Thinking the Anthropocence

Thinking the Anthropocence

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The conference ‘Thinking the Anthropocene’ that took place in Paris on the 14th and 15th of November 2013 was ‘designed to begin the rethinking of the social sciences and humanities demanded by the arrival of the new geological epoch, the “Age of Humans”’. It was based on the idea that the rise of the Anthropocene as a concept is shifting the Enlightenment foundations of the social sciences and humanities, namely its conception of the natural world. Inherent in such a shift, so the organisers, is a rethinking of such central tenets of modernity as autonomy, agency, freedom and reflexivity.

Jointly organised by social science and humanities research institutes from French-speaking Europe, the French ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy as well as the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, the conference promised to engage in a dialogue a variety of actors. Accordingly, it brought together scholars from France, Sweden, the UK, Germany and Australia with artists, journalists and former politicians. While participants included a mix of natural and social scientists, however, the institutional dominance of Science Po and the ideational prominence of Bruno Latour were apparent throughout. With a few exceptions, it was the worlds of French philosophers (of science) rather than those of a larger anthropos represented there.

This is not to say, however, that issues of representation, inequality and power in the anthropocene remained marginal at the conference. Francoise Gemenne, for example, provided a useful insight into agency and responsibility in the anthropocene, which highlighted the need to include issues of the Global South in discussions about the anthropocene. Indeed, the two days of the conference regularly featured deliberations about etymological alternatives of the anthropocene such as the anglocene, thenatocene or onomatocene, which ostensibly emphasise that the former may lead to a naturalisation of social relations characterised by inequality. Furthermore, Alf Hornborg questioned Latourian notions by arguing that the ontological connect between social and natural does not automatically warrant a refusal of the analytical distinction.

Nevertheless, lay audience might have repeated the question adequately posed by Roy Scranton in the New York Times four days previous to the conference: ‘Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and contemporary metaphysicians going to keep Bangladesh from being inundated by rising oceans?’ But although the conference did to some extend remain accessible only to an exclusive number of participants, it can be seen as a first step in opening up the concept of the anthropocene to critical enquiry. As such, it has facilitated dialogue between people interested in the latter who will influence debates until the year 2016 when the International Geographic Commission is due to decide whether the anthropocene will be adopted officially as a new geographical era. A decision that is indeed most likely to have profound effects on the way politics deals with the globally unequal manifestation of environmental change and ensuing issues of justice.

Picture by Christophe Leclercq, 2013

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