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Conference Report: ‘Comment penser l’anthropocène?’ at Collège de France, Paris

November 5 & 6, 2015 – Conference Program and Videos

The two-day conference ‘Comment penser l’anthropocène?’ (‘How to think the Anthropocene?’) at the Collège de France in Paris brought together numerous scholars from natural and political sciences, from philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history and law. It was chaired by Catherine Larrère and Philippe Descola with the support of the patronage committee around Stefan Helmreich, Tim Ingold, Sandra Laugier, Carolyn Merchant and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

As this selection of contributions will show, the conference’s talks centered around fundamental and far-reaching questions of science, law, politics, economy and philosophy in the time of the Anthropocene and did not fail to stimulate controversial discussions. Overall, the conference made clear that much progress was made in finding a colloquial voice of the different disciplines and understandings. The question of how to think the Anthropocene, however, can yet hardly be seen in a different way than an idea to be explored, an idea that bears existential implications of how we humans and non-humans inhabit our future environments. Intermingled with ontological and epistemological considerations are issues of well-being and integration. Health, community, territory, economics and law are the practical and political tasks to be tackled.

In his opening speech, Philippe Descola (Collège de France) laid out the ground for the following two days by first locating the Anthropocene in the history of the Earth and human beings. In 200,000 years of co-evolution, humans indeed altered their surrounding environment to sometimes irreversible degrees. But as long as agriculture constituted the basic form of production they were not alienated from nature. Alexander von Humboldt hence saw the history of nature and humankind as intertwined and life in total as one big organism. It was with the beginning of market capitalism, where the nature-production nexus declined and the human influence on the earth started to grow into a geological force. With the development of science and technology, humans detached themselves more and more from other life forms.

In the face of the Anthropocene, Descola therefore calls for us to rethink three major processes.

  1. Adaptation: We must acknowledge that there is a huge diversity in how different entities adapt to the very same problem. Billions of actions shape our future. Furthermore, we are inside the changing climate and hence not merely adapting to an outer force like ‘nature’ but to an ongoing flow of changes. This relation, which includes the use of technology, is not governed by a single behaviorist principle.
  1. Appropriation: For a long time and in all forms of economical systems, humans have monetized and transformed natural resources into goods – be it, for instance, through agriculture, logging or mining. The future protection of these natural resources is crucial for the earth system’s balance and poses questions of ownership. For Descola, commons with democratic and localized governing structures would signal a possible way out.
  1. Representation: Tying on to the question of ownership and appropriation, Descola pointed to the dilemma that only humans can be represented legally. The extension of human rights to non-humans would still be an anthropocentric act, simply because non-humans would be defined through their characteristic proximity to humans. Legal rights, solely based on a cognitive (or material) proximity, forbid themselves. Instead, we need to consider that ecosystems are compositions of man and Ecosystems themselves will need to be a category of law of their own. We, who are bonded to nature, would consequently be the ecosystem’s trustees in a cosmopolitical system. This system would need to give up its claim of an absolute universal and seek a relative universal, which differentiates between different sets of discrepancy. It is the principal occupation of anthropology to show different ways of inhabiting this planet. The discipline can thereby help to overcome the Enlightenment’s dogmas of ‘rights to people’ and ‘humans over nature’.

 

Defining the Anthropocene

Valérie Masson-Delmotte (Laboratoire de sciences du climate et de l’environnement et GIEC) presented the newest findings on the current state of climate change and the different scenarios for a 2-4 degree increase in temperature through the end of the century. She highlighted the devastating influence on the oceans, which are affected by temperature much more than are air, soils and glaciers. And she pointed to the fact that humanity has already used 2000 Gigatons – or two thirds – of the carbon budget which would allow us to stay around the 2 degree mark. It is up to us and our immediate engagement as well as to future generations and their long-term commitment, to choose between different actions and decide which of the degree-scenarios we let become reality.

