Coming of Age in the Anthropocene
Margaret Mead, perhaps the most publicly famous and impactful anthropologist (at least in North America) argued, in her groundbreaking study Coming of Age in Samoa (1975), that the notion of ‘the teenager’ that was becoming popular in the West at the time was entirely a cultural category and had no real basis in biology. The teenage rebelliousness and confusion that were touted as the inherent traits of adolescence were not only unknown in Samoa, but this same life-period among youth on the island of Ta’u was marked by a general ease. We live now in a radically different world, which seems to have intensified the Western pattern of teenage anxiety – a world away from the smoothness of Mead’s Somoa. However, the basic anthropological fact of cultural contingency remains, and is pressed upon us ever more vehemently by our circumstances. Geologists have been discussing for some time now the notion of the Anthropocene – an entirely new period in Earth’s history, defined to a great extent by the actions of a single species. Humanity has transformed not only the prospects and direction of biological life on the planet, but the geological realities, the very rocks, themselves. We have created an entirely new layer on the crust of our planet, made up of our thousands of years of building materials and garbage that geologist and archaeologists have started calling the archaeosphere (Edgeworth 2015). So, what can we learn from the likes of those who study its protagonist, the anthropos, the human, as we ‘come of age in the Anthropocene’?
Bill McKibben famously announced the ‘end of nature’ in 1989 in what is widely seen as the first book on the subject of climate change for a public audience, citing the fact that now even the very atmosphere had been utterly penetrated by the actions of our species (…aside from our breathing…and million years of fire-use…and so on). This of course relies on an ontological position that anthropologists have been attempting to unravel at least since he published this book: the nature/culture divide. To assume that ‘nature’ is, in essence, the absence of the ‘human’ is to reproduce a false binary that has long been with us in the West. In 2003 palaeo-climatologist William Ruddiman hypothesized that the Little Ice Age may very well have been the Early Anthropocene, caused by the depopulation of the Black Plague in East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and followed by the massive epidemic deaths of the Americas post-contact. With such a dramatic loss of human life in agricultural societies, farm land would have been subject to a process of ‘re-wilding’, as farming communities struggled to maintain themselves, and in certain cases, failed to in post-apocalyptic fashion. Lower food production and the re-emergence of wild-ecosystems engendered carbon-sinks so big that they changed the climate for hundreds of years. Now of course we seem to be on a much more extreme trajectory in the opposite direction – but the human-nature dynamic is the same.
Interestingly the ascendance of the concept of the Anthropocene has accompanied, and has been partly produced by, concurrent intellectual trends towards decentering humanity as the locus of analysis in social studies and the humanities, even, perhaps a tad contradictorily, in anthropology itself. Whether this is in the ‘Post-human Turn’ expressed in anthropology through multi-species ethnography, Eduardo Kohn’s “anthropology beyond the human” (2013), Anna Tsing’s (2015) Anthropocene project looking to the ‘more-than-human world’, or Science and Technology Studies that focus on “lively matter” or structures of distributed animation and agency – in all these cases, the decentering of humanity as prime mover is the same. On the more extreme end of the same spectrum, we find an increasing trend towards techno-utopian and transhuman futurism, with its obsession with AI, or the truly Post-Human. It could be argued that the latter is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of Humanism, where the ‘true essence’ of humanity is freed from its bodily constraints (Lowrie and Bialecki 2017).
Either way, the turn towards the ‘we have never been’, whether that be Modern; for Latour (2000) or Human’ for Haraway (2008) highlights the extent to which Modernity and Humanity are ideal-typical categories: , and as any good anthropologist well knows, ‘the reality of culture’ very rarely corresponds to people’s representations of themselves. But although any separation from nature has been a fantasy, or perhaps a ‘false consciousness’, with the process of modernization it has become progressively more enacted one the ground, becoming ever moreso the world itself. As we have urbanized and digitized our lives, the easier it has become to maintain the binary worldview of detachment and separation that we see it reflected in the glass walls of our everyday lives. We’ve reached a point where public figures like Elon Musk are seriously and soberly espousing the hundreds of years discredited notion that we live in a simulation. However, we will not spend time reiterating or condemning Descartes here.
