Plunging into the Anthropocene

For geographers, discussion around the Anthropocene provides an interesting recent take on long standing disciplinary debates over issues such as ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth‘, human impacts and human relations to nature. Last year I was struck by the parallels between how people are conceptualising and talking about the Anthropocene, and how the Neolithic or agricultural revolution has been discussed in archaeology over the last few decades.

I am not talking  about the debate over whether the Anthropocene started 8000 or so years ago as a result of methane emissions from rice agriculture, as argued by William Ruddiman, although that is a fascinating and important discussion. Rather it is about how phases or periods of history can become reified in public and scholarly consciousness, to the detriment of considering their spatial and temporal nuances. If we’re not careful we can end up with deterministic and teleological rather than contingent understandings of historical change.

This is partly an empirical issue. There is a long and interesting story of how early Australian archaeologists had to struggle when faced with empirical evidence that did not match the northern hemisphere stages of ‘Palaeolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’, let alone their Lower, Middle and Upper variations. (I discussed the influence of stratigraphic thinking in my 2000 book Second Nature.)

It’s also an issue of how we think about the past and future. Australian evidence has made fundamental contributions to the huge debates in international archaeology in which scholars have ‘unpacked’ the Neolithic package, rethought the Neolithic, challenged whether ‘agriculture’ hangs together as a concept, and whether it can be reliably differentiated from ‘hunting and gathering’.

And, as Noel Castree’s recent blog post discussed, it’s also an issue of who speaks and how. Different kinds of conversations about the Anthropocene are happening in the sciences and humanities/social sciences. The new journal The Anthropocene Review  aims to get those people to talk to each other. (It currently has free online access.) For example, papers in the first issue come from very different perspectives (e.g.  Malm and Hornborg argue that the Anthropocene is a flawed concept, while  Fischer-Kowalski et al. explore a particular way to quantify it).

So, I’ve plunged into the Anthropocene debate with a new paper entitled Contingencies of the Anthropocene: Lessons from the ‘Neolithic’. The abstract goes like this:

The emerging Anthropocene concept contains two conceptual challenges; its developing narrative tends to present a teleological view of history as linear and deterministic which is at odds with evidence of evolutionary and historical contingency, and the species category at its core sits uneasily with both the causal details of historical changes and the complexity of conceptualizing human-nature relations. We can learn from the ways similar challenges have been dealt with in the long debate over the origins of agriculture. A body of critical and empirical scholarship now conceptualizes agriculture in more dynamic, contingent terms, but has dealt less well with the second, more difficult, challenge. To realize the Anthropocene’s potential to suggest restorative and less fatalistic approaches to the future, we need to work as hard on the concepts as on their constitutive empirical evidence.

It would be great to hear your reactions, either here or at the journal blog. Archaeologists included!


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