The Anthropocene is a proposed geologic epoch that redescribes humanity as a significant or even dominant geophysical force. The concept has had an uneven global history from the 1960s (apparently, it was used by Russian scientists from then onwards). The current definition of the Anthropocene refers to the one proposed by Eugene F. Stoermer in the 1980s and then popularised by Paul Crutzen. At present, stratigraphers are evaluating the proposal, which was submitted to their society in 2008. There is currently no definite proposed start date – suggestions include the beginnings of human agriculture, the conquest of the Americas, the industrial revolution and the nuclear bomb explosions and tests.
Debate around the Anthropocene continues to be globally uneven, with discourse primarily taking place in developed countries. Achille Mbembe, for instance, has noted that ‘[t]his kind of rethinking, to be sure, has been under way for some time now. The problem is that we seem to have entirely avoided it in Africa in spite of the existence of a rich archive in this regard’ (2015). Especially in the anglophone sphere, the image of humanity as a geophysical force has made a drastic impact on popular culture, giving rise to a flood of Anthropocene and geology themed art and design exhibitions, music videos, radio shows and written publications. At the same time, the Anthropocene has been identified as a geophysical marker of global inequality due to its connections with imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. The biggest geophysical impact –in terms of greenhouse emissions, biodiversity loss, water use, waste production, toxin/radiation production and land clearance etc – is currently made by the so-called developed world.
Further controversy is being caused by the Anthropocene concept as a political tool. The concept has been both lauded and criticised for representing a less politicised alternative to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Advocates of the concept in science communication emphasise the resonance and accessibility of the concept, allowing for debates outside of the gridlock of climate change. Critics mostly bemoan the fetishisation of all things geologic as a diversion from long-standing political struggles against global inequality.
The decision on whether the Anthropocene will follow or replace the Holocene (the Holocene having been subject to similar controversy) will be made in or after 2016.
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Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000), The Anthropocene: IGBP Global Change Newsletter, v. 41, p. 17–18.
Zalasiewicz, Jan et al. (2008). “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” GSA Today 18 (2): 4–8.
Latour B (2013) Agency at the time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History Vol. 45, pp. 1-18, 2014
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Mbembe, A (2015) Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive. Talk given at the University of Witwatersand, 22 April, 2015.
Moore J W (2014) The Capitalocene, Part I & 2 (On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis/Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital)
Parikka J (2015) The Anthrobscene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Turpin E (ed) (2013) Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
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How does global inequality affect climate and geophysical processes?
How do the Anthropocene and Climate Change discourses differ in the public and/or academic sphere?
How do present knowledge-making practices affect the Anthropocene debate? Could you envision improvements to the debate?
How might the different proposed start dates (and related phenomena) for the Anthropocene affect the cultural imagination globally?
Why does the Anthropocene have such traction in popular culture at this moment in time?
Discuss Mbembe’s provocation that African discourse has a lot to contribute to the development of anthropocentric thinking, but has avoided an engagement with it.
Submitted by Angela Last