brought us to, and who can afford to improve and enhance their bodies through transhumanist techniques. On the other hand, there will be the great mass of humanity who, if they have survived the ecological disaster, will be relegated to the status of second-class citizens. All that the Anthropocene implies can also be found in other fields of artistic creation, such as music. One need only think of the aesthetics of the Icelandic musical artist Björk or the instrumental piece by Brian Eno entitled Deep Anthropocene. In the visual arts there is also talk of a visuality specific to the Anthropocene in which, in addition to a general focus on ecology, close attention is also paid to how ecological changes occur (Boetzkes, 2015: 272). Innovative visual arts have also emerged, such as bio-art that employs techniques from molecular biology, nanotechnology and neurobiology.
For each of us, becoming aware of the Anthropocene era means asking ourselves the following questions:
To what extent could and should we rethink our relationships with other living beings on the planet, relationships which in Western civilisation have been characterised mainly in terms of exploitation?
How should we conceive of human identities and responsibilities as members of multi-species communities that emerge through interrelationships with other beings with agency?
And in practical terms, to what extent could or should we question our personal behaviour towards the living beings around us in our daily lives?
The Anthropocene calls forth an activist response that moves us to improve relations between humans and non-humans and to recognise and act in conscience with regard to our responsibilities to the planet as humans. Furthermore, it prompts us to think in terms of social justice and to ensure economic development in accordance not only with the needs of human beings, but also with the overall health of the planet.
- Boetzkes, Amanda, “Ecologicity, Vision, and the Neurological System”, in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (eds.)Critical Climate Change Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, London: Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 271-282
- Braidotti, Rosi, Lo posthumano, Barcelona: Gedisa, 2015
- Chomsky, Noam, Profit over people: neoliberalism and the global order, New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998
- Crutzen, P. J. and E. F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene”, IGBP Global Newsletter 41, 2000, pp. 12–14
- Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books, 2009
- Haraway, Donna, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003
- Haskell, David George, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, New York: Penguin, 2017
- Heise, Ursula K., Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
- Steffen, W., J. Grinevald, P. Crutzen, J. McNeil, “The anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, 2011, pp. 842–867
- Vermeulen, Pieter, “The anthropocene”, in Mads Rosendahl Thomsen and Jacob Wamberg (eds.), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, pp. 59-70