Nor do wish to rehash arguments about the ‘naturalness’ or ‘culturedness’ of what is happening. Rather, it is a very different binary that I wish to address – not to break down, but to reinforce, the one that is implicit in the title of this essay: the idea that that it is not Humanity per se that has created the Anthropocene, but a specific type or subset, of human beings. The contested date of inception for the Anthropocene is crucial to the question at hand. Although it might denote merely the detectability of a specific kind of change in the geologic strata (refuse from the Nuclear Age perhaps), or alternatively scale of change (evident, for example, in the Industrial Revolution), it could well point to something much more qualitative. Intellectuals like Donna Haraway have been pointing in this direction, insisting that it is not humanity itself, but a type of social system that has created our new era. With this in mind she suggests more specific terms such as the ‘Capitolocene’, or in her characteristically eccentric manner, the ‘Cthulucene’ (2015). This fundamentally then becomes a question of human nature, something that anthropologists have been shying away from since the inception of cultural relativism in Mead’s time. The Anthropocene should make us encounter full-on the Enlightenment’s universalist conception of Humanity to which the discipline of anthropology was both a child and a response. From its inception, anthropology was organized around the ontological unit of the ‘Human’, and although this is unraveling for good reason, we are in danger, I think, of losing our way.
It is clear that not all human beings have participated, or are participating in, the patterns of living that have begun to transform the global climate. Prior to contact, the Inuit were not an ‘emitter nation’, though they are indeed those on the front lines of that change. So what is this qualitative difference that puts some humans, or cultures rather, on a head-on collision with the systems of life that underlie them, and some do not? One of the starting dates of the Anthropocene that is on the table I think is quite revealing, espoused by those like scientist Cesare Emiliani (1993) who argued for adding 10,000 years to our present calendar to mark the Human Age, the beginning of our species era at its proper marker: the Neolithic Revolution. This marked a qualitative shifted in the relationship of human beings to their environment, which resulted, over time, in a radically quantitative change. This shift, from trust to domination as anthropologist Tim Ingold termed it (2000), from relying on the ‘giving environment’ (Bird-David 1990) to forcing the environment to give, started a revolution that continues in the Amazon today, as rainforest falls to the onslaught of soybeans and cattle. However much we might indeed want to make our analysis about these plants and animals, the multispecies assemblages and so forth, this is, after all, and we must reckon frankly with it, a system of actions for which only human beings can take responsibility.
Famously American scientist Jared Diamond cited agriculture, as his title describes, as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (1999). In line with the abovementioned binary breakdown, this reified definition of domestication, in opposition to ‘wild’, has come under continued scrutiny (Leach 2003) and is going through a revision that sees it, as with many of the conceptual revolutions in the ‘relational’ turn, as a messy spectrum rather than a dichotomy. In the face of this nuance, and with the risk of being too brash, this strain of thought would quite simply define our present period not as the Anthropocene, but as the Civilicoene. Or perhaps rather than invent a new demarcation, merely upgrade one that we already have to the level of Geologic Era: the Neolithic. The New Stone Age from this perspective would take on a new meaning, not only denoting our use of stone tools, but the very process of our species producing new stone.
This is a bold and controversial claim for an anthropologist to make, one that would easily have me charged with romantic fantasies of Primitivism, or of abandoning my academic commitments to ‘go native’. It also necessitates some caveats so as to navigate some traditionally touchy subjects for the discipline, the first of which is the narrative of teleological human progression. Anthropologists, Haraway and Latour among them, have long ago abandoned, and have spent much time arguing against, the progressivist ideology of their predecessors, which saw the evolution of the human from a primitive state, through kingdoms, feudalism, and to contemporary post-industrial capitalism, or in the original Marxist argument (partly based on anthropological work among the Iroquois) to a global stateless socialism. In either case this vision of destiny inherent to the nature of humanity is clearly not the case, for concurrent with this revolution were myriad societies throughout the globe that did not, and at times, actively chose not, to engage in this project of Civilization. And the history of those peoples who readily abandoned it, from the collapse of great Empires like Rome (where barbarians were welcomed) or the Inca, to the mysterious disappearance of the Nazca. The Inuit, or the !Kung, or any non-agricultural people were not left behind, were not pre-agricultural, or pre-civilized, but operating, as richly and with the same full expression of humanity, entirely separately from the entire game. The Neolithic was and is clearly not all-encompassing and these myriad other trajectories, as anthropologist Wade Davis has put it, are merely differing answers to the question: “what does it mean to be human and alive?” (2009). And these of course are only a small portion of those answers at which we have arrived since the inception of our species onto the dust of this planet (inclusive of its radioactive incarnation), though we might consider that those that have survived may be well-honed and fine-tuned as a result.
