Narrating the Anthropocene
publiziert: Montag, 21. Sep 2015 / 09:55 Uhr / aktualisiert: Montag, 21. Sep 2015 / 10:23 Uhr

Recently, paired events - a lecture by geographer Kathryn Yusoff and a colorful evening «slam» - took place, organized by the fledgling interdisciplinary group, Environmental Humanities Switzerland. Both explored the potential and limits of the «Anthropocene» thesis: the idea that we've entered a new geologic epoch wherein humans are actively altering Earth systems.

While still unknown to some, the term «Anthropocene» has sparked a veritable explosion of discussion in and across corners of the sciences, humanities, and arts over the last few years - not unlike a (climate-change exacerbated) wildfire sweeping through a disheveled and volatile landscape. It is «an immense, omnivorous idea» according to the environmental historian and postcolonial theorist Rob Nixon, one that is currently sucking its adopters and detractors alike, «in their interdisciplinary masses,» into « its cavernous maw.»
Introduced to the public debate by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000, the basic assertion is that we've entered an unprecedented epoch, one in which humans are altering Earth systems at the planetary scale, and moreover in ways that are being inscribed in the geologic record. People have reshaped the land and its «resources» for millennia, but this has intensified markedly in the 20th century through activities including widespread deforestation, urbanization, dam construction, over-farming/-fishing, and increasingly drastic measures for extracting minerals, oil, and gas. Many scientists believe that our impacts are now penetrating broad, global systems (e.g., jet streams, atmospheric and oceanic chemistry) and deep geological layers (e.g., anthropogenic earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as «fracking»). This represents a categorical difference from the past - what we might call a thoroughly «post-natural» condition.

Origin Stories

Fierce debate has ensued about the origin of this purported new age, with competing proposals (e.g., the collision of Old and New Worlds in 1492, the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, the first atomic blast in 1945) rendering very different stories about who we are as humans (anthropos) and how we relate to other species, to the material world, to vast time scales, and so on. Indeed, we might think of the Anthropocene as a narrative device, asking what perspectives it opens or, conversely, forecloses. The most trenchant resistance to the concept has come from those who pinpoint its universalizing tendency to lump humanity into one, cohesive entity and thereby to obscure the specific causes of planetary-scale environmental crisis as well as its starkly uneven distribution. The human ecologist Andreas Malm succinctly argued earlier this year that «humanity is.. far too slender an abstraction to carry the burden of culpability.» Already, the feminist historian of science, Donna Haraway, had declared «Capitalocene» a more accurate, and politically useful, descriptor. Out of this maelstrom emerged twinned events on May 13, 2015, at ETH and the University of Zurich, both organized by Environmental Humanities Switzerland, a fledgling, interdisciplinary group made up of mostly Zurich-based historians, geographers, ecologists, philosophers, and artists.

Who is this «Man» at the Center?

In her keynote talk, «Geopower: Genealogy After Life,» the radically inventive and renowned geographer Kathryn Yusoff (Queen Mary University of London) proposed that the focus on beginnings (and potential endings) in many Anthropocene conversations has been excessive, drawing attention away from another line of crucial questions. Who, for instance, is this «man» at the core of the Anthropocene, itself a «new life story of the human»? How is «he» related to previous constructions of the human, especially since the Enlightenment? How is human life constituted by and through geologic life? How might we move from thinking in terms of bio-politics (a term borrowed from the philosopher Michel Foucault) to geo- (as in geological, Earth-based) politics? Like Malm, Haraway, and others, Yusoff is keen to unsettle the invocation of a collective figure of humanity (and the colonial legacies associated with it), and instead to forge more fractured and stratified notions of human subjectivity, with issues of power always close in mind.

Anthropocene Slam: Meeting an Uncertain Environmental Future Halfway

If Yusoff's lecture was highly theoretical, the «Anthropocene Slam» that followed was downright playful, even festival-like. The host, artist Juanita Schläpfer-Miller, served red and green beverages in vials from a laboratory along with coasters representing different soil types as personalities; the evening ended with a mock debate - with geographer Philippe Forêt as prosecutor and the audience as jury - about whether or not the Earth should be held accountable for failing to provide limitless resources without acting up, of late. In the Call for Participation, «slammers» had been invited to engage «fundamental questions about the future of our society in a time of limits to growth, climate change and over-exploitation of ecosystems» by way of short inputs, and the selection of an object to bring/contribute to a fictitious «survival kit for an uncertain environmental future.»

