"Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective"

Timothy James LeCain, International Journal of History, Culture, and Modernity 3(2015): 1-28. 


The dawning realization that the planet may have entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene could prove transformative. However, over the course of its brief history, the Anthropocene concept has often been framed in ways that reinforce, rather than challenge, the conventional modernist belief in a clear dividing line between human culture and a largely passive natural world, sharply limiting the concept’s potential utility. Reflecting the overestimation of human agency and power inevitably implied by a term that is often popularly translated as the ‘Age of Humans’, some have already begun to argue that powerful humans can be trusted to create a so-called ‘Good Anthropocene’ through massive geo-engineering projects. No deeper re-examination of the human relationship to the planet is thus necessary or desired. By contrast, this article draws on emerging neo-materialist theory to suggest a radically different approach that emphasizes the ways in which humans and their cultures have been created by and with a powerful material environment. The technologies of the thermo-industrial revolution are framed not so much as evidence of human power, but as evidence that the material world has a much greater power to shape human minds, cultures, and technologies than has heretofore been recognized by most scholars. From a neo-materialist perspective, the new geological epoch might be better termed the Carbocene: an age of powerful carbon-based fuels that have helped to create ways of thinking and acting that humans now find exceedingly difficult to escape. Might a more humble and cautious view of a creative and potentially dangerous planet offer a more effective means of spurring progress in combating global climate change than the misleading anthropocentrism inherent in a term like the Anthropocene?