However do not mistake this essay for a sort of post-lapsarian requiem, an utter condemnation of agricultural civilization in the Primitivist fashion. It is possible to think, with David Graeber for instance, that our technological developments hold out the possibility of more potential social and ecological relations, rather than fewer (2016). I will leave here no ruling on the question of whether civilization itself is inherently impossible and unsustainable. We will leave that question for another day, and perhaps, another person. However, the truly pertinent, and starkly obvious, question that this discussion necessitates is what is it about US that is creating the Anthropocene, and what is it about THEM that isn’t? The problem of Othering and the quicksand of appropriation aside, this is of course a question that we inherent from those throughout the ages who have asked essentially the same thing in a differing, and in periods to them, no less an apocalyptic time. The indispensable methodology of anthropology has always been comparative, and as those who have traditionally studied with non-Neolithic peoples anthropologists may be best situated to provide not only an analysis of our current problem, but those best suited to formulate some kind of productive and informed response. Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber is quite conscious about this, writing that we must “look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities – as gifts” (2004:12).
And indeed there are already stirrings of this as anthropologists have been among those trying to grapple with growing up in “Generation Anthropocene”, being among the first to endeavor to build a new vocabulary, what they call a “lexicon for an Anthropocene yet unseen”, in the attempt to get some sort of linguistic and conceptual handle on our present experiences, and those yet to come. And indeed, this is perhaps not new subject matter to the discipline after all, seeing as the anthropological and archeological records are littered with societies that have faced analogous situations to ours. Whether that be Neanderthals failing to adapt to climate change, or the variety of societies, the most well-known being the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island and of monumental statue fame, that have collapsed because of their own ecological trashing. It is clear that the lessons of our ancestors are available to us. And not only their failures, but their successes, past and present, too
However, this is nowhere near enough, nor really reckoning with the radix, the root. And if any discipline is well positioned, is replete with both a conceptual toolbox and a library of data, it is anthropology. Yet, as Graeber astutely points out in “many ways, anthropology seems a discipline terrified of its own potential. It is, for example, the only discipline in a position to make generalizations about humanity as a whole—since it is the only discipline that actually takes all of humanity into account, and is familiar with all the anomalous cases. (“All societies practice marriage, you say? Well that depends on how you define ‘marriage.’ Among the Nayar…”) Yet it resolutely refuses to do so.” (Graeber 2004:96) This, in the end, is a plea for my native discipline to step up to the plate (that literally may have its name stamped upon it). Not only do the universities as was recently argued, but all of us, and not least so anthropologists themselves, need anthropology more than ever. We need a truly activist anthropology, one that actually marshals the intellectual heritage, the cultural insight, the powerful lens and theory to grapple with the largest struggle this species has ever faced: itself.
And for all of our adeptness there it is quite clear that there is still so much we don’t even know about ourselves, whether that be how Polynesia was settled, or how humans first arrived in the Americas. But our struggle for self-understanding is also nothing new, yet if we were to cease to exist because of a lack of that self-knowledge, it would not only be an occupational hazard for me as an anthropologist, but a terrible loss for the planet. With Neanderthal blood still flowing through our veins, I hope that this, echoing Mead, adolescent chapter in the “story of us” has a better ending than theirs. So that we may come of age in this strangely familiar, and familiarly strange, time with as much ease as we can muster, so, in the words of Professor of Native American Studies and Religion Jace Weaver, “that the people might live” (1998). And this time, it means all of them.
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