Travelling concepts: the long life of the Anthropocene

Featured image: Texas gas wells seen from above (via Amy Youngs, Flickr).

A brief exploration of the term ‘Anthropocene’, in honour of the late Paul Crutzen, who sadly passed away in January this year.

Paul Crutzen (1933-2021) was a Dutch meteorologist. Together with others he won in 1995 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on atmospheric chemistry and specifically for his efforts in studying the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. In addition to studying the ozone layer and climate change, as of the year 2000 he popularized and re-coined the term Anthropocene to describe the proposed new era when human actions have a dominant effect on the Earth and its atmosphere.

Although Paul Crutzen, who recently passed away, made the scientific community certainly more aware and (re-)ignited the multidisciplinary discussion of our new epoch across the Sciences, the Social sciences and the Humanities, he was certainly not the first to use the term Anthropocene. See an overview of its origins here.

Impact

Like “intersectionality” (Crenshaw 1991), the “Anthropocene” is one of those rare terms that has crossed over from rather niche corners of academia into the cultural mainstream. Indeed, after it was first popularised by Nobel Prize-winning Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen (2002: 23), it enjoyed a “truly meteoric career”, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg note (2014).

Yet critiques of the term have accompanied the Anthropocene on its journey into public consciousness. Many scholars, including Malm and Hornborg, have questioned the term’s flattening effect, in that it semantically erases the vast differences between human populations’ contributions to observable climate instability – and therefore suppresses culpability, which should truly lie with “[c]apitalists in a small corner of the Western world” (2014: 64) burning huge quantities of fossil fuels. Other terms have been proposed, from capitalocene and Chthulucene (Moore 2017; Haraway 2015), to Manthropocene (Raworth 2014), to better identify the imbalances and locus of responsibility.

File:Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010.png
Graph showing the Great Acceleration’ of consumption, human population, fossil fuel use, emissions, and other factors since the 1950s. Along with the Agricultural Revolution of around 10,000 years ago and the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, this is one proposed starting point for the Anthropocene. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Further reading

Bal, Mieke. “Working with Concepts.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009, pp. 13-23.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241–1299. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039.

Crutzen, Paul J. “Geology of Mankind.” Nature, 415, 2002.

Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The Anthropocene.” International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Global Change Newsletter, 41, 2000, pp. 17–18.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

Malm, Andreas and Alf Hornborg. “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative.”  The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1, Apr. 2014, pp. 62–69. 

Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:3, 2017, pp. 594-630.

Raworth, Kate. “Don’t Let The Anthropocene Become The Manthropocene.” Kate Raworth | Exploring Doughnut Economics, 2014, https://www.kateraworth.com/2014/10/20/manthropocene/

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