Planet Cancer: Some Speculation on Anthropocentrism & Ecological After-Images of Humanity

I came across an article the other night on concrete (The Problem with Reinforced Concrete) that, after reading halfway through, I retweeted to remind myself to read fully the next morning.* And I have, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into one aspect of the how of urban decay aesthetic so beloved by cyberpunks, and an equally fascinating rebuke of the conceit of many twentieth-century far-future science fiction novels where all that is left of humanity is their concrete.

I’ve been reading through Wayland Drew‘s Erthring cycle** this past week, which is set roughly 200 years since humanity bombed itself in a nicely vague but obviously Cold-War-induced frenzy, and thus all that is left of “the Old Ones” is their cities in the centre of radioactives zones. These cities are still spreading their “scabrous crusts” –  I believe is the phrase – across the earth. It’s a very solemn and imposing mental image, one reinforced again and again throughout the series: in the late 20th century, humanity had become an autocannibalizing force that, in its insatiable greed, destroyed the earth in a selfish hedonism, likened to how a microbe destroys its host organism, spreading blotches and lesions that remain far after they themselves have been wiped out.

This is a familiar theme in retrospective science fiction: humans actively destroy the passive body of their host (the victimized earth), forcing inertia on a naturally vibrant wilderness through building solid, inactive, and lasting structures. It’s an attitude that I’ve noted arising in SF and ecological non-fiction throughout the 1960s and with its heyday in the 1970s, and one that is continuous through the 80s and up to today.

Not that I’ve read everything under the sun that was published at that time, mind you, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but the humanity-as-disease idea exists as a general and noticeable trend, one that plays on stereotypes of dominant, active Mankind raping and abusing its helpless, feminized victim Mother Earth. Things I have observed so far: it’s a popular metaphor; it feeds off of the already-extant binary that relies on the (often violent) friction between genders; it makes one feel like a real knight in shining armour to be standing up on behalf of the victimized planet when recycling that pop bottle; it’s yet another way that anthropocentrism invades environmentalist discourse even post-2010.

The article on concrete ends with a call to reconsider our notions of concrete and steel as inert and to recognize their agency in order to be ideologically equipped for their swift “decay,” a result of the workings of natural processes that crumble concrete and rust the steel. And so I fear this post is mostly an info-dump of “did you know this interesting factoid” because here is where I’m starting to think about possibilities for the inclusion of object-oriented ontology and feminist discussion of the agency of matter in to my dissertation. Stacy Alaimo and Karen Barad are already on my reading list*** so that bodes well.

I’m excited to start reading theory after next week. Theory, in my opinion, is a very useful tool for giving readers the language by which to articulate their thoughts. More concretely, I’ve found that it is hard to protest something I cannot identify or describe properly, and language is an important tool in recognizing and challenging oppression and insidiously systemic problems. Now I’m digressing, so I’ll wrap this up. Any recommended reads on OOO or vibrant materialism that you found particularly useful? Let me know in the comments!

*Yes, I know I should read articles fully before publicly disseminating. Yes, I know I should probably have just favourited it and fallen asleep. What’s done is done, y’all.

**Drew’s trilogy was written in the 1980s and set on a post-nuclear-holocaust earth (possibly the west coast of North America, but one is not sure at this point) where most of the humanity that is left has regressed to hunter-gatherer societies and the “blond savage” is a thing. The books are actually pretty good, if taken separately from their  erasure / stereotyping of non-white peoples and female characters. Sigh.

***I’ve read them in bits before, but in the context of my major research paper for my Masters, so not as extensively as I’d like.

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