Rethinking Ecology in the Anthropocene: Knowledges, Practices, Ethics and Politics
Kate Wright and Catherine Simpson
We have entered, unofficially, a radical new epoch called the Anthropocene, or the ‘Age of Man’ (Roeder, 3). Atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ over a decade ago (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000; Crutzen 2002), and it has since become widely used across earth and social sciences to describe the geological epoch that follows the Holocene: one that marks the profound impact of human activity on the planet. [i] The human species is now considered a geological force, altering Earth’s biosphere. In a period of post-industrial fervour, we have begun to etch our signature into the geological record of the planet. While the Holocene epoch lasted approximately 11, 700 years, and during this time our planet was relatively stable, the Anthropocene promises to do/be the opposite. Ben Dibley observes that the Anthropocene is ‘an emergence that is simultaneously an emergency’ (2012: Online). The Anthropocene captures humanity’s transformations of the planet brought about through industrial, urban and technological change and so is inextricably linked with climate change and Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. In response to these crises humanities, social science, media, and cultural studies scholars find themselves ‘called to science’ (Mackenzie & Murphie 2008: 98). In May 2011 The Economist claimed that the Anthropocene, “is like one of those moments when a scientific realisation, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes around the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science” (no author, 2011)
The term Anthropocene signals a radical shift in ecological thought and this is the focus of this issue of SCAN. The notion of the human as a geological force re-draws the boundaries of human agency and undermines illusions of the ‘natural’ world as a stable backdrop to human dramas. The Anthropocene is an epoch of radical entanglement - a time when maintaining the conceptual distance between the human and the nonhuman environment is no longer possible.
Michel Serres has poetically described the shift of a pre-industrial human ‘light-weight in body and bone’ to ‘colossal banks of humanity as powerful as oceans, deserts, icecaps, themselves stockpiles of heat, dryness, or water (1995: 17). With human impacts so profound, philosophers and writers are adopting a new vocabulary to describe human agency. Timothy Moreton evokes the Anthropocene appropriating terms of agriculture - a ‘hyperbolic ploughing, a sowing of carbon deep in the Earth’s crust’ (2012: 14).
Clive Hamilton recently asserted that ‘[t]he social sciences taught in our universities must now be classed as “pre-Anthropocene”’ (Hamilton 2013: Online) pointing to the fundamental rupture of contemporary disciplinary assumptions and boundaries caused by an awareness of entangled human and nonhuman agencies. Our aim in this media/arts journal is to contribute to the emergent trans-disciplinary conversation about how we are to ‘productively rethink the human in more-than-human terms’ (Rose et al. 2012: 3).
This issue evolved out of our 2012 ‘Ecology’ issue of M/C: A Journal of Media Culture (Simpson & Wright 2012). Overwhelmed by the number of submissions and the broad range of inter-disciplinary engagement with the ecology theme, we recognised that ecological concepts are now embedded in the lexicon of humanities and cultural studies. In this edition of SCAN we have focused on ecology within the Anthropocene because the way we conceptualise ecological thought and ecological processes is fundamentally altered in an epoch where ‘human activities... rival the great forces of Nature’ (Steffan et al. 2007: 614). This issue of SCAN responds to the conceptual and physical upheaval signalled by the Anthropocene, and resists the disciplinary and political inertia which enables humans carry on as usual - thinking within the same boundaries, enacting the same exclusions.
Despite its challenges to the separation of human and nonhuman worlds, the term Anthropocene has come under attack for continuing the conceptual anthropocentric focus of Western modernity. Eileen Crist has questioned ‘the shadowy repercussions of naming an epoch after ourselves’, and criticised ‘the term’s narcissistic overtones’ (2013: 129, 140). In response to this critique this journal edition centres on the radical challenge that this era of ecological entanglement poses to established anthropocentric disciplinary and ethical frameworks. Central to this conversation is the attempted inclusion of the voice of many nonhuman agents who, through interdependency and mutualistic relationships, argue against anthropocentric visions of the future in favour of more-than-human inclusion and justice. The papers in this collection challenge existing frameworks of pre-Anthropocene scholarship, formulating new approaches to knowledges, practices, ethics and politics fitting for this entangled and dynamic world.
In ‘Being Croc-savvy: Ecology, crocodile education, and rescuing propositional knowledge’, Kate Rossmanith takes us into the heart of Queensland’s crocodile country to explore the deeply embodied knowledge practices that are necessary to live safely near, and with, crocodiles. Through conversations with crocodile rangers and an investigation of Steve Irwin’s controversial ‘baby dangling’ incident, Rossmanith explores the tensions between propositional and embodied knowledges, and importance of performative bodily practice in transmitting place-specific knowledges. In the era of the Anthropocene such contingent and immersive ways of knowing and being are essential to the conviviality required for negotiating the often precarious contact-zones of a more-than-human world.
