The Shock of the Anthropocene
Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Verso, 2017
Humankind: Solidarity With Non-Human People
Timothy Morton, Verso, 2017
Jorie Graham, Harper Collins, 2017
The climate crisis is here. In case Blue Planet’s viewers had failed to notice the year’s two historically devastating hurricanes, calamitous droughts in central Africa and the displacement of 41 million people by flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and Northern India, the last episode of the beloved wildlife programme finished with the above quote from David Attenborough. But for anyone aware of the worldwide social dynamics of climate change – the fact, for instance, that the Global South and the global poor will bear the brunt of its ravages despite sharing no responsibility for the onset of disaster – there is something dubious about Attenborough’s plea: namely, its use of the words ‘us’ and ‘humanity’.
Such general phrasing jars with the particularities of climate change. According to the Climate Accountability Institute, just 100 companies are to blame for 71% of global CO2 emissions since 1988. The responsibility for environmental crisis is local and specific. Yet contemporary debates on climate change are conducted in deceptively broad terms. Chief among them is the ‘Anthropos’ – a concept originating in earth sciences and geology which has now gained traction in the humanities – meaning ‘all of us’, ‘humankind’. We are apparently at the point when the dominant influence on the natural world is something that might be called ‘human activity’. 2017 taught us that, for the sake of our planet, as well as for any serious interpretation of social justice, radical action must be taken to cut back emissions and convert to sustainable energy. But what kind of action is encouraged by a concept that immerses all human activity into one homogenous mass? Does this vague invocation of ‘humanity’ entail an endless deferral of responsibility, a paralysing lack of clarity and focus – at root, a de-politicisation of our environment? As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz write in The Shock of the Anthropocene, the term ‘Anthropos’ ‘might be sufficient for polar bears or orangutans seeking to understand what species was disturbing their habitat’, but these would be ‘orangutans and polar bears without much competence in “humanology”, unable to discern the “dominant males” and asymmetries of power in human action’. For these authors, an oblivious attitude toward social, racial and geopolitical hierarchies informs this undifferentiated notion of the Anthropos. As such, it can only be pacifying and obfuscatory.
Not so for the ecological philosopher Timothy Morton. In his contribution to the humanities’ frantic attempt to reconcile decades of ‘theory’ with the hard – and terrifying – facts of climate change, the category of ‘humankind’ is a useful one (so much so that it forms part of his wacky book title, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People). But Morton is keen to distinguish his idiosyncratic interpretation of ‘humanity’ from what he calls ‘vanilla Humanity’: the Enlightenment image of (all-white) mankind, dominating his natural environment and his social inferiors alike. Against this exclusivist image of the Anthropos, Morton’s ‘humankind’ recognises our inextricable relations with other species: ‘I can’t peel nonhumans from myself without ceasing to be myself’, he writes. To bracket off ‘man’ from his fellow creatures and material conditions is to misunderstand our own ontology. The ‘Anthropos’ presented in Humankind is an expansive, porous entity which encompasses not just man, but the entire ecosystem which makes him what he is. In Morton’s view, the ‘Anthropocene’ is a necessary (if troublesome) category, because it renders ‘the human … truly thinkable in a non-teleological, non-metaphysical sense. The waste products in Earth’s crust are also the human in this expanded, spectral sense, as if what the human becomes is a flickering ghost’.
For Morton, the instability and imprecision of this term, its ineluctable ‘weirdness’, is what allows us to think the climate crisis. If it is not a straightforward signifier, that’s because our relation to the environment cannot be straightforwardly signified. But by recognising this ‘flickering’, ‘spectral’ and ill-defined quality of ‘humankind’, we can – Morton insists – create a launch pad to reconceptualise our place in the world. Bonneuil and Fressoz are less concerned with creating a new critical vocabulary than tracing the history of our current environmental ideology. Their investigation of ‘the Anthropos’ interrogates its origins and genealogy. Their title, The Shock of the Anthropocene, intends to name a myth, to identify a false story which we tell ourselves about climate change. The authors begin with the ‘shock’ part of the myth, then move on to the related concept of ‘the human’. They take aim at the historically unfounded idea that, until recently, ‘we’ had no idea that burning fossil fuels harmed the planet, that all ‘we’ needed were semi-messianic scientists to ‘shock’ us, and awaken our environmental consciousness. Bonneuil and Fressoz claim that climate change can only be fought when the power to ‘speak for the earth’ is redistributed. But a block on this redistribution is the ‘illusion that ecological awareness and “salvation” can only come from scientists and not also from the struggles and initiatives of other Earthlings and citizens of the planet’.
You do not have to have read The Shock to be alarmed by the sentiments of some the ‘geocratic experts’ whom it polemicises. One such expert is Dr Erle Ellis, a ‘Professor of Environmental Systems’, who offers us the Frankensteinian promise that ‘we will be proud of the planet we create’. (With environmentalists like these, who needs enemies?) In Blue Planet, Attenborough claims that ‘we are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that’. It is as if he is trying to caricature the misguided environmental logic which Bonneuil and Fressoz critique: a logic which laments ‘our’ past ignorance and celebrates ‘our’ awakening. In response to this messianic trend, the writers set out to understand why societies that have been consistently capable of preserving the environment have consistently refused to do so. The book consists of a series of riveting historical narratives, each attempting to explain just how ‘environmental grammars’ which have existed in every age were circumvented or discredited by powerful vested interests. Jason W. Moore’s re-naming of the Anthropocene as the ‘Capitaloscene’ looms large here. But the writers are historians, not pamphleteers, and the book stops short of suggesting how we might get beyond the Anthropocene. It does not provide a coherent vision of how we might overcome both the descriptive shortcomings of the concept and the volatile reality to which it testifies.
