Reflecting on Anthropocene Day – July 16th: Nature’s agency and the post-Anthropocene

Last night, I attended a public forum jointly organised by the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society and the National Museum of Australia. The event was called ‘Reflecting on Anthropocene Day – July 16: Where on Earth are we going?‘ The underlying theme was a proposal to institute a reflective ‘Anthropocene Day’ on July 16th, a date which marks the first test of an atomic bomb, back in 1945.

Our five invited panellists provided informative and stimulating presentations and perspectives. Afterwards there were questions from the audience and a panel discussion. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time and I didn’t get a chance to ask a question I would have liked to put to the panel. In a nutshell, this question would have been:

How does ‘Anthropocene Day’ help to emphasise the agency of nature and the natural world?

I ask this question here and now, because I think the notion of nature’s agency was largely missing from most of the discussion, and yet, as I see it, the whole point of the Anthropocene concept is to highlight that humans have altered the natural functions which previously kept this planet, our home, to relatively liveable average conditions.

Even if we do recognise that certain human activities have altered the natural dynamics that maintained these conditions, I wonder whether the term ‘Anthropocene’ adequately acknowledges these dynamics and their importance?

One recurring theme throughout the evening was the tension between optimism and pessimism related to the Anthropocene concept. The general consensus seemed to be, it’s easier (perhaps even logical?) to be pessimistic, but it isn’t very helpful. So, ideally, the goal of ‘Anthropocene Day’ would be to provoke positive reflection and thinking towards change. That way the Anthropocene itself might turn out to be a positive epoch–for us, and for future generations of humans on this planet.

Personally, I’m all for positivity, and I prefer to avoid the paralysing effects of doom-and-gloom and guilt trips, both of which make poor motivators. However, I’m also concerned by the potential for further human triumphalism posed by embracing, or even celebrating, a positive Anthropocene.

It seems there is a very real danger that too much positivity around the Anthropocene concept might provoke further efforts towards human transcendence of the natural world. In this, we risk condoning more interference in the planet’s natural regulation, thus mimicking the same behaviour that got us here in the first place. There’s a definite potential for this kind of behaviour.

By contrast, I’d suggest that recognising we have moved into the Anthropocene should provide an opportunity to highlight the importance of natural agency, rather than further emphasising, or encouraging, the agency of humans.

Let’s face it, our proven ability to wreck the functioning of the Earth system is not a demonstration of any transcendent capacity to safely manipulate it in ways that are beneficial. The damage we have wrought so far does not herald the Enlightenment dream of perfected scientific understanding and control over life, the universe and everything.

Interestingly, one of last night’s audience members briefly raised the idea of the ‘post-Anthropocene‘, which they suggested was an inevitably morbid prospect. However, I think this negative framing misses the whole point of recognising the Anthropocene in the first place.

If the the term ‘Anthropocene’ represents a geological epoch where humans have upset and altered the natural self-regulating capacity of the Earth system, then it seems logical that the post-Anthropocene is a period where this self-regulation will be restored.

….and, as I see it, this new period is exactly where we should want to go.

Perhaps, if we’ve already drunk our own bathwater to the point of celebrating Anthropocene destabilisation as a human triumph, and invitation to accelerate our anthropocentric manipulations even further, then the idea of a ‘post-Anthropocene’ might seem like a negative thing.

But, the Anthropocene is where we are right now, and by most scientific accounts, it’s not where we want to be. So, instead of aiming for ‘a positive Anthropocene’, it may be better to set our sights very firmly on a positive ‘post-Anthropocene’ epoch, and to get there as quickly as we possibly can.

Does the idea of a post-Anthropocene mean further negativity? Does it promote further doom and gloom?

Some might cast it in that light, but I don’t think it necessarily so.

It’s not as if the post-Anthropocene means post-human. There were Holocene humans before the Anthropocene. So, why wouldn’t there be humans after it?

For mine, post-Anthropocene simply implies ‘post- this current period of human-destabilisation’, or ‘post- excessive human manipulation’. Why not: ‘post-climate change’; ‘post-plastic’; ‘post-growth’; ‘post-neoliberal economics’; and basically, ‘post- all the destructive activity that got us to the Anthropocene epoch in the first place’?

The post-Anthropocene concept seems to better highlight and emphasise the natural agency inherent in the concept of Earth systems science to begin with. As opposed to the Anthropocene which clearly and deliberately emphasises human activities, and human agency.

The idea of the post-Anthropocene could help us to recognise the interdependent natural processes that capably moderated this planet prior to the Anthropocene. Having done so, it might focus our efforts towards supporting this natural agency through actions that repair and regenerate Earth system function.

Reflecting on, and celebrating, the idea of a post-Anthropocene gives us a future to aim for. It moves us past the human triumphalism threatened by overenthusiastic embrace of the ‘positive Anthropocene’ concept. It helps us to differentiate between the kinds of Anthropocentric sciences, technologies, social structures, and economics that got us to where we are now, and the Ecocentric approaches we will need to support our planet back to healthy self-regulation.

Anthropocene Day may be a useful focus for reflection and discussion, but surely we want future generations to live beyond this period in Earth’s history?

We know we have the capacity to destabilise this planet and to dampen and divert its natural systems. For the future, we need to direct our human capacities, our sciences, our economics, and our shared narratives towards better supporting nature’s agency and allowing the post-Anthropocene to emerge.

So what about celebrating a Post-Anthropocene Day?

Every year we could gather to highlight the positive work we’ve done to bring the post-Anthropocene a little closer, and collectively plan yet more positive activities for the year ahead.

A positive post-Anthropocene.


Any thoughts? Feel free to comment.

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