The latest in coming to grips with the Anthropecene

This is a one-two punch I couldn’t resist: one of my top-5 journalists recommending a powerful new essay by my favorite “recent discovery” in earth-connected literature.  Even better, Andrew Revkin and Robert Macfarlane are both riffing on one of the juicier umbrella topics for thinking about our rapidly-changing world: the Anthropocene, or the idea that the human mark on the planet is likely to take its place as the latest geological epoch.

Both Revkin and Macfarlane set out to point our attention to the best of the recent writing on this key topic. Revkin, in large part, welcomes Macfarlane’s recent piece as a chance to take a break from his regular dips into the recent literature, but he adds a few of his own recent faves at the end of his column.  By contrast, Macfarlane’s extended essay in The Guardian presents a rich and complex introduction to the topic.  You couldn’t find a better starting point (just as you couldn’t find a better deep-dive for learning about the field than those regular dips collected on Revkin’s site).  Here’s a first taste, then click through for more excerpts:

There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism, the political presumptions it encodes, and the specific histories of power and violence that it masks. But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through. Though it has its origin in the Earth sciences and advanced computational technologies, its consequences have rippled across global culture during the last 15 years. Conservationists, environmentalists, policymakers, artists, activists, writers, historians, political and cultural theorists, as well as scientists and social scientists in many specialisms, are all responding to its implications.

Macfarlane is a UK-based essayist who’s one of the brightest lights of the next generation of “nature writers.”  He’s published six books since 2003, each of them a gem in its own right, and many of them replete with generous and heartfelt nods to writers of previous generations who blazed the trail.  Like Snyder, Lopez, and Solnit, his books are a magnificent weave of experience, reflection, and inquiry—in place, with people, and of our time.  So it’s no surprise that his Guardian piece travels both deep and wide in its explorations of the meanings of the Anthropocene and the ways it’s spurred new art of note in recent years.

On the latter, he notes:

Literature and art are confronted with particular challenges by the idea of the Anthropocene. Old forms of representation are experiencing drastic new pressures and being tasked with daunting new responsibilities. How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change? The indifferent scale of the Anthropocene can induce a crushing sense of the cultural sphere’s impotence.

Fear not, though, for Macfarlane goes on to briefly introduce an array of recent works of fiction, non-fiction, and even music that are charting a way forward through these challenges.  One of his particular fascinations is words, especially unique lexicons of place (another recent Guardian essay of his, on the replacement of words from nature with tech-oreiented words in the language of our kids was widely shared a few months back).  So of course he digs into this aspect of the Anthropocene:

Projects are presently under way around the world to gain the most basic of purchases on the Anthropocene – a lexis with which to reckon it. Cultural anthropologists in America have begun a glossary for what they call “an Anthropocene as yet unseen”, intended as a “resource” for confronting the “urgent concerns of the present moment”. There, familiar terms – petroleum, melt, distribution, dream – are made strange again, vested with new resilience or menace when viewed through the “global optic” of the Anthropocene.

Last year I started the construction of a crowdsourced Anthropocene glossary called the “Desecration Phrasebook”, and in 2014 The Bureau of Linguistical Reality was founded “for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene”. Albrecht’s solastalgia is one of the bureau’s terms, along with “stieg”, “apex-guilt” and “shadowtime”, the latter meaning “the sense of living in two or more orders of temporal scale simultaneously” – an acknowledgment of the out-of-jointness provoked by Anthropocene awareness. Many of these words are, clearly, ugly coinages for an ugly epoch. Taken in sum, they speak of our stuttering attempts to describe just what it is we have done.

Unlike many overviews of the Anthropocene, which either take it on whole-heartedly or bristle at its shortcomings, Macfarlane offers an evocative invitation to consider its value in this time, while also acknowledging its weaknesses, including a good summary of the main objections, including the overly facile foundational idea that this is something “humanity” has done, while of course both the causes and the consequences are unequally distributed among “humanity” in all its diversity of history and wealth.  His thoughtful overview of the idea’s shortcomings are especially worth reading.  So, don’t let these extended excerpts be enough; go read it!  It’s not that long, probably a ten minute read at most.  Here’s one last teaser to tempt you on:
There are signs that we will soon be exhausted by the Anthropocene: glutted by its ubiquity as a cultural shorthand, fatigued by its imprecisions, and enervated by its variant names – the “Anthrobscene”, the “Misanthropocene”, the “Lichenocene” (actually, that last one is mine). Perhaps the Anthropocene has already become an anthropomeme: punned and pimped into stuplimity, its presence in popular discourse often just a virtue signal that merely mandates the user to proceed with the work of consumption.

I think, though, that the Anthropocene has administered – and will administer – a massive jolt to the imagination. Philosophically, it is a concept that does huge work both for us and on us. In its unsettlement of the entrenched binaries of modernity (nature and culture; object and subject), and its provocative alienation of familiar anthropocentric scales and times, it opens up rather than foreclosing progressive thought. What Christophe Bonneuil calls the “shock of the Anthropocene” is generating new political arguments, new modes of behaviour, new narratives, new languages and new creative forms. It asserts – as Jeremy Davies writes at the end of his excellent forthcoming book, The Birth of the Anthropocene – a “pressing need to re-imagine human and nonhuman life outside the confines of the Holocene”, while also asking “how best to keep faith with the web of relationships, dependencies, and symbioses that made up the planetary system of the dying epoch”. Systemic in its structure, the Anthropocene charges us with systemic change.

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