In their talk, Mark Maslin (University College London) and Simon Lewis (University of Leeds) pursued the question of the beginning of the Anthropocene and how to determine it. It got clear that their favorite ‘golden spike’ is the ‘Orbis Hypothesis’: Columbus’ landing in the Americas not only led to a homogenization of the American and European fauna and flora, but also caused the death of around 50 Million Native Americans through war and disease. Because most of the victims were farmers, their deaths led to a massive reforestation and finally to a mini ice age between 1600 and 1650 – a human inflicted global phenomena and the last of its kind before the onset of the warmth of the Anthropocene. A second favorable ‘golden spike’, they argued, could be the detonation of atomic bombs and their globally measurable radiocarbon print; respectively the decrease of atomic bomb-testing towards 1964 through international treaties, i.e. humans’ ability to collectively manage a global threat to humanity and the planet.

Jan Zalasiewicz (University of Leicester and member of the Anthropocene Working Group) expanded the list of possible sources to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene and came up with fossil smoke, nuclear signals, sediment layers behind large dams, artificial minerals and materials such as plastics or concrete, fossils of humans or big holes from mines and oil production. Furthermore, his presentation circled around how individual people like Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and Alexander von Humboldt were able to write whole natural histories of the world, while today we need to put together ever smaller pieces of information to grasp the Earth’s workings. Moreover, the established concepts of determining a geological epoch have to be rethought and opened towards inter- and multidisciplinary approaches. Because for the Anthropocene, questions move beyond mere rocks and it is ultimately humans who have to be understood.

In the Q&A-session that followed, Zalasiewicz also gave an account of the quite informal formation of the Anthropocene Working Group around people who knew each other’s research and were motivated to work in their spare time without payment. The question of the setup of the group as predominantly consisting of white males from the Global North, however, did not get discussed.

 

Living the Anthropocene

One of the few and probably the finest example of provincializing the Anthropocene was a case study on the Q’eros in Andinian Peru presented by Geremia Commetti (Fond National Suisse et Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale), which examined local perceptions and interpretations of a changing climate and the effects on relations between humans and their environment. Commetti learned that the Q’ero witness a variety of climatic changes and their impacts – not only on their crops and animals, but also on their rituals, as for example when the weather doesn’t respond to a shaman’s calling anymore. Interpretations of these phenomena draw from Christian and indigenous beliefs of the end of times (the Pachacuti), as well as from a feeling of degradation of the reciprocal relations with their divinities Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Apu (Spirits of the Mountains). Furthermore, notions from naturalist explanations get incorporated into already existing interpretations, so that there appears to be an ongoing negotiation between the two ontologies of Naturalism and Analogism. Last but not least, Cometti argues that an aspect responsible for the degradation of reciprocity between the Q’eros and their environment can also be found in the mercantilization of rituals, as they increasingly include the exchange of money; be it within the community or when performed for outsiders like tourists.

Jennifer Wells (California Institute of Integral Studies) delved deeper into the entanglements of individuals and societies. In these days, for Wells, there are only alternatives and binaries. Notions like complexity, diversity, unity or ‘globalism’ are all there to grasp this enormously opaque ‘web of changes’. It is in that setting that climate change is simultaneously a driver and signifier of change. Cities, for example, are environments, and streets are ways of organizing lives. Ultimately, then, there are only dynamics and alternatives to sociospheres. And that is why awareness towards them is crucial to shift the matter of the ‘highly complex’ into one of ‘well-being’.

So, there is a need to find ways to see the complex as simply as possible. We live in a complex meshed world where in most phenomena a diversity in unity or a social and a biospherical can be seen at the same time. Moreover, we live not only in, but relate to this world. For Wells, the binary of global and local is just as important as the one of nature and culture. To deal with the complex mesh is about self-organization – the main activity for one’s own survival – about learning and agency, and about the power of speaking with metaphors and productively handling complexification. Dialogical systems in science, for example, may really change the ways of knowledge production and work against neoliberal capitalism at the same time. These are ways of synergistic solution-finding as opposed to mechanistic ones. Hence, the chaotic and systemic nature of climate change is already triggering new ideas.

