Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Editor’s note: the following is an extended version of Jairus Grove’s response to Jedediah Purdy, appearing in our January/February 2016 forum The New Nature.
Unlike many who appeal to the Anthropocene simply to advance the cause of geoengineering, Jedediah Purdy begins with an assessment of our political condition. Still, he fails to appreciate the nature of the geopolitics responsible for the crisis we face. If we are to take up his noble call for an ecological democracy, we must acknowledge that the violence done to our planet has largely been perpetrated not by all humans but by a select group of Europeans. The Anthropos—the human species as such—is not to blame. Properly named, our era is not the Anthropocene but the Eurocene.
It was a European elite that developed a distinctively mechanistic view of matter, an oppositional relationship to nature, and an economic system indebted to geographical expansion. The resulting political orders measured success by how much wealth could be generated in the exploitation of peoples and resources. The geological record bears the mark of this European assemblage of hierarchies. Understanding the forces of Europeanization—the forces of racial superiority, economic hegemony, and global resettlement—is essential to understanding how the planet got to this point, and how “we” could possibly become democratic.
Properly named, our era is not the Anthropocene but the Eurocene.
Purdy and others claim there are two reasons for renaming the last few centuries to mark a new geological era. The first is a matter of accuracy: there is significant evidence that humans have contributed to climate change. The second is a matter of consciousness raising: renaming the Holocene is essential to raising awareness that humans are responsible. Yet on both counts, we should reconsider what we mean by “human.” It would be more accurate, and go further in raising awareness, to acknowledge the grossly disproportionate impact Europeans have had on our planet. This is not just another hyperbolic jeremiad against European peoples: Purdy’s invitation for global democratic thinking requires a geological history and name that foregrounds what really stands in the way of such a future.
As Purdy points out (unlike Paul Crutzen and others), the “human” footprint involves much more than just carbon dioxide. On a geological time scale, the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide are dwarfed by those of radioactivity and are comparable to those of plastic, the modern waste product par excellence. If the Anthropocene is meant to name the scale of human impacts on the planet, it should refer not only to warming but also to cooling the earth, and Europeanization has done both at levels that even China’s current growth cannot match.
Beginning in 1610, a small-scale ice age took hold of the planet when a wilder arboreal nature took back what had been inhabited land: some 20 million people killed by the European invasion of the Americas resulted in vast reforestation of the North and South American continents. The providence spoken of by those who arrived was not God but syphilis, influenza, and the number of other species that went along for the ride. Waves of well-armed European explorers and settlers leveraged the devastation for their own gain. There is no way to know how many languages, cities, ideas, cosmologies, and ways of inhabiting the world were lost in this genocide and terraforming of the Americas.
The history of nuclear weapons is also predominantly European. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, is only the beginning of this story. In the years that have followed, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons have been tested, about 97 percent of which were detonated by European powers. Those detonations do not appear as tests from the perspectives of the Marshallese or Western Shoshone. A seventy-year nuclear war has spread cancer, incinerated sacred lands, and made other spaces uninhabitable on a temporal scale several orders of magnitude more condensed than the lifespan of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The nuclear powers of the Eurocene—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel—possess 97 percent of the 15,800 nuclear weapons around the planet. The beleaguered state of the arms control agenda means self-annihilation is still a very real possibility.
As for plastic, the Texas-sized trash gyres that swirl in the world’s oceans are another reminder of what a cosmology of disposability and synthetic chemistry has wrought. Plastic may lack the longevity of carbon dioxide and irradiated earth, but for hundreds, maybe thousands of years it will continue to circulate, wreaking havoc throughout the food chain. We have post–World War II European development to thank for single-serve plastic shampoo pouches and bottled water—the latter needed only because nearby streams have been sold to Coca-Cola.
Acknowledging the distinctively European history of our geological era serves a practical as well as a polemical end. Any democratic project must confront the geopolitics of the Eurocene because it challenges the very paradigm of equality. “In the Anthropocene,” Purdy writes, “environmental justice might also mean an equal role in shaping the future of the planet.” In fact, environmental justice will require unequal roles: significantly constraining, even repressing, the powers of the Eurocene.
On the eve of the creation of the United Nations at the Dumbarton Oaks conference, W. E. B. Du Bois saw the failure of a dream before it had even been fully formed: the vast new international body was little more than the institutionalization of the global “color line.” The great powers had insisted upon a Security Council, and the General Assembly would be subordinated to its nuclear authority. Purdy’s suggestion that the planet could be governed equally ignores the vast systems of injustice—settler-colonialism, primitive accumulation, and violent power politics—that stand in the way, upheld by great powers that use nuclear weapons to deter change and deploy swarms of drones to hunt down those too small for the nuclear option.
I would like to be part of Purdy’s ecological democracy, but he is wrong to say “There is no political agent, community, or even movement on the scale of humanity’s world-making decisions.” We share a world governed by a few states with the capability of ending all life on the planet. At the international scale, these states are essentially authoritarian; they rule by economic violence and warfare. That some of those states are not authoritarian at the domestic level is of little consequence to the rest of the world.
It should come as no surprise that the leaders of the food sovereignty and anti–fossil fuel movements Purdy describes belong to marginalized groups that see no future in our current geopolitical order. Indigenous, black, and brown people are at the vanguard of political struggle not because they are more natural but because they have had front row seats in the making of this crisis.
The Eurocene is not perpetrated by all people of European heritage, many of whom oppose the existing geopolitical order—myself included. This distinction—between being European and being an agent of the Eurocene—only intensifies the need to rethink democratization as demanding a politics of inequality rather than a politics of incorporation. Such a remaking of justice is as complex and difficult as the climate crisis itself, and just as worthy a struggle, irrespective of whether we can succeed. As Sylvia Wynter has said, “we must now collectively undertake a rewriting of knowledge as we know it. . . . because the West did change the world, totally.” To do so means exiting the Anthropocene as an idea, and collectively—even if not equally—exiting the Eurocene as a failed epoch. As Wynter says, we need to consider other “genres of the human.” Wynter explains she will not miss the Anthropos because she, among so many others, was never considered human to begin with. To invent a new species is the task that must be undertaken before there can be a “we,” an “our,” or a “cene” that is more than a requiem for the end.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.