"The Anthropocene," or Gaia Shrugs*
* Originally published the "Forum on the Anthropocene" in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1.1 (2014): 101-104.
I have placed "the anthropocene" in scare quotes. I hope these markers will remind my reader that I do not mean to demean any of the actual scientific work that has placed itself under the banner of "the anthropocene." The worth of that work, whatever it is, has little to do with "the anthropocene." I do mean these markers to remind my reader that at the moment, "the anthropocene" is a slogan. It has been invented and presented to our attention for a cluster of reasons that are significantly other than scientific. Modernity is full of slogans purporting to demarcate the new and forge a radical break with the old for instance, "modernity." Thus, "the anthropocene" could always be otherwise. Before we set the thing into textbook concrete for the next half a century, before non- geologists decide to get on the bandwagon of "the anthropocene," we might consider whether we need this term at all. Perhaps better terms already exist but have been pushed aside. Or perhaps another term would marshal disciplinary and popular attention in a manner more appropriate to what the science being performed, under the banner of "the anthropocene" or not, actually turns up.
My opening complaint, then, is that the notion of "the anthropocene" is too entirely overdetermined. It is intrinsically prejudicial. It is a concept literally determined to prejudge the issue between humanity and the Earth, to appropriate the modern Earth system not just for humanity in general, but also for "scientific truth" altogether. If "science" says that we have entered the era of "the anthropocene," then how could any good scientific citizen deny that we humans have put our big feet down upon on the neck of the Earth for all time? Sarcasm aside, can good science really be done over the long term under a banner that prejudges its outcome?
The article "Anthropocene: An Epoch of Our Making" informs us that, to culminate human possibilities opened by the Holocene epoch, an entirely new geological epoch named just for us has come into existence at last: "No longer constrained by the ice age, humans were free to finally make their mark. And make their mark they did... At some point, we graduated from adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us" [Syvitski 2012]. Its venue, Global Change, is the monthly magazine of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme [IGBP], the globalized administrative superstructure coordinating governmental and academic activities relating to its primary scientific expression, Earth System Science. But for all the international scientific weight being tossed around in Global Change, this article is essentially a puff piece. Its aim is certainly to proclaim the importance of the IGBP, but it does so not in any direct manner of organiz- ational self-promotion. Rather, the IGBP is promoting itself through the programmatic triumphalism of "the anthropocene."
The "Global Change" page of the IGBP website declares: "Earth behaves as a complex system. Complex systems can respond abruptly to changes within the system—these abrupt changes can be highly non-linear. There is strong evidence that the Earth system is prone to such abrupt changes" [IGBP n.d.]. Who can argue with the basic importance of this mainstreamed and sanitized paraphrase of some key, albeit hoary, fundamentals of Gaian science? In Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the chapter "Cybernetics" applies systems theory as a heuristic in a "search for Gaia." Still unsettled then was the overrid- ing issue whether there actually was an Earth system. If found, what Gaia would be is precisely a planetary system, an entity with some significant level of operational closure, as opposed to merely an Earth object, a hunk of traditional geology with an overlay of living beings but without closed systematicity. Let's recall some of his discussion there:
Cybernetic systems employ a circular logic which may be unfamiliar and alien to those of us who have been accustomed to think in terms of the traditional linear logic of cause and effect...The key to understanding cybernetic systems is that, like life itself, they are always more than the mere assembly of constituent parts. They can only be considered and understood as operating systems... The greater part of our search for Gaia is concerned with discovering whether a property of the Earth such as its surface temperature is determined by chance in the open loop fashion, or whether Gaia exists to apply negative or positive feedback with a controlling hand. [Lovelock 1979, 50, 52, 61]
There does now seem to be a consensus that Lovelock's search for Gaia—or something so close to Lovelock's description of it as to be its co-evolutionary twin—has been successful. The Earth has indeed been found to be an Earth system with a panoply of feedbacks interconnecting biotic and abiotic systems into metabiotic ecosystems whose sum effects at ever-larger scales are arguably regulatory at the planetary level. And yet, that the Earth, as it supports a planet full of systemic complexities, is itself the system that arises as the sum effect of the operations of all those variegated subsystems—this recognition now fades into a commonplace. The full force and profound implications of a biosphere operationally integrated for over three billion years with its atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere under the fall of solar energy—in relation to which the emergence of Homo sapiens is a rather minor detail—is allowed to dissipate, while human self-importance pushes its way back to the front of the line. The simple truth Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan state at the conclusion of What is Life?—"humans do not dominate but are deeply embedded within nature"—is brushed aside [Margulis and Sagan 2000, 242].
The current publicists of Earth System Science tend to forget where their science comes from and what the point of it is supposed to be—not the glorification of human- ity rising above the rest of the system but the reintegration of humanity into the Earth system. By and large, the seminal contributions of Lovelock, not to mention his essential American collaborator Margulis, are buried in silence, or relegated to obscure endnotes and sidebars. Too often, Earth System Science does Gaia theory without Gaia, cybernetics without cybernetics, and systems theory without systems theory. Too much of Earth System Science, despite its "integrative" program, compromises on the fully planetary geobiological implications of the integrated systematicities of the Earth. What makes this situation glaringly obvious and that much more disheartening is this sudden vogue for "the anthropocene." After over a decade of IGBP hyping, its meme, as they say, has begun to go viral.
