Anthropos-cene

By Leila A. McNeill

Within the last couple of years, the Anthropocene has become discussed more and more inside and outside of academic walls. Simply put, the Anthropocene is the proposed current epoch of geologic time that began when human activity altered the Earth’s geology and ecosystems globally. Evidence from atmospheric data and ice cores suggest that our current era is distinctly different from that of the Holocene, which began approximately 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The Holocene is marked by glacial activity, whereas the Anthropocene is marked by human disruption. Though the term has been widely used by scientists and others, Anthropocene is not yet a formally recognized epoch in the official geologic time scale. One reason for this is the ongoing debate about when exactly the Anthropocene began-- with the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s? Or much sooner with the onset of agriculture? Other debates involve the suitability of the term and its long-term implications for policy and global planning. I am interested, however, in the Anthropocene as a concept and a construct of culture, an examination to which feminist and intersectional theory has much to contribute. 

Man not only lies in the root of the word--Anthropos--but also at the heart of Anthropocene as a concept. The use of Anthropos to define an entire epoch on the global earth implies that we are talking about Man, capital M; Man in this sense is universal. Thinking of Man as universal is in and of itself a modern, Western concept that has been passed down to us from the wellspring of the European Enlightenment. This is a concept that continues to plague the field of history; as feminist historians, we still find ourselves challenging the erroneous idea that the history of the Western Man is a universal human experience. As anthropologist Anna Tsing states in her talk “A Feminist Approach to the Anthropocene: Earth Stalked by Man,” “Man, the Enlightenment figure, arose in dialogue with God. He inherited God’s universalism.” Just as there is no single universal timeline for history, Tsing argues that there is no one universal timeline for the Anthropocene. The root Anthropos, then, embodies not a universal human but the white Western man as he conceived of himself in the 17th century and, as it seems, he still does. 

Within Anthropos is man, little m. Since the Enlightenment, men of science and industry have set themselves over and separate from nature. Nature became a resource to be tapped, a force to be harnessed. Forests and ecosystems were one source of fuel for the Industrial Revolution. Razing forests and altering ecosystems for the sake of industrial progress was in essence a masculine endeavor. In positions of power and privilege, men created the system of industrial capitalism, and they alone retained the profits and progress that it rendered. It became a closed system that marginalized women, the working class, and the whole of the ‘undeveloped’ world. The effects of the Industrial Revolution are irrevocably embedded in sediments and ice cores as well as the atmosphere. Anna Tsing is correct when she poignantly says that “masculine domination is implicated in the set of catastrophes we call Anthropocene.” 

Ensconced in Anthropos is not just man, but specifically the white European man and his desire for empire. Imperial colonization and the subsequent exploitation of non-Western people and their land served the economic and industrial interests of European empires. Spanish expansion in the 15th century dominated Central and Latin America. In the 16th century, France expanded territory in North America and eventually the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. The British set their sights on their own continent and eventually expanded to North America and the East Indies. The Dutch in kind built colonies in the East Indies, Latin America, and  Africa. The building of empire was global, but the human and colonial disruption to ecosystems occurred locally. In each colony, Anthropogenic events proliferated in ways unique to that location and on a scale that has not yet been fully grasped. Anthropocene is understood through place, and it is unevenly distributed across the globe. A universal Anthropocene doesn’t work when we implicate the imperial colonialism of Anthropos. Embedded in Anthropocene is the same arrogance and ethnocentrism that characterizes colonialism. 

Interrogating Anthropos is not a trivial matter of mere language. Feminist and intersectional theory teaches us that the naming of things matters. In “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature” Eileen Crist argues that Anthropocene is anthropocentric in that the name itself “evokes the human centeredness that is at the root of our ecological predicament.” In thinking that nature has been disrupted by humans, we first accept that humans are a force acting on it and outside of nature. Humans, however, act within nature as part of it. After all, we know that humans biologically are just another animal-- a destructive animal, but an animal nonetheless. Instead of challenging the human domination that brought us to this predicament, Crist suggests that Anthropocene by its very name “propos[es] instead technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable.” By historicizing Anthropos, we can understand that it’s not simply human domination that we will sustain, it is the continued domination of the white Western world over the rest. 

Once again, I invoke Anna Tsing: “Anthropocene matters because livability is threatened by the repercussions of human activities.” For whom will we make this Anthropocene planet liveable? So far, it seems for the same dominant culture that set in motion some of the most consequential Anthropogenic events of the epoch. The global South is least responsible for human alteration to the lithosphere, but this region is the most vulnerable to Anthropogenic markers, like climate change, and is the most invisible in discussions about how to live in this new epoch. If we blindly follow the Anthropos into the Anthropocene, we will only recycle the same social and cultural inequalities that contributed to our getting here in the first place. Feminist theory can help hold us accountable to the diverse responsibilities of preserving livability in the Anthropocene. 

Further Reading

J.K. Gibson-Graham, “A Feminist Project of Belonging for the Anthropocene” Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 18, no. 1 (2011): 1–21.

Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369, no. 1938 (March 2011): 842–67.