Refusing the Anthropocene

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about refusal and resistance.  What is the difference between them?  And what implications does this distinction have for individual and collective action?  In part, my preoccupation reflects larger conversations in anthropology, philosophy, and Indigenous studies.  And, in part, it stems from my efforts to grapple with the resurgence of right-wing authoritarianism in the US and elsewhere–a phenomenon that I think has important implications for how we engage with the Anthropocene. This is a preliminary effort to work through some of my thoughts.

Two days after the election, the New York Times Magazine published a short essay that helped me connect some of the dots that I had been tracing more or less in isolation.  In “A Time for Refusal,” Teju Cole calls upon Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play, “Rhinoceros,” in which “an epidemic of ‘rhinoceritis’” overruns a town as the people deny, rationalize, and quarrel over what’s happening to them.  What at first appears monstrous and frightening soon becomes the norm.  “Evil,” Cole writes, “settles in when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it.”

Rhinos strike me as rather unsuitable for symbolizing the evils of fascism.  (No rhino is as brutish as the being who would mount its taxidermied head on the wall.)  Regardless, Ionesco offers an important insight, and so does Cole: when facing epochal change, we too readily normalize the monstrous figures who use such moments to consolidate their power.  We respond in ordinary ways to extraordinary events, and in no time that “extra-” drops off, leaving us with a new sense of ordinary.  The challenge, Cole implies, is to refuse the new normal—to refuse it before we find ourselves resisting it.  But what again is the difference?

For me it comes down to a question of acceptance.  To resist something, we must first in some way accept it—as a fact, as a circumstance, as a reality.  This is not a simple question of will.  Acceptance is cumulative and intergenerational; we inherit it.  Nor is it a question of volition.  We can be forced to accept things or, rather, we can be forced to perform acceptance.  Refusal, for its part, is no less cumulative or intergenerational. Our capacity to refuse rests on the accreted decisions and ontological assumptions that prefigure our existence.  But if resistance implies some form of (forced) acceptance, refusal entails a starting point of rejection or negation—a point around which stark differences of power often make total refusal impracticable.  For this reason, acceptance, resistance, and refusal are mutually constitutive rather than exclusive.[*]  We refuse what we hope never to accept, and we resist what we can no longer refuse.  Realities in the United States, for example, force us to accept race and racism as extant social phenomena even as we resist racial discrimination and refuse its pseudoscientific justification.

We should also, I submit, think about refusal in relation to the Anthropocene.  Late last year I joined a collaboration known as the Creatures Collective, “a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars […] who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis.”  In our engagements with different accounts of how and why lifeforms withdraw or disappear, we have returned repeatedly to the concept of refusal.  Many Indigenous philosophies hold that lifeforms withdraw from fellow lifeforms who mistreat them.  By tending to such acts of refusal and to the broken protocols leading thereto, we are exploring whether and how we, as part of more-than-human collectives, can refuse the dystopian future augured by the threat of a “sixth mass extinction.”

Working with the Creatures Collective has inspired me to rethink how Anthropocene narratives relate to other features of our contemporary moment and why we may want to refuse this conjuncture.  The Anthropocene is supposed to mark collective human impacts on our biosphere and to promote accountability for them.  But from certain perspectives, including some I have engaged in past posts, the Anthropocene is a geological euphemism for a social system that runs on exploitation, dispossession, and violence.  Does the Anthropocene, then, inevitably signal the triumph of this system?  Is geological time itself the latest “frontier” in its expansion?

Such critiques have taken on renewed urgency in my mind as governments around the world, including some of the most powerful, have (re)turned to(ward) authoritarianism.  What relationship might this global pivot have to an epochal discourse that centers the planetary dominance of humans?  When so many authoritarian regimes take root in narcissism and feed on necropolitics, I cannot help but connect their logics with those that inform our fascination with humans-as-geophysical-force—and with all of the known and unknown upheavals that this entails for specific groups of humans and nonhumans.  For whom is the Anthropocene an invitation to experimentation and ferment, as I myself have suggested it might be?  And for whom is it an invitation to a totalitarian dystopia wherein all beings are not just impacted but also governed by technologies over which they have little if any control?

In a forthcoming paper, Neshnabé (Potawatomi) scholar-activist Kyle Powys Whyte observes that “[i]n the Anthropocene, […] some indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” (1).  A defining characteristic of this dystopia is the absence of particular lifeforms.  Whyte specifies, however, that what concerns many Indigenous thinkers and conservationists about this absence differs from what concerns most settler conservationists.  For the former, lifeforms matter because of the local histories, social relations, and economies in which they are embedded.  It is, then, the disruption of these relations that makes the present epoch, whatever we choose to call it, phenomenologically dystopian.

