“On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature”

Eileen Crist. 2013. Environmental Humanities, Vol. 3, pp. 129-147.
This paper examines the recent proposal to christen our geological epoch “the Anthropocene.” The reasoning offered for this new name is that humanity’s enormous mark on the geological strata would be a discernible boundary to future geologists; therefore a change in nomenclature is called for to reflect our transition out of the Holocene (our epoch’s current formal name). I argue, however, that the pitch for the Anthropocene goes well beyond this rationale. The Anthropocene has morphed into a discourse that is organizing the perception of a world picture (past, present, and future) through a set of ideas and prescriptions that is tenaciously anthropocentric; indeed, the championed name itself—Anthropocene, or the age of Man—evokes the human-centeredness that is at the root of our ecological predicament. The main argument of this paper is that the discourse of the Anthropocene refuses to challenge human dominion, proposing instead technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable. By the same token, the Anthropocene discourse blocks from consideration the possibility of abolishing a way of life founded on the domination of nature. In conclusion, I submit that while technological and managerial approaches have a place in addressing ecological problems, our predicament primarily calls for a drastic pulling back and scaling down of the human presence—welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, forms of habitation, and uses of land and sea, so that humanity may flourish together with the entire breadth of Life.

Sociologist Eileen Crist is a vocal opponent of the Anthropocene.  Her editorial profile for the journal Environmental Humanities describes the Anthropocene as an “extremely dangerous” concept that “adds insult to the planet’s injury.”  We must, Crist argues, resist using this concept uncritically and instead interrogate it as a powerful discourse that serves to reinforce the ecologically disastrous status quo.

The title of this passionately argued essay—“On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature”—is inspired by Thoreau’s lament about an “unclean and stupid farmer” who bestowed his family name upon a pond “whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare” (from Walden, cited by Crist on p. 142).   Crist, like Thoreau before her, is deeply troubled by our practice of naming after ourselves that which we degrade. The problem, then, is not that the Anthropocene overstates the ecological impacts of humans, but that it naturalizes them by enfolding human exceptionalism and dominance into the planet’s natural history:

Anthropocene discourse clings to the almighty power of that jaded abstraction ‘Man’ and to the promised land his God-posturing might yet deliver him, namely, a planet managed for the production of resources and governed for the containment of risks. (p. 139)

As I noted in a previous post, this orientation to the Anthropocene is the polar opposite of what one finds in the work of an Anthropocene exponent like environmental scientist Erle Ellis.  Where Ellis sees an opportunity to acknowledge and take responsibility for our planetary dominance, Crist sees a global elite refusing to admit that human societies have lost the ability to rein in their ecologically destructive practices.  In one scenario, we develop institutions and technologies to manage the Earth system toward sustainability; in the other, our presence must be drastically curtailed if we hope to share the planet with other forms of life.

Each of these opposing scenarios gives me pause.  On one hand, I worry about how elites might use technocracy to insulate themselves from ecological catastrophe.  And, on the other, I worry about how “overpopulation” might serve as justification for draconian control measures.  Neither outcome is what the authors in question desire.  For now, though, let’s set aside such concerns and focus instead on how these scenarios speak to a question at the center of my post on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work: what image do we have of humanity for the Anthropocene?  Are we planetary engineers with boundless ingenuity or a ravenous global parasite destined to destroy its host?

To be clear, Crist’s critique does not inevitably lead us to the more negative of these self-images.  Such a stark take on humanity is neither accurate nor helpful—indeed, it is itself just another form of human exceptionalism.  As Crist herself is well aware, human societies often construct niches for other forms of life and bear uneven responsibility for the destruction she laments.  Rather, her essay offers a vital reminder that part of what got us to this moment of planetary ecological crisis is the very anthropocentrism that the Anthropocene seems to enshrine.  As with naming a pond after the farmers who befouled it, so with naming a geologic epoch after a species whose collective impact threatens to cause a sixth mass extinction:

How true the cliché that history is written by the victors, and how much truer for the history of the planet’s conquest against which no nonhuman can direct a flood of grievances that might strike a humbling note into the human soul. (p. 133)

Despite my enthusiastic participation in this blog, I remain an Anthropocene agnostic.  By no means am I certain that this nomenclature points us in the right direction ethically or politically.  There are other proposals worth considering.  Crist, for example, endorses the Ecozoic, a term coined by theologian Thomas Berry to mark the end of the biological proliferation that has characterized our current geologic era, the Cenozoic.  More importantly, though, the Ecozoic suggests a “higher calling” that “embraces Earth’s integral living community, and invites human history in concert with natural history into uncharted realms of beauty, diversity, abundance, and freedom” (p. 142).  Others have proposed the Capitalocene as a way to bring the origins of our planetary crisis into sharper focus.  I will revisit these proposals in a future post.

In the meantime, I would like to encourage all who engage with the Anthropocene to read Crist’s provocation and to think carefully about the worldview that this nomenclature necessitates.  Whether one invokes the Anthropocene as a dystopian history of the present, an admission of culpability, a claim to stewardship, or something else entirely, the attendant worldview is one in which we are at the center.  Is that where we belong and, if so, what space have we left for other forms of life?


Thomas Berry. 2008 [1997]. “The Ecozoic Era,” reprinted in Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, eds. Glenn
Adelson, G., J. Engell, B. Ranalli. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 359-360 (cited by Crist, p. 142-3).  Here Berry proposes the Ecozoic, a term that marks the end of the biological flourishing that has characterized our current geologic era, the Cenozoic, and suggests (in Crist’s words) a “higher calling” that “embraces Earth’s integral living community, and invites human history in concert with natural history into uncharted realms of beauty, diversity, abundance, and freedom.”
Jason Moore. 2014. “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Origins and Nature of our Ecological Crisis,” working paper.  In this essay, Moore proposes the Capitalocene–the “age of capital”–as an alternative to the Anthropocene.  The Capitalocene, he argues, better captures how our present ecological crisis is a direct result of capitalism’s constant expansion to new “frontiers” of low-cost, high-yield resources.
David Biello et al. 2013. “Manmade: Welcome to the Anthropocene,” a special issue of Earth Island Journal (cited by Crist, p. 142).  In this collection of essays, eight noted environmentalist intellectuals offer critical assessments of the Anthropocene concept.

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