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Anthropocene - the human epoch

Sometime relatively recently ago, perhaps a few decades, perhaps a few centuries, planet Earth (i.e. all of This), entered a new epoch - and they called it, the Anthropocene.1–5

 

Big, planetary-scale, systems of balance were disrupted - the carbon dioxide cycle, the nitrogen & phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, etc. This curtailed death and suffering, destruction and devastation on a scale not seen for millions and millions of years, if ever, in the history of the planet.

 

The cause, the error in the program, the bug, was (surprisingly) difficult to pin down. Like a wicked hydra, the Problem (capital p), seemed to entangle many different systems and structures and institutions and corporations and cultures and algorithms. But undeniably, all arrows pointed to the shadow of a single species - the Anthropos.

 

So they named the epoch after themselves, perhaps as a way to blame all of them (rather than a few), perhaps as a way to tell themselves that they were righteous masters of their (dispossessed) spaceship, perhaps as a realization that it was all their fault, perhaps as an indication that somewhere in the direction of the anthropos, the program run awry, but we are not sure how we could let it happen.

 

Could it be that the reason the Problem escaped all political solutions was because it lie at a deeper level?

Anthropocentrism

Underneath the Problem of the Anthropocene is a view that humankind has the right to manipulate (create, destroy, alter) other species and our surroundings. This view is called Anthropocentrism - placing the human in the center and on top. Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans have a unique, significant, and exceptional position on the planet. It is the idea that humans are more real than non-humans, because we can think. But thinking is not the only access mode into the world, and as we shall see, it is not necessarily the best access mode either.

 

The first place we look for cracks in this throne is trying to distinguish the human from the non-human. Where does “the environment” end and humankind begin? The human body for example is a symbiotic marriage between the cells that carry “your” DNA and the numerous bacteria that inhabit your gut. Since one cannot survive without the other, it is hard to determine who is the host and who is the parasite. 30% of human milk is not digestible by the baby, instead, these indigestible carbohydrates serve as a prebiotics, being “selectively fermented by desirable gut flora”.6 Symbiosis stems from the greek “sumbioun” - live together. The living of humankind is something created together with our surrounding. As we interact with other beings and objects, it is as if we overlap and flow into each other. Why is it that when multiple humans spend time together their menstrual cycles synchronize? The boundary of the human body is open; we are permeable and porous, as we share our worlds with others.

 

This idea of how we value humankind in relation to the non-human can also be related to the idea that different humans have different value, also known as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. The Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss describes a study of a group of indigenous villagers where the people were asked to draw a schematic image of how their village was structured. The images drawn by the upper-class turned out systematically different than the images from the lower-class. The privileged people viewed their society organized as multiple concentric circles, with themselves as the center of the village, and the rest living in the outer rings of town. The view of lower-class people was radically different, with a circle that was split in half, showing the privileged people on one side and the unprivileged on the other side.7

 

We transfer this to the topology of anthropocentrism, putting humans as the concentric core of the world, with human like animals further out (apes, dogs, pigs), distant relatives further away (mice, fishes, insects), plants further still, and bacteria and fungi at the outskirts. Non-sentient objects usually doesn’t even make it into the drawing, a stone is just the background upon which the circles of Life (capital L) are drawn. Seen from the stone’s perspective, this topology might be radically different. As the contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton shows in his work “Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People”, the task at hand is to transition from this perspective to one where the worlds of all beings are considered equally real, and thereby equally valuable. Replacing anthropocentrism with a solidarity with the non-human. 8

To find a space where we can establish this solidarity, we must deconstruct reality even further, delving into the world of metaphysics; the field of philosophy that attempts to answer the two fundamental questions: 

Who am I? What is this?