English Gradusta asiaa

Seeing the Anthropocene

This text was written as an optional assignment for the course Communication and Sustainable Development, which deals with narratives and perspectives in environmental communication. More information about the course can be found here.

Story of the Anthropocene

The opening scene of the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch [1] shows intense flames crackling and dancing. We see and hear nothing but fire for around a minute. It is not explicitly said what is burning but within the narrative of the film it is obvious to see the fire as a metaphor for how the earth is burning, an analogy for our environmental crises.

Anthropocene is a documentary that follows the research of a group of scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group, who are gathering evidence to suggest that we have left the Holocene (the geological epoch that began 11,700 years ago) and entered a new epoch that should be called the Anthropocene, named after the dominating force: Human impact [2]. In the documentary, this is visualized with spectacular footage from six continents of reformed landscapes. Statements such as “The Anthropocene is the time in the geological record when humans have moved the planet outside its natural limits” underline the narrative of the film. We visit various stages in material cycles: mines where resources are extracted, workshops and factories where they are transformed into products, as well as landfills and bleached corals that illustrate the disastrous effects of the production chains. The story settles at the end, where we see a beach filled with half-naked people, representing the humans that are the cause of all this destruction of the planet.

Framing the problem

The documentary deals with more than the scientific arguments for a new geological epoch: It also offers an explanation for the same planetary disruption. As a narrative, it follows the structure of framing, such as outlined by Entman [3], in the way that it shows “some aspects of a perceived reality (…) in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” [3 p. 52]. In the case of Anthropocene, the problem is defined by biogeochemical processes caused by human activity, especially decadent modern lifestyles, and the treatment is a change in human behavior. This framing can be traced back to an article by Crutzen [4] – the article that marked the break-through of the term “Anthropocene” – which states that managing environments sustainably will “require appropriate human behavior at all scales” [4 p.22]. Humans are presented as an abstract Humanity, distinct from Nature which is portrayed as something “external, controllable, reducible” [5 p. 601]. A visual example of this can be found in one scene where we see an open pit coal mine in Germany, a vast landscape re/deformed by huge machines, big as mountains. The giant claws of the machine carve away the surface of the earth in a barren, moon-like landscape. We enter the machine’s control room where a person sits surrounded by screens, buttons and a small handle. Following the idea of the Anthropocene, this person represents the center of it all – the operator, representing Humanity capable of remaking Nature.

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Manthropocene

The idea of the Anthropocene has been criticized, however, and several alternatives have been suggested. One alternative name for the current epoch is “Capitalocene”, which highlights Capitalism rather than humans, as the dominant feature in shaping history and the planet [5]. By shifting the focus from human beings to socio-ecological-economic systems, new perspectives and possible solutions appear where humans no longer are seen as Humanity distinct from Nature, but as participants in a wider systemic context that includes nature as well as society. With that framing, the coal mine in Germany is no longer a solely Human enterprise, but also one embedded in aspects of economy, culture, ecology and technology, and the person in the control room is not the cause of the destruction, but a participant in large and complex systems. For that reason, it becomes misdirected to place responsibility on human beings alone. Seeing the film this way, it can seem surprising that humans are in fact relatively absent from the footage, which is more dominated by landscapes and machinery such as in the coal mine. This framing does not suggest that ecological crises do not exist or that humans are not part of them. Rather, it suggests that the solutions cannot be found in human behaviour alone but in changes of the socio-economic systems that humans are part of.

Surely not all humans have been equally involved in changing the planet and to disregard this can be seen as a continuation of hegemonic colonial thinking.

Another re-framing is illustrated by the word “Manthropocene” (see e.g. the hashtag #Manthropocene on Twitter) which originally targets the dominance of white males in science, including the Anthropocene Working Group [6]. With a focus on social dynamics and power-relations, a different understanding arises which problematizes the homogeneity of Humanity in the Anthropocene framing. Surely not all humans have been equally involved in changing the planet and to disregard this can be seen as a continuation of hegemonic colonial thinking [7]. In this light, the concept of Anthropocene, in its way of framing Humanity as a singular unit, is insensitive to inequality, imperialism, patriarchy and racism, and thereby overlooks historical and ongoing oppression [5].

Stories tell stories

The point of these alternative framings is not to argue against the problems of planetary disruption and ecological crisis, but rather against framing the problem in only a certain way. There are, so to speak, alternative ways of watching Anthropocene which each have their view of the situation. The different perspectives of Anthropocene, Manthropocene and Capitalocene matter because framing influences the understanding of what is happening and makes possible certain modes of action. In the words of Donna Haraway, “it matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts” [8 p. 160]. Perhaps we need to re-think the way we think about environmental problems to be better equipped to meet them. By seeing the Anthropocene as more than a Human problem, it can be possible to create new ways of being and acting sustainably in the situation we are in, whatever it might be called.

THOMAS MOLNÁR KARLSSON

References
[1] Baichwal, J., Burtynsky, E., Pencier, N., 2018. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Mercury Films, Canada.
[2] Zalasiewicz, J., Waters, C.N., Summerhayes, C.P., Wolfe, A.P., Barnosky, A.D., Cearreta, A., Crutzen, P., Ellis, E., Fairchild, I.J., Ga, A., Ha, P., Hajdas, I., Head, M.J., Ivar, J.A., Jeandel, C., Leinfelder, R., Mcneill, J.R., Neal, C., Odada, E., Oreskes, N., Ste, W., Syvitski, J., Vidas, D., Wagreich, M., Williams, M., 2017. Anthropocene The Working Group on the Anthropocene : Summary of evidence and interim recommendations 19, 55–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2017.09.001
[4] Crutzen, P.J., 2002. Geology of mankind. Nature 415, 23
[5] Moore, J.W., 2017. The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis. Journal of Peasant Studies 44. 594-630.
[6] Raworth, K., 2014. Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?. The Guardian. (accessed 10.15.19).
[7] Simpson, M., 2018. The Anthropocene as colonial discourse. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775818764679
[8] Haraway, D., 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6. 159–165.


Thomas Molnár Karlsson

Thomas Molnár Karlsson is a student following the Environmental Change and Global Sustainability Master’s program at the University of Helsinki.