The Anthropocene, Genre, and Futurity

Not The World Without Us, but the World as Us

The Anthropocene is a spatial behemoth, a cognitive leviathan. I want to start with an example that highlights a problem with the Anthropocene as a genre perhaps, but certainly as concept that deeply impacts the ways we can think about the future of the planet and human life activity. In the summer of 2012, Russ George, of Plakos Inc., and a First Nations village on Haida Gwaii dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of British Columbia in order to encourage algae growth. George Dvorsky of says, “recent satellite images are now confirming [the iron sulphate’s] effects—an artificial plankton bloom that’s 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) in size. The intention of the project is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the bottom of the ocean.” The decision was made unilaterally by George and First Nations on Haida Gwaii; Environment Canada and the UN are both investigating this rogue geo-engineering project. In The Huffington Post, Stephanie Pappas writes about the implications for large scale adoption of the technique: “Even widespread fertilization of the oceans would result in about 0.5 to 1 gigaton of carbon being shuttled out of the atmosphere annually…That’s about a third to a quarter of the carbon added to the atmosphere each year from man-made and other sources.” Here, the realization that we are fully within the Anthropocene offers those interested a license to act and to take the responsibility for the well being of the planet into their own hands. In the case of this example, George convinced the Haida to contribute over one million dollars to the project.

Just across the Hecate Strait from Haida Gwaii the possible connections between ecological and racial politics becomes further complicated, where struggles have been raging between oil companies and First Nations over the Douglas Channel Energy Partnership.[1]Though not often treated this way by corporate interests, environmental action, in both examples, becomes a First Nations issue, in light of the tenuous status of treaty negotiation in B.C. The acceleration of action, in the case of the carbon trap, and the blockage of action, in the case of the pipeline, are two courses that take the ecological impasse we now know as the Anthropocene as their grounds for justification. Stopping the pipeline and creating new ways to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising are both gambits that address the global climate crisis: each is based on slowing the oncoming catastrophe and mitigating the effects of our carbon dependency.[2]What I hope to show with this overdetermined example of ecological activity is just how severely the Anthropocene underdetermines the dense crossover of ecological, economic, racial, and political lines.

In what follows I elaborate the Anthropocene as a genre of writing alongside other kinds of environmental writing in order to emphasize what I think we all will agree is fundamental shortcoming of the term’s explanatory and political usefulness. Libby Robin has already begun to elaborate how the ways we imagine and write the global state of things can intervene in our understanding of the present. In “The Eco-Humanities as Literature: A New Genre?” she concludes, neatly, that the extent to which this may be effective “will depend on our capacity to write Nature as a subject and to understand the Human as a physical force in the Earth’s ecosystems” (302).[3]Robin’s claim may be correct, but our capacity to “write nature as subject” is severely altered in the wake of the Anthropocene. As Robin suggests, ecology is a “useful tool for writing about ‘place in time’ (human scale and sensibilities of place) because it takes context into account, including evolutionary history and local environment” (291). Robin’s piece turns to Australian environmental writing to articulate her argument, demonstrating the activity of shuttling from what she calls “global frameworks” and “global scale” to the particularity of the local. I hope to show the ways the Anthropocene makes this kind of conceptual shuttling difficult. I consider the Anthropocene as one symptom, among many, of a global energy dependency premised on the goal of limitless growth and accumulation. I will begin with the ways the authors of the Anthropocene frame the future, before discussing Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitaltrilogy (2004, 2005, 2007) as texts that engage the epistemic, ecological, and political interregnum of the Anthropocene where the force of humanity has lead itself: not to The World Without Us, but to the world as us.

The Anthropocene and Futurity

A number of researchers in the sciences have declared that we have entered a new geological age characterized by the impact of the fervor of human life activity on the planet since the invention of the coal-powered steam engine. This announcement sounds the depth of research and thought in the humanities through different means than in the sciences or for engineering, and I intend to read discussions surrounding the Anthropocene in terms of the period they construct and the futures they both describe and imply. In their 2007 piece, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill propose three historical stages to the development of the Anthropocene: the industrial era (ca. 1800-1945), the great acceleration (ca. 1945-present), and the latest, something they term “Stewards of the Earth System? (ca. 2015–?)” (618). Here, the shift from thinking the global through human impact moves ever so quickly from the conditional, ‘if humans are the greatest geological force on the planet, we would need to respond by…’, to the imperative, ‘human beings are the greatest geological force: act now,’ which frames the opening example of Haida Gwaii in a new light—not as a criminal act but as an act of stewardship. In the article, this shift opens on to three possible trajectories for the future: business as usual, mitigation, and geo-engineering.

Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill describe business as usual based on several assumptions. First, adopting an anti-apocalyptic stance, they suggest that “global change will not be severe or rapid enough to cause major disruptions to the global economic system or to other important aspects of societies, such as human health” (619). One need only think of the latest super storm, hurricane Sandy and now the polar vortex, and the on-going municipal, state, and federal government efforts to repair and rebuild to recognize problems with the business as usual model.[4]Second, they assume, “the existing market-oriented economic system can deal autonomously with any adaptations that are required” (619), displaying wonderfully what would be registered only a matter of months after the publication of their article by a financial, and not an ecological, crisis. Third, they suggest that “resources required to mitigate global change proactively would be better spent on more pressing human needs” (619). The assumption that seems to be undergirding Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill’s assessment, is that the political, ecological future will look strikingly like the present. To their credit, it seems most pertinent to read this model as a straw man argument, making this version of the future a rhetorical device with an ecological agenda designed to move readers beyond this first vision of the future to the following two, dialing up the political stakes in the process.

If the business as usual response shrugs off the possibility of catastrophe, mitigation tries to completely reverse it. Mitigation, for Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, aims to “allow the Earth System to function in a pre-Anthropocene way” through vastly improved technology and management, wise use of Earth’s resources, control of human and domestic animal population, and overall careful use and restoration of the natural environment” (619). Acknowledging the impacts humans have had on the bios in this form however naively requires a faith in science and scientific progress. This fits what Imre Szeman describes in his article “System Failure” as “techno-utopianism” where scientific or technocratic solutions sweep in at the final hour to resolve the looming threats to the Earth and human and animal life (812). But, as Szeman points out, the problem with such a faith in science is that this type of resolution has no history.[5]Here, the tension between a lurking catastrophism and the generative potential of imagining what is to come animates this second future in Antropocene as a genre of reactionary extrapolation. That we could return to a pre-Anthropocene age simply through sage managerial practices seems beyond the scope of possibility for current systems of governance. For evidence of this one need only remember the difficulties the Kyoto Protocol has faced over the past fifteen years, leaving Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeil’s third option, seemingly, as their best.

Geo-engineering also runs along the lines of Szeman’s techno-utopianism. This version of the future assumes that since humans have already affected the Earth to the degree and extent that they do, we should take full responsibility and engage in purposeful, planned endeavours to reshape the planet in the form of humanity’s desire. Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill are careful to elaborate the dangers of geo-engineering, suggesting that the fix would require massive coordination and cooperation on a global scale—something possible only in Sezeman’s fourth possible future: the planned economy. In other words, the problem ceases to be entirely ecological and becomes political, meeting up with discourses of modernization and industrialization, uneven development, and problems in global consensus. This moment of transformation also marks a structural limit to the term Anthropocene: it tends to elide economic or geographic difference and homogenize humanity into one agent that acts on and against the planet, rather than thinking the dense complex of relations that subtly and deeply impact the Earth over a number of operations and repetitions. The concept of the Anthropocene leaps to totality both in ecological terms—from the locale of Haida Gwaii to geology writ-large—and in governmental terms—from the overdetermined struggle of one group to the entire human population—leaving behind the capacity to accurately frame the ecological impasse and offer reasoned solutions.

The Anthropocene and Genre

Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007) works through expert testimony to explore the ways that Earth might recuperate in the wake of humanity.[6]Weisman’s thought experiment removes humanity, and its future actions, from the ecological equation so that we might better be able to understand and respond to its effects. Especially when the problems are vaster than human reckoning, Wiseman diligently narrates them. For instance, in his chapter on plastics, the pacific garbage gyre, and futurity Weisman points out that “plastics haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long they’ll last or what happens to them” (116).[7]Weisman’s book remarkably engages in what Gerry Canavan, Lisa Klarr, and Ryan Vu, have described as an attempt to “narrate the unnarratable” (21) to move beyond both science fiction and other ecological writing in order to frame the ecological impasse. Like discourses of the Anthropocene, Weisman’s book reveals that the problems we are only beginning to name in the present have been a long time in the making—plastics being a prime example. The World Without Us plays a formal trick that writing on the Anthropocene doesn’t—it declares humanity’s incalculable effects on the planet not by shouting about our geological force, but by appearing to subtract us from the equation.

