Anthropocene Time

Humanity is both a collective noun and a moral aspiration. Tenuously subsisting between these meanings lies our shared fate in the Anthropocene, the era named for the indelible traces humanity has now inscribed into the archaic record of geological time. Humans, along with the many species and ecosystems on which their futures also depend, are rapidly running out of time.

We humans have always understood ourselves as creatures in time—carriers of meaning from the past, and imaginers of futures pieced together, as a palimpsest, from memories, legacies and echoes. Wrapping us around like a trailing shroud, time tangles about our feet. We humans only ever stumble forwards. Time is our constant companion. Its beat demarcates our shared mortality. It is time that venerates received wisdom. It is time that lacerates us with inherited suffering. Time feeds our future fears as it kindles our cherished dreams. 

Time flies, it is said, always slipping from our grasp, disdaining mortal ambitions to save time, make time, hold back time. We know ourselves by that momentary reawakening to our perennial failure. Peoples have imagined time as circular or as finite, hedged by creation and apocalypse. They have considered it straight, stretching back to shadowed beginnings and surging on beyond us towards eternity, or bent and bowed by gravitation. However it has been imagined, we humans have sought to comprehend time as temporality—the experience of being in time. Temporality is the phenomenal trace of beings thrown into time’s vortex bereft of will, vulnerable to its flowing elapse and relapse. 

And yet, the trace is never singular and our experience of it is eternally varied. Human beings are bearers of intermingled temporalities. We were subjects of evolution for approximately six million years, and became the creators of vibrant life-worlds across the deep time of tens of thousands of years. We were wayfarers between diverse locations for numberless generations, curators of knowledge in symbol, image and spoken word across tens of thousands of years. Only recently, within the last 10,000 years, have we known ourselves as agents of written histories. The multiple spans reach across and over, under and around the moment we imagine ourselves to be in, arching up from distant foundations, gripping us by a gravitational force to a present of immanently awoken perceptions of redundant inheritances and foreclosed aspirations.

Marx and Engels famously observed that ‘history weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. Our inheritance, they meant to say, is not merely a matter of bequeathed birthrights but of obligations we shudder to face and are often foul to discharge. Yet the time of which they wrote seems as archaic now to us as the times in which they lived. Time for them was progress, pregnant with possibilities and with perils, but forever impelled. Today, as never before, humanity and the entire world we inhabit confronts a changed temporality. We are rapidly running out of time. The Anthropocene, the era now only in its first decades, is an age of perpetually superseded anticipations. 

One of the starkest measures of the Anthropocene is ‘biological annihilation’ driven by another kind of impulsion: forced migration.1 According to one recent measure, roughly a half of all animal, plant and microbe species (of the 4000 sampled) are in process of changing their home ranges, at an average speed of up to 10 miles per decade.2 It is not hard to understand why. As global climatic patterns collapse and shift unpredictably, human demands on land and water resources climb exponentially. Temperatures rising both on land and at sea mean that the capacity of ecosystems to support the existing variety of species adapted to specific conditions reduces. It is estimated that almost half of a sample size of 27,000 terrestrial vertebrate species have lost 80 per cent of their native ranges in the last century, and up to 50 per cent of all individual animals have lost their lives to human activity since 1970. The double effect of the Anthropocene is to render all life impossible for those species and individuals unable or unwilling to move. Over the last 10,000 years, as humans established sedentary ‘civilisations’, approximately 83 per cent of terrestrial mammals, 8 per cent of marine mammals, 50 per cent of plants and 15 per cent of fish have been exterminated as a result of human activity. While hunting and predation account for some of that decline, the rest has been caused by human manipulation of ecosystems to favour the disproportionate increase of a limited number of plant and animal species for human consumption.3 The planet has been remade in our image, manifesting the uncertain consequences of a new biological ultimatum: move or die. This is an existential demand mirrored not only in the accelerating elimination and forced displacement of non-human species but by the exponential rendering of ever larger numbers of Homo sapiens fugitives in search of home and safety.4 This has been the gift of our era, an age marked by war between humans and against the natural world, an age of coordinated ecocide and genocide. More than 70 million humans have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and estimations are that the effects of climate change will displace as many as 143 million or more by 2050.

This is a new era of overlapping exterminations and tidal migrations driven by entitlements that are enmeshed in the fabric of our temporality. This temporality is the inheritance of centuries of European history that encompassed the globe and all of its creatures in the dispensation of Enlightenment: to make a world reduced by labour, civilised by reason, fully amenable to the reach of human power. That dispensation has formed societies framed by human wants perceived as needs, and they are now manifesting another kind of temporality. This is the temporality of the Anthropocene. It does not deliver the progress of Enlightenment but presents us with a series of probabilities that we discover only as artefacts of exhausted expectations. In the Anthropocene, we are perpetually reawakened from Marx and Engels’ nightmare as sleepwalkers roused by an encompassing catastrophe that is dimly, dreamily glimpsed.

Time in the Anthropocene is weird. It seems warped, buckled and bent out of shape. The future we forebodingly forecast only yesterday is overborne by even worse predictions today. It is as if the passage of time has been creased and folded back upon itself, tugging the present through and beyond the future, making futures past; it bends our anticipations back into the immediate present and reveals them as decades-long-dead possibilities. In the Anthropocene, projections of the future have no purchase in the present. We are presented with scenarios that range from the disastrous to the catastrophic, and in each case the urgent contingencies they demand are a direct result of the choices, dreams, expectations—the daily carelessness—of dead or dying generations, laying an inescapable burden of necessity upon our children and grandchildren. It is thus no irony that younger people today are calling the loudest for us to bear our responsibilities for tomorrow. The burden of humanity in the Anthropocene is that we find ourselves fugitives once more, not just bereft of place and home but out of time. Our inhabitation of this moment is a lease long lapsed by the profligacy of generations past. We saw the evidence, but we imagined that the rent would not fall due. It has, and now we face a changed reality.

