This is an article that I wrote back in the spring of 2019 for publication in Geez 54, an issue dedicated to climate justice. It came out of my research and thinking at the time, much of which was informed by solarpunk. This is a slightly unedited version – the one that appeared in the magazine was edited, of course. I feel obligated to apologize for the title; it’s not my best work. Gets the point across, though.
Every time that I say “the Anthropocene” outside of academia, I cringe inwardly. The word carries a story implicit in it: “anthropos” = (hu)Man; -cene = recent era. The world we live in – of overpollution, extreme economic disparity, ecological injustice, dwindling biodiversity – is the world that humans have shaped and are shaping even now with every decision. It is a story that is too moralistic for my liking: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of David Suzuki.” Yet this is a faulty narrative – unjust and unreflective of reality, and subscribing to it is making the problem worse, not better.
The Anthropocene evokes a very protestant ethic: we all have a personal relationship with pollution, and each person adds to the cumulative worsening of the problem with thoughtless actions. Daily, we waste water, add to mountains of trash, and pollute the air driving the car to work. Talking about the Anthropocene can feel like bringing up the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity in an otherwise innocuous conversation about summer holidays. It requires a lot of elaboration, and immediately sounds like I’m accusing my conversation partner of grave sins.
However, there is a contradiction at the heart of this story, as feminist theorist Dr. Chris Cuomo points out: the term “Anthropocene” indicts all humans everywhere, yet simultaneously points to a specific time and place. In August 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group announced its official start date of 1750 CE, coinciding with James Watt’s patenting of steam engine technology. There and then, a class of wealthy European men and their families benefited from the ramping-up of the Industrial Revolution, making possible capitalist and colonialist ventures internationally.
The historical economic and political decisions that gave rise to the climate catastrophes and pollution of the Anthropocene era were often deliberately made regardless of the resulting violence and brutality against many other humans and the earth itself. And made by a select few: Rosi Braidotti explains in The Posthuman (2013) that “anthropos” refers to wealthy, white (heterosexual and Christian) men in 17th century Europe. Yet, the Anthropocene still assigns environmental guilt to every human living today, including women, the poor, the young, and racially and sexually marginalized folx, people who have been historically and economically barred from partaking in the benefits yielded by violent colonial extractionist policies, instead left to endure the slow violence of environmental degradation around them.
The Anthropocene story looks backwards into the past and dictates a present where we are all protagonists, heirs of the poor choices of those who have come before, called to be as individually innocent as possible to make up for the past. Hypocritically, it disregards factors of class, race, gender, and location that dictate the possibilities for individuals’ access to sustainable ways of living in the first place, still universalizing the centuries-old idea of “anthropos”. Disempowerment shouldn’t automatically mean damnation, and I have found a lot of relief, personally, in rejecting the Anthropocenic doctrine of original environmental sin.
The great thing about stories—even powerful ones like the Anthropocene—is that they can be critiqued, interrupted, nuanced, or even swapped out completely for better stories. I don’t like stories that automatically enroll me into a self-aggrandizing blame-game, paranoid and suspicious of the temptation of pollution devils around every corner. It throws the focus back on me: how can I avoid sinning? I end up fretting about reusable dishes and purchasing sustainable lightbulbs like indulgences.
Instead, I try to live according to a different story, one where communities of humans can hold other, more powerful humans accountable for their decisions about the future, and can have success lobbying politicians to enforce sustainable resource management. It is a story that describes humans taking collective action to turn our gazes onto the companies and corporations responsible for high emissions. This story focuses on positive cumulative action in the present: not changing my own lightbulbs, but changing our society.