Marie-Hélène Parizeau (Université Laval, Québec) spoke about an ecological ‘soundness’ (une santé écologique) as a way of rethinking our relations towards the ecological. Current changes in the climatic system and human societies threaten our well-being: new and widespread infectious diseases and their indirect consequences served as one example. They affect the most vulnerable most certainly more. She attributed a crisis to current definitions of the World Health Organization: Health as a preferably complete well-being is a moralist view and not an issue of health. In the sense of Foucault and Callahan, issues of health are political issues.

Out of this analysis she developed the idea of an ‘ameliorative health’ (santé améliorative) which she opposed to the above mentioned ecological ‘soundness’. The main point about the – posthuman – ameliorative health is its urge towards a ‘being better than well’: certainly there is a hype about augmentation via technology. Also, we widely use different methods of therapy. That means that the living indeed is modifiable. The corresponding critique of this would consist in a critique against a cybernetic view of live. Life cannot exclusively be seen as information. It is, however, this understanding which results in hybridity. The living is not only modifiable, it is controllable and so the living can be defined as being about organization. No wonder then that this posthuman discourse is constructed around ideas of the filigree and vulnerable.

If we would ‘ecologize’ our understanding of a molecular biology, we would open up a new scientific paradigm: the ecological soundness; at its center an awareness of the two opposing mindsets of ‘making nature’ and ‘being with nature’. Resilience, frugality and justice are key words. This calls for a new contextualization of environment and culture – ecological soundness would then be an art of living, a lifestyle of a collective well-being (or, rather, a well-being collective).

Dale Jamieson (New York University) characterized the Anthropocene as something ‘we have always been’ because we have always altered our environment. What matters are our growing needs and the increase in population; hence the scale and degree of our influence. However, it is hard for us to feel responsible for this influence, as everything seems possible but nothing (i.e. our individual actions) seems to matter so far. For Jamieson this loss of agency is connected to the unclear distribution of responsibilities in the ‘sea of agency’ (individuals, states, companies, markets). In order to regain our agency, we must banish the two myths that, first, the Anthropocene is not inevitable. The Anthropocene is about degree and scale rather than about teleology or a natural course of humanity. And second, we have to get rid of the myth that we have to choose between politics and ethics, as political decisions can indeed be ethical and vice versa. Finally, we must find green virtues where we respect ourselves through respecting nature and act accordingly. This does not require a univocal perspective on nature. But such an understanding must be based on affective ethics which render possible to perceive nature as both sublime and as a partner. This may endanger us, but it can also trigger wonder.

John Broome (University of Oxford) tied on to this line of argumentation and argued, that morality in the Anthropocene is not a trivial matter. To reduce emissions of climate gases is an issue of justice and to promote “goodness” in the world may reveal itself as a pragmatic necessity in coping with it. But should we then try to make people more virtuous? Broome’s answer to this question is no. Today, the effects of climate change are not tackled via a moral approach but mostly via the coercive power of national states – even though the effects of such interventions have so far been limited.

Broome considers the Anthropocene as an opportunity for a pareto improvement: If we reduce the emission of greenhouse gases but leave following generations less resources, this could be seen as a ‘green investment’. Therefore, there would be no need for the current generation to go without much of its enjoyment (which would be the default option of a rational choice theory). Moreover, ‘to share the burden’ of climate change is, at least economically, inefficient and due to the difficult question of external costs potentially harmful to our environments.

Should we refrain from a pareto improvement? Would the implications of a pareto improvement be morally justifiable? Should we refrain from it? Broom admits that injustice may become embodied in the final result. Intergenerational injustice, however, is not so much of a problem because what (ideally) will be distributed are the benefits of green investments. Hence, climate change can be tackled without morality, on the basis of a pareto improvement. Maldistribution is to be separated from it and in every case needs a governmental response. Broome ended his talk with the proposition of a Climate Bank: make use of the situation that it is currently possible to borrow money at very little interest and balance out the “individualistic morality” of national states.

Dominique Bourg (Université de Lausanne) focused on a critique of the concepts of transhumanism and ecomodernism. The former, according to Bourg, sees the potential of technology as unlimited and the threats of climate change as non-existent, artificialization as good per se and the accumulation of means as necessary. Hence, this will lead to a total neoliberalism. Furthermore, the described tendency matches the search for eternal life. And this would bring us into the ethical dilemma of banning birth on the planet; of being in the position to decide whether or not we give new generations a chance to live.

