New Realism and the Anthropocene

I have become increasingly aware of the use of the term, Anthropocene in debate around human impacts of the Earth’s systems and processes whilst recent developments in philosophy speak of a New Realism, opposing itself to Post-Modernism. It is a problem, after all, what comes after Modernism (for we are all Modern) and then what comes after Post-Modernism? But a characteristic of New Realism, as articulated by thinkers such as Mauricio Ferraris, is a recovery of experience and stuff – facts if you will – from the web of interpretation and deconstruction associated with Post-Modernism and Constructivism. Stuff exists. Experience occurs, independent of the science or ideology by which we categorise and describe it. Ontology is distinct from Epistemology.

We can’t be post-fact because the facts just won’t go away.

is less ice. The world is warmer. The storms grow more frequent and more intense. This is experienced.

In a 2015 paper in Nature, Lewis and Maslin wrestle with the scientific challenge of assigning a start date to the Anthropocene. A point in time when humans definitely began to make a mark of Earth’s biological and geological systems. Their method is to seek a geological global signature, a record in the ‘rock’ which can be unequivocally connected to human history and practices – gases trapped in ice-cores, lake bed sediments, a fossil record.

They dismiss the point of coflexion in global methane levels at the beginning of the Neolithic (8000 BPE) as too vague, favouring instead the minimum CO2 levels around 1610 associated with the Colombian Exchange, the death through contagion of 55 million native Americans (90% of the pre-1492 population) and the consequent rewilding of the Americas. It satisfies the criteria, providing an unequivocal signature associated with a clear biophysical event – the arrival in the Americas of migrants from Europe and, subsequently, Asia and Africa.

Other signature points follow – the great acceleration in CO2 levels associated with the industrial burning of fossil fuels, the nuclear fallout from weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s – but 1610 is the first unequivocal blip that ‘fits the science’.

And here we enter the entanglement of interpretation. The numbers who died in the Americas at that time are informed inferences, the processes of rewilding of previously cultivated land and the associated take up of CO2 in forests is an interpretation of known patterns and processes. Those who deny the significance of human agency challenge the interpretation – deny the experience – but CO2 did dip (look at the ice cores) – millions died – look at the Aztec codexes. The social interpretation of these experiences – as a tragic accident or God’s will or a civilising mission or a vile act of plunder and destruction are texts, stories, social constructs – but death by small pox or exhaustion or gunshot wound are experiential facts and those individual experiences accumulated – like the germination and burgeoning of trees – engender shifts in reality – shifts in what is real.

Of course, human agency has been impactive from the beginning.

Humans burn forests. It’s the thing we do that no other species does – we burn things.

Humans selectively breed other species to meet their needs, rebalance numbers, exterminate competitors.

Our regional and local impacts can be traced to the Neolithic and before. Debate around whether the Anthropocene begins in 1610 or 8000BPE or 150,000 BPE are matters of cultural fine tuning set against the qualitative fact that humans are a major – and the only sentient – drivers of biophysical change on the planet.

It is believed that the Earth’s potential for life – net primary productivity – remains relatively constant over time. Stuff grows – be it cycads, conifers, jellyfish or salmon, humans or cockroaches. This resides in the balance and circulation of energy and nutrients within the biophysical system. At the moment it is estimated humans have appropriated between 25% and 38% of all primary productivity for our own use. We are – or control for our own purposes – one third of the biosphere. How can we not impact the unfolding of biophysical processes? How can we deny the reality of the Anthropocene?

Science – yes, modern science – has sharpened our interpretative awareness of experience in deep time. We experience the moment and have means of imagining experience and processes over the longue duree. And of imagining the future too. Understanding that the path of evolution, the events and instances, may be unpredictable, with unexpected tipping points and feedbacks, still we can imagine the direction of travel and the lack of resilience of our current social practices.

So this is where we get to the ART bit. The need for new stories. Realistic stories. Factual stories. Stories which acknowledge that the earth is currently in an epoch which we can think of as The Anthropocene and that that epoch will not end suddenly. That we must find a way to continue to live in and through the Anthropocene if we are all to live at all. And that, as the primary sentient change agent in the biophysical system, it is incumbent on us to have a good story, a narrative, a plan which recognises the experiential fact of our impulse to persist, sustain, procreate, survive.

To be continued in Imagining the Late Anthropocene
Imagining the Late Anthropocene