The Anthropocene is overwhelming. Climate change, overconsumption, mass extinction, displacement—for those of us with the most sprawling ecological footprints, trying to wrap our heads around these and other Anthropocenic challenges all too often leaves us uncomfortably numb. We are alarmed, perhaps even guilt-ridden, but find it difficult to imagine feasible yet impactful ways to take accountability and enact change. So we go on with our lives in a state of what Kari Norgaard, following Stanley Cohen, terms “implicatory denial.”1 We realize that global ecological crisis is real but remain too daunted, complacent, or distracted to modify our behavior in any meaningful way.
My students are no exception to this pattern. Amid our discussions of global environmental problems, they regularly express feelings of hopelessness and resignation. I work proactively to counter such outcomes—by equipping them with concepts for thinking through their eco-despair, introducing them to local activists working to make change, providing opportunities for service learning, exposing them to literature on positive alternatives, and so on. Some of these interventions are effective, at least in the short term. But even as I enact them, I never fully reconcile my own lifestyle with what I know about its global ramifications. I too experience psychic numbing and spend most of life in a state of implicatory denial.2
This reality troubles me, but it also motivates me to seek inspiration that I can then use to chip away at the denial and despair. My inspiration comes, among other places, from work by scholars who articulate radically hopeful visions of life in and beyond the Anthropocene. And it is for precisely this reason that my previous posts have highlighted work by E. Richard Atleo (Umeek) and Rosemary-Claire Collard et al.
Here I would like to highlight a 2011 paper by two of my favorite geographers, Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham, much of whose joint work appears under the composite pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham. Gibson-Graham have long used Feminist approaches to uncover economic heterogeneity in the interstices of global capitalism. Their work is powerful because it reminds us that compelling alternatives to the status quo are not relegated to an ever-receding utopian future, but are already being experimented with by people around the world.
In “A feminist project of belonging for the Anthropocene,” Gibson-Graham broaden their perspective to consider how more-than-human assemblages, both existing and potential, might suggest new practices of belonging that in turn move us away from a world in which so much earthly life is imperiled. “The Anthropocene,” they write, “calls us to recognize that we are all participants in the ‘becoming world’, where everything is interconnected and learning happens in a stumbling, trial and error sort of way” (p. 4).3 In particular, the Anthropocene calls them to highlight a series of “adventures in living”—from a cooperatively owned, ecologically responsible commercial laundry operation in Cleveland to the use of the “internet/information commons” to coordinate alternative currencies and community-based agriculture—each of which contains the kernel of an alternative to extractive, export-focused strategies of regional development (p. 5-11).
Gibson-Graham go on to imagine ways that scholars based in universities can engage in collaborative research that identifies opportunities for and promotes the success of such alternatives. Specifically, they suggest, scholars can help compile “regional profiles” that explicitly incorporate economic heterogeneity (“noncapitalist enterprises,” “unpaid labor,” “alternative uses of private property,” etc.) and refuse to exceptionalize human needs over those of other earthly beings (p. 12-15). Even the “sitcom suburb”—an ecologically hopeless place if ever there was one—appears as a vibrant site for Anthropocenic experimentation in “non-market exchange of labor and products between households,” renewable power generation, sustainable agriculture, and ecological rehabilitation (p. 15-16).
“A feminist project of belonging for the Anthropocene” draws our attention to unexpected spaces of radical hope, but not with the intention of consoling us into deeper complacency. Addressing planetary crisis is not simply a matter of scaling up what disparate communities are doing here and there. None of these adventures is “outside” of the current system or completely innocent of its ecological effects. Nor, for that matter, do they offer a fundamental challenge to the dispossessionary, imperial conditions that remain at the heart of our Anthropocenic world. Rather, the point is that confronting planetary crisis should involve experimenting with forms of belonging more conducive to a world that is habitable for as broad a spectrum of lifeforms as possible.
Rather than pretending like we can engineer our way out of Anthropocenic crisis or despairing at the ghastliness of it all, Gibson-Graham remind us that we can support, join, and even found experiments in radically inclusive habitability. I cannot think of a better way of “proceeding in the face of not knowing how to proceed” (p. 4).
- See Norgaard’s Living in Denial (2011, MIT) and Cohen’s States of Denial (2001, Polity). ↩
- I first encountered the concept of psychic numbing in Norgaard op. cit., which in turn adapts the concept from historical psychologist Robert J. Lifton’s analyses of life in the nuclear age (see, e.g., Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 1996, HarpPenn). ↩
- It is worth noting that this is perhaps not such a revelation for peoples, particularly many Indigenous peoples, whose thought traditions have long centered on these interconnections and contingencies. ↩