The Anthropocene: An invention symptomatic of our Anthropocentrism?
To make a connection with the third issue of Stream, which was published two years ago, could you tell us why you dispute the definition of the Anthropocene as a “geological epoch” and what that term represents for you?
CL: The term “Anthropocene” is somewhat of a paradox. Calling a geological epoch after humankind—anthropos means “man” in Ancient Greek—is more than simply pointing to the passage of one age to another; it represents an innovation in the way these geological periods are named. The name of epochs would refer to temporal or pedogeological indications—Holocene means “entirely recent,” the Jurassic refers to the Jura Mountains, and the Carboniferous to the presence of coal. The entry in the Anthropocene thus signifies two things: that there are observable changes that are major enough to justify talking about a new epoch, and that humans are responsible for them. Choosing to state that we have entered a human epoch carries the risk of humanity acting as if there were only humans now, as if it had absorbed nature, and that this was something we could be proud of. The term “Anthropocene” was heavily criticized and alternatives have been suggested—“Capitolecene” or “Technocene” for instance. But from the standpoint of the disappearance of nature, it amounts to the same: the “Technocene” suggests that the Earth is completely transformed by technology. In contrast, “Gaia” asserts that the Earth can continue to exist (and will continue to exist without humans). This is probably why, although the designation “Anthropocene” was proposed by scientists (Stoermer, a geologist, and Crutzen, a chemist), it was especially appreciated in the humanities. It is a way, not only of characterizing our times (that of the humans), but also to present it is a narrative, the new great narrative of the Anthropocene.
Many people have lamented the end of the great narratives (the nation, the people) of modernity in the post-modern period. So here we are again, and this one is global; it applies to the entire planet. But it is very ambiguous. The anthropocentric construct can be interpreted as being the narrative of the completion of the conquest of Earth by humankind, now truly its master and owner. This is the version of the “good Anthropocene,” an optimistic narrative of continued progress, thanks to the power of humans to manipulate the Earth on a global scale. This optimistic narrative is the backdrop of geo-engineering.Geo-engineering advocates modifying the composition of oceans or the atmosphere by injecting sulfur compounds such as iron sulfate in order to reducing the greenhouse effect or fostering the development of planktonic algae that are renowned carbon sinks.
In contrast, there is a catastrophist version, which also takes stock of human power but is alarmed by it: the Anthropocene is the epoch that proceeds from modernity (progress, the mastery of nature) at the very moment when it leads to its destruction. The power that humankind has imposed turns against its bearer. We are entering a period of collapse punctuated with sudden catastrophic disruptions. Rather than opting for one of these two extremes of fascination for human power, we need to examine the diversity of lifestyles, and not necessarily catastrophist ones, that could enable us to live in the Anthropocene, in these times that bear the scars of human action and in which hybrids of humans and nature proliferate.
RL: Regarding the dating of the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch, there are several theories. In the most common one, it begins during the Industrial Revolution, with the outset of the massive release of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere. In an alternative theory, it dates back to the emergence of agriculture, implying that the Holocene has never existed given that it starts roughly at the same period in time. Yet another theory ascribes its origin to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and the arrival of Europeans on the continent, followed by the spread of epidemics and the massacre of Native Americans. Ninety percent of the indigenous population died, which had a profound impact on the way Native Americans used fire to maintain the open grasslands of the North as grazing lands for buffaloes. In South and Central America, slash-and-burn agriculture was widely abandoned. The lack of maintenance caused these areas to revert back to the wilderness and forests started replacing them, strongly increasing the amount of carbon-capturing trees. Ice cores indeed reveal a substantial drop in the carbon levels in the atmosphere in that period, which also corresponds to the onset of a minor ice age given that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Even at this stage, human action therefore had a noticeable impact on the climate. This is a very controversial hypothesis given that many commentators define the Anthropocene as an epoch that is marked by a non-reversible modification of the Earth system. However, in this particular case, though human presence is noticeable, the phenomenon was completely reversible as far as the climate was concerned. Settlers restored the composition of the atmosphere and the climate simply by clearing the forests. Biodiversity was impacted on a much more lasting basis: there was a widespread transfer of natural species between the Old World and the New World, causing an intermixing of plants, animals, and pathogens, recreating PangeaThe single supercontinent that broke up during the Triassic period, two hundred and fifty million years ago. in a sense.
Is this narrative the symptom of a new identity crisis due to the repositioning of humankind within nature and our paradoxical situation both as a victim and a tormentor?
