Good vs. Bad Anthropocene

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This year’s annual conference of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS), hosted by Pace University, featured a key note speech by Andrew Revkin who addressed the conference theme ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ by focussing on ‘Paths to the “good Anthropocene”’. In his speech, Revkin stressed that choices for or against sustainability are not merely determined by new information but also by our values including the goals that we want to achieve. By way of recommendation, Revkin set out 7 cognitive and emotional strategies (bend, stretch, reach, teach, reveal, rejoice, repeat) that could help societies move towards such goals and thus better adapt to global environmental change. Not only these strategies but also Revkin’s talk generally was underpinned by a sense of optimism, including optimism about such anthropocene inventions as new technologies, novel ecosystems, or urban modernisation. After the conference, Revkin sent the recordings of his talk to Clive Hamilton asking him to comment on it. Hamilton’s blunt reply, has subsequently caused a vibrant online debate about the prospects of a ‘good’ vs. those of a ‘bad Anthropocene’.

In the initial reply on his blog, Hamilton strictly opposed Revkin’s optimistic view and claimed that ‘those who argue for a good Anthropocene are unscientific and live in a fantasy world’. Regarding the first aspect of his criticism, Hamilton contends that science has provided ample evidence that a 4°C world is likely to evolve and that it would create conditions which humanity and other species would find very difficult to deal with. Advocates of the good Anthropocene then do not dismiss scientific evidence but they chose to reframe the increased transformative powers of humans as something positive that provides opportunities rather than risks catastrophe. This, Hamilton argued two days later in the Scientific American, also distorts the scientific evidence that developers of the concept Anthropocene like Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen have given. The second point that Hamilton makes, is that optimism about a sustainable future is unrealistic if it builds on the very same processes, systems and actors that have caused this unsustainable present. While optimistically emphasising solutions rather than problems may be a coping strategy to bypass feelings of helplessness, it hinders appropriate actions. As is long-standing theme, Hamilton considers these appropriate actions to be a move away from the Promethean idea that scientific and technological progress can help us to surpass planetary boundaries. Furthermore, the view of eco-pragmatists that the boundaries that may inhibit the continuous success story of human history are not planetary but merely societal and psychological, so Hamilton, is limited to the privileged few in the Global North and ignores the situation of vulnerable communities all over the world.

In his response to Hamilton’s reply, on the other hand, Revkin starts by highlighting the commonalities of their approaches including the primacy of climate change adaptation in the Global South, scepticism towards technological measures as a final solution generally, and geoengineering in particular. Beyond these specific points, it seems to me that both authors indeed share the constructivist belief that framings of global environmental change such as the Anthropocene have performative powers in society and can thus open up as well as close down certain options for action. But while Revkin believes that reviewing the good Anthropocene can function as a motivational impetus for individual and political action, Hamilton holds that it distracts attention away from the need to make fundamental changes.

While I hold sympathy for both sides of this argument, it seems that Hamilton is much more engaged in the details of the scientific discussions about the Anthropocene, and he indeed has previously analysed the normative implications of the different argument outlined within it. ((  ((

Revkin, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the advancement of environmentalism generally, in which the concept of the Anthropocene may play a strategic but largely incidental part. Keeping in mind the respective aims of the two discussants, I believe that their disagreement is neither about semantics nor about philosophically different understandings of the ‘good life’ in the Anthropocene. This difference is illustrated by Revkin’s assertion that:

‘Hamilton’s critique […] doesn’t deal with the core argument of my talk (the need for a shift in goals from numerical outcomes to societal qualities) and instead focuses on my use of the word “good” in relation to an era he clearly sees as awful.’

Rather combining ‘good’ and ‘Anthropocene’ signifies very different things for the two authors. For Revkin, focussing on a good Anthropocene is a ways of stressing that strategies to achieve sustainability should not focus on numerical goals but on normative goals or ‘traits’ that societies want to achieve. This is why Revkin began his talk at the AESS conference by stating that its title ‘Paths to a “Good Anthropocene”’ contains quotation marks around the adjective ‘good’ in order to stress that values determine choices. For Hamilton, who has been a close observer of the Anthropocene as a concept, the good Anthropocene, itseems, is reminiscent of a contention that started in 2011 with Erle Ellis who advanced the argument that humans have always dramatically altered ecosystems to render them more capable of supporting human development. (( Hamilton has long argued against such a ’techno-utopian vision’ because it supposedly normalises the current development trajectory and renders the Anthropocene, including the scientific evidence that underpins it, compatible with the current status quo.

In conclusion, while Revkin and Hamilton may hold different view on the need for incremental vs. radical changes, their arguments do not seem altogether incompatible. Indeed, I imagine that Revkin’s approval of the idea to retrospectively change the initial title of his talk to from ‘paths to a good anthropocene’ to ‘a good path to the anthropocene’, is a first step toward resolving their disagreement. For it would move attention away from the contentious phrase good Anthropocene, which in Hamilton’s eyes depicts an oxymoron.

The controversial discussion between them, however, importantly highlights the ambiguity that underpins the Anthropocene not just in terms of scientific standing ((A sub-comission set up by the International Geological Union is still deciding on the validity of the Anthropocene as a epoch within Earth history.))  but also in terms of directions into which it points future action. Efforts are currently being made at various levels to understand how to move forward from the insights that the Anthropocene provides. The ‘Anthropocene Review’ journal which seeks to ‘evaluate key responses to the anthropocene’ or the global research initiative Future Earth that will explore ‘seeds of a good anthropocene’ are but two examples of this. I would argue that it is precisely because of this development that we need to think about

‘the cultural metaphors that structure environmentalist thinking, and in particular the need to pay attention to the implicit identities of the scholars who do such thinking’. ((Dalby, S. (2004) Anthropocene ethics: Rethinking ‚the political‘ after the environment, Montreal.))


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