Chelsea Russell is a PhD student at York University in the Communications and Culture Program. Her dissertation research analyzes female robots in videogames by focusing on feminist and affectual practices and questions of the posthuman. Currently, she is a SSHRC-funded research assistant on young people, digital capitalism, and the videogame platform Roblox.
(The) Anthropocene: Gaîa’s Epoch
The painting below illustrates a significant connection between the technological and the environmental. It shows the figure of Gaia (Mother Nature) stripped down to reveal an (almost) infectious technology within. The physical world of technology is depicted as solidly within Gaia. Notably, the figuration of Gaia is as a white woman, which follows from much of the discourse around the Anthropocene that portrays it as “undeniably white” (Todd 2015, p. 246). This image therefore encapsulates that whiteness in order to highlight the political approach to understanding crises evoked within the Anthropocene.
Another aspect of the painting is the technological intervention within her body. Gaia is subjected to the whims of technology, while also being modeled after the goddess of love, Venus, in Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus. The contrast between Gaia-as-Venus and 21st-century technology dramatizes the relationship humans have with both the past and the future. In bringing attention to both Whiteness and the technology within Gaia, this image is intended to evoke a sense of relationship to Earth but also to humanity’s own conceptions of Earth. The anxiety of the Anthropocene is what is on display here. To understand the Anthropocene fully, however, it is important to consider the history of thinking that has led to its current conception and to the future of the ways we can understand it.
What is the Anthropocene?
The word Anthropocene can be broken down into its parts: anthropo, which refers to “human,” and -cene, which relates to “” or “geological time” (Ellis, 2013). The term thus invokes a moment in time in which human invention, enhancements, and actions have resulted in a massive shift in earth’s . Human intervention has affected the fundamental processes of nature and the natural order—especially those of non-humans. Despite the “abundance of evidence” that the Anthropocene has been established as an epoch, the concept continues to be rejected and considered controversial among politicians, scientists, and climatologists (Ellis, 2018, p. 25). This debate is largely couched in whether Earth has left the prior epoch—the Holocene. Nevertheless, human-based alterations to the Earth’s ecology, biology, and climate are undeniable.
How did the Anthropocene begin?
Ecologist Eugene Stoermer and chemist Paul Crutzen (created) the term Anthropocene in the 1980s. It was originally used to describe large-scale human activities that dominate earth’s climate and biodiversity (Grusin, 2017, p. vii-viii). Although the term was coined only a few decades ago, it characterizes intense human impact upon ecological, geological, and biochemical processes. The history of conceptual Anthropocentrism emerged alongside the processes of capitalism, industrialisation, and the proliferation of nuclear power (Grusin, 2017, p .1), bringing unprecedented , ecological disruption, economic growth, and technological booms. These shifts in human activity imposed disproportionate human pressures on the Earth that would not have happened otherwise.
What is the impact of the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene has found its way into popular discourse and culture. Public response to increasing ecosystem instabilitycan be seen through the #FridaysforFuture hashtag, the Green New Deal, and, in 2021, an update to the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. Through these examples and others, we are coming to understand that negative environmental change affect both non-human and human beings.
The industrialization and technologizing of humanity can be understood as “a dominant factor shaping the Earth and its associated life-supporting systems” (Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill, 2007, p. 614). In other words, the impacts of the Anthropocene on both society and the Earth, are interrelated. Moreover, as the digital and industrial economies surge, the need for technological parts increases, and with it comes an increase in demand for efficiency. This cycle is contingent on the raw materials needed for such practices, further accelerating the impact on Gaia as we continuously attempt to produce greater economic value.
Why the Anthropocene?
Human/non-human relationships have long been made into binaries: us versus them, self versus other. We see non-humans as being unlike us, and our approach to them is often in line with ideas of separation and difference. To understand the whys of the Anthropocene, we must grapple with new ways of thinking about old things. This includes concepts like Cartesianism, corporeality, complexity, positivism, and epistemology. Broadly, encourages us to be aware of the hierarchical thinking that affects wider structures of culture, politics, and the environment.