When Bonneuil and Fressoz raise the possibility of such a vision, they turn to poetry rather than politics, quoting Henri Michaux on the kind of aesthetic sensibility which ‘man’ might adopt towards his environs: ‘by slowing down, you feel the pulse of things, you snore, you have all the time in the world; calmly, all of life … We have no more need to count … We no longer betray the soil, no longer betray the minnow, we are sisters by water and leaf’. It is therefore significant that, alongside Humankind and The Shock of the Anthropocene, 2017 also saw a new collection of poetry from Pulitzer-Prize winner Jorie Graham. Fast asks, as if in direct response to Michaux, how we might identify with the non-human in an age where it seems impossible to ‘slow down’ (where the thought of impending environmental catastrophe should, if anything, encourage us to ‘speed up’). The Anthropocene, as Graham sees it, consists of constant motion and expansion. It signals the unstoppable growth of a synthetic, heterogenous world in which we begin to fantasise about annihilation: ‘I miss the toolbar I miss the menu I miss the place where one could press delete’. Graham’s writing makes you anxious. It is made of self-corrections, false starts, an inability to settle on any image, idea or definition. All the while, the reader is being dared to snatch something – anything – more ‘real’ from the impenetrable blocks of text, arranged to resemble data streams: ‘take plankton – I feel I cannot love anymore – take plankton – that love is reserved for another kind of existence’. ‘This’, Graham seems to be saying, ‘is what it means to be human’, to be forever searching for some simple, finite point of identification, yet unable to extract it from our ecological continuum, whose elements are dizzying and endless. The Anthropos cannot find a stable foothold in the whirling, disorientating Anthropocene which Graham envisions.
In this, Morton’s book speaks to the same condition as Graham’s. Their conception of humankind has several overlaps. But, while the former centres its description of the Anthropos around philosophical categories such as ‘spectrality’, borrowed from Jacques Derrida and Mark Fisher, the language of the latter is more sensorial, less abstract. As a book of poetry, Fast does not have to justify itself with reference to ‘object oriented ontology’, or any other ‘speculative’ philosophical system. Instead, it gives us a gnawing feeling that ‘the Anthropos’ will never be satisfactorily defined. Or, rather, it turns this lack of definition into an aesthetic experience. ‘Have you failed to make yourself?’, a voice taunts, origin unspecified. All we have, in place of a ‘grounded’ vocabulary with which to capture this image of the human, are uncertain, effervescent moments of beauty: ‘the window pales and fills with things. I am afraid’. Graham allows these moments to coexist with the die-offs, the deletions, breathless evocations which are among the most powerful parts of her collection: ‘extinction – migration – the blue-jewel-butterfly you loved, goodbye, the red kite, the dunnock, the crested tit, the cross-billed spotless starling (near the top of the list) – smoky gopher – spud-wasp – the named storms, extinct fonts, ingots, blindole-made tunnels – oh your century, there in you, how it goes out – how lonely are we aiming for?’
Reflecting on the operations of an MRI scanner monitoring her dying father’s body, Graham observes that ‘to survive you have to be completely readable.’ ‘Survival’ – that is, continuity – is a favourite objective of a certain kind of environmentalism, expressed in appeals to ‘sustainability’, ‘saving the planet’, ‘protecting the environment’. For huge numbers of people, the current version of the world is not worth saving, and climate change is not an illness to be diagnosed and remedied, but the natural outcome of systems that should not, and cannot, survive. These are the millions of people that have known, in every generation, ‘what we are doing to the planet’, because what is being done to the planet is being done to them too. As Bonneuil and Fressoz remind us, the ecosystem does not demand that we ‘read’ or ‘interpret’ it, only that we live in it. In a roundabout way, this is Morton’s basic point: we need unreadable concepts for an unreadable situation, in which simple words like ‘survival’ prove insufficient. I have stopped short of describing Morton’s extraordinarily strange book as itself ‘unreadable’ because I think a small amount of respect is due to a work that at least attempts to make something better of the flawed idea of ‘humankind’, rather than merely deconstructing it. The ‘key task of ecological politics’, Morton writes, is to ‘restart our ability to imagine who we are’. Morton’s implication is that the contradictions of ‘the Anthropos’ may lead us to better relationships, relationships whose foundation makes its way into book’s subtitle: Solidarity.
Whoever ‘we’ are, we are going to need this ancient and weathered idea for the fight ahead. As the climate justice slogan goes: climate change or system change. Antonio Gramsci, discussing fascism rather than ecology, unwittingly sketched an image of our environmental sinkhole in 1930, to which terrible detail is being added daily: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. It is no surprise that as the symptoms of our situation get worse, writers will continue to attempt, with varying degrees of success, to capture this unspecified ‘new’: to describe what it might feel like to live in a world transformed, one way or the other.