Indigenous acts of what Whyte calls “resistance, refusal, and resurgence” (3) are a direct response to these disruptions.  Of course they are also about sovereignty, territory, and power relations more generally.  But even these seemingly “human” concerns have profound, high-stakes implications for more-than-human relations.  From this perspective, we can better understand what particular acts of refusal mean in a broader context and why they often provoke such violent responses, including for example the militarized suppression of opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Acts of refusal do more than protect particular places from immediate harms.  They do their part (and then some) to refuse a dystopian system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Whyte goes on to argue that, because his ancestors’ dystopian future has by now been emergent for hundreds of years, the Anthropocene is a less threatening proposition for many Indigenous peoples than we might expect.  In no way do I challenge this contention.  As a white settler, however, I have a somewhat different perspective on the work that this concept often does as a source of consolation.  It consoles us with the suggestion that we are in control of our planet and therefore of our destiny.  It consoles us with the promise that the disruptions we have brought onto ourselves and others are manageable within the current system.  It consoles us by normalizing our dystopian condition.

In her 2016 essay on “Consent’s Revenge,” Audra Simpson asks, “How […] do those who are targeted for elimination, those who have had their land stolen from them, their bodies and their cultures worked on to be made into something else articulate their politics?” (328).  Her answer: “They refuse to consent to the apparatuses of the state.”  Though Simpson is referring here to specific people in specific circumstances, her insight helps us think more generally about how more-than-human collectives might experience and respond to campaigns of elimination and dispossession, such as those associated with militarized extractivism and resurgent authoritarianism.  This is what I had in mind when I suggested that we consider what refusal might mean for/in the Anthropocene.  By consoling ourselves with this nomenclature, we risk silencing efforts to refuse the world it portends and finding ourselves limited to a stance of resistance.

In sum, then: just as we must refuse to normalize the new authoritarianism, we must also refuse to normalize the totalization of our claims to the planet.  We needn’t look far for models of what this looks like on the ground.  The water protectors at Standing Rock have shown us the way.

[*] In August 2016, Cultural Anthropology published a series of essays on refusal, including an excellent introductory essay by Carole McGranahan.  This series has been extremely helpful to me in sorting out my own thoughts on these matters.


4 thoughts on “Refusing the Anthropocene

  1. Pingback: Refusing the Anthropocene | Worldly

  2. Thanks, Noah, for a (characteristically) thoughtful and challenging statement, beautifully expressed. It resonates, by which I mean it has layers of effect, which I think will articulate themselves over time. So this is a response to just one, perhaps the most superficial, layer.

    Is the Anthropocene to be resisted or refused? I had not thought of this distinction before, and your post does a great service by making it available beyond the circles where, I gather, it has been used for a while. I’ll use the terms as I understand them—please correct me if I’m not using them well.

    Assuming the Anthropocene is a condition of the Earth System, I guess neither response is appropriate, any more than either would be to climate change as a physical phenomenon (of course it’s more than that—as I’ll say in a moment). In that context refusal sounds like denialism; resistance is perhaps better thought of as adaptation.

    So what can be refused or resisted? I think the two responses pull apart two meanings of the word Anthropocene. Though resistance is not appropriate to the physical phenomenon, it is clearly appropriate—I’d say necessary—to the social system you (eloquently) identify as that for which the physical phenomenon is a “geological euphemism.” This is the sense in which climate change is not simply a physical phenomenon, but a “socio-natural” phenomenon. Mitigation efforts—which reach the physical arena via action in the social arena—might thus be taken as acts of preemptive resistance.

    Can that social system be refused? I gather that on some views it can be. My intutition, to the contrary, is that refusal here would amount to a kind of quietism . . . but I acknowledge that the language of refusal is new to me, and I might be missing what’s meant by it.

    At the level of intuition my sense is that what can meaningfully be refused is the concept of the Anthropocene, which associates it tightly with “exploitation, dispossession, and violence.” But I think that act of refusal is premised on the assumption that that is the (univocal) conception of the Anthropocene—that the meaning of the term is closed around a single understanding, linked to a (false) consolation “that we are in control of our planet and therefore of our destiny.”

    It certainly seems right to refuse that particular vision of the human role on the Earth. But for myself, refusal in that sense is more akin to resistance against the social system that manifests in the ways we all find so horrible. But if resistance is not to be ruled out in advance as futile, or worse, not to be solely an expressive gesture, we must hold a different concept of the Anthropocene.