Ecomodernism in turn is based on the conviction that we should decouple human development from nature and embrace our immense influence on the planet. This can be done by applying and advancing contemporary technologies like nuclear power or intense agriculture – hence, ecomodernism understands the Anthropocene as something bad that can be turned into something good. For Bourg, the big problem of this concept lies in the internal contradiction that economic growth is a given and needed, while we know that it actually accelerates environmental degradation. Also, this dynamic cannot be isolated from the ongoing diminution of energy stocks.

As an alternative, Bourg proclaims a change in civilization. In a world where the climate gets more and more hostile, the concept that we humans all have something in common would become true; because our societies would be based on fewer resources and we would need to adapt to what the earth is able to give by means of both ‘low’ and ‘high’ technology. Thereby, we would have to accomplish our own humanity and replace the concept of negative freedom with one of a collective freedom. Climate change and a more constrained being with the Earth could hence lead to more democracy and not less.

 

Imagining the Anthropocene

Voir l’anthropocène: le rôle des fictions – an elaborated skepticism of modernism underlay all three contributions of this panel. How do currently lived realities structure our possible futures? How do fictions and imaginations render possible and structure our capacities to visualize a future – an anthropocentric future that needs to be politically reflected upon? Perhaps the words of Émilie Hache (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense) at the end of her talk sum it up best: “La phobie des modernes n’est pas notre.” Since the second great acceleration which started during the second half of the 20th century and involved electronic technology, it seems clear that our social structures exploit women in the same way as globalized capitalism exploits the Earth. Therefore, an ‘eco-feminist’ theory or at least awareness should be at the heart of everyone’s thinking.

Yannick Rumpala (Université de Nice, Equipe de Recherche sur les Mutations de l’Europe et de ses Sociétés, ERMES) agreed, by saying that we need to think about the consequences of our reflective forms and formations. The future-oriented genre of science-fiction is such a formation. Its contributions often explore the limits of ethical and cognitive possibilities. How do we relate to the Earth? How does electronic technology alter our relation to animals? What does it mean to be human? Current thought about machines illustrates this: it is exploring the idea whether or not we can solve problems with technological means. And it experimentally seeks to answer the question of how to accompany the change of our planet.

Tommaso Guariento (Università degli Studi di Palermo) then dived deeper into the epistemological implications of such ‘political-aesthetical’ tropes. Drawing on Philippe Descola and Peter Sloterdijk – among many others – he illustrated four ‘fractures’: First, the cosmological one. Very broadly speaking, it involved a change of perspectives – with Galileo, for example, we moved away from a heliocentric understanding of our Being. The second fracture, the ontological, is characterized by a schism between Nature and Culture. Third, the geographical one: How do we achieve a politics of nature? The transcendental fracture, the fourth, may bear the beginnings of an answer to this question: If we think causality agnostically we may focus on the things and their interplay themselves. Today, however, these four fractures inform the style and aesthetics of current thought insofar as there can be found an emphasis on the melancholic, geocentric and apocalyptic. To separate ourselves from such thinking, we should venture out and find our own ecological-philosophical niches.

 

Politicizing the Anthropocene

Catherine Larrère (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne et Présidente de la Fondation de l’Écologie Politique) centered her talk around the concepts of idealism and realism in international relations and their application in regard to climate change. Whereas an idealistic approach aims to align foreign policy with internal political philosophy and relies on global governance and international cooperation, the realistic approach does not foresee an intra-foreign alignment, proclaims the states’ aim to actively secure their own survival above all on the international parquet and understands the global system as incapable of establishing long-lasting power structures. In times of the Anthropocene, however, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where neither of these approaches fully apply. Today, states have an interest in defaulting, in not doing things on the international level. As a complication, a rational choice approach is not possible because that would require the independence of the involved, which again, we don’t have. This led Larrére to conclude, that a territorially bound and polycentric governance and not a global governance must be key – for example via a (already established) political network of cities.