Whether or not describing a world without us is possible, the era of our deep impact on the planet is already over a century old, in the words of Kim Stanley Robinson, “our inadvertent terraforming of Earth [has] already begun by accident” (179). Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007) fills in the specificity and dynamism missing from the discussions of the Anthropocene above. Rather than focus on crisis and impasse through a science-fictional displacement onto an estranged future space and time, the trilogy unfolds in the present after omniscient narration describes the increasingly rapid melting of the polar ice and the resulting uptick in weather volatility. In other words, Science in the Capital quickens the pace and effects of global warming to test various scenarios and human responses. Like Weisman’s thought experiment, Robinson presses fast forward on the gamut of possibilities: catastrophe, mitigation, and geo-engineering.

Unlike discussions surrounding the Anthropocene, Robinson’s climate change trilogy doesn’t foreground one ideological agenda over another; instead, it provides us with what Mathias Nilges has described as “a matrix of conflicting positions” (81). Nilges assessment is that it is this mode of realism that makes the trilogy so effective at mapping and working through the political, economic, and ecological contradiction. He writes, “reading Science in the Capital means to dissolve what we conceive of as paralyzing impasses (politically as well as formally) and show them…as the multipositional processes they are” (83).[8]Robinson, it seems, already addresses what Eddie Yuen, in “The Politics of Failure Have Failed” suggests—that the epistemic emergence of the Anthropocene could bring with it a shuffling of political positions: “of course, political categories never neatly fall into categories of left and right—in fact there are often a range of bizarre combinations, and there is a strong likelihood of “morbid symptoms” in the interregnum between the Holocene and the Anthropocene” (39). Robinson’s main intervention, on K. Daniel Cho’s account, moves beyond the politics of the Anthropocene, which by and large seek to create a future as some idealized version of the present, to “explore the possibility of ecological disaster creating the preconditions for the wholesale transformation of capitalist society” (24). Rather than seeking to contain or downplay these “morbid symptoms,” Robinson writes their tension, their conflicts, and their somewhat unsatisfactory solutions, presenting a much more complex and nuanced characterization of life on Earth in the massive wake of humanity’s impact.

Concluding Notes

The Anthropocene is as much a problem of representation as it is an ecological one. In the Anthropocene we see the politics and limits to thinking in broad strokes. But the short-circuit, for me, isn’t about trying to think too big, it’s a problem of taking an easy path to thinking that bigger picture. Totalities are complex, nuanced, and shape relations in indirect ways. The project of thinking an ecological totality that takes into account the impact of one species on all of the others measured through the visible signs that species leaves on the face of the planet is a good place to start. The difficulty lies in developing the thought, in weighing it against other discourses and problematics, from uneven development to the politics of geo-engineering, and, even more so, in meaningfully bridging that thought to action.

Three tangled threads simultaneously inform and complicate discussions of the Anthropocene: enlightenment ideas of progress, a description or theory of the world as a totality, and an agreement about the ethics and politics of human impact on the Earth. These threads weave into descriptions of the Anthropocene and spool outwards again as scientists, engineers, ecologists, and social scientists alike think through what it means for our collective future. However, the intensive impact of human life activity on the planet is not just a fiction; rather, the ways this activity is described are fully narrative in scope and tend to draw on fiction in order to give shape to imaginative or notional encounters with the diverse effects of this life activity. All of this brings us back to history. The Anthropocene, if we accept its periodization in The Philosophical Transcripts and elsewhere, began in the enlightenment and has unfolded through the industrial innovations of the 19th century, the great wars of the 20th, and, in the face of ecological catastrophe, stands revealed at the dawn of the 21st. What this means for politics is up for debate. I have tried to show some of the limits to the forms of thinking the future implied by and addressed to the Anthropocene, as well as highlighting Weisman and Robinson’s as alternative ways to approach representing or formalizing the Anthropocene.

By way of a concluding thought, in “Après Nous, Le Deluge” Canavan takes the right approach emphasizing a collective failure and that collective solutions are needed: “Three months after Hurricane Sandy, eight years after Hurricane Katrina, 25 years after James Hansen testified before Congress, 40 years after the development of a scientific consensus around global warming in the 1970s, 70 years after climate models in the 1950s first began to point to the problem, 107 years after Svante Arrhenius first modeled the greenhouse effect in 1896, we still sit and wait to see what happens.” Whether or not we agree with the actions taken off the coast of Haida Gwaii, deep in the Anthropocene, the future of the world it seems is still, and perhaps problematically so, up to us.


