AGU: My concern with the anthropocene

AGU: My concern with the anthropocene

In this series of posts, I provide an account of my new relationship with the American Geophysical Union (the largest community of earth & space scientists) as an anthropologist who is doing inter-disciplinary research in the Lumbee Tribe after Hurricane Matthew (2016). Thank you to Matthew Thompson for inviting me to write with Anthrodendum.

In recent years, anthropology has joined many other academic disciplines in accusing humans of destroying the earth. This destruction has been summed up in one word: “anthropocene”. The word “anthropocene” has a mysterious history. Wikipedia contributors have created a fairly accessible article that sheds light on the origins of the word. One of the most interesting origin stories is that “anthropocene” was sort of an accident that jumped off the lips of Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in the early 2000s. An article in Smithsonian magazine documents how “anthropocene” subsequently became fashionable in the planetary science community. Afterwards, British scholars in the journal for the Geological Society of America (GSA) asked readers to consider the term “anthropocene” – which is literally a mashup of  “human” & “new” –  as the official label for the planetary epoch within which we now live.

Here, I want to draw attention to something. There are two (2) assumptions within conversations about “anthropocene” that I cannot ignore:

  • There is an assumption that changes in the earth are the created by all humans who are equally present.
  • There is also an assumption that we all had/have equitable opportunities to affect, craft, & enact policies regarding human vulnerability.

Although anthropologists have been talking about the anthropocene, I’m not sure if we have been talking  within it.

To be within the anthropocene means that we fully realize that the naming of a planetary epoch is, like many other things, a colonial process. Sidney Mintz (an anthropologist) prefaced his book Sweetness & Power (1985) with a poignant quote from J.H. Bernardin de Saint Pierre:

“I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”

Mintz began Sweetness & Power this way because it had become quite apparent in his fieldwork that Europe (and subsequently America) took the lead in a global endeavor to exploit brown and black peoples for the sake of stripping the Earth of indigenous natural resources & cultivating crops through the enslavement of those brown and black peoples. Mintz’s text was formidable in that it called out the capitalistic processes that were owned by White entrepreneurs & that placed inequitable pressure on non-White people to accept changes in land & reinventions of their diets.

For example, Mintz pointed out that, in the early 1900s, sugar was being “pumped” into the crevasses of many poor communities. As a result, sugar became associated with “the good life” (pp. 188-190). In indigenous communities today, the “good life” has become epidemic rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease that are catalyzed by sugary (sugar-like) substances. Sugar replaced other (perhaps indigenous) sources of calories. Mintz asserts that sugar contained more calories per unit of land harvested than any other crop, a reality which led to the rise of corporations like Nestle that have turned the hyper-harvest of sugar into its current global domination of consumable goods. (Nestle is accused of hijacking water throughout the United States.)

This story of food-centered corporations hijacking land & water parallels stories of other corporations that aim to use particular sections of the American ecosystem to advance their profits against the cultural and biomedical needs of vulnerable and/or indigenous community members. Recent stories about Chemours (formerly Dupont) illustrate conditions within which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has turned a blind eye toward corporate poisoning of ecosystems in eastern North Carolina. In other news, the state of North Carolina recently approved the advancement of the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline through eastern North Carolina, which allows natural gas companies to systematically target many of the state’s Native American communities.This type of collusion between federal, state, and local powerbrokers – vis-a-vis Native America – is not new.

Consider the disappearance of particular animals in the United States within Native American territories. Before the 20th century, the U.S. federal government sponsored the annihilation of herds of buffalo – effectively annihilating the ecosystems of various tribal communities in Native America. These sorts of policies continued into the mid-20th century when the federal government had a hands-off approach to financial practices in and around Native American farming communities. In North Carolina, laws protecting the fair sale/trade of land were positioned to advantage White landowners. White land owners would employ Native American sharecroppers and they (the White land owners) would demand that Native American sharecroppers purchase and use an overabundance of pesticides on the lands that the sharecroppers farmed. By the 1960s, the pesticide of choice was DDT, which was pushed by federal agricultural programs as a global cure-all in an era where jungles in Vietnam & swamps in the U.S. South were being cleared for reasons that we still don’t fully understand. Native American ecosystems throughout the U.S. South lost important animals like rabbits, raccoons, & quail. Even after the large-scale denunciation of DDT as a pesticide of choice across the United States in the late 1960s, ecosystems in North Carolina’s Native American communities have never been restored.

So, yes, as we enter into the “anthropocene”, we might find that the term remains wanting. We must consider what it means that the “anthropocene” possesses assumptions that we are equally present and that we equitably participate in the business & governance of the planet when both assumptions are wrong. Indeed, we must acknowledge that in our collective conversation about a changing planet, our goal ought to be to set the stage for purposeful human conversations about how we see the planet differently.

To be continued…

3 Replies to “AGU: My concern with the anthropocene”

  1. I liked your text, and probably you will speak about it in the next text, but Capitalocene (Jason W Moore) is a good starting point of view to do analyzes of capitalist society pressure over the environment and ao shape the culture of local communities, witch affect conservation and so on…


    1. Dear Goncalo,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, the next post will delve into other possible alternatives for naming the epoch.
      I haven’t read Moore’s books. I saw something that Moore wrote (on a blog) where he posits the question (which goes something like): “Is capitalocene a more responsible/ethical (?) alternative to anthropocene?”
      It is definitely intriguing. However, at first glance, the notion of “capital” as the center of the last century of planetary devastation seems to privilege “capital” as the motivating factor. I tend to make an argument that capital (or corporate capital) is secondary to whatever we don’t understand about White power. It seems (and maybe I should discuss this in the next post) that European/American power (all the way back to the Roman Empire) merely cloaked itself in the mechanisms & rhetoric of taxes, corporate takeover, etc.

  2. An important point well-made. I am reminded of the following reference to the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell.

    “Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews.”