Clive Hamilton (Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Australia, Charles Sturt University, member of the governmental Climate Change Authority Australia) characterized the Anthropocene as a totalizing event, where the Earth is not anymore a mere total of particular localities and where we hold a hegemony over the global. We can thereby understand the Anthropocene as a constellation of social and technical forces, but we need to situate this constellation and can’t simply say “it’s the capitalocene and evil capitalism”, or “it’s consumerism and the market”. As already mentioned several times, we are in fact in it; we shape and create the Anthropocene. To this Hamilton adds that we do not have a genetic programming for competitiveness, but a free will. We need to understand that the Anthropocene is not something we simply stumbled into, but that it is a revealing, a part of a larger unfolding that questions our basic understandings of our Being on Earth and with Earth.

According to Christoph Bonneuil (Centre A. Koyré, CNRS/EHESS/MNHN) then, the Anthropocene is the most decisive alternative model to modernity. It is, in short, the denial of the concept of Nature, but the claim that we need to rethink our societies as crossed by environments: The Human is back in Nature and therefore we need more interactions between (human) science and the Earth system. One way of doing this would be to look at the history of science via its metabolisms. Because – and this is linked to different ideas of freedom and alienation – the idea of a negation of Nature is stronger than the one of externalization. As an example of this dynamic serves the question, whether we speak of a Capitalocene or an Anthropocene?

Yet again from another angle, the subsequent talk picked this question up. Alf Hornborg (Lund University, Sweden) discussed the current conditions of embeddedness; meaning, the role of money and technology in creating societal possibilities. The main question there is: Does technological progress per se happen on the ground of asymmetric relations? Since Ricardo and Marx it is known that what is broadly referred to as capitalism involves a recursive relation between infrastructure, materials and the capacity to make claims. To this adds the circumstance that machines need inputs. They serve as ‘time-space-appropriators’ because they save or liberate human time in the centers at the cost of time and space in the peripheries. The relation therefore is asymmetric. Industrial countries are importers of embodied energy, space and labor. How could ‘the system’ hide these moral implications? Hornborg argues that the detachment of materiality and morality is made possible because in (mainstream) economic theory exchange is per definitionem morally neutral. The role of money is quintessential in regard to such extra-somatic dynamics: It involves a shift of focus from collecting solar energy (e.g. via agriculture and the exchange of such goods) to the flows of global trade. Money is co-responsible for creating a dichotomy of subject and object.

The importance and unequal distribution of production factors are currently substituted by the workings of ‘the market’. This involves an enforcement of the dislocation and acceleration of distribution of land, labor and capital. ‘Globalized technologies’, which span and encompass the globe, emerged since roughly 1800. They require and utilize price differences, according to Hornborg.

Drawing on a Foucaldian analysis of biopolitics and governmentality, Emanuele Lombardi (Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal) traced the shift from liberal understandings of the market as something given or natural to the neoliberal construction of markets and the establishment and enforcement of competition. This results in a commodification of the ecological crisis, best seen by the example of carbon trading. Climate change is perceived as a market failure – to be resolved through more marketization of “ecological services”. The establishment of emissions trading thereby symbolizes a shift towards a governance for the market (Foucault) and leads to today’s situation, where values are created without achieving ecological improvement. Lombardi located the reason for this in the false premises that, first, saving emissions where they occur is not cost effective and that, second, it does not matter where on the globe we take (and then commodify) environmental measures such as forest protection. Lombardi concluded that the creation of a carbon market is not only useless for solving the ecological crisis, but also prevents further systemic thinking and action.