Only a few thousand years ago Aristotle construed humans as political animals (zo-on politikon). We were, he wrote, subjects of nature apart from it. Our capacity for political organisation, and for the elevation of mind and body in polities properly organised, placed humanity within nature but separate from its determination by virtue of our capacity for rational thought and action. Less frequently commented upon, however, is Aristotle’s qualification of this claim in his distinction between the person of the zo-on politikon and those he consigned to the realm outside of politics in savage nature: the ‘tribeless, lawless, hearthless one’, the ‘lover of war’. Flowing from that Aristotelian dispensation was an invitation to humans to see themselves as subjects whose peace and security divided them into categories of importance—those whose lives were considered politically significant, and those who remained subjects not of politics but of the endemic insecurity of nature.

This influential mandate is no longer sustainable in the Anthropocene. Political animals are creatures of presumption: the presumption that political space can be carved from nature, and endowed with a history isolable from the temporal imperatives set in motion by the exploitation and extermination of nature. Political animals are creatures of a security conceived as a timeless projection of equilibrium, in which political calculation serves the shimmering dream of ageless intergenerational production, reproduction and consumption. What it has delivered is the Anthropocene, with its myriad reminders of humanity’s exhaustion and elimination of nature. To have lived as we have, disconnected from the multitude of species and ecosystems around us, has merely empowered a presumed mastery. The deliberate extermination of species (and other humans) is the unbearable burden of our humanity.

Our polities, and their economies and systems of law, are inscribed with the passage of time; they are products of history made for its preservation. Our democratic institutions, in particular, are suspended awkwardly between their consolidation in the past and their projection into the future. No polity endures forever, yet in modern democracies we carry on as if ‘the people’ who express their will at regular elections is somehow eternal. At each election we assume that by casting our votes we express the living soul of sovereignty, the power that is said (more in hope than expectation) to reside in our collective good sense. Popular mandates, in other words, are a demonstration of the trust that will become the birthright of our heirs and successors. Democracy therefore is a form of government most purposefully designed to enshrine the present mortality of the electorate. Democracy is built on the mandate of the dead. From their capacity to shape the future by risk assessment to their ruinous capability to apply technologies of progress and regress (nowhere more ominously than in bombing other humans ‘into the stone age’), modern states reveal themselves as time machines knitting together imagined pasts with confected futures.

That paradox of time apparently at our disposal, of the prerogatives of the dead and our entrapment in a present that outpaces the most fearfully anticipated future, is the question that humanity now confronts. What must humanity be or become when we are out of time? Answering this question requires us to reroute our temporality, and to apprehend alternative temporalities in which we are no longer resident heirs and possessors but perpetually fugitive. Our Anthropocene futures demand that we find new ways to make homes for the homeless by owning the homelessness we have demanded of others. This will be a vast undertaking that will require us to reconsider the spans of time we inhabit. 

First Nations and other peoples have been urgently reminding us to make this effort for some considerable time. They have sought to make their own times present by requiring us to confront our colonial temporality: the moral legacies still bound up with empire, dispossession and slavery. For them, past, present and future are bound together by the history of colonisation. The past is continually renewed by the repetition of ignorant special pleading—‘the past is the past’—or insouciant injunctions to ‘get over it’. Comprehending this temporality reveals a past that is not demarcated from the present and the future but sustained simultaneously. Humanity in the Anthropocene must be opened to the paradox of this simultaneity. Here time is not the temporality of possession and mastery but the humility that comes of knowing that time’s rhythm does not beat for us. The future is as much a responsibility of custodianship as is the past. To discharge our responsibility requires a new openness to a co-dependence of all selves and species as wanderers on time’s convoluted shores, not as new arrivals borne on its inexorable tide to claim sole possession.

This humanity will not be resident in time and place like Aristotle’s political animals but mobile in a temporal web of shared expectations, mingled temporalities and co-dependent species. This will be a humanity constituted by refugees. Its first quality will be an openness to vulnerabilities shared by human and non-human alike. The openness of humanity in the Anthropocene is born of our apprehension of extinction and its embeddedness in the temporality we must renounce. To be human in the Anthropocene is to experience being unbound to the temporal and spatial presumptions of our separation from nature. To be human in the Anthropocene is being out of time. The possibilities for our reimagining are at hand. The invitation for us to begin reimagining has never been more urgent.

Notes

1 Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, ‘Biological Annihilation Via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines’, PNAS, 25 July 2017, 114 (30) E6089–E6096; first published 10 July 2017 <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1704949114>.

2 I-Ching Chen et al., ‘Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming’, Science, vol. 333, issue 6045, 19 August 2011, pp 1024–6, DOI: 10.1126/science.1206432; Gretta T. Pecl et al., ‘Biodiversity Redistribution Under Climate Change: Impacts on Ecosystems and Human Well-being’, Science, vol. 355, issue 6332, 31 March 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9214.

3 Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips and Ron Milo, ‘The Biomass Distribution on Earth’, PNAS, 19 June 2018, 115 (25), pp 6506–11; first published 21 May 2018 <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711842115>.

4 Andrew Baldwin, Christiane Fröhlich and Delf Rothe, ‘From Climate Migration to Anthropocene Mobilities: Shifting the Debate’, Mobilities, 14:3, 2019, pp 289–97, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2019.1620510.

About the author

Bruce Buchan

Bruce Buchan is an Associate Professor of History in the School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences at Griffith University.

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