Humanitarianism in the Anthropocene

The decade has been conceptually rich for anthropologists. From multi-species ethnography to the practice of care, the past several years have seen a flourish of analytical concepts and theoretical preoccupations. Two key developments among these emergent and often-interlinked topics are anthropology’s focus on international humanitarianism and the Anthropocene. To date these two important research streams have not been linked. This seems destined to change, since the questions that underlie the anthropological study of humanitarianism—fundamental questions about our moral and political stance towards human life—overlap considerably with the central preoccupations of the Anthropocene debate—which asks what future forms life and politics will take on this planet. This short reflection hopes to encourage the discussion.

In its most defuse form humanitarianism is an ethos: the insistence that all people are fundamentally alike and thus deserve a certain equity of consideration. The concept of humanity implies a certain biological sameness, but also moral equality (Fassin 2012:1-17). Thus humanitarian discourse simultaneously universalizes and essentializes. It insists that—in our biological needs, our ability to feel pain, to suffer and to hope—we are all alike. Because we are all subject to the same vagaries of time and trauma the very fact of being human merits dignity and respect. Since we are all united in our weaknesses, certain elementary levels of substance—freedom from starvation, or arbitrary dislocation or death—should be guaranteed to all humans. People should not be instrumentalized, made tools of others’ selfish pursuits. Humans have a basic duty of care to other humans, especially in times of extremity. These are moral prescriptions, but they have the character of fact; in the present day the humanitarian argument is so pervasive that it seems axiomatic.

Humanitarianism is a noble sentiment, but makes for a difficult practice. When put into action, humanitarian ideals become a form of operationalized compassion. In more contemporary, professionalized form, humanitarian action constitutes an industrialized response to suffering. The same tools and techniques that power global capitalism also enable humanitarian action: transnational supply chains, administration, media and communications mobilize personnel and materials to far away places. While the international aid industry is small by comparison to other large-scale industrial complexes, it is a multi-billion dollar industry nevertheless. From charitable beginnings, global humanitarian action has undergone a process of professionalization. In the face of institutionalization, the welter of need and the surge of so many bodies, the original motivation—to care for people united in their ability to suffer—is obscured; a numerical or biopolitical definition of life takes over. Much of the anthropological literature on humanitarianism highlights how the philosophy and practice are simultaneously products of, responses to, and exacerbated by the globalized, post-colonial condition.

Where the anthropology of humanitarianism shows how the concept of compassion for “humanity” is enacted in different spaces and times, the Anthropocene forces us to view humanity in relation to space and time itself. Just as our individual actions influence the lives of others and our local environment, our collective and historical human activity affects the life course of the planet as a whole. Humanity is a force of nature. In making this explicit, the Anthropocene has been characterized as a destruction of dualisms, a concept that renders long-standing theoretical divides—such as nature/culture, modern/non-modern, human/non-human—if not demonstrably false, then at least not fit for analytical purpose (Sanders & Hall 2015). The Anthropocene highlights the fallacy of society as an imagined world apart from nature, and the natural, geological world as a force outside social and cultural influence. It spells the end of Natural History, as culture itself is recognized as a geological force.

At this point, commonalities and differences become apparent. In some ways, humanitarianism and the Anthropocene are natural partners. Both place humans at the centre of the action. They are firmly anthropocentric. The two concepts also draw attention to the interconnectedness of people, to notions that care and stewardship are essential duties of individuals and humanity as a whole. In this way they are entirely deterritorialized projects: everywhere and nowhere at once; there is no part of the planet where humans are not humans, or where the effects of the Anthropocene do not reach.

In other ways, humanitarianism and the Anthropocene may seem opposed. Contemporary humanitarian action puts human welfare—a circumscribed, biological version of welfare—as its foremost goal. By contrast the Anthropocene is about planetary welfare, or (if “welfare” is too anthropocentric a concept) at least about understanding humanity as a force that impacts planetary equilibrium.

In the most brutal formulation, humanitarianism is bad for the planet. Its stubborn insistence on prolonging marginal lives produces surplus population. It achieves this through consumption of resource-intensive products of global industrial capitalism. No one has estimated the net carbon footprint of the humanitarian aid industry, but it likely rivals that of similar multi-billion dollar globalist enterprises. The aid industry accounts annually for hundreds of thousands of flights of hundreds of millions of kilometres, as managers, medics, consultants and media jet to all corners of the map. The industry’s iconic white LandCruisers—which daily ply disaster zones by the thousands—get around 12km to the litre. This is to say nothing of the diesel generators, the air-conditioned offices, transnational shipping, mounds of medical waste, and the home comforts, such as tinned food and drink, airlifted to expats in remote postings.

To phrase a critique in such blunt terms is not to argue against the humanitarian enterprise. Nor is it to argue that some lives are not worth saving. It is to call attention to the manner in which practices intended to foster welfare are themselves entwined in practices that exacerbate existing perils. It is also to illustrate how, (after a short period of unfashionablity), a certain dualistic moral calculus is resurgent: one that frames human wellbeing as subordinate to political exigency and public finance. This is a calculus that pits individual life and liberty against collective interest—when that interest is framed in terms of the nation state or, increasingly, the planet. It is a calculus highly visible today in discourses over migration and asylum. It will only become more prominent as the Anthropocene advances.

Thus anthropologists of humanitarianism have much to exchange with scholars of the Anthropocene. The humanitarian ethos calls for us to address people in crisis. It is a call that resonates deeply in our own lives, in part because, as Latour has noted (2014), to live on planet earth at the time of the Anthropocene is to live life in crisis.


Darryl Stellmach is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Medical Anthropology, Food and Nutrition Security at the University of Sydney. In 2014, for his doctoral research at the University of Oxford, he undertook an ethnography of aid agency response to the South Sudan conflict. Prior to his studies Darryl spent ten years as a humanitarian aid worker.

Dr. Sverre Molland is a lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies at the Australian National University. His research explores the intersection of development, security and migration in Southeast Asia.


Works Cited

Fassin, D., 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. University of California Press.

Latour, B., 2014. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene—A personal view of what is to be studied, in: Distinguished Lecture Delivered at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Washington.

Sanders, T., Hall, E.F., 2015. Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? [WWW Document]. Savage Minds. http://savageminds.org/2015/09/05/anthropologies-21-is-there-hope-for-an-anthropocene-anthropology/ (accessed 7.27.16).

One Response to Humanitarianism in the Anthropocene

  1. ” In making this explicit, the Anthropocene has been characterized as a destruction of dualisms, a concept that renders long-standing theoretical divides—such as nature/culture, modern/non-modern, human/non-human—if not demonstrably false, then at least not fit for analytical purpose” and yet overwhelming majority of people (including no doubt the very folks who preach such moral visions, when they are leading their day to day lives) carry on more or less as they have (dualisms and all intact/enacted, we don’t get very far (outside of the world of publish or perish, or like poor Bruno Latour with his artsy projects so far from removed the scenes of decision/power for the kinds of doings he hopes to impact ) with these sorts of broad proclamations of conceptual imperatives so perhaps we should instead try and manufacture compelling alternative ways of doing/assembling particular things like making better waste disposal systems, or developing new ways of hosting refugees or the like (as Annemarie Mol and co are doing)?

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