From Plastiglomerates to Anthropocenic Glasses

With the big-picture-thinking plant ecologist Christoph Kueffer as our charismatic moderator for the evening, we witnessed scientists from ETH and the University of Zurich and a broad range of disciplines as they responded to this experimental charge. A number took up the theme of fossilization, or material traces across deep time (the historian Marcus Hall on caprolites, or petrified feces, the artist Jeremy Bolen and myself on plastiglomerates, a new type of hybrid «rock» comprised of ocean-deposited plastic trash and natural sediments, fused via informal bonfires). Some were expressly pessimistic about our current, post-natural state of affairs (the physicist Michael Dittmar on the immanence of peak(ed)-oil, the environmental scientist Andreas Fischlin on climate change as a threat to not only human, but also humane, existence). Others, meanwhile, struck an optimistic note, though in some cases with full-blown irony. Beni Rohrbach, a PhD student in geography, advertised a pair of blinking, heart-shaped eyeglasses through which increasingly common environmental disasters (e.g. rising sea levels, oil spills) suddenly appear to pose delightful recreational and touristic opportunities. Agroecologist Angelika Hilbeck bespoke the wonders of synthetic biology as a «rescue for the environmental post-collapse,» with each and every one of what seemed to be her own word - we learned at the end - having been drawn directly from industry promotional literature. Conservation biologist Dennis Hansen encouraged us to follow the path of ancient tortoises in order to reimagine ecosystems in slow, back-to-the-future fashion.

Extra-Scientific Imaginings of the Present-Future

It was refreshing to see this group of primarily highly specialized (and accomplished) scientists wrangle with an «out of the box» format for public presentation, one that called less for expertise than for imaginative, speculative, and/or poetic approaches to some of the most pressing circumstances of our day. Indeed, it seems increasingly clearer that there is much at stake - potential worlds to be shaped or dashed - in the stories we build about the present, future, and future perfect (what will have been).

(Emily Eliza Scott/ETH-Zukunftsblog)

Digitaler Strukturwandel  Nach über 16 Jahren hat sich entschlossen, den Titel in seiner jetzigen Form einzustellen. Damit endet eine Ära medialer Pionierarbeit. mehr lesen 21
Mit Biogas betriebene Wärme-Kraft-Kopplungsanlagen (WKK) können fluktuierenden Solarstrom kompensieren und Gebäude beheizen.
Mit Biogas betriebene ...
Eine zentrale Herausforderung der Energiewende ist es, die schwankende Stromproduktion aus erneuerbaren Quellen auszugleichen. Eine Machbarkeitsstudie zeigt nun für drei Schweizer Kantone auf, wie ein Verbund von Wärme-Kraft-Kopplungsanlagen kurzfristige Engpässe überbrücken und Gebäude mit Strom und Wärme versorgen kann. mehr lesen 
Vor rund hundert Jahren begann die Industrialisierung der Landwirtschaft - heute erleben wir den Beginn ihrer Digitalisierung. Damit die Big-Data-Welle den Bauer nicht vom Acker schwemmt, sondern ihn optimal ... mehr lesen
Vor rund hundert Jahren begann die Industrialisierung der Landwirtschaft - heute erleben wir den Beginn ihrer Digitalisierung.
Wie werden Wasserkraftwerke wieder rentabel?
Die Schweizer Wasserkraft darbt. Die Ursache dafür sind letztlich Verzerrungen im europäischen Strommarkt. Nun diskutiert die Politik Subventionen für die Grosswasserkraft. Allfällige Rettungsaktionen sollten ... mehr lesen  
Climate change has been communicated as a global concern affecting all of mankind; but this message doesn't seem to be getting through. If indeed the human brain responds better to experience ... mehr lesen
Climate change has been communicated as a global concern affecting all of mankind; but this message doesn't seem to be getting through.

Fakten und Meinungen zu Nachhaltigkeit

Der Zukunftsblog der ETH Zürich nimmt aktuelle Themen der Nachhaltigkeit auf. Er bietet eine Informations- und Meinungsplattform, auf der sich Expertinnen und Experten der ETH zu den Themenschwerpunkten Klimawandel, Energie, Zukunftsstädte, Welternährung und Natürliche Ressourcen äussern. Prominente Gäste aus Forschung, Politik und Gesellschaft tragen mit eigenen Beiträgen zur Diskussion bei.

Lesen Sie weitere Beiträge und diskutieren Sie mit auf:

Green Investment geht in Klausur Nach über 16 Jahren hat sich entschlossen, den Titel in ... 21
Wunschkredit in CHF
Heute Di Mi
Zürich 18°C 22°C gewitterhaftleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig anhaltender Regen Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
Basel 18°C 23°C viele Gewitterleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig trüb und nass Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
St. Gallen 16°C 20°C viele Gewitterleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig trüb und nass Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
Bern 17°C 21°C Wolkenfelder, kaum Regenleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig anhaltender Regen Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
Luzern 17°C 21°C viele Gewitterleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig trüb und nass Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
Genf 19°C 24°C wechselnd bewölkt, Regenleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig anhaltender Regen Wolkenfelder, kaum Regen
Lugano 22°C 28°C gewitterhaftleicht bewölkt, ueberwiegend sonnig viele Gewitter gewitterhaft
mehr Wetter von über 8 Millionen Orten