In ‘Food Waste, intimacy and compost: The stirrings of a new ecology?’ Bethaney Turner embeds the human within a web of food production and food waste ecology through exploring entangled practices of life in the Anthropocene. Here, food and food waste is approached as a collective agent, with the capacity to “act” on humans and transform monological narratives of self. Through intimate and embodied practices such as composting and worm farming, humans begin to understand their role as one component of an ecological web, turning away from anthropocentric and solipsistic ways of living and thinking. Through interviews with humans who are immersed in the messiness of everyday backyard food practices, with hands elbow-deep in the rich and living soils of compost heaps, Turner witnesses the beginnings of a new form of ecological thinking and being, one that takes seriously the human immersion and dependence on interconnected webs of life.
In ‘An Ethics of Entanglement for the Anthropocene’, Kate Wright argues that this new epoch has prompted us to acknowledge more relational connections between multiple lives and bodies. Thinking through the tick and the European rabbit, she argues that the ‘unwanted bodies’ of our ‘earth others’ are easily disposed of when entanglements are ignored. Drawing on the work of Ben Dibley (2012), Val Plumwood (2002) and Deborah Bird Rose (2011), Wright develops and organism-plus-environment model of ethics to argue that the era of the Anthropocene does not signal the end of nature, as Bill McKibben once announced, but rather “our responsibility in a multi-species world which thrives on connection”. In this world a rabbit burrow becomes not a scar upon the land but rather a subterranean community of twisted underground corridors beneath our feet. It’s this organism-plus-environment mode of thinking which reminds us of the limitations of the individual body and recognises our and others ultimate permeability to the environment and hopefully prompts a more ethical engagement with our ‘unloved others’.
Political historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed that political imagination is influenced by geological imagination, and if we are to take climate change seriously, we must rethink our political categories (2 Cultures). In ‘Anthropocene Hospitality’ Elaine Kelly takes up the task of reconceptualising dominant social and political models, as she interrogates the deconstructive potential of the Anthropocene to decentre the human and reformulate ‘relations between host and guest, self and other, nature and culture, citizen and non-citizen, and human and nonhuman.’ Drawing on key Derridean ideas of autoimmunity and hospitality, Kelly challenges normative models of economy, social justice and sustainability. She presents a materialist and deconstructive “Anthropocene hospitality” which re-situates human agency and freedom in a more-than-human world. Kelly observes that models of economic freedom as unreachable horizons (the sky’s the limit) have denied the environmental realities of the planet, and we now live in a time where the limitless sky of Modernist growth and expansion is moving in on us: ‘freedom becomes entangled with the force of climate’. In the face of the imminent and unmanageable problems posed by climate change, Kelly argues that responsibility to the more-than-human other is a task that requires us to rethink our most fundamental foundational categories and confront the limits of dominant social, political and economic models for dealing with dispossession, dislocation and displacement.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘Breaking the Wall of Two Cultures: Science and Humanity after Climate Change’ presentation to Falling Walls International Conference: http://www.falling-walls.com/videos/Dipesh-Chakrabarty--1225
Crist, E. (2013) “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature,” in Environmental Humanities, vol. 3: pp. 129 – 147.
Crutzen, P. & Stoermer, E. (2000) “The Anthropocene,” in Global Change Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 1: pp. 17 – 18.
Crutzen, P. (2002) “Geology of Mankind,” in Nature, vol 415: p. 23
Dibley, B. (2012) “The Shape of Things to Come: Seven Theses on the Anthropocene and Attachment,” in Australian Humanties Review, vol. 52. http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2012/dibley.html
Hamilton, C. (2013) “Climate Change Signals the End of the Social Sciences” in The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/climate-change-signals-the-end-of-the-social-sciences-11722 , accessed 13 November, 2013.
Mackenzie, A. & Murphie, A. (2008) “The Two Cultures Become Multiple? Sciences, Humanities and Everyday Experimentation” in Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 23: pp. 87 - 100
Moreton, T. (2012) “The Oedipal Logic of Ecological Awareness,” in Environmental Humanities, vol. 1: pp. 7 – 21.
No name. (2011) “Welcome to the Anthropocene”, The Economist, May 26th, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/18744401
Rose, D., Van Dooren, T., Chrulew, M., Cooke, S., Kearnes, M., O’Gorman, E. (2012) “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities” in Environmental Humanities, vol. 1: pp. 1 – 5.
Roeder, M. (2013) Unnatural Selection: Why the geeks will inherit the Earth, Sydney: HarperCollins.
Serres, M. (1995) The Natural Contract, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Simpson, C & Wright, K. (2012) “Ecology & Collaboration”, M/C: A Journal of Media Culture, Vol 15, No. 3, 2012,
Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. & McNeill, J. (2007) “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” in Ambio, vol. 36, no.8: pp. 614 – 621.
[i] Despite the term gaining significant traction across the sciences, the Anthropocene has not been officially named by the Stratigraphy Commission because the naming of a new epoch involves much rigorous debate, peer-reviewed papers and working parties. It may be some years before it formally joins the ranks of other periods such as the Jurassic, Pleistocene and Carboniferous (Roeder 2013, 21).