“Fingerprint, bellwether, model event: Climate change as speculative anthropology”

CITATION:
Whitington, Jerome. 2013. Anthropological Theory, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 308-328.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:

The climate change fingerprint, bellwether and model event are three epistemic figures through which it may be possible to know the future through attention to specific material relations. They offer an emergent grammar to help make sense of the rapid transformations in planetary ecology over the past decade due to climate change. What was before experienced as modeled scenarios about future change is now increasingly confirmed. But the experience is characterized equally by uncertainties about the precise implications of these global changes. These terms demonstrate explicit reflection on uncertainty through material practices of thinking, what I identify as a kind of speculative materialism. What becomes apparent is that anthropology itself is at stake to the extent that anthropogenic climate change problematizes the ecological dimensions of Earth at home. I propose the term viability to explore thresholds of ecological value that are not uniquely tied to human observers and which call for imaginative and evaluative judgment about the subtle yet pervasive changes at work in planetary ecology.


As the year 2014 comes to a close, I have been ruminating on what changes I’ve noticed in Anthropocene-related dialog. The term Anthropocene itself has garnered particular attention in the media, and seems to be finding a home in (or hijacked by) popular discourse. There has been equal dialogue on the appropriateness of the “Anthropocene” as a concept. Certainly on this blog we have highlighted the necessary interdisciplinary nature of working through the Anthropocene and our attempts at responding to it.

What strikes me as one of the more salient changes has been the almost routine identification of Anthropocene signs (that is, evidence for human-induced change).  In some cases, Anthropocene Signs are heretofore unseen behaviors or hybrids that provide grist for the imagination, as Noah discusses with respect to shore-bound walruses. In other cases, objects and substances challenge traditional western dichotomies such as nature-culture or subject-object because of their pervasiveness, temporality, or ambiguous agency. Substances such as concrete, plastic, or radionuclides, or industrial/carbon-belching landscapes are no longer isolated but instead are widely distributed and yet collapse any easy delineation between geological processes and human agency. The slow but seemingly irrevocable swamping of low-lying cities also provides a counterpoint to the exposure of once snow-packed or sub-glacial landscapes that haven’t see the light of day in millennia. Yet, there have also been signs of Anthropocene weariness or malaise as temperature records continue to be broken and once extreme or rare events become more commonplace.

Indeed, how do we (the local we, the global we, the diverse we) recognize climate change, and our role in it? At what point do observable changes matter? When do the patterns that we see around us lead to questioning the future? How will our past and present practices be visible in the future (so-called golden spikes)? What kinds of futures can we anticipate for ourselves? These questions lie at the heart of near and long-term Anthropocene futures. Politics surround both the recognition of change, as well as the predictions for what may come. As discussed in posts by Stephen and Zev on this blog, part of the problem and solution may be situated in the origin and end of times narratives we tell ourselves.

Jerome Whitington presents one framework for working through the significance of Anthropocene signs. Whitington identifies ways in which speculation about the future is grounded in experience, what he calls speculative materialism. Weather or environmental events and processes may produce different responses based on cultural and socio-historical context.  He identifies a range of phenomena, what he calls epistemic figures, that provide the context and conditions for constraining the sorts of futures we think may exist. Bellwethers, for example, index change that occurs outside of the expected norm, and can induce anxiety, encourage critique of social memories, or present opportunities for reproducing the conditions that enabled stability in the first place. On the more extreme end are model events, defined as a “real world environmental event that enables people to think through situated climate futures.” Thinking through these figures, and the sorts of futures they may provide or be harbingers of, also necessitates ethical evaluations of human-ecological relations (and the need to no longer separate humans as necessarily special).

Anthropocene Signs, or Whitington’s epistemic figures, ultimately highlight the complex relationships between presents, experienced pasts, and possible futures. My own participation in this blog centers on how communities (today, in the past, and in the future) have recognized change and its agents, and how they have responded to it by deploying their own pasts and speculative futures.  This is a problem that archaeologist Ken Sassaman has offered important insight into. The past (as heritage) is now routinely being drawn into the service of identifying change, either as indexes of failure or parables about the future.  In this regard, there is perhaps no more poignant (and infuriating) Anthropocene sign than the recent impacts to a Nazca geoglyph in Peru by Greenpeace who placed a sign over it which read “TIME FOR CHANGE! THE FUTURE IS RENEWABLE.”  In their documentary video of the placement of the signs, the Greenpeace members made reference to the clear sophistication of the Nazca and their apparent collapse from climate change (which is up for debate).  Of course, their choice of the geoglyph was pragmatic, few heritage landscapes are as well-known as the Nazca lines. In emplacing the sign, however, the activists literally left behind their own footprints which may reside there for millennia.  Nazca lines were originally created by removing patinated dark stones and earth to expose lighter soil beneath. That these figures remain visible today is a testament to the long time it takes for desert patina to accumulate. In clamoring over the geoglyph, and infuriating the Peruvian people, Greenpeace collapsed the Anthropocene’s ethical, political, historical, geological, and material complexities into a new monument to the Anthropocene’s ambiguities.

As Whitington notes with respect to thinking about futures, “the objective is to thread between an undifferentiated apocalyptic imagination and the acquiescence that arises when uncertainty becomes an excuse for inaction.” I plan on spending the next year trying to locate my dialogue between my own eschatological visions and Anthropocenic malaise.


FURTHER READING:

Sassaman, K., 2012. “Futurologists Look Back.” Archeologies, 8, 250-268. DOI: 10.1007/s11759-012-9205-0. Sassaman argues that the wall that is often erected between modern and premodern communities is minimized if we allow ancient communities to have imagined and acted upon their own futures (so called futures past).

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