Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Anthropocene: towards a systemic sensibility for transformation?

Last year I was involved in organising two events in which the concept of the Anthropocene, and all that it implies, was central.  The first held at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover, with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation, is reported on a Blog called 'Governing the Anthropocene Systemic Inquiry'. Posted on the Blog is a short report of the outcomes of the event as well as talks, presentations and links to recent material of relevance to an on-going inquiry within the cybernetics and systems communities.  The other was the 2015 ISSS Conference held in Berlin a week later (see presented papers; a special issue of Systems Research & Behavioral Science is in preparation).  Since that time the literature and commentary associated with the Anthropocene framing of our contemporary circumstances has burgeoned.  A particularly insightful recent piece in this genre has been Robert Macfarlane's essay in the review section of The Guardian (2nd April): ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever

Readers of this blog  and those who particiapted in the  two events in Germany last year will appreciate Macfarlane's claims when he says:

'Systemic in its structure, the Anthropocene charges us with systemic change'.

In respect of the revealing and concealing features of a choice to frame our situation as 'the Anthropocene, and thus the implications for governance, or governing, he reprises arguments and persectives present in our 2015 conversations:

"Across these texts and others, three main objections recur: that the idea of the Anthropocene is arrogant, universalist and capitalist-technocratic. Arrogant, because the designation of the Anthropocene – the “New Age of Humans” – is our crowning act of self-mythologisation (we are the super-species, we the Prometheans, we have ended nature), and as such only embeds the narcissist delusions that have produced the current crisis.

Universalist, because the Anthropocene assumes a generalised anthropos, whereby all humans are equally implicated and all equally affected. As Purdy, Miéville and Moore point out, “we” are not all in the Anthropocene together – the poor and the dispossessed are far more in it than others. “Wealthy countries,” writes Purdy, “create a global landscape of inequality in which the wealthy find their advantages multiplied … In this neoliberal Anthropocene, free contract within a global market launders inequality through voluntariness.”

And capitalist-technocratic, because the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene has technology as its driver: recent Earth history reduced to a succession of inventions (fire, the combustion engine, the synthesis of plastic, nuclear weaponry). The monolithic concept bulk of this scientific Anthropocene can crush the subtleties out of both past and future, disregarding the roles of ideology, empire and political economy. Such a technocratic narrative will also tend to encourage technocratic solutions: geoengineering as a quick-fix for climate change, say, or the Anthropocene imagined as a pragmatic problem to be managed, such that “Anthropocene science” is translated smoothly into “Anthropocene policy” within existing structures of governance. Moore argues that the Anthropocene is not the geology of a species at all, but rather the geology of a system, capitalism – and as such should be rechristened the Capitalocene.

Despite these concerns Macfarlane is clear that:

'..the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through'. 

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