Five Propositions | Critiques for the Anthropocene
Anja Kanngieser, University of Wollongong
Angela Last, University of Glasgow
What we are trying to address in this paper follows on, in a way, from other attempts at addressing a political lack perceived by the humanities and social sciences in the earth sciences formulation of the anthropocene. These attempts have seen a recent proliferation of critical re-framings such the capitaloscene (Moore, 2015), the plantationocene (Haraway et al, 2015), the cthulucene (Haraway, 2015), the anthrobscene (Parikka 2014), anthro-obscene (Ernstson and Swyngedouw 2015), and even the anthropo-not-seen (Cadena 2014). Aside from these, the social sciences and humanities have been slow to specifically foreground the racist and classist foundations of economic and social exploitation linked to geography and territory. For us, this is seen in the colonial connection that was missing in the organisation and session calls for the 2015 Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers ‘Anthropocene’ themed annual conference, and is further reflected in the knowledge production around the anthropocene as well as the proposed existing methods for intervention in it.
With the following propositions we contend that, while it is very easy to get caught up in the spectacle and novelty of the anthropocene, its aesthetics, or in in the feedback loops of earth and social science debates on when it started and so on, it is critical to emphasise the fact that global environmental changes are not happening at the same rate, nor with the same consequences, around the world. We want to focus on what bell hooks calls the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ of climate crisis. At the same time we want to consider the possibilities for thinking and behaving differently, so that this construct of the anthropocene doesn’t become yet another impermeable barrier to becoming otherwise. The points we make are done so from the position of our own white and privileged subjectivities, and we aim to address a predominantly white and/ or privileged audience – with all the problems this entails. This, we feel, is necessary given how knowledge of the anthropocene is currently produced, and given the need to be actively engaged in working against the on-going consequences of colonialism. To that end we have assembled a few propositions that we think might help speak to a practice of decolonisation within anthropocene discourses.
1 EVERYTHING IS DYING BUT IT’S NOT DEAD YET
The general Western media narrative at the moment is one of threat and crisis. The present condition sees a tendency in economically ‘developed’ nation-states toward shutting down, toward border policing, moral panics around asylum seeking, terrorism, and natural resources. In general there is a move toward stricter control in the face of ‘disaster’. While there are ecological and economic changes occurring at a rapid rate, there is an urgent need to avoid preemptive and speculative future catastrophising. This is for several reasons.
The hyper-focus on what might happen to the ‘developed’ world in the future distracts from what is happening already, and has been happening, for decades. A recent report from an ex- NASA scientist predicted a sea level rise of 10ft over the next 50 years, which sparked a flurry of concern over coastal cities in ‘developed’ countries such as New York and Florida, being underwater. While such concern is not misplaced it sits in stark contrast to the lesser attention given over to climate processes such as urban flooding, drought and ocean and soil acidification already affecting hundreds of millions of people inhabiting low-lying atoll islands (such as Kiribati and Tuvalu), low lying coastal deltas (including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt) and mid-continental drylands (central Asia and Kenya and Somalia in Africa, for instance). It also hides the fact that disaster response is always more favourable to those bodies deemed appropriate and valuable even in ‘developed’ territories – the racist responses during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy being clear instances of this. This obfuscation takes attention away from the structural and colonial underpinnings of anthropogenic change and its effects.
With these disaster scenarios, there is a temptation to get lured in by the spectacle or shock that leads to an individualisation of response. This feeds into the same atmosphere of control and turning inwards that, as mentioned, leads to a closing down of borders, and the general mistrust of ‘others’ used as justification for extreme racism and xenophobia. The reality is that extraction, expulsion, extermination and extinction is deeply embedded in capitalist geopolitics: the individualised and myopic panic stops conversation about capitalism and effectively dehistoricises it, taking attention away from the structural and colonial underpinnings of anthropogenic change and its effects.
What comes after panic is often impotence. It is critical to make sure not to become paralysed, not to get caught up in the shock that shuts down possibilities for action.
There is a profoundly urgent need to become active, to become aware and engaged in whatever ways possible for individuals and collectives, to pursue, for instance, what Edouard Glissant (1997) calls ‘disruption and intrusion’, to search out and make allies, to engage uncomfortable conversations, to re-discover the culture in cultural geography as an agonistic space, and so on. In short, not to distract oneself from doing something by writing obituaries for the world as it is. We cannot carry on evacuating politics at a time of crisis – we should reserve the lifeboats for when you really need them and try to help other worlds into being.
2 ALTHOUGH IT’S CALLED THE ANTHROPOCENE, THE EARTH DOES NOT REVOLVE AROUND YOU
The anthropocene is problematic to translate into the humanities, as it is not explicitly imbued with politics (despite the fact that what is happening through global environmental change is inherently social-political). Beyond coining and popularising a new term, it is crucial to politicise ecological disaster, and to recognise and manifestly engage with power and resource distributions that are seen in the very uneven effects on people and places. The anthropocene, despite its name, is not just made up of human consequences.
