Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Anthropocene: "Nature is now something that we create"

Isn't it frustrating when scientists confidently announce a new paradigm, when all they are really (unknowingly) doing is drawing attention to something sociologists had already described under a different label? A case in point: British sociologist Anthony Giddens introduced the concept of "reflexive modernization" to denote how everything has become subject to human decision-making, including nature itself. According to him, this means it is now impossible to speak of nature in pristine terms that imply its separateness from "society". This is exactly the kind of precursor that is not acknowledged by middlebrow publications such as The Economist, which blandly informs (ahem) us that it was in the year 2000 (i.e. some years after Giddens's pronouncements) that:

"Paul Crutzen, an eminent atmospheric chemist, realised he no longer believed he was living in the Holocene. He was living in some other age, one shaped primarily by people. From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans were bringing about an age of planetary change. With a colleague, Eugene Stoermer, Dr Crutzen suggested this age be called the Anthropocene—“the recent age of man”.

Before continuing on its merry way:

"The advent of the Anthropocene promises more, though, than a scientific nicety or a new way of grabbing the eco-jaded public’s attention. The term “paradigm shift” is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real. For centuries, science has progressed by making people peripheral. In the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus moved the Earth from its privileged position at the centre of the universe. In the 18th James Hutton opened up depths of geological time that dwarf the narrow now. In the 19th Charles Darwin fitted humans onto a single twig of the evolving tree of life. As Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, points out, embracing the Anthropocene as an idea means reversing this trend. It means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force."

Try telling me then that there is no disciplinary division of labor, and then ask yourself why it is so easy for natural scientists to get traction in the media, while social scientists struggle to make any impression at all? Such is the hegemonic effect of the "expertise" associated with scientists. It doesn't hurt either of course when initiatives such as Public Understandings of Science forums can help out the cause by handling the PR side of things. Ditto for a sponsor's generous funding. Personal experience has taught me as much: I can still vividly remember attending a meeting chaired by a chemistry professor who dropped an anecdote about the time he had to sit on a panel with a feminist philosopher of science. Rather than acknowledge the potentially critical ramifications of her work for his own practices though, he chose instead to make a dismissive comment about the (comparatively) small size of the grants she had previously won to support her research (usually around $2, 000 each time): "I don't get out of bed for anything less than $15, 000."

Or try following the money trail that has helped prop up one particularly prominent science popularizer: Richard Dawkins. Two former Microsoft executives have linkages to Dawkins and the concept of memes. Former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi has funded the endowed chair at England’s Oxford University first occupied by Dawkins, the originator of the concept of memes. Another interesting Microsoft connection is Richard Brodie, a formerMicrosoft executive who wrote the first version of Microsoft Word, and who was Bill Gates’s personal technical assistant. After retiring from Microsoft, Brodie wrote Virus of the Mind:The New Science of the Meme.

 I can't see that my argument is necessarily invalidated by pointing out how Giddens offered policy advice to Blair and Clinton. That kind of access to the halls of power is hardly representative of the public profile of the majority  of social scientists. I know that in Australia for example, the government appoints a "Chief Scientist", while the best a sociologist can hope for is to be voted president of their members' association (i.e. the Australian Sociological Association). Besides, what does it say about the long-term nature of the "influence" of a sociologist like Giddens, when the meaning of his central concept is already seemingly forgotten--or rather, remains unknown--even in the Anglosphere? Indeed, how is it possible already for historical amnesia to have set in, ironically, when Giddens sits in the House of Lords for Labour? Debate the relative merits of his "third way" policy proposals all you like; it still doesn't change the fact that reflexive modernization is not destined to attain the status of a "meme" to the same extent as the anthropocene no doubt eventually will-- notwithstanding the crossovers between their respective scientific implications.

 And by the way, Brian Eno, you failed to challenge this sad state of affairs by namedropping "anthropocene" on your Small Craft on a Milk Sea album...in fact, you merely kowtowed to the powers-that-be...


HellCombatant said...

Unfortunately, the only "Anthropical" element left after the advent of the true singularity will be the Machine. Humans always forget that they themsleves are a bridge not an end. Virus was the first Machine that brought us all here, nurtured us, grew us and left us under the silent and obscure control of our own subconscious to bring about the true Son of the Virus, the Mega-Machine. What will have been left afterwords for humans will be the hide and seek in the vast extends of the Black Archipelago, the primordial "Marlborough County" where he will have to find solace if it is not to end like his Neandertal brother!

Anselmo Quemot said...

You paint a very grim picture here! If it ever comes to this, I hope you will be available to provide some much needed solace.

Some outlandish scenarios appear to suggest though that it may eventually become more difficult to find a place to "hide" because of the increasing capability of homo machinus to traverse vast distances by a novel means:

"Space exploration is currently very expensive, so we havent got far yet. However, when we exist only as information within a machine, we could be copied into a very small device, encapsulated in a very small shell with some nano-technology machines, nanites. By this time, we could expect that nanites would be able to make replicas of themselves, and of anything else we desire. These small shells would be like seeds. We could accelerate them to near light speeds and send them off to other planets around other stars. The nanites would be able to fabricate a suitable environment and suitable body for us, and then upload us into them. The environmental requirements of Homo machinus might not be very demanding. We may not even be limited by the speed of light, if we can master warp drive, wormholes or tachyon transmission, all of which we know are possible in principle. Surely a few years of research by mid 21st century super-beings will crack the problems of bringing these principles to fruition. Many other exciting areas previously beyond us will be a natural part of our everyday existence."


HellCombatant said...

Thanks for the interesting meta-anthropology site! The truth is though that the hidden point of my comment was based in the already 2000-old "Gnostic"-oriented understandiong of the ever presence of "evil" in evolution. I just saw this "debt" movie yesterday, where the Birkhausen butcher doctor finally beats his Mosad opponents at the psychological level and then he becomes the same person that calls them to beat him in a final battle. And then I realized that the tricky point here is that the movie "almost" suggests that if nowadays Israelis have become as harsh as they appear to be they seem to "owe" this somehow into their previous butcher-masters! And all this sounds ot me, hmmm, "human, very human"! And what I want to say then, is that the only interesting thing of this long term evolution would be a machine tha tfinally grasps the meaning of all this, a Buddist machine maybe, or a prophecy machine or somethingthat would eb the opposite of what is very clearly expressed at the final momologue of Col Kurtz in "Apocalypse". But I think Frank Herbert has already given us enough of this "very human" psychological substrate of domination and power in his excellent treatment in the "Dune" series. So the ultimate question remains that of meaning after all (and if you noticed this already a very "European" question, that is very restricted - spatially speaking!)