“May You Live in Interesting Times”: the Myth of the Good Anthropocene

19th May 2019 |

 This talk was given at the Performance Crossings Festival 2019 which took place in Prague.

http://www.mikeplibby.com

After long deliberation on the validity of the label ‘Anthropocene,’ in July of 2018, the International Commission on Stratigraphy rejected the proposal to make the Anthropocene a new geological epoch, and demarcated the Holocene into three further subdivisions (the Greenlandian, Northgrippian, and the Meghalayan ages). Although the Anthropocene is not one of them, these three ages stretch from 11 700 BC (the beginning of the Holocene era) until 1950, so the debate whether the Anthropocene will indeed be considered to define the post-1950s is still open. 

The label of the ‘Anthropocene’ has served its function insofar as it had speculated and popularized the collapse of the classic dichotomy between nature/culture, where nature stands for the World, and culture for ‘man,’ or in other words where Nature constitutes the ground for the figure of culture. Although Bruno Latour[1]had noted that the life of the signifier ‘Anthropocene’ was to be short-lived and eventually superseded by other, better terms for addressing the conditions of the present, the debate has still not been put to rest. If the period stretching between 1950 and the present day might indeed be termed the ‘Anthropocene,’ such a choice merits further speculative analysis.

Outro

Popular discourse in the first decades of the 21stcentury has been saturated with documenting and lamenting the outputs and conditions of large-scale industrial projects commensurate with overextended fossil fuel excavation and combustion, serial plastic production and distribution, chemicals introduced into the water table, etc… The so-called Great Acceleration[2]which has been happening on various fronts since circa 1950 in the socio-economic sphere (population explosion, CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, world-wide GDP…) has also disrupted the cycles and accelerated the flows of the Earth system and has introduced severe noise into the biosphere’s relative homeostasis. It is in the 1950s that human industry had reached a watershed moment and the hidden abode of industrial production had started mobilizing the unknown unknowns, which have now started manifesting in the world, and leaking into political discourse.  Like the return of the political repressed, the mass extinction of the biosphere and the drastic reshuffling of climate patterns have become ever more insistent in their repercussions and their impacts on human communities. 

The artificial intelligence of contemporary market politics had been working under the maxim that “In the long run, we are all dead.” It is indeed correct. Yet acknowledging that it is correct factually does not resolve the material and ethical imperatives which ‘the present’ poses for those living. And it is this traumatic realization of the subject’s fixity within a chaotic present which threatens the specular homeostasis of the very term ‘human’. The stressors of pre-modern times have been surpassed by a threatening plethora of general accidents (whether they take the form of nuclear catastrophe, environmental collapse, or planetary-scale terrorism) which create a fundamental subtext for living in the modern times. Acknowledging the very possibility of personal, as well as general extinction exposes the strange loop which underwrites the objective definition and the subjective experience of living in the Anthropocene.[3]Social depression and the flatlining of are unable to resolve the ethical conundrum of living through the age of the sixth extinction. The lines of flight to those places which were thought to in some way provide safe haven from the impacts of catastrophe have been shown as nonexistent. If we are still invested in politics, the question then seems to be “What is to be done?” 

The Myth of the Good Anthropocene

I want to revisit here a conversation which Simon Dalby contextualized in his essay “Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”[4]The online debate occurred way back in 2014 between founder of the New York Times dot.earth blog Andrew Revkin and Australian blogger Clive Hamilton, and was subsequently critiqued by physicist/blogger Joe Romm. The brief backstory is that in his 2014 address at the meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, Revkin spoke about the “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” and proceeded to say that the Anthropocene is a “really unique juncture […] you can look at [the data] and go ‘Oh My God,’ or you can look at that and go ‘Wow,what an amazing time to be alive.’ I choose the latter overall.”[5]The moral irresponsibility of making such an argument was severely criticized. Hamilton for example took issue with just how blithely Revkin assumes the position of privilege in a world which seems ever more dangerous for large segments of the global population. Putting a positive spin on something like the Anthropocene was understood as a moral failure on Revkin’s part. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction (2014) has written the following in personal correspondence to Joe Romm: “I don’t see the value in the ‘good’ anthropocene’ as a rhetorical construct, even if it’s well intentioned. What we are doing to the planet […] is in no way good.”[6]Clive Hamilton was even more critical when he wrote that “the ‘good Anthropocene’ is a story about the world that could have been written by the powerful interests that have gotten us into this mess in the first place and who are fighting so effectively to prevent us from getting out of it,” and went on to say that “in the long term this kind of thinking will prove to be more insidious than climate change denial.”[7]To Revkin’s notion that “We are going to be OK,” Clive Hamilton retorts that “unless the IPCC has it completely wrong, much of the world’s population is not included in your ‘we.’”[8]

 To offer another perspective on this discussion we might also look to the 2019 Venice Biennial. This year’s theme and works often grappled with some of the stressors which the modern world faces, and the pieces often harness some of the weird and eerie effects of contemporary life. Echoing Revkin’s “great time to be alive,” the theme for this year’s Venice Biennial was “May you live in interesting times.” In folk lore (meaning Wikipedia) this phrase is said to be a Chinese curse to be addressed to one’s enemies. The hook is that one would rather be a dog in peaceful times, than a human in those “interesting times” when History comes to collect its due on the individual. The message from the biennale’s curators to humanity is indeed ominous, and the overlap with Revkin’s unconscious use of the phrase about the “wonderful time to be alive” comes through.

