An unfortunate misunderstanding is that humans living in the Anthropocene inevitably are or should be ethically anthropocentric (centering ethical agency and value primarily or exclusively on humans). No doubt the use of the Greek word for “human” (anthropos) in both of those words is partly responsible for the confusion. The Anthropocene is a geological epoch in which anthropogenic effects have reached planetary proportions, shaping not only local ecosystems but whole planetary systems, acidifying the oceans, melting the polar ice caps, warming the global climate, facilitating a mass extinction of species…. If the Anthropocene is a period of time in which Earth systems are covered with anthropogenic effects, does that mean the Anthropocene is anthropocentric?
A lot of this has to do with the international failure to address the climate crisis. Phrases like “anthropogenic climate change” and “global warming” do not adequately communicate the profound uncanniness and uncertainty of inhabiting a planet that is warming up due to human activity, but phrases like “global weirding” and “climate chaos” do not exactly convey how strange this situation is either. What’s really strange is not simply that the global climate—the statistical average of interconnected processes of weather conditions around the planet—is undergoing unpredictable transformations due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. It is not simply that the warming trend in Earth’s climate is producing a diverse array of unpredictable effects involving extreme weather events, migrations and extinctions of flora and fauna, and social and political unrest. What’s really strange about climate change is that it is so massively distributed that it overflows conventional definitions of climate. Climate change is not what it seems to be.
Climate is not just a statistical average of interlocking dynamics of temperature, wind, air pressure, humidity, and precipitation. A changing climate is more than a change in a long-term average pattern of atmospheric conditions. As the climate scientist Mike Hulme puts it, climate change as a planetary system of dynamic, interconnected weather patterns is a part of a more complex whole, and not only in the sense that the global climate is connected to all the systems of water, land, air, and life on Earth. More than saying that climate change is much bigger and more complex than one might think, Hulme’s point is that climate exceeds the limits of definitions articulated in the natural sciences, and that a wider field of inquiry is needed, which includes cultural meanings and understandings of climate along with theories and observations from natural sciences [Weathered: Cultures of Climate (SAGE Publications, 2017), xiii.]
In the same way that an atmosphere can refer, on one hand, to a mood, and on the other hand, to a system of gases surrounding a planet, a climate has physical and sociocultural dimensions. As part of a whole, Hulme describes climate change as a synecdoche that stands for 1) a modern social system, 2) an economic ideology, 3) a loss of nature, and 4) a new geological epoch. [“(Still) Disagreeing About Climate Change: Which Way Forward?” Zygon 50.4 (2015), 897-99]
For Hulme, that social system is best described by Ulrich Beck’s analysis of the “risk society” of modernity, which is based on the management of hazards and uncertainties that society produces through its never-ending pursuit of progress and wealth [Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (SAGE Publications, 1992)]. Hulme follows Naomi Klein in identifying capitalism as the economic ideology of climate change [This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014)]. It is an ideology for which the accumulation of wealth for the few happens at the expense of the many, thus producing social and ecological disasters, which then become justification for the further deployment of capitalist tactics, producing yet further disasters in an accelerating loop of what Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” [The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, 2007)]
Liberalism and conservatism are both complicit in disaster capitalism. The liberal face of this ideology is the identity politics that incorporates people of diverse identities (races, ages, abilities, genders, etc.) to participate in the system, as if bringing more people closer to the wealthy top will eventuate in justice for the myriad beings at the disastrously impoverished bottom. Klein observed the duplicitously shocking and friendly face of disaster capitalism in the 2016 United States presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “On the campaign trail, Clinton mocked her opponent’s ‘Trumped-up trickle-down economics,’ but her own philosophy is what we might call ‘trickle-down identity politics’: tweak the system just enough to change the genders, colors, and sexual orientation of some of the people at the top, and wait for the justice to trickle down to everyone else.” [No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Haymarket Books, 2017), 92]
Along with the risk society and capitalist ideology, Hulme’s definition of climate change also includes the end of nature, which has been a topic of increasingly frequent discussion among environmental thinkers, with notable contributions like Carolyn Merchant’s classic ecofeminist text, The Death of Nature, and Bill McKibben’s book on climate change, The End of Nature, which were first published in 1980 and 1989 respectively. Many recent explorations of this topic refer to Timothy Morton’s theory of ecological criticism in his 2007 book Ecology without Nature. Climate change is part of the loss of the relatively regular, stable, ordered ground of nature, which is also a loss of ideas and fantasies of Nature as a big Other, whether friend or foe, sacred or profane. The regular patterns and ordered systems of nature have gradually become displaced as humans have extended their environmental impacts all around the planet, becoming an Earth-shaping force. The loss of nature is thus entwined with a new geological epoch.
As modern humans began adding high amounts of carbon, plutonium, plastic, Styrofoam, and a wide assortment of artificial chemicals to Earth’s crust, the geological epoch of the last 12,000 years (the Holocene) gave way to a new one that bares the indelible stamp of Homo sapiens, the Anthropocene, which is a controversial name, to be sure, particularly insofar as humans did not all participate equally in facilitating this geological transformation. The problem of nomenclature notwithstanding, the loss of nature marks the end of a natural Earth and the beginning of an Earth where the natural and the artificial have imploded. It is an Earth become artifact, “Eaarth,” as McKibben puts it. In sum, along with a change in average atmospheric conditions, climate change also stands for the end of nature, a change in geological epochs, and a society that, for the sake of progress and wealth accumulation, is willing to risk unprecedented scales of destructive change.