We can see this blindspot at play, for instance, in current posthumanist discourse that continues to have a strong influence on anthropocene debates. As both Alexander Weheliye (2014) (drawing on Sylvia Wynter) and Juanita Sundberg (2014) have pointed out, posthumanism talks about overcoming ‘humanity’, but implicitly assuming that everything is ‘western humanity’. Attentiveness in this context includes giving more time to understanding what Audre Lorde called ‘dismantling the master’s house’ (1984): dismantling the intersection of power structures in what bell hooks calls the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (hooks, 2004). What is key is understanding how these come together to construct Whiteness, which is the primary vehicle of colonialist domination. In anthropocene and climate change discourse, this is mirrored in the dominance of first world, planetary-scale technocratic approaches to carry on business/divisions as usual practices and policies.
To that end, contributions must be made to contest asymmetric visibilities. To ask: who is visible for whom and to what ends, for example, in the case of climate refugees, environmental racism and lack of consideration of so-called nonhumans? Often, the visibility is conditional on asymmetry: non-humanity is only visible in the sense that it is in the service of ‘Man’. There is, in much western discourse, a rejection of the nonhuman as something other than expendable. The danger in ignoring the complex earthly networks and rhythms is that ‘human scale’ decisions are made that serve no-one in the end. This tension is seen over and over again, for example, in the consequences of overfishing, overfarming, excess resource extraction and so on, which are well publicised but often ignored or mitigated.
At this time political delineations become starker in terms of privilege, so it is easy to get stuck in maintaining those privileges, rather than re-examining how one got there, how they hinder, and where to go to next. In such a situation, it is necessary to continue re-examining one’s relation to the earth with regard to both other humans and nonhumans: this is not simply all of ‘humanity’s’ fault. How do we want to be (in)human?
3 STOP COMMITTING ‘TERRORISM BY PROXY’
The anthropocene raises questions about the co-constitution of the human and the nonhuman. There has been a recent turn to using earth crises to advocate a new politics. The problem we find with some of this work is not the advocacy of new politics, but the reliance on the crisis to do the political work itself. As Guadeloupian novelist Daniel Maximin wryly asks: ‘how many cyclones does it have to take to reconcile us with our land?’ (1987: 88).
There is a strange romantic anthropomorphism at play in the idea that ‘nature fights back’. Neither the biosphere the atmosphere, earthquakes nor volcanoes operate in the service of human politics. We want to know: what does it mean to hijack planetary processes for ideological purposes? What does it mean to represent nature, to assert that any human can know what ‘nature’ wants or needs as a political position? The only thing that is for certain is that the planet will go on despite human inhabitation.
Such anthropomorphism ties into fantasies of nature as helping along progressive politics: there is danger of repeating logics of classical geopolitics and neo-colonialism where rescue from disaster or potential disaster is tied to occupation. This obviously does not mean that there are no connections between ecology and politics, far from it, but rather that these connections need to re-examined in terms of human/nonhuman entanglements, and how nature is put to ‘work’ (e.g.see Johnson & Goldstein, 2015)
Much of this work of re-examination is already taking place, but there is a clear struggle as to how to deal with aspirations for greater inclusion of the nonhuman in politics without resorting to over- and underusing its potential: the question of ‘matter’ and ‘politics’ is certainly not solved and needs more experimentation and methodological, theoretical and empirical expansion. We should not have to wait for the right kind of disaster to prompt us.
4 STOP REPRODUCING THE PROBLEMS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE IN ANTHROPOCENE DISCOURSE!
The main problem we see is the reproduction of power relationships of the anthropocene within anthropocene discourse. There is a distinct lack of diversity of perspectives in conversations, largely as a result of the inequalities of the university landscape.
Right now it feels like institutions and academics are stuck in neoliberal loops of fear and stress: there is pressure of publishing specific themes for funding, less time for considered thought, and a turn away from political economy and analysis. This is conjunctive to an identity crisis of the European radical left. While there is ample evidence of how Euro American universities are structurally and systemically colonial – as are their theories and methods (see Ferreira da Silva, 2007; Shilliam, 2014; Todd 2014) – this doesn’t seem to translate into widespread concrete practices (including hiring, promotion, citation, conference representation, network building, teaching). It is therefore critical to explicitly decolonise universities by implementing forms of practice on a day to day basis without falling into traps of white fragility, guilt or inertia. Such practices take ongoing effort. Additionally a culture of listening to different approaches and experiences has to take place, to stop reproducing the dominance of white male, or white, scholars.