Towards Deep Adaptation

It is perhaps important (for theory, art, as well as social and personal well-being) to come to terms with the fact that what has come out of the other side of modernity is no longer the ideal humanity of the Enlightenment but rather a humanity who, in the long run, is struggling for its continued survival. A central consideration for the 21stcentury must be that the developments plaguing humanity on account of the disequilibrium of the Earth system cut through politics, and are political only vicariously, in their impacts on humanity. The acidification of the oceans, the melting of the ice sheet, or the continuing rise of the global temperature do not have any political stance which might be motivated by partisanship, but rather constitute an inhuman, ontic agency predicated on many dispersed and networked actors. It is in these “interesting times” that the Homo Sapienshas been shown to be an epiphenomenon to a much deeper ecology of relations, and any moving forward in politics must take stock of this material underpinning and never fall back on ideal and often compensatory fantasies (or on what Hamilton calls Revkin’s “rose-tinted glasses”). What we used to consider culture within the framing of the classical nature/culture divide has been shown to be a mere investment (a ‘dressing up’) of accreted and habituated protocols of action. 

Discussing the concept of hyperobject, Timothy Morton evokes as metaphor a well-known Star War scene which aptly expresses the social and technological bottleneck which humanity has worked its way into. In The Empire Strikes Back the Millennium Falcon at one point flies into the mouth of a giant worm on a space asteroid. Only too late do the heroes realize that they are no longer in a natural cave formation, but rather in the maw of a deadly serpent whose gastric processes digest them as a means of course. Similarly, the technical instrumentality of humanity is now following a path which does not seem to have a valid egress and which is motivated by a deep misunderstanding of the ground through which it frames its own figure. 

It is perhaps paradoxical that the moment at which we grasp for the first time the potentiality of our deep future as a sustainable, deeply-adapted cosmic civilization, makes us at the same time understand our own deep past with many of its known material and ethical complexities and their ramifications on our present. This excavation of deep time (both future and past) marks the precise, paradoxical moment of humanity’s awakening to its own precarious situation. This strange loop which connects the deep past and deep future via the human comes to define the Anthropocene epoch. 

The human has come to comprehend the moral impasse with which it is faced. It has found out that it has been building its model civilization within the confines of a transparent politics. The bottle within which the ship of capitalism has been built is also the same one from which it must now struggle to get out, or face the constrictions of its limits to growth. Whether civilization will have to be dismantled, or taken through the great filter of the bottleneck towards adapting to the great ‘outside’ remains to be seen. 

 This talk was given at the Performance Crossings Festival 2019 which took place in Prague.


[1]Heather Davis, “Diplomacy in the Face of Gaia: Bruno Latour in Conversation with Heather Davis,” accessed 19 May 2019<http://heathermdavis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Diplomacy-in-the-Face-of-Gaia_Latour.pdf>

[2]J.R. McNeill, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration(Belknap Press, 2016).

[3]Let’s not forget that the serpent indeed eats its tail, and must consume the blood and guts of that which sustains it.

[4]Simon Dalby, “Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2015) 33-51.

[5]  “Andy Revkin: Paths to a Good Anthropocene,” Youtube, accessed 19 May 2019<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOtj3mskx5k>.

[6]Joe Romm “Words Matter When Talking Global Warming: The ‘Good’ Anthropocene Debate,” 19 June, 2014, accessed 19 May 2019<https://thinkprogress.org/words-matter-when-talking-global-warming-the-good-anthropocene-debate-f5c8bdd78cc9/>.

[7]Clive Hamilton, “The Delusion of the ‘Good Anthropocene’: Reply to Andrew Revkin,” clivehamilton.com, 17 June 2014, accessed 19 May 2019<https://clivehamilton.com/the-delusion-of-the-good-anthropocene-reply-to-andrew-revkin/>

[8]Clive Hamilton, “The Delusion of the ‘Good Anthropocene’: Reply to Andrew Revkin,” clivehamilton.com, 17 June 2014, accessed 19 May 2019<https://clivehamilton.com/the-delusion-of-the-good-anthropocene-reply-to-andrew-revkin/>.

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