As Asa and Zev have argued in recent posts, dating the onset of the Anthropocene involves much more than interpreting geological markers. It requires that we grapple with complicated questions of representation and ethics. Date the onset too recently and all that came before seems “natural,” bereft of historical agency, or even subhuman. Place the onset too far back in time and naturalize the planetary impacts humans have today. What we find in a particular stratigraphic layer may seem like a much more straightforward question than how we represent the historical agency of different groups. But our approach to the latter has vital implications for what we do with our answer to the former.
In their contribution to a special issue on “Archaeology and the Anthropocene,” Kent Lightfoot and colleagues focus our attention on the widespread ecological transformations that accompanied the expansion of European empires beginning in the late fifteen century CE. In their search for land, resources, and souls, Europeans initiated dramatic changes in the terrestrial and marine ecosystems they encountered as they established colonies around the world. But–and this is key–the ecosystems in question were not part of a “pristine” wilderness, but rather landscapes already shaped in profound ways by human management practices.
Lightfoot and colleagues add to our understanding of how these processes played out in the context of managerial and missionary colonies in North America. All along the Pacific Coast, the authors show, the fur trade and missionization transformed terrestrial and marine ecosystems prior to the influx of settlers after 1850. This finding is significant in and of itself. At least in the case of North America, we tend to see European settlement and epidemic disease, rather than the extractive activities of managerial and missionary colonies, as the drivers of widespread ecological change.
But beyond the fascinating details of their case study, Lightfoot and colleagues remind us that the transformations we associate with the Anthropocene are rooted in the imperial world system that has connected the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia since the dawn of sixteenth century. This helps bring the Anthropocene concept into dialog with World Systems Theory and with our understanding of the inextricable relationship between empire and capitalism.
For me, this is salutory for two primary reasons. First, associating the Anthropocene with European colonization reminds us that dispossession has always been at the very heart of the global socioeconomic system that made humans into a planetary force. There is no Anthropocene without empire and, therefore, no meaningful way to address global ecological crisis while leaving imperial formations intact.
Second, if we accept Anthropocene-as-empire, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the historical agency of Indigenous societies, including hunter-gatherer societies, who were deeply involved in landscape management prior to colonization. Their versions of habitability were what Europeans encountered and, in many cases, only partially managed to suppress. Beyond vital questions of empirical accuracy and representational justice, we need to understand how Indigenous systems of ecosystem management were disrupted (and concealed) by empire. This will enrich our understanding of human adaptability and help avoid any number of misguided policies.
How we date the onset of the Anthropocene reflects how we think about the root causes of our current crisis. On this blog we look to the notion of habitability as inspiration for imagining a less ecologically precarious future. A politically inclusive, empirically accurate debate on habitability requires that we make empire central to our conversation and that we address the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous habitabilities.