By opening up our perspectives to modes of deconstructing power, we can share in responding to the ethical challenges threatening Earth. To move forward consciously, reshaping our understandings of power, capital, technology, and colonization are essential. The concept of the Anthropocene might seem bleak; however, forging paths forward with the Earth in mind can help cultivate new understandings and responsibilities of humans.
- How can we inspire dialogue and action about rethinking environmental approaches for the Anthropocene? Where do we start? Where do we end?
- In what ways have our views failed to account for ways of understanding non-human, or even non-typical, languages? How have our dominant languages contributed to the Anthropocene? Who are we excluding and why is that important to understand?
- Pick an issue that is specific to humanity (e.g., economy) and one thing that we share with the non-human (e.g., water). Unpack both of these two things by trying to understand them, their importance, and the ways they contribute to the Anthropocene through the lens of a non-human creature. How does this help you understand them at a broader scale?
Donna Haraway, inspired by Bruno Latour, invites her readers to see ourselves as part of a larger community of “compostists.” Compostists see themselves as symbiotic with all parts of the world and, as such, initiate “world caretaking” and “repairing damaged places.” To inhabit the mindset of a compostist requires trying to understand one’s impact.
For this exercise, pick an object in the room—it can be anything from a lightbulb to a tassel on a rug. Study the object and reflect on the various materials, mechanics, processes, and functions that brought it to where it is now. Having broken down the object into its parts and processes, reflect on it from a compostist view. How would you remedy the processes of its creation/transport/usage? Or should you?
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). The “Anthropocene”. Global Change Newsletter, 40(June):17-18
Didur, J. and Shaw, D.. (2021). “Representing the Anthropocene.” Speculative Life Cluster. https://speculativelife.com/representing-the-anthropocene
Ellis, E.C. (2018). Anthropocene: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.
Global Canopy Program. (2014). “Planet Under Pressure.” Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/117910068
Global IGBP Change. (2021). “Great Acceleration”. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. http://www.igbp.net/globalchange/greatacceleration.4.1b8ae20512db692f2a680001630.html
Andersen, G. (2020). Climate fiction and cultural analysis: A new perspective on life in the Anthropocene. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group. Earthscan.
DeLoughrey, E., and Handley, G. (2011). Postcolonial ecologies: Literatures of the environment. Oxford University Press: New York.
Ellis, E.C. (2013, Sept. 3). Anthropocene. The Encyclopedia of Earth. https://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/Anthropocene
Ellis, E.C. (2018). Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Grusin, R. (2017). Anthropocene Feminism. University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
Steffen, W., Crutzen, P.J., and McNeill, J.R. (2007). “The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?” Ambio: ABI/INFORM Collection, 36(8):614- 621.
Todd, Z. (2015). Indigenizing the Anthropocene. In H. Davis & E. Turpin (Eds.), Art in the Anthropocene: Encounter among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies (1st ed., pp. 241- 255). Open Humanities Press.
Trump, D. [@realDonaldTrump]. (2012, November 6). The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive [Tweet]. Twitter. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09062017/five-shades-climate-denial-donald-trump-scott-pruitt-rex-tillerson-jobs-uncertainty-white-house/
Of pertaining to the origin of a word or words. Important to this term is the meaning of words and how they shift, historically.
An extended period of time that is distinctive in relation to events in history, geology, or life. Each discipline (geology, history, anthropology) defines the exact timeframe of an epoch differently.
Ecology is concerned with the processes and influences of organisms (both small and large scale) and the interactions between them, their environment, humans, and energy fluctuations.
A newly conceptualized word or expression. Typically, the ‘neologized’ term is either giving new meaning to a term or gives a new term to an established meaning.
A change in conditions of atmosphere, climate, and environment over time. As of the 20th Century, references to climate change are discussed in a global context and as being altered by human activity (burning fossil fuels, carbon emissions, deforestation, etc.).
A school of thought, or philosophy, in which the parameters of interaction among humans is couched in resistance to hegemonic forms of oppressive power. To be decolonial is to strive against the established colonial systems of power and think, act, and be different.