Stefan C. Aykut (Lisis, Université Paris-Est and Zentrum Marc Bloch Berlin) argued towards in same direction and pointed out how we have been governing the climate for 20 years without tangible results. We were unable to decarbonize our lives, i.e. govern the social, political and economic factors that drive climate change. Questions around escaping the carbon lock-in, redefinitions of energy-geopolitics or modes of development were not considered and polycentric, subnational bottom-up action disqualified. This, because we rely on a ‘pollution paradigm’, meaning only outputs are regulated. Also we rely on an ‘environmental paradigm’, separating climate governance from other institutions and regimes concerned with energy, trade, development or finance. Finally, the ‘collective action paradigm’ shows in a perception of the global level as the only appropriate level for a possible solution. As an example, Aykut presented the COP21 pre-contracts from Bonn, where the aim for reducing the subsidies for non-renewable energy carriers was crossed out. In a larger frame, the international community has so far acted on the premise of a detached approach informed by a technophile legacy of system thinking; going as far as considering geo-engineering for resolving climate change, while refusing to take more polycentric, embedded and life-worldly approaches into account and perceive climate change as part of and one of many problems in human-nature interactions.

In his closing presentation, Bruno Latour (Sciences Po) stated a striking return of the notion of the territory and stressed the importance of so called ‘critical zones’ – locations on the thin, fragile layer of the biosphere, extending from the earth’s geological core to the lower atmosphere. Critical zones are zones where it is possible to gather data on diverse chemical and physical entities or (human) laws and agricultural practices which ‘flow’ through them. Serving as a proxy for time, critical zones can then help us to construct the feedback loops we need in order to build relationships between different environments and different humans and to make those relationships visible.

For the territory, Latour began with a comparison of the cover of the Nature issue on the Anthropocene and that of Hobbes’ Leviathan. While the former shows ‘nature’ growing out of a human body or a body hybridized with ‘nature’, the latter pictures a human to be enthroned over ‘nature’. To be able to overcome Hobbesian conceptions of state, society and nature and to be able ‘to describe the world we want to live in’, Latour called for a reevaluation of Hobbes’ premises of theos (which figure of authority – god, state or society?), logos (which type of knowledge?), demos (which people?), nomos (which law and which land?) and cosmos (which distribution of capacities among agencies?). Thereby, we should rethink sovereignty as ‘naturally’ based on enclosed nation states and reclaim territory as the foundation of our identities and as intertwined cosmos-networks that go beyond artificial borders – just like the causes and effects of climate change do. This could lead to the ‘New Climatic Regime’, an alternative for the concept of the Anthropocene. Signaling by its name that it is about civil and geographical conflicts, the ‘New Climatic Regime’ is characterized by overlapping and inwardly diverse territories and re-localization (contra nationalist and globalized understandings at the same time). Furthermore, it is made up of multiple sovereignties on one Earth to be composed (in contrast to one humanity with multiple cultures), held by the Earth system (instead of humans’ emancipation from territory) and based on Earthbounds in the Anthropocene (as opposed to humans in the Holocene). The ultimate goal of turning towards the ‘New Climatic Regime’, Latour concluded, is to limit the extent of climate wars that are fought on the ‘outside’ but will turn inwards, towards ‘our territories’.

 

Conclusion

The various contributions did not shy away from a discussion of given legal institutions and frameworks or empirical data. Rather, they assessed their capacity to link together global and local issues of justice and also effectively solve problems of climate change. Although rational thought was generally preferred, a deep concern about ethics and ecological thinking was on equal footing. Also, the concern about a recovery of agency given the complexities and diversities of anthropocentric thought and effects was apparent throughout the conference.

The awareness towards questions of technology, structural exploitation and hierarchies of power can not only be explained by the empirically proven climate change, its negative effects on many communities and the pressure to act. Since it is debatable if the human is still human – because now humanity is inside nature, or part of nature – the provocation of dualistic thinking requires cognitive abstraction on a meta-level. Therefore, anthropogenic thinking is very reflexive. The self’s position towards the other(s) is constantly questioned. This showed in a huge variety of concepts and explanations of phenomena. The effort and work of imagination cannot be separated from this; systemic conceptions learn to insert and deal with the unknown and they have an impact on our daily lives.

 

Yannick van den Berg and Sandro Simon were recently teaching the course ‘Social Anthropology and the Anthropocene: Perspectives from Latin America and Africa’ at the University of Basel, Switzerland. The participants of the course wrote short texts on anthroclassroom.net and tweeted via twitter.com/anthroclassroom.

For a collection of video recordings from the big hall (in French), click here.

For the full program, click here.


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