Editorial – Issue 41/42 ‘People, Planet and the Anthropocene: Spectators of Our Own Demise?’, by Paul James

We live in a period that is simultaneously being called ‘the Anthropocene’ and ‘the Urban Age’. It is the era in which humans have had a recognizable impact upon the earth’s ecological systems. It is also the period in which the planet has become overwhelmingly urbanized. When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, seventy years after the French Revolution, his words were telling:

… it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.1

These words spoke of a new world of starkly different descriptions and prognoses of hope and despair, with little expressed publicly in between. The people of Paris and London, or at least their less than democratic planners and politicians, were confronted with difficult choices to make about their future. However, over the next century, with brief periods of exception, neither of those cities found ways of getting beyond the usual rhetoric and the usual problems of urban bloating. Nor, for most of their histories, did other cities and urban communities on this planet. For all the good work of committed infrastructure planners, problems ranging from tedious traffic congestion and privatization of common spaces to bloating resource use continued to confront social life.

Now, in the early part of the twenty first century, we are still engaged in ‘superlative degrees of comparison’. Planting trees will save the planet; individual action on climate change will make little difference. President Xi Jinping’s announcement in October 2014 that China agrees that its greenhouse gas emissions will only continue to rise for the next sixteen years, until 2030, was greeted with this familiar tension of superlative comparison: excitement that one cog in the global carbon machine is tempering itself; and despair that it will be too late to mitigate a temperature rise of at least 2 degrees.

In continuity with earlier competing descriptions, both responses are perfectly defensible. However, two significant differences have emerged. Firstly, a new process that allows relative deferral of fundamental action on basic questions has slipped between the modern dialectical struts of hope and despair. This constant deferral of more than incremental structural changes to business as usual is carried by the contradictory idea that life on our planet can go on much as before, so long as it is supported by a ‘digital revolution’ and enhanced technological platforms.

Some critics have talked about how we are sleepwalking towards our own extinction. However, while the possibility of extinction is real, this deferral of structural change in the form of the economy and culture is much more active than that. Nobody is asleep. It entails real effort. In effect, it amounts to energetic projection of business with a changed rhetoric while supercharging the technological infrastructure to support social life as we know it. The Smart Cities rhetoric, for example, is replete with images of the planet and hyperbolic announcements about relatively mundane (even if sometimes useful) developments — traffic management systems that will supposedly give people the capacity to skirt neatly around traffic snarls; cloud systems that mean we can collect even bigger data sets; mobile phone apps that allow people to learn about the streets through which they move. They all defer the need to rethink fundamentally the form of the hyper-mobile, consumption heavy and growth based social freedom that presents itself as the raison d’être of ‘sustainable development’ — the paradoxical ‘revolution’ that allows us in the metropolitan West to stay basically the same, at least on the surface of social life.

In relation to the announcement about China, research carried out long before the recent super announcement suggests that China’s carbon emissions will begin to slow by 2030 anyway. It will happen through basic energy efficiencies coupled with social changes that do not require more than a minor digital revolution: ‘saturation in ownership of appliances, construction of residential and commercial floor area, roadways, railways, fertilizer use, and urbanization will peak around 2030 with slowing population growth’, says one report financed by the US and Chinese governments.2 The most radical change here was the one-child policy. For all of Sam Alexander’s documentation of a post-growth literature emerging in economics (see his article in this issue), mainstream accounts are not reimagining the future in terms of steady state economics, let alone a paradigm shift to de-growth economics.

The second change is that the stakes are much higher. Something new is clearly happening, vaguely signalled by the concept of ‘the Anthropocene’. We are the first human civilization with the technological and social capacity to override prior senses of planetary boundaries and limits. As John Hinkson’s article in this issue suggests, ‘the high-tech revolution launches us into the post-human unknown’. The concept of ‘the Anthropocene’ goes back to the nineteenth century when Antonio Stoppani, an Italian contemporary of Dickens, coined a cognate term. It has taken until the last few years, following Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer’s intervention in 2000, for the concept to gain any traction. We may be still officially living in the epoch of the Holocene — from the concepts holos (whole) and kainos (recent or new), officially adopted by the International Geological Congress in 1885 — but there is at least a creeping sense that something is different about the period through which we are currently living.

