[Point de vue de Samir Shaheen-Hussain] The False Universalism of the Anthropocene


The author is an emergency pediatrician and assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at McGill University. He is involved in the Soignons la justice sociale collective and wrote the award-winning book No more aboriginal children torn away. To end Canadian medical colonialism (Lux Publisher, 2021).

“We are waging war on nature. These are the striking words uttered by António Guterres at the opening of COP15 in Montreal. The Secretary General of the United Nations is not wrong to say that nature is undergoing unprecedented violence. Although he himself asserted that multinational corporations profit from the destruction of ecosystems, while exploited countries and dispossessed populations pay the price, his shock phrase occults who is targeted in this universalizing “we”.

This shortcut of “us” versus “nature” may have its origins in the concept of the Anthropocene proposed to describe the current geological epoch. In 2000, scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer called on the scientific community to recognize the end of the Holocene geological epoch and the beginning of the Anthropocene to consider the major and ever-increasing effects of human activities on the Earth during the last centuries and at all scales. Their proposal snowballed.

Beyond ahistorical reading

However, the expression Anthropocene is used by constructing the “we” in a falsely inclusive and universal way. Indeed, beyond the ahistorical (or antihistorical, it depends) reading implied by the concept of the Anthropocene, it risks also implying an apolitical and asocial reading of the present.

By conveying the idea that « we humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth », Crutzen and his acolytes obscure the power dynamics within our societies that underlie this change.

An internationalist and decolonial perspective helps to shed light on how the supposedly scientific concept of the “Anthropocene” can mislead by evading the historical, social, economic and political realities that infuse it. For example, in an illuminating text, professors in the Department of Human Geography at Lund University explain that “capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation stone for the fossil economy: at no time did the species vote for it, neither with feet nor with ballots”.

The Conceptual Gaps of the Anthropocene

The authors tell us that the historical origins of human-caused climate change were based from the start on highly inequitable global processes.

Moreover, they inform us that the investments in steam technology were motivated by the opportunities presented to the owners of the means of production by the constellation of the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the slavery of African populations, the exploitation British labor in factories and mines, and the global demand for cheap cotton fabrics (among others).

To counteract the conceptual shortcomings of the Anthropocene, several options have been mooted: ‘capitalocene’, ‘racial capitalocene’, ‘plantationocene’, and ‘kleptocene’. The aim is to integrate the key role that capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism have played in the climate and biodiversity crises.

Other critics of the concept of the Anthropocene believe that its adoption is inevitable and therefore advocate that the date chosen for the beginning of this new epoch in the history of the Earth is at least the right one to inspire a greater global mobilization for justice. environment and decolonization.

To formally recognize a new geological epoch, the International Commission on Stratigraphy must determine a global marker in the stratigraphic material (rock, sediments or glacier ice) which serves to delimit the previous epoch: the « golden nail ». (or “global stratotypical point”).

In 2016, the Anthropocene Task Force voted to recommend a date in the XXe century, but the « golden nail » has not yet been fixed. Other scientists had however proposed the peak Orbis (“ Orbis Spike ”) of the year 1610, which would have taken into account the significant and measurable geological effects resulting from European colonialism.

At COP15, Secretary General Guterres wanted us to believe that it is « humanity [qui] has become a weapon of mass extinction”. Yet, as author Robyn Maynard explains in Rehearsals for Living, co-written with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (and soon translated into French by Mémoire d’encrier): « It is not ‘humanity’ that has poisoned so many human and non-human lives on Earth, but rather a very small minority power of humanity, and the order it has imposed on all earthly life. »

Minority and majority of humans

Indeed, according to Oxfam, rich countries are home to only 15% of the world’s population, but « would have contributed 92% of excessive historical emissions ». Between 1990 and 2015, the world’s richest 1% contributed to « more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity ». In an economic system that places a higher value on profit than on people, a minority is enriched by the impoverishment of the many. If we live in the Anthropocene era, it is because a minority of humans wanted it, while a majority of the population and ecosystems suffer from it.

The epistemological and philosophical bases of the concept of the Anthropocene do not seem very far from the biblical directives prescribing the domination of the Earth by man. In the end, his critics don’t really object to « humans » dominating the world. They simply propose to do it with good intentions: the Western population only has to show the way by redefining its way of life by making it more modest, renewable, concerned and less materialistic.

Lifestyle changes to move away from a consumer culture are certainly needed here (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in North America are the highest in the world), but if scientists insist on the use of the imperfect concept of Anthropocene, we need other substantive solutions, in particular those put forward by those who defend ecosystems and who suffer from violence of the Anthropocene — and have resisted it for centuries.

We cannot rely on the same economic, political and social systems that got us into this mess to help us out. We need other “us”.

The sequel, next week: “Resisting the violence of the Anthropocene”

To see in video


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