- Questioning the Anthropocene and Its SilencesSocioenvironmental History and the Climate Crisis
In the wake of yet another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that clearly links human activities to global warming, scholars across the academy, from climate scientists to literary critics, continue to debate the adoption and implications of using the term Anthropocene to describe the current period of earth and human history.1 It is a time when humans are making a significant impact on global climate that has considerable consequences for many species, including our own.2 The term is now broadly discussed because its implications transcend obvious environmentalist concerns for the grave consequences of global warming and species extinctions and extend to how natural scientists and humanist scholars conceptualize many of their foundational categories. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty suggested, human explanations for climate change that arguably warrant the designation Anthropocene “spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” and destabilize the ontological foundations of modern political institutions that are based on separating a society of people from an external realm of nature.3 Indeed, Bruno Latour has dutifully noted that the period subverts traditional conceptions of objectivity in relation to an external natural world, given that humans are active not only in the construction of facts about that world “but also in the very existence of the phenomena those [End Page 403] facts are trying to document.”4 While there is debate as to whether the Anthropocene will receive an official geological designation and, if so, where to place its stratigraphic boundary (i.e., its “golden spike”), it is less debatable that the Anthropocene has gone viral—spanning both popular and academic discourses and spawning numerous lectures, symposia, editorials, articles, courses, and even designated journals.5 Most scholars, it seems, have been quick to adopt this new geological and historiographical periodization—and understandably so. It rightly recenters humans and the study of humanity on some of the most pressing environmental and political concerns of the day.
I share well-founded concerns for mitigating global warming and ongoing and impending species extinctions. As a consequence of these concerns, I critically examine in this essay the philosophical and political implications of the Anthropocene designation, to question its usage as an analytical frame and a historiographical period. The adoption of the term calls needed attention to humans as agents of climate change; in doing so, however, I argue that it potentially obfuscates broader understandings of human-environmental histories and relationships with significant analytical and political implications. To suggest, for example, that the beginning of the Anthropocene marks the dissolution of natural history and human history, or “the end of the division between people and nature,” is simultaneously to reproduce the very binary the period purportedly dissolves, implying that such divisions might have rightly existed beforehand.6 Not surprisingly, early formulations of the Anthropocene are largely premised on upholding a long-standing modern binary between “natural” and human-created environmental and planetary conditions.7 I begin the essay with a review of geological, historical, archaeological, and paleoecological scholarship on the production of socioenvironmental histories over a long period of human existence. This review demonstrates that analytical slippage between humans as biological agents and geophysical agents complicates the ontological foundations of the Anthropocene and poses challenges to its periodization. After addressing these underlying issues, I explore related reasons to be cautious of the adoption of the Anthropocene as an analytical and historiographical frame; these include potentially perpetuating exclusionary social abilities to define desirable environmental conditions; obscuring human experiences and conceptualizations of socioenvironmental conditions that are differentiated by history, geography, [End Page 404] or culture; and promoting a regressive environmental politics based on romanticized notions of nature. To make these points, I begin with a review of the Anthropocene and long-term socioenvironmental histories to evaluate the uniqueness of human-environment relationships in this new period.
As scholars now debate the arrival and implications of the Anthropocene, environmental historians and archaeologists find themselves in a position to contribute to conversations of transdisciplinary significance about its implications and origin point—when was it, for example, that...