CL: Therein lies the great ambiguity of the Anthropocene. It is common to assert that the development of science has deflated the naïve self-love of humans, notably through three major narcissistic injuries inflicted by three great historical blows on human self-importance: with the discoveries of Copernicus and Newton, our Earth is no longer at the center of the universe and the solar system is but one system among many others; with Darwin, man is no longer created in the image of God but rather has co-evolved along the rest of the living world; with Freud, man is no longer a master of itself, like a sailor in a ship, as Descartes puts it, because he has no grasp on his unconscious mind.
RL: According to Dominique Lestel, there may even be a fourth narcissistic injury, placing the Anthropocene in fifth position. This injury is linked to a female chimpanzee being taught sign language, thus expunging language from the characteristics that are deemed unique to humans.
CL: The latest injury would thus have to do with the growing awareness of our negative impact on our own milieu, and, thus also of our own endangerment. The strong equivocity of the Anthropocene lies in the fact that, unlike the first narcissistic injuries, which were caused by discoveries that demoted humans from being at the center of things, this one puts humankind back at center stage. The Anthropocene sounds more like science-fiction than science to the extent that the scientific grounding is meager; as a narrative, it is akin to science-fiction given that it invites us to project ourselves into a given future, while making our present a past that we can now judge.
RL: One of the characteristics of catastrophism, in its optimistic version, is stating that we must keep the future well in mind, however dreadful, in order to invent ways of living and surviving after disaster strikes.
Reconsidering the status of other living beings
Technological progress brings about a stronger sense of control, or even of power, vis-à-vis the climate as well as the living world. You qualify this impression however by referring to an “exploration of possibilities” and of “piloting” natural processes.
RL: The idea of piloting is based on thorough consideration of the major technological paradigms. On the one hand, we have fabrication, the creation of something unprecedented that cannot be found in nature, all that falls under “making/fabricating.” In a certain sense, fabrication implies controlling the behavior of the objects we have fabricated. Such is the work of craftsmen, engineers, and architects. As Marx put it, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees” is the capacity to design and prefigure a construction in their mind before creating it. But, who knows, we will maybe find out that bees think up their hives before making them. On the other hand, we have all the techniques that initiate, use, and direct natural processes to reach an intended outcome. This is “dealing with” or “piloting,” a much more humble approach that requires taking the utmost account of the natural and social context in which we find ourselves in order to prevent failure.
Though people often talk in terms of the artificialization of nature when discussing biotechnologies such as transgenesis,See the interview with François Kepès. CrispR-Cas9, “DNA scissors” that can snip out genes for precision genetic tinkering. the gene drive,Genetic systems that makes it possible to transmit genes to all the members of a given population, thus evading its random transmission (50 percent) during reproduction. and the cloning of mammals, they in fact consist in implementing experimental devices that reveal perfectly natural possibilities that simply haven’t had the opportunity of arising over the course of biological evolution. What makes biotechnologies problematic isn’t that they “produce” artificial living forms but that the researchers that materialize them believe and make believe that what they have brought into existence has a predictable behavior and is therefore perfectly controllable. In reality, they are tinkerers who put cells and enzymes to work and select a few of the possible outputs that they have thereby revealed among those that might have an economic or military value. They should have the humbleness of pilots or stockbreeders rather than the arrogance of engineers and manufacturers.
And yet we are faced with an increasingly restrictive willingness to engineer the living, which at times proves very harmful for nature. In the past, there were plans for cloning high-performing breeders in order to “improve” a species. The gene drive method can be used to create targeted mutations that will be carried by the progeny. For instance, there have been plans to make female mosquitos sterile, which could eventually lead to full-scale tests to eradicate species that are considered as pests.
There is this idea by Auguste Comte that has always worried me a lot, that of a world consisting only of species deemed useful to humans, all the others having died out. This would be terrible, especially given that humans are using fewer and fewer species. Fortunately, John Stuart Mill responded that thanks to the progress of science, we would find an extraordinary value in the most common of grasses. But we continue considering Progress like an ever-stronger mastery over things, leading animals to become nothing more than instruments on which we can intervene to get rid of anything deemed deleterious or useless.
Yet we are witnessing a reconsideration of the animal condition and an expansion of the antispecism movement and vegetarianism.
RL: In a country like France, livestock farming started modernizing in the mid-twentieth century, with a view to giving low-income households an access to meat products. The living conditions of animals were taken into account from the 1970s onwards, especially when we became more aware of the constraints imposed on animals in intensive pig farming, poultry breeding batteries, and veal calves on factory farms. An initial response was to stop considering animals like “meat on legs” or “udder stands,” but rather as sentient beings to be taken under consideration and respected. This marked the onset of the animal welfare movement, with the creation of farm animal welfare organizations advocating the recognition of animals as sentient beings. As Rousseau had argued before, the reason why we must not harm our fellow human beings is because they are sentient beings, not because they are endowed with reason.
