Who will speak for the Anthropocene?

Post written by Professor Noel Castree

I recently attended a multidisciplinary conference about ‘the Anthropocene’, organised by the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI). Newly arrived in Australia, it gave me a chance both to meet new people and learn more about a subject I’ve had a close eye on for the last while. The event brought the likes of Deborah Bird Rose and literary scholar Kate Rigby together with the likes of Roderick Lawrence (an enthusiastic interdisciplinarian) and Jan Zalasiewicz (a geologist and sometime advocate of the Anthropocene idea). There were a number of non-academic speakers and attendees too, including artists and museum professionals. Members of Australia’s Indigenous community were also present.

Though I didn’t last the three days, the event was enjoyable. In my experience it’s rare to get such a range of people together to focus on a common concern in a sustained way. Whatever one thinks of its scientific merit (the jury is still out in the geological community), the Anthropocene idea – the suggestion that contemporary humans and future generations inhabit a biophysical environment profoundly altered by people’s actions – invites deep reflection about what many regard as the ultimate question: namely, ‘how should we live?’. If taken seriously, the idea also obliges us to recognise that, in addressing this question, we’re necessarily answering another one too: namely, ‘what others shall we let live and in what ways?’.

Both questions were touched upon frequently in the presentations and discussions I heard in Sydney. Reflecting on this over the last week or so, I’m left wondering how others might regard them as more than impossibly large philosophical challenges that might one day be attended to – if only the quotidian imperatives of working, provisioning, resting, and so on did not keep us so fixated on immediate affairs and so locked-in to current habits of mind and action.

Then again, there are people addressing these questions, and on a global scale too. But few of them were represented at the Sydney event – or at any of the recent multidisciplinary meetings about the Anthropocene that I am aware of. And few members of the public are aware of the extraordinary claims to representing life on Earth they are making in their various publications and pronouncement. These claims go beyond the representation of global climate dynamics to encompass the various ‘sub-systems’ that together define what some call our ‘planetary boundaries’. I’m talking about leading members of the ‘global environmental change’ (GEC) science community, some of whom are responsible for making the idea of the Holocene’s end a ‘hot proposition’ (hence the SEI decision to focus on the ‘Anthropo-scenery’, as it called it). If, like me, you keep eyes on what members of this community are saying to each other – the pages of Nature and Science are not a bad index – you’ll notice three things of late.

First, frustrated that societal decision-makers are not heeding the science, some are enjoining the research community to be far more vocal and visible when communicating the key messages. Second, though much basic research into the functioning of the Earth system remains to be done, it is now widely recognized that the sciences of nature cannot furnish us with all the knowledge and wisdom humanity will need to deal with a post-Holocene environment. Third, these calls to make global change research findings more prominent and less natural science dominated have been accompanied by calls to make them more directly relevant to decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Though there are echoes of earlier arguments for ‘post-normal science’, ‘mode 2’ inquiry and ‘transdisciplinarity’ in all this, there is also a new tone of urgency and a chorus of voices involved (rather than a relative few). What’s more these voices belong to people located at the centre of important scientific networks, rather than their margins. This was evident at the high profile ‘Planet Under Pressure’ conference held prior to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Many in the social sciences and the humanities will warmly welcome these developments, which are now finding coordinated expression via the Future Earth vision for GEC research in the years immediately ahead. But I wonder how far these well meaning spokespersons for human and non-human life on this planet can accomodate perspectives that are ‘non-scientific’ – perspectives that were prevalent at the SEI event. In their keen desire to act as canaries for global humanity might these scientists over-reach, with implications for how politicians, publics and other frame the ‘problem’ of the Anthropocene?

If the likes of Deborah Bird Rose or Kate Rigby were to read any recent pieces in Nature or Science about the ‘human dimensions’ of life in the Anthropocene (they may well do, but I don’t know), they’d doubtless be as dismayed as I am. Earth and its inhabitants are routinely presented in terms of ‘variables’, ‘drivers’, feedbacks’, ‘thresholds’, ‘adaptations’ and so on – machinic and organic metaphors mix and abound. ‘Vulnerability’ remains a key topic, but seems to be imagined as a measureable ‘factor’ to be designed through some judicious social engineering. I’m not anti-science (that would be absurd), but it’s striking how little knowledge outside the natural sciences is shaping current discourse in the GEC community – notwithstanding clarion calls for the social sciences and humanities to play a more prominent role. It doesn’t help that governments have grown used to the idea that ‘knowledge’ is something ‘delivered’ to them by ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ – this makes it hard for subjects that are not broadly ‘scientific’ in character to be recognised as having something ‘useful’ to say. Mike Hulme, a former climate scientist turned polymath, has been making these kinds of arguments for some years. It’s a shame more of his science colleagues seem not to be paying more attention.

Where people get their ideas from matters hugely to the life they lead and the legacy they bequeath to future generations.  What can we do to ensure that ‘science imperialism’ does not define thinking and policy about the Anthropocene in the decades ahead? For a start, those of us who are not self-described ‘scientists’ might consider leaving our professional comfort zones and organising ourselves so that environmental scientists like Paul Crutzen – coinventor of the Anthropocene concept – do not enjoy virtually exclusive rights to speak for the totality of life on Earth in the public domain.

3 thoughts on “Who will speak for the Anthropocene?

  1. Noel, many thanks for this interesting blog posting! There are two points that I’d like to pick up on. The first is in response to the comment: ‘it’s striking how little knowledge outside the natural sciences is shaping current discourse in the GEC community – notwithstanding clarion calls for the social sciences and humanities to play a more prominent role.’ There are many eminent social science scholars (e.g. Adger, Brown, Liverman and so on) that have paved the way on these issues for many years, yet there is clearly a role for a wider community of arts, humanities and social sciences to take a strong leadership in sense making, knowledge creation and opening up space for critical engagement with climate/environmental change and notions of the Anthropocene. This also has to come from a desire within our humanities and social science communities to want to challenge and engage in dialogue with our fellow science peers. Not an easy task always but doable with the right incentives.
    The second point is the call for engagement and one that I welcome, ‘those of us who are not self-described ‘scientists’ might consider leaving our professional comfort zones and organising ourselves’ . Let’s do it! There is clearly a huge amount our communities have to offer when it comes to explaining how society can/will/should/could deepen and broaden wellbeing while also engaging in climate/ environmental change. I am sure that the science community would be hugely welcoming and supportive of our efforts to organise and create the best possible humanities and social science, as well as contribute novel entry points to practices, and widening public participation around environmental change.

    • Great points Emily. You’re dead right that people such as Neil and Diana have done a great deal to build bridges and dig tunnels so that some important intellectual exchange can occur. But I sense (forgive a third successive metaphor) that they have to trim their sails so as so say things (and say them in ways) that ‘compute’ with colleagues in the environmental and earth sciences. You rightly suggest that further and wider engagement is “Not an easy task always but doable with the right incentives”. True enough, and it’s incumbent on environmental social scientists and eco-humanities scholars to make moves as much as for global environmental change science ‘insiders’ to welcome new voices, approaches and ideas. Karen O’Brien’s three recent ‘Progress reports’ in Progress in Human Geography map out some of the key issues, as does a new special issues of Environmental Science & Policy.

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