Beyond the usual high profile pronouncements of glory and despair, a foreboding complexity has descended upon us all. The essays collected in the ‘People and the Planet’ section of this Arena Journal represent very different responses to that foreboding complexity. Their authors responded to a call for papers to address the question of how people are living on this planet. What is happening to the planet beyond the newspaper headlines? To echo Deborah Bird Rose’s words: are we becoming spectators of our own demise? Instead of focusing on either London and Paris or alternatively Baghdad and Kabul, we asked our authors to describe less obvious cities, and to attend to peoples who live outside of the mainstream currents of hope and despair. There is no superlative degree of comparison here in the writings of Deborah Rose, Jeanne Simon and Claudio Gonzalez Parra, Michael Humphrey, and Anita Weiss — only a gritty grey sense that the Anthropocene confronts us with urgent problems and possible answers.

Part of the problem is that people do not know what to do with the concept of ‘the Anthropocene’. Last month, prompted by a meeting of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) to decide what geological period we live in, the Guardian newspaper asked the question: ‘Is this the new epoch of humans?’ The article’s author elaborated: ‘Is it time to call an end to the epoch we live in and declare the dawn of a new time period: one defined by humanity’s imprint on the planet?’ The article concluded, not without with a touch of irony, that the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy had responded as any group of experts tends to do when confronted with complicated questions: by setting up a working group of experts, directed to report back in 2016 with a possible recommendation for consideration.3

In other words, the concept of ‘the Anthropocene’ has hit the world with an ambiguously compelling rhetorical force, while giving conceptual depth and practical consequence to its use are being constantly deferred. Urgent debates actively resound through the halls of academe and NGO meeting rooms, suggesting that climate change may represent a basic human impact upon the earth, existential in its consequences. However, beyond those occasional seminar rooms, broad public debates remain carefully focussed on maintaining growth capitalism as we know it. At the same Brisbane G20 meeting a week ago that heralded the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide finally setting mitigation targets, the world’s most powerful economic nation states solemnly vowed to increase annual economic growth by 2.1 per cent to 2018. The tensions are astounding, but completely predictable. As John Hinkson’s article in this issue argues, the shaky ‘solution’ that is held out to us in response to the growth–sustainability contradiction comes in the form of pragmatic technological hope. Its form is familiar. Extend the concept of sustainable technology to describe almost anything that improves production efficiency or data systematization, actively work to defer the full impact of compounding crises — financial, cultural and ecological — and do little that challenges business with a changed rhetoric.

Alongside that deferral, the concept of the Anthropocene was normalized even before it began to haunt the halls of debate. From the time in 2000 when the term first took off, the definition of the Anthropocene became ‘the period in which humans have had an impact upon the planet’. The Anthropocene is thus said to have begun in the eighteenth century. What this misses is the way in which humans have gone beyond just having an impact upon geo-nature — exploring its farthest reaches, pushing it around with bulldozers, ripping it into trucks, ploughing long lines through it, burning it for energy, and finally gently contouring it for parks and gardens.

As we now know, the spread of human life on this planet began very slowly, as people walked in groups along simple lines of spatial extension, mostly along coastal zones seeking sources of food.4 In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, human colonization of earth certainly speeded up very rapidly, and continues today, through the ‘settlement’ of nature as territory and the colonization of indigenous populations (see Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Deborah Rose and Jeanne Simon and Claudio GonzalezParra, in this issue).

However, beyond that, we are now seeing a reconstitution of the foundations of nature (John Hinkson in this issue). In the metropolitan heartlands of global power, things look normal and manageable on the surface. The excesses of Charles Dickens’s satanic mills have been neatly exported to China, Eastern Europe and the old colonies. At the same time, techno-science has been busy reconstituting the very building blocks of nature. Until very recently these foundations had either largely been relegated to science — the constitution of seeds, cells and atoms — or were not even part of the scientific lexicon: quarks, genes, nucleotides and chromosomes. What came to public consciousness with the splitting of the atom in 1945 has now extended to everything, from nano-technology production, bioengineering and DNA manipulation, to geo-engineering and (unintended) terraforming. We are meta-colonizing the planet in order to save it.

Humans now have the capacity to produce synthetic life-forms (since 2010) and to destroy life on this planet as we know it (since 1952). It is only by recognizing this point — that we are now reconstituting the very basis of nature — that adequate acknowledgement of the Anthropocene starts to hit home. Our home, planet earth, is in deep trouble, and it is only us who, in making decisions about living otherwise, have the capacity to respond systematically. It cannot be deferred to the next generation. At this existential edge, there is no superlative degree of comparison to hide behind.

  1. C. Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), London, James Nisbet & Co., 1902, p. 3.
  2. N. Zhou et al., China’s Energy and Carbon Emissions Outlook, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2011, p. xiii.
  3. I. Sample, ‘Anthropocene: Is This the New Epoch of Humans?’, The Guardian, 16 October 2014.
  4. S. Olson, Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins, Boston, Houghton Mifflen, 2003.

About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

More articles by Paul James

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