Theater of Cruelty

Questionable overall stories about the environment

The Shock of the Anthropocene – The Earth, History and Us
Long before the industrial revolution, people have been warning about what a predatory nature can do.


"With the ominous concept anthropocene strikes the distinction between civilization and nature cracks. Behind familiar ways of thinking, both political irresponsibility and repressed criticism come to the fore. The geological era of mankind is a fact, but the shock of recognition is a hypocritical innocence. ”

Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Christophe Bonneuil are both historians at the Center national de la recherche scientifique. It is striking and important in itself that key works on the environmental crisis these days are written by historians, just as often as by biologists or geophysicists. Bonneuil is responsible for a series of books on the anthropocene for the publisher Éditions du Seuil, and the concept also explains the history of history's entry into climate research.

Human era. The Anthropocene is a geological term, not a historical epoch in line with "the Middle Ages" or "the Enlightenment". Where historical eras typically cover something between a decade and – in extreme cases, such as the "ancient" – a few millennia, the geological epochs are time-sliced ​​tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, often millions of years. Thus, the age of man on the planet has mainly taken place in two geological eras, namely the Pleistocene – the Ice Age – and the time after, the Holocene. The era geologists call the Holocene has been characterized by a temperate and exceptionally stable climate, which has, so to speak, facilitated the conditions of man's agricultural-based civilization. So far, the Holocene has only been around for 11 years, which is quite short in a geological context. When this era is about to embark on a new era with a warmer and more unstable climate, it is probably due to the influence of man, hence the "anthropocene", of the "anthropos", "man".

Mass Destruction. The transition to the Anthropocene is not just any event: it reduces the history of mankind to an overall cause of the changes we now see, a hyper-event whose effect is a destabilization of the biosphere and of the Earth's geophysical systems. In recent years, we have been reminded of what this means, but it is still difficult to accept. Mankind's direct and indirect extinction of other species has been launched as "the sixth extinction catastrophe in natural history." The previous of the six major mass extinctions occurred 65 million years ago, and then we talk about the event that exterminated the dinosaurs. That human history is drawn into geohistory is thus only one side of the issue. On the other hand, the long and slow natural history is drawn into the heated and accelerated history of man, so that the discovery of America and the invention of the compression engine become an integral part of the natural history of the planet.

If we collect the mass of vertebrates that live on land, humans and their livestock make up an incredible 97 percent.

Scientific considerations. The anthropocene shock, yes, the very concept of anthropocene, is closely linked to the greenhouse effect. The big main point is thus nothing new: The CO2 level in the atmosphere is affected by human activity, and this has decisive consequences for the temperature – in the form of average temperature on the planet and regional fluctuations. When the anthropocene is to be confirmed, it becomes a sub-question when this epoch actually began. The geologists Crutzen and Stoermer, who first introduced the concept, agreed to place the beginning of the anthropocene until the end of the 1700th century, that is, at the same time as the industrial revolution. Geology is based on what can be read in geological strata, so strictly speaking we must look for what (in principle) can be read by thought geologists in a few hundred thousand years, to confirm that man has become a "geophysical force in line with nature ». For such clear geophysical indications, which can be traced back to humans, we can, among other things, refer to the melting of glaciers in the Andes, Himalayas and high mountain areas over the past 25 years. The geologists of the future will also have to know about human intervention to explain man-made and redistributed substances, such as plastic and radioactivity, that may be found in future rocks.

Shocking numbers. The scope of these interventions is most clearly expressed through figures and statistics. Here, the thorough preparation from Fressoz's and Bonneuil's research community has its strengths. If in a few places it is difficult to keep the thread through accumulations of facts, the two authors are able to shock with numerical examples of how man shapes the planet. For beyond the climatic, the human presence is greater than has been acknowledged. If we collect the mass of vertebrates that live on land, humans and their livestock make up an incredible 97 percent. Only three percent of the fauna's biomass on land is wild, in other words. In the sea, domestication is not the most striking, but the mass death of species and the decline in fish stocks. In addition to this comes the plastic pollution, which is so extreme that according to the authors in the year 2050 there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea, if we continue as today.

If we count pollution, loss of species diversity and depletion of nature to the anthropocene, as the authors choose to do, then it also becomes clearer that this is not a new story: Ever since the earliest industrial era, critical voices have warned of the dangers of disturbing nature's balance , to over-consume resources and by pollution. From a historical perspective, environmental history thus becomes a critical discipline of thought. In the style of postcolonialist and feminist history, Bonneuil and Fressoz seek out repressed voices in history while deconstructing and revealing the narrative of hegemonic power.

The authors show how the idea of ​​nature's own economy and balance has been constantly present since the Enlightenment, as well as an awareness of man's dependence on nature.