It is difficult, to say the least, to articulate and respond to the challenges of discerning what should be done in a situation like this. Just as climate change overflows conventional definitions of climate, so too does it exceed the limits of the predominant approaches to ethics, which tend to follow along the lines of anthropocentrism, maintaining a rigid wall between humans and nonhumans while trumping up the virtue and value of the former.
The idea of the Anthropocene prompts Clive Hamilton to propose a “new anthropocentrism,” new insofar as it accords with “the arrival of a geological epoch in which humans now rival the great forces of nature” [Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Polity Press, 2017), 41]. Hamilton is ostensibly aware of critiques of anthropocentrism, but for him, “the Anthropocene arrives to blow them all away and instantiate humankind once and for all as the being at the center of the Earth. As each year passes, the chasm between human beings and every other creature only widens” (ibid.). He says he is making a descriptive and not normative claim, as if humans simply are necessarily anthropocentric now, whether we like it or not, whether we think we should be or not. Normatively, he sort of indicates that he would rather not have anthropocentrism, like saying that I would rather not have people get sick and die. If only we could be non-anthropocentric, embracing the intrinsic values of life forms and ecosystems instead of forcing all value to revolve around humans, but alas, our hands are tied. We must be anthropocentric. The Anthropocene made us do it. The Anthropocene is forcing us humans (which ones exactly?) to be anthropocentric, instantiating us at Earth’s center, opening up an unbridgeable gulf between us and nonhumans.
That is simply incorrect. Tim Morton has it right when he says, “Anthropocene is the first fully antianthropocentric concept” (Dark Ecology, 24). Far from demonstrating a widening chasm between humans and nonhumans, climate change inextricably enmeshes human, geological, and biological actors. The arrival of the Anthropocene adds profound perforation, fuzziness, and ambiguity to the boundaries that distinguish humans from nonhumans. Impacting the chemistry of the atmosphere does not grant humans exceptional value and agency, and large-scale risk-taking should not be confused with a state of being in control or in charge. Nonhumans such as fossil fuels, carbon dioxide molecules, and the biosphere have a more central role in human decision-making than ever before. While some humans might set themselves up as a “rival” to great natural forces—capitalism vs. the climate—it is a hasty generalization to attribute this rivalry to all humans, and it is quite simply hubristic to think that the rivalry is little more than a fantasy. All humans eventually succumb to entropy and die. It is hard to maintain the idea that humankind has been instantiated at the center of the Earth, considering that human life depends heavily upon an atmosphere that would be stripped away by solar winds if not for the protection of a magnetic field, which is generated by the currents of the molten core at the actual center of the Earth.
Ecological emergencies have rendered anthropocentrism more untenable than ever by confronting humankind with its fragile yet inescapable interconnectedness with nonhumans. That interconnectedness is what Morton calls “the ecological thought,” which “creeps over us to deliver a message of unbearable intimacy” (The Ecological Thought, p. 50). This “unbearable intimacy with others” brings the anthropocentric human back down to the humus of Earth in a “‘humiliating’ descent”:
Ecology is the latest in a series of great humiliations of the human, humiliations that might even constitute the human as such (in its humility, at least, if any). From Copernicus through Marx, Darwin and Freud, we learn we are decentered beings, inhabiting a Universe of processes that happen whether we are aware of them or not, whether we name those processes ‘astrophysics,’ ‘economic relations,’ ‘the unconscious’ or ‘evolution.’
[“Thinking Ecology,” Collapse 6 (2010), 265.]
The humiliation of the human has accompanied the rise of ecological emergencies that have put an end to the idea of a stable background called “Nature.” The ecological thought is “ecology without Nature.” Moreover, this thought is not based on a metaphysical theory but on the sheer coexistence of things. Ecological emergency confronts humans with “the non-metaphysical intimacy of nonhuman beings” as the basic conditions for existence, such that ecological emergency “just is the existence and coexistence of things.” [“They are Here,” in The Nonhuman Turn, 184.]
The world as the stage upon which humans act out a central role has ended, with the stage shattering into countless multiplicities of actors clamoring for attention. It is only in and as solidarity with nonhumans that human beings can find themselves. It is only through the inhuman that humankind can grow forth. We can hear this idea expressed in an early (1872) piece by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose prescience surely foreshadowed the Anthropocene.
If we speak of humanity, it is on the basic assumption that it should be that which separates man from nature and is his mark of distinction. But in reality there is no separation: ‘natural’ characteristics and those called specifically ‘human’ have grown together inextricably. Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny character in himself. Those capacities of his which are terrible and are viewed as inhuman are perhaps, indeed, the fertile soil from which alone all humanity, in feelings, deeds and works, can grow forth.
[“Homer’s Contest,” in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. K. A. Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006), 95]