Anthropocene (Capitalocene, Chthulucene)

Eugene Stoermer, a freshwater biologist who studies diatoms in the Great Lakes of North America, proposed the name the Anthropocene in 2000 to indicate the anthropogenic processes that are acidifying the waters and changing the nature of life on Earth. The term was picked up and re-used by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, who joined together with Eugene Stoermer to popularise the name Anthropocene specifically in relationship to those sorts of processes emanating from the mid-18th century related to the steam engine and the extraordinary expansion in the use of fossil fuels that acidify the oceans and bleach the corals. They were particularly worried about a vibrio infection in coral reefs that is responsible for the bleaching. (Haraway, 2014)

In general, the term Anthropocene is used to refer to the preponderance of humans in the balance of earthly life and the human experimentation, albeit until recently unwitting, in the chemistry of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. There is disagreement about when the Anthropocence can be said to begin. Some scholars date it back to roughly 10,000 years ago, with the nearly universal extinction of megafauna at the hands of Neolithic hunters. This would make the Holocene and the Anthropocene virtually overlap. A more common view is that the Anthropocene started in modern times. One study dates it to 1610, when the depopulation of the Americas after European conquest led to the reforestation of the New World, bringing on the Little Ice Age. For others, like Stoermer and Crutzen, it is the Industrial Revolution that initiate the Anthropocene, while for yet others the Anthropocene began on 6 August 1945 with the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima (Kunkel, 2017: 22)

However, Donna Haraway proposes that, for all of the failings of the Anthropos and the Anthropocene, and all of the strengths of both, the figure of the Anthropos is not responsible for the processes that threatens mass extinction. Rather, she suggests, if we were to use only one word for the processes that we are talking about, it should be the Capitalocene. It should be noted in passing that geologists use the suffix -cene, derived from the Greek word for new, to designate recent geological eras.

Haraway also argues that a third term is needed: Chthulucene, a word derived from chthon, meaning “earth” in Greek and which is associated with things that dwell in or under the earth. The Cthulucene, for Haraway, refers to processes of reworlding. She suggests it is more like a process of composting than one of being Posthuman. The path towards something that might possibly have a chance of living on, Haraway argues, is through the activation of the chthonic powers that are within our grasp, as we collect up the waste of the Anthropocene and the exterminism of the Capitalocene.

For a review of three books published in 2015-2016 on the topic of the Anthropocene, see Kunkel (2017).

References

Haraway, D. (2014). Anthropocene, capitalocene, chthulucene: staying with the trouble. Open Transcripts. Available from http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ [Accessed 23 December 2016].

Kunkel, B. (2017). The Capitalocene. London Review of Books, 39 (5), 22–28. Available from https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n05/benjamin-kunkel/the-capitalocene [Accessed 1 March 2017].

edited 7 March, 2017 by Allan Parsons

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