New story, old story. The problem with the anthropocene as a «big story», is that it places the main emphasis on the greenhouse effect and thus fits all too well into an attitude that is as false as it is prevalent: It is admitted that environmental problems may be due to us, but that it still «is not our fault ”, since we have only really known about them in recent decades. This story not only has its appeal in that it frees us from guilt, but it also seems uplifting because it instills a belief that with the new knowledge about the environment we will "wake up" and take responsibility. Against this blue-eyed and comforting defense speech for modern society, the authors set off The Shock of the Anthropocene up a darker tableau: Ever since the beginning of industrialization, yes, perhaps long before, we have been aware of the dangers of predation on nature. This is not only substantiated by the authors'ing far-sighted theories about the greenhouse effect, pollution and resource depletion among thinkers as early as the 17th and 1800th centuries. Equally, there are reactions to the industrialization and predation of people who themselves were dependent on nature. Both farmers and fishermen experienced early on that a sustainable use of forests and fishing grounds was replaced by an increasingly uninhibited recovery. As for the environmental message's ability to create collective revival and repentance, Fressoz and Bonneuil state that the ability to deny and blindness is actively produced by the same forces that account for natural disasters. Against the pious belief that the truth will awaken us, they set agnathology, the doctrine of how blindness and ignorance are produced and distributed in society. The anthrop, understood as a great story, risks becoming an ideologically created blindness, which covers a historical responsibility.

According to the authors, the story of the great environmental awakening is simply historically untrue. The true story is that warnings and crucial knowledge about human ecological impact have been actively repressed and marginalized in a process that Fressoz has previously termed "disinhibition". "Who can still believe," the two historians provocatively ask, "that if individuals, societies, states, and societies do not behave in an ecologically sustainable manner, it is because the scientific knowledge that should convince them is too new? or too incomplete? ” There is a whole arsenal of means that make it possible to ignore warnings and protests, such as trivialization, complexity, simulated accountability, lobbying and endless investigations.

A diverse battle front. As a counterweight to a simplified story about ecological awakening, Fressoz and Bonneuil create a whole range of stories in the second part of the book, where only the first, "Thermocene", is about CO2 and the rise in temperature. The other chapters are all mutated versions of the anthropocene concept. One of these is "Thanatocene", which deals with the mass extinction of species and the reduction of natural diversity. As biologist EO Wilson has pointed out, there has been a tendency to look at the destruction of ecosystems and biotopes that consequences of climate change, while there is every reason to look at such actions and events as causes of climatic imbalance and warming. Another chapter is entitled "Capitalocen" and uses Jason E. Moore's term to emphasize capitalism's principles of economic growth as one of the main reasons for the "great acceleration" after 1945. In this era, all environmentally relevant graphs – population growth, water consumption, CO2 emissions, rainforest losses and so on – entered into a concerted exponential growth.

The more provocative parts of the authors' argument are followed up in the chapter on the phronocene ("Phronocene"), after phronesis, the Greek concept of practical wisdom. "Fronocene" is used as an ironic term for the modern world that has developed a fatal ability to act against better knowledge. The authors show how the idea of ​​nature's own economy and balance has been constantly present since the Enlightenment, as well as an awareness of man's dependence on nature. At the end of this chapter, they summarize the lessons of environmental history: "The conclusion that compels us, however disturbing it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed natural environments with full awareness of what they were doing." The historical problem is thus to understand modernity's almost schizophrenic treatment of nature and the knowledge about it.

The geologists of the future will also have to know about human intervention to explain man-made and redistributed substances, such as plastic and radioactivity, that may be found in future rocks.

Market for nature. These problems are elaborated in the chapter "Agnotocen" – the era of invisibility. Here Fressoz and Bonneuil try to find the roots of environmentally hostile fighting lies, such as the idea of ​​the inexhaustibility of nature, the idea of ​​the inherent balance and unaffected greatness of the atmosphere, the detachment of the economy from its natural basis in resources and energy and so on. This fabricated blindness also includes "the green accounts", where nature is considered a provider of services, yes, where nature itself is described as "the biggest business in the world". In such a total economy, even the resource crisis and environmental problems can be turned into a business opportunity: New markets for fresh water, biodiversity and untouched nature are emerging. Where the idea of ​​nature as something completely external carries with it a dangerous distance, a nature that is internalized completely is even more dangerous: Nature is made a commodity for economic transactions, right down to its most intimate processes. This applies not least to technological quick fixes, in biotechnology and the so-called geoengineering art. Whether nature is manipulated to be made resistant to climate change or if the climate is tried to be regulated in the opposite way by spraying sulfur into the stratosphere, we are moving towards a nature that is being tried for administration and thus does not unfold freely. At the same time, human control over the environment is by far a vain dream. The illusion of a controlled nature is only an extension of the illusion that the human presence in the world is under control, Fressoz and Bonneuil suggest.

The last main chapter, "The Polemocene", addresses the controversy surrounding environmental issues throughout their breadth. The main issue here is to show how political and existential thinking concerns environmental issues at least as much as the purely scientific approach. Hannah Arendt's critique of the "instrumentalisation of the world and the earth", as well as the "endless devaluation of all that exists" is as relevant to the situation as the demonstration of temperature changes in the Arctic. The progressive criticism of the utopian socialists is as relevant as the propaganda of new energy sources.

To the end of civilization. The term anthropocene can, according to Fressoz and Bonneuil, be retained as a marker for a new and sharpened level of a dangerous development, but must not become a flattened narrative. This book thoroughly mixes historical research, philosophical perspectives and scientific analyzes to consolidate the anthropocene as a complex, all-encompassing and debatable total narrative. This is not about an innocent high-tech civilization that one day wakes up and realizes that it is not sustainable – and thus fixes it. It is about the union of a large number of combat zones and conflicts with as deep roots as modern society itself. The outcome of these conflicts will have consequences in the coming geological time, whatever name they may have. If we accept the term "anthropocene", it is geologically the epoch we humans will live in as long as civilization lasts.


Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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