Works Cited

“Is Global Warming Behind the Polar Vortex.” Rutgers Today. 30 Jan. 2014 Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Bahrani, Ramin. “Plastic Bag.” FutureStates.TV, 7 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Canavan, Gerry, Lisa Klarr, and Ryan Vu. “Ecology & Ideology: An Introduction.” Polygraph 22 (2010): 1-32.

Canavan, Gerry. “Après Nous, le Déluge.” The New Inquiry, 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Cho, K. Daniel. “‘When a Chance Came for Everything to Change’: Messianism and Wilderness in Kim Stanely Robinson’s Abrupt Climate Change Trilogy.” Criticism 53.1 (Winter 2011): 23-51.

Dvorsky, George. “A Massive and Illegal Geoengineering Project has been Detected Off Canada’s West Coast.” 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Nilges, Mathias. “Marxism and Form Now.” Mediations24.2 (Spring 2009): 66-89.

Pappas, Stephanie. “Iron Dumping In The Pacific Ocean Stirs Controversy Over Geoengineering.” Huffington Post 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Rose, Deborah Ed. “The Ecological Humanities.” The Australian Humanities Review 47 (2009): 87-187.

Robin, Libby. “The Eco-Humanities as Literature: A New Genre?” Australian Literary Studies 23.3 (2008): 290-304.

Robinson, Kim Stanley, Imre Szeman, and Maria Whiteman. “Future Politics: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson.” In Science Fiction Studies 31 (2004): 177-187.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment36.8 (2007):614-621.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Cultural and Historical Perspectives.” The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011): 842-867.

Szeman, Imre. “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (Fall 2007): 805-823.

Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. New York: Picador, 2007.

[1] A poignant example being how Enbridge erased several islands from the Douglas Channel – according to removing “1,000 square kilometers of islands off their route safety video and map to make the oil tanker route look much less treacherous than it actually is.”
[2] Sasha Liley’s edited collection Catastophism (2012) and Eric C. Otto’s monograph, Green Speculations (2012) form two tendential poles to the limits and possibilities of ecological thought today. Catastrophismtrenchantly critiques those forms of politics that draw on the imagination of disaster in an effort to shock a sluggish or complacent population into action; while, Green Speculations affirms the interconnection of science fiction and transformational environmentalism. The former describes catastrophism as either eminently co-optable by the political right (39) or as leading to only moralizing or technocratic solutions (18); while, the latter reads the genre connection between sci-fi and environmental writing, since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), as a privileged site to engage the ecological imperative to alter our collective course through history. Though Liley and Otto’s projects appear to turn in different directions, they each take form and genre as their starting point to shaping or critiquing a version of the future based on the limits and possibilities of the present.
[3] See also The Australian Humanities Review special section on “Ecological Humanities” collected by Deborah Rose. In her introduction, Rose writes: “The articles in this issue of Ecological Humanities explore the role and dimensions of writing in this time of environmental change. They seek out the kinds of writing capable of shaking up our culture, and awakening us to new and more enlivened understandings of the world, our place in it, and the situated connectivities that bind us into multi-species communities” (87).
[4] See “Is Global Warming Behind the Polar Vortex.”
[5] Szeman writes, “Technology is figured as just around the corner, as always just on the verge of arriving. Innovation can be hurried along (through increased grants, for instance), but only slightly: technological solutions arrive just in time and never fail to come…History offers no models whatsoever: the fantasy of past coincidence between technological discovery and historic necessity simply reinforces the bad utopianism of hope in technological solutions to the looming end of oil.” (814)
[6] National Geographics’ Aftermath: Populaiton Zero (2008), The History Channel’s Life After People (2008), and the more speculative BBC show The Future is Wild (2003-)
[7] The futurity of plastic is treated in “Plastic Bag” a FutureStates.TV short directed, written, and edited by Ramin Bahrani. The short follows the life of a plastic bag on its way to the pacific garbage gyre, tracing its lifetime well after both its usefulness and the death of its “maker” – the woman who first used it for groceries. It is voiced by Wernor Herzog who concludes the piece with a fantasy about meeting the “maker” one final time to say: “I wish you created me so that I could die.”

[8] “We find this formal strategy on the level of plot, where dialectical contradictions drive forward a process that never suffices itself with positivistic (or satisfying) resolutions: libertarians struggle with neoliberals who struggle with neoconservatives, Buddhists struggle with humanist leftists, philosophers struggle with scientists, capitalism struggles with sustainable development, and luddite politics compete with the ideal of terraforming” (82).

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