CL: Subsequently, another movement has mushroomed in the past fifteen years or so. It advocates
the idea that animals not only have a right to well-being but also a right to life, which is the only thing they have. This is a movement with ancient roots, stemming from anarchism—and its hatred of violence and exploitation—nut also from feminism, given the similarity in the way women and animals are treated. It takes on the form of vegetarianism and veganism, inviting us to avoid all forms of animal exploitation, including the production of eggs and milk. What was initially criticism of the way animals are treated becomes criticism of the exploitation of animals per se. I would add to that the important revelatory work conducted by advocacy groups since the end of the Second World War. Their power, beyond the criticism of the industrialization of animal husbandry, consists in revealing what is concealed.
RL: What is being concealed is not only the conditions in which the animals are raised and killed but also the fact the meat that we see on display comes from animals that were alive. Meat is now retailed in packaged cuts and consumers do not see whole carcasses as they would at the butcher’s. We now eat flesh while concealing the animals it comes from.
CL: According to Détienne and Vernant’s reading of the Greek myths, animal sacrifice and meat-eating is driven by the firm desire to set us apart from animals. The philosopher Florence BurgatFlorence Burgat, L’Humanité carnivore (Paris: Seuil, 2017). recently called into question the assumption that a salient feature of this differentiation is that humans only eat non-human animals and not individuals of our own species. Building on studies on pre-Columbian civilizations, she uncovered the fact that there was a massive consumption of human beings that were kept for that purpose. She believes that a whole part of human societies therefore ate farmed humans. As the sacralization of killing rituals was viewed as a means of stressing the gravity of the action, she posits that the sacrifices were a way of increasing the pleasure of eating meat.
Towards a global ethic of Nature
These “anti” movements also oppose the widespread tendency to view animals as either machines whose yield can be improved or software that can be deliberately programmed.
RL: When applied to animals, the expression “programmable” hinges on two things. First, there was a drive to modify the genome of animals, just as with plants, under the assumption that they were akin to software that simply needed to be decoded to be able to understand, and eventually modify, the way living systems operate. We now know that this approach isn’t sufficient given that it only takes nature into account and not nurture. If there is indeed a program, then it develops incrementally based on the interactions between the genome and its environment.
Later, animals found themselves on the front line of what has been called the naturalization of the mind. In order to explain human consciousness as a natural phenomenon—and not merely as something cultural—computationalist cognitivists have researched how the brain deals with the information coming from the senses (in the same way as a computer). More than a form of naturalization, it comes down to a mechanization of the mind. Animals found themselves caught up in this scientific work. This form of mechanization of the animal mind didn’t only result in negative impacts given that it revealed the substantial cognitive abilities of animals. This strengthened the conviction (already held by ethologists) that animals are thinking beings with mental worlds well beyond sentience; mice learn from their mistakes, dolphins can teach each other tricks, and so on. This discovery remains in contradiction with the way animals are still treated however.
All this leads us to issues relating to ethics and responsibility. Broadly speaking, how do you define nature as a common good and how can we take care of it given the diversity of environmental ethics and cultural approaches?
CL: As soon as we stop considering nature as being completely outside humans, we stop viewing it as a substance and have a more relational approach to it. The ethics of care are based on the idea that we can take care of something that isn’t us, but not a radical exteriority either. There is no single nature, nature is plural. At the UN, the representatives of various cultures for which nature—as we understand it at least—doesn’t exist use new vocabulary to protect their own conception of nature. They learned how to present their cosmovisions in words Westerners could understand—Pachamama is one of these terms. In the same way, the Maori have won recognition for Whanganui River as having legal rights. This affirmation of their culture allows them to directly react to assaults on elements of the landscape by utilizing the resources of Western law. Animals, qua sentient beings, are starting to have rights. Plants, for the time being, fall within the scope of law simply as objects, when plant species are endangered. Technically speaking, we can give rights to just about anything: a hospital, a mountain, a fly, but some cultural respondents are needed.
RL: U.S. National Parks are viewed as natural parks. Yet, for Native Americans, our nature is in fact their culture. They should therefore also be conceived of as cultural parks.
CL: This diversity of relationships to nature poses the challenge of finding ways of translating one ethic into another. At the global scale, it is very difficult not to give in to cultural imperialism by imposing the Western concept of nature. It is therefore necessary to find forms of translation to talk about things that don’t exist for everybody. In a sense, certain populations manage to quite easily translate their own claims made about what we regard as nature in a Western mindset because they themselves have started to be caught up in Cartesian thought and their culture is, so to speak, a hybrid culture.
RL: This is also true of us to a certain extent. I talk to my cats because I am actually somewhat animistic.