Deborah Bird Rose, “Anthropocene Noir”
Paper presented at People and the Planet 2013 Conference, ‘Transforming the Future”, RMIT 2013
Anthropocene—the Age of Man—this era in which human action has become a planetary force. We know the climate change issue well because it has the greatest profile, but it is just one big part of a much wider set of entwined events that include the great mass extinction event now in process, the acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic waste, the loss of soils and fertility, the loss of rainforests, and of course the rampant consumption that fuels the work of tearing up and wrecking planet Earth.
But let us remember the cruel twist of modernity: much of this wreckage has been and is now being done in the name of human progress—that is, to secure (an allegedly) happier, more liberated, and healthier humanity.
For decades now, environmental philosophers, activists and many others have developed strong critical analysis of the mindset that has been at work in setting the Anthropocene crisis in motion, particularly the narrative which has offered visions of progress and held forth the hope that technology would engineer the world and deliver the happy ending promised by modernity.
I think that the term Anthropocene opens our attention to a much darker vision of people and planet. Rather than giving agency to the human, it seems rather that the earth is speaking language so powerful and expressive that human pretensions to mastery and control are shattered.
We are spectators in the unmaking of the world we have known; we are spectators in the mass deaths of other creatures and in the misery of numerous and diverse forms of life including humans; we may indeed become spectators of our own demise. We know we are doing this, and we are unable to take effective political or social action in areas that we know would be helpful.
Modernity’s big story is progress. It works with a concept of time that is unilinear, monological, teleological, and extremely elastic. The unilinear aspect is a one-directional, future-facing direction of history. It is monological in the sense of claiming to be true for all people on earth, sooner or later. It will scoop them all up in a vision that ingeniously combines engineering and freedom, and will deliver its vision of the good life to all (eventually). It is teleological in that it is aimed toward a known outcome—always more progress, always more of the good life. It is a secularized version of Messianic time. And it is elastic in that the end point is always just at the edge of the horizon—the Messiah never comes, so to speak.
The really scary thing about the idea that our past is now racing toward us from the future is the way in which it forces us to abandon the illusion of immunity, and confront seriously the processes we have been triggering. At the same time, this disorienting shift away from standard unilinear, teleological time concepts offers an opportunity to engage quite differently with Aboriginal people. With western mainstream time concepts losing their hold on reality, perhaps the hubris of modernity will falter enough to allow us to open new conversations about time, place and action.