The anthropocene is the proposed geologic term for the period in which humans have made a significant impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems.
It’s not a term without controversy however, which I learned as I read the first essay in Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene. Susan Rustick writes:
What will my canine companions think if the Working Group on the Anthropocene makes an initial proposal that our current epoch be called the Anthropocene? What will the elm tree sense or the aronia bushes? What clarion call or trumpet of death will be heard by the Whooping Crane or the deer that sleep in prairie? Should the designation of the geological epoch acknowledge only humans and not all life on earth? I argue that the proposed name “Anthropocene” is comparable to the experience of Narcissus, peering at his own human reflection in the pond.
She makes a very good point. To insert a species that has resided on this planet for a geologic blink of an eye into the geological timeline is a bold move. Rustick rightfully questions why all humans must be blamed for climate change when it’s really just a small percentage of the human population (we know who we are) who have done the damage. And what of the rest of the residents of this planet? Rustick mentions “human exceptionalism” — a term that pretty much sums up our current relationship with our non-human companions.
This book, a collection of a dozen scholarly chapters that address various aspects of the anthropocene and human/animal relationships, is fascinating. I should stress that this is a scholarly book, so some of the chapters were quite dense with footnotes and references to Aristotle and Descartes and other thinkers that we are still coming to terms with today.
But I think anyone in an animal studies programs will see this book as a “must read,” because it speaks to the challenges animal rights activists face in raising awareness of animal issues. Such as conflict between humans and wolves, which is addressed by Martin Drenthen, who writes:
A recent study found that today Europe as twice as many wolves at the United States, despite its being half the size and more than twice as densely populated. … Europeans somehow manage to coexist with species that recenlty were hunted down and extirpated. Although rewilding projects occasionally meet local resistance, particularly in areas with a long cultural history, mostly they are applauded by the general public.
He later writes that “resurging wolves confront us with our desire for control, not only control over nature, but also control over our own nature.”
I suspect that “control” or “lack of control” is central to why so many people either deny climate change or take a fatalistically passive approach to it. And if the earth is widely viewed as a sinking ship, then the predominant view is “humans first.”
In the chapter Speaking with Animals Eva Meijer writes about human exceptionalism:
Viewing humans as fundamentally different, and hierarchically above other animals, leads humans to act in ways that do not take into account the well-being of other animals, and to see their interests as less important than human interests.
Which brings me back to anthropocene. I thought the term was already well past the proposed stage based on how commonly it is now used. So I don’t see it going away.
I’m glad that I now see the intrinsic flaws. But I suspect the benefits are worth the downsides and oversights. Because this idea that humans have broken the planet is an idea that, well, speaks to humans. As self-centered as it may be, it is humans who will have to fix it.
Rustick ends her essay:
… we need to pull away from our reflection, sit by the pond with its many beings as our companions, and inhale the air in which we sit and on which we depend. We ned to listen, to see, to smell, and to touch with the wider sense of self, with compassion, empathy, and respect for all who live here within a living Earth.
Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene (Ecocritical Theory and Practice)
Edited by Morton Tonnessen, Kristin Armstrong Oma, Silver Rattasepp
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).