To speak to the immediate audience for this particular Forum, in a modest way "the anthropocene" is certainly conceivable as a concept indicating a potential threshold for archaeological stratigraphy. Still, I would suggest keeping one's distance and coming up with something detached from the IGBP milieu. For, as the geological concept the Geology part of the IGBP would have it represent, the notion of "the anthropocene" is a dubious instance of conceptual retrenchment as well as of the contentious discipli- nary politics of the academy. Note that the notion of "the anthropocene" detaches the Geology from the Biology component of the IGBP, except insofar as human beings are to stand for the whole of Biology. This particular anthropocentric absurdity dissolves once again the integrative aims this scientific consortium is purportedly working toward.
The vogue for "the anthropocene" is driven not so much by the sheer science of the matter as by the business of doing science under globalization. As I suggested at the beginning, it is largely a nominal issue, an exercise in rebranding. As such, it is also an advertising slogan for particular constituencies doing the usual scientific fundraising. Its most important contribution may be in "raising the alarm" about anthropogenic global change. But if so, it is going about it all wrong. The proper alarm has to do not with the planetary effects so much as with the anthropogenic causes. These are precisely the ill consequences of human self-conceit and presumption of mastery and control over the foundations of the viability of the biosphere. Until and unless we humans become ourselves integrated members of the microbial guilds, we will never have definitive control over the viability of the biosphere. Moreover, "the anthropocene" deflects Earth System Science from its Gaian inspiration and renders it safe for institutionalized anthropocen- trism in the form of globalized Big Science as usual. "The anthropocene" is a last-ditch firewall against the hard truth that humanity does not possess any "controlling hand" over the Earth system. The Earth system is the emergent deep evolutionary sum of the biota altogether in its ecosystemic integration into the planetary environment. Big Science in the service of globalization is simply not going to send the word upstairs—the word that Margulis sent to Lovelock in 1971, confirming his hunches [see Clarke 2012]—that the biosphere is run by the microbes, and their concession is not co-optable.
Expounding the paleobiology of Gaia theory, Margulis and Sagan note that oxygen "was only released into the atmosphere once blue-green bacteria evolved a way to use energy from sunlight to break apart water molecules (H2O) to grab their precious hydrogen... Earth's atmosphere thus became an extension of the metabolism of evolving bacteria" [Margulis and Sagan 2000, 89]. Throughout the eons, the evolution of Gaia has been driven hardest and longest by the ongoing evolution of bacteria, whose lateral gene transferability and other natural genetic-engineering tricks need no neo-Darwinian mutations to rearrange themselves or the outcomes of their interpenetration with an evolving environment [see Shapiro 2011]. After all, it was the bacteria that "mastered nanotechnology... We humans do not 'invent' patentable microbes through genetic recombination; rather, we have learned to exploit and manipulate bacteria's ancient propensity to trade genes" [Margulis and Sagan 2000, 92–93]. Here again, unable to control ourselves, let alone Gaia, we humans give ourselves way too much credit. We may of course take most of the credit for the current spate of global warming and other pestiferous environmental indignities. However, the potential destruction of the viability of the biosphere for legions of species along with ourselves is not really to our credit.
I will desist with a last word from Margulis on this topic of human self-delusion: "The Gaia hypothesis is a biological idea, but it's not human-centered. Those who want Gaia to be an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment find no solace in it" [Margulis 1995, 140]. She was reacting of course to certain eco-feminist or New Age responses to scientific Gaia discourse. Attracted by the anthropomorphism of Lovelock's appropriation of "Gaia" from the Greek, they wanted "Gaia" to conform to ideological agendas for which it was entirely inappropriate. That was then. What is "the anthropocene" right now if not the masculinist obverse of the Earth Mother? Witness "the anthropocene"—a neo-patriarchal, equally inappropriate all-powerful geo-engineering father figure making Earth System Science safe for (hu)man-centeredness. Under the banner of "the anthropocene," Earth System Science bids to submerge the extra-human planetary cybernetics of Gaia—its proper object—under an all-too-human fantasy of control theory.
B. Clarke, "'Gaia is Not an Organism': The Early Scientific Collaboration of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock." In Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, edited by D. Sagan, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012) 32–43. .
IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Pro- gramme). Available online: http://www.igbp.net/ globalchange.4.d8b4c3c12bf3be638a80001026. html
J.E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
L. Margulis, "Gaia is a Tough Bitch." In The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, edited by J. Brockman, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 129–151.
L. Margulis and D. Sagan, What is Life? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
J. A. Shapiro, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press Science, 2011).
J. Syvitski, "Anthropocene: An Epoch of our Making" (Global Change 78, 2012) 12–15.