Making Sense of the Anthropocene Debate(s)

by Victor Galaz | @vgalaz

Do you find it hard to keep track of ongoing discussions about the Anthropocene? So do I. Part of the reason why it is easy to loose track, is that there is actually not only one – but (at least) five parallel Anthropocene debates.

Last week’s event hosted by the German HKW Anthropocene project, is an excellent example of this increasing diversity of perspectives that nowadays frame the Anthropocene debate.

Anthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObsAnthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObs

The first debate is what I would call the classical Anthropocene debate – has humanity formally left the Holocene, and entered a new geological epoch? If that is the case, when did it start? The epicenter of this discussion is the work of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (neatly summarized by Elizabeth Kolbert here , and updated by Andrew Revkin’s here).

Over the years however, a number of parallell debates have evolved as well. These focus is not on geological epochs and insights from the Earth system science, but rather on the social, institutional and political dimensions of the Anthropocene concept.

The second for example, is what I would denote a debate about  Anthropocene framings. In short: does the concept really capture the social and economical dynamics that have shaped planet Earth? Does the emphasis of the Anthropocene on “humanity” and  “human domination” overlook critical underlying issues of social power, global injustices, and unequal exchange in the history of mankind? Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (PDF here), and Ninad Bodre (here), have raised this point.

A very different version of this debate is the argument that the concept contains elements of catastrophism that could lead to fatalism, and a failure to inspire to collective action. Raj Patel raises the point here, as well as Ruth DeFries and colleagues here.

The third debate is not about geology nor framings, but rather about Anthropocene politicsWhat are the political and institutional implications of entering the Anthropocene era? Does the increased understanding of the Earth system calls for profound transformations of the way we organize international institutions? This argument can be found in the recent works of Frank Biermann and colleagues (here), and myself in my recent book “The Anthropocene Gap” here.

The fourth debate is about the notion of a Good Anthropocene is it fruitful, or even possible visualising a positive Anthropocene considering the vast negative repercussions that could unfold as the result of e.g. runaway climate change? The debate between Clive Hamilton and Andrew Revikin here is the clearest example . It should be noted however, that this issue is an emerging research area e.g. the newly launched project “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”.

"Spare us a Manthropocene"

“Spare us a Manthropocene” from Kate Raworth.

The last debate is about the Anthropocene and Knowledge Production. This debate focuses on issues of legitimacy and the lack of gender, ethnic and disciplinary diversity in existing processes of knowledge production associated with the Anthropocene concept. Bluntly put: how representative are the scientist exploring the implications of this new epoch? Kate Raworth’s widely spread tweet and picture commenting on the obvious absence of female researchers at the Anthropocene Working Group at HKW (first picture), is an excellent case in point. Ola Uhrqvist’s recently published Ph.D. thesis explores similar issues about the linkages between knowledge production and power in the Earth system sciences.

So, let’s acknowledge not only the diversity of voices, but also the diversity in the Anthropocene debate itself.

 

 

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