Instead of focusing on becoming ‘world leaders’ in the latest academic fad, more attention needs to be consistently drawn to its usual side effect: the reproduction of hierarchies of knowledge. The current ideal of scholarship is anglophonic journals and publications, writing literature reviews, articles, all of which contribute to massively unequal vocalisations. As many authors including Mariolga Reyes Cruz (2008), Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) and Hortense Spillers (1994) have pointed out, indigenous or ‘raced’ interviewees or authors get denigrated as ‘data’ or raw material, for instance, through the citation process in favour of ‘great thinkers’ and specific kinds of theoretical discourse. As Tara Lynn Joly, commenting on both Reyes Cruz and Todd’s texts, aptly summarises “to cite our informants as on par with these famous thinkers would be a decolonising practice, yet it isn’t standard. At all.” (2014) In anthropocene discourse, it is particularly important that, to paraphrase Weheliye, ‘alternative instantiations of humanity’ as opposed to ‘Man’ don’t keep on being systematically eradicated.
At the same time, heavy handed attempts to ameliorate anthropocentrism and anthropocentric violence against the non-human world are frequently anchored in accounts of indigenous communities and peoples, who are fetishised and exotified. Indigenous scholars have criticised deployments of postcolonial frameworks without an anti-racist or decolonising framework, pointing out that these are at risk of reproducing fraught and even dangerous stereotypes about indigenous subjects (Deloria, 1991; Tuhiwai Smith, 2012). As Tuhiwai Smith (2012) has argued, non-indigenous scholars have to carefully ensure that they do not perpetuate appropriations of indigenous knowledge and beliefs, and thus contribute to the insularity of the Euro American academy.
As part of changing practices when it comes to responding to Western knowledge with non-Western knowledge, there needs to be an acknowledgement that ‘the Western archive’…‘is neither monolithic, nor the exclusive property of the West’ (Mbembe, 2015). This means that Western knowledge has always been co-constituted by non-western knowledge. This is not to take away the force of anti-Western arguments or expose them as ‘strategic essentialisms’, but to further expose ‘the West’ itself as perpetuating a false unity and origin myth that keeps on being reflected in dealing with geophysical matters.
5 WE CAN’T DO IT, BUT IF WE TRY WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO DO SOMETHING
In outlining the above points we have aimed to show why the anthropocene needs to be decolonised and begun to explore what this might mean. Many of the things we have mentioned have already been argued over and over again by indigenous scholars and scholars of colour. The main aspect we have sought to emphasise is how the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ of climate crisis is produced in the academic realm, through academic practices. If the anthropocene discourse is to be seriously considered in the human and cultural geographies then we hope that the racist, gendered and classed dimensions of it are are the forefront of debate. In this final section we want to focus on some practical methods and actions that we have found helpful in our own process of learning what decolonisation and anti-racist work entails.
Firstly, to shut up and listen, and to do so without being defensive. Zoe Todd writes that “folks who are white or are racialized as white (like me) need to LISTEN (no fragility, no defending whiteness) when people of colour speak about racism” (2015). This means that white and privileged academics need to stop using defensive ‘sorry for being white and privileged’ rhetoric, and take on the arguments and anger. It is crucial for academics to read up about the importance for self-determination, self-representation and how to act in solidarity without expecting education, gratitude, acceptance or rewards.
Secondly, to ask questions and to participate in the reimagination of the human and nonhuman interaction. Western academics have to consider if the continuation of the European model of humanity/ hierarchy of planetary inhabitants is really going to help with present threats to all life. Who is currently defined as ‘nonhumans’ and to what ends? It is important to become aware of what is happening globally in terms of changing these parameters, for instance Bolivia passing The Law of Mother Earth, or New Zealand legally recognising sentience in all animal species.
At the same time, academics need to ensure not to use decolonisation as a means for avoiding examining essentialisms (see Shepard, 2006), even strategic essentialisms such as ‘the European model of…’, ‘the natural habitat’, or ‘the urban species’. There are always silent/silenced contributors within essentialisms. The question to ask is where do struggles intersect between those that are implicated? Who and what is registered as ‘makers of history’ and allowed temporality/ visibility?
None of the questions or points we have raised with this talk are easy, nor are they addressed once and then finished, nor do we have any kind of solutions for them. They form part of a difficult process. Underpinning this process is this is the courage for stumbling, as the Notes from Nowhere collective asks: “Is this what the Zapatistas mean when they say, “Walking, we ask questions?” Do we have the courage to move – sometimes stumbling, sometimes running – towards an unknowable destination? Would you be willing to suspend your disbelief if we told you we had all the answers? And if we did and you followed them, how would that help you, in the long run?” (2003: 506).
As academics, what must be worked towards is a ‘pluriversity’: Achille Mbembe (drawing on Boaventura de Sousa and Enrique Dussel) writes that ‘at the end of the decolonizing process, we will no longer have a university. We will have a pluriversity’ (2015). This is an experimental endeavour that needs effort and ongoing work, that academics collectively have to undertake. Because as Césaire makes clear, no one ‘regardless of country or race’ can escape the question: ‘what kind of world are you preparing for us?’ (1959: 122)
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