    In my view we must hold a concept of the Anthropocene that is open. This is not to embrace a (consoling) fantasy of control. But it is to candidly accept the reality, the ineluctability, of pervasive but indeterminate human influence over the Earth. It is in this sense that I steadfastly refuse to refuse the Anthropocene. For it is only by accepting that fact (as I take it to be) that we can see ourselves as occupying a position in which we have an actual choice—and thus to understand resistance as morally meaningful.

  3. Many thanks for your thoughtful comment, Zev. I think that we are largely in agreement on these matters. Specifically, I agree: (1) that we cannot somehow “refuse” the cumulative biophysical conditions that have led geologists and others to propose the Anthropocene; (2) that these conditions urgently need to be addressed; and (3) that this will require undertaking profound political, socioeconomic, and cultural change. I agree, moreover, that for many of us it would be dishonest to claim that we are “refusing” the system that has produced said conditions. I am in many ways a beneficiary of that system, and so pretending that I can just refuse it would indeed be a form of denial. Instead, I can resist the system, but only insofar as I acknowledge and take accountability for the ways in which it systematically benefits me at the expense of others.

    So, you’re right, my provocation was indeed addressed to the political and ethical implications of the Anthropocene concept rather than toward the conditions that it is meant to mark, or at least primarily toward the former. My concern is that embracing the Anthropocene as the prevailing framework for thinking about our global condition erases the perspectives and agency of those who have indeed refused to consent to the system such as it is and who maintain different ways of tending to their accountabilities in a more-than-human social world. I am inspired here by Zoe Todd’s work, e.g., , which I intend to highlight in my next post. What I’ve learned from conversations with Zoe, among others, is that much of the work we need to do to take accountability for the “pervasive but indeterminate human influence over the Earth” involves repairing and tending to highly localized, interpersonal, more-than-human connections. This is extremely hard work, incompatible in many ways with our current modus operandi, and enabling ourselves to do it requires that we commit ourselves to psychological and sociocultural change as much as to political or socioeconomic change. The Anthropocene tends, I think, to direct our attention outwards and upwards—to the global scale of ecological change, governance, and accountability. While of course I would not go so far as to say that we should abandon a global frame of reference, I think that this frame often has the (unintended or unconscious?) consequence of both overwhelming and consoling us, while simultaneously obscuring or even erasing the efforts I alluded to above. In this sense, then, “refusing” the Anthropocene is not about refusing to acknowledge our cumulative biophysical impacts or even about refusing the concept entirely. It is about refusing to let ourselves be consoled by overconfidence that this concept moves us ethically and politically toward accountability for the conditions it describes. My impression is that the Anthropocene concept lends itself all too readily to managerial approaches to problems when in reality these problems cannot be addressed without the sort of interpersonal and collective actions that are capable of bringing about radical, systemic change. In other words, this isn’t a job we can leave to bureaucrats or experts; it’s a job for each and every single one of us, and it’s a job that some have never stopped doing. I strongly suspect that we agree on this last point, so perhaps our only real point of divergence concerns how confident we are that the Anthropocene concept is conducive to the resistance and change we agree is necessary. This is certainly not a matter that I would ever want to get in the way of collective action.

    I should admit, finally, that my post takes out some of my post-election angst on the Anthropocene. Whether that’s deserved is for others to judge. By no means, though, do I mean to imply that proponents of the Anthropocene concept are complicit in the authoritarian currents that have led to the rise of Trump et al. I do see certain parallels between authoritarian dynamics and the will to power that many Anthropocene narratives contain. That said, I deeply value and constantly learn from work by authors who have accepted the Anthropocene as a starting point for analysis. To the extent that the Anthropocene is a worthwhile concept, it is because of approaches like yours, Zev. The openness with which you approach your work on this and other topics is evident in the many different perspectives that you welcome to this space and in the generosity with which you engage with provocations like mine. I completely agree with you that such openness must apply to any concept we choose as a starting point for engaging with the problems we face and the futures we hope to realize.

  4. Hi Noah!

    I am glad that the time between semesters has allowed me to catch up with your post. This is a thoughtful post. I like the exchange you have with Zev, too.

    (a) Contra Zev, I do think that we can refuse the “Anthropocene.” The word signifies an object: a geological situation in which humans as such have come to be a major driver of the biosphere’s processes. There is thus a causal claim embedded in the word, and that claim is specious. We cannot claim that humans as such have caused our situation when it is so obviously a main result of industrialization, capitalism, and modern productive reactions to capitalism, followed by contemporary neo-liberalism overlaying colonial paths and inequalities and intensifying plutocracy globally. There are arguments for human short-sightedness and overuse at every point in history — e.g., the North American megafauna extinctions before the rise of agriculture. But these are not sufficient to give us climate change. The best that could be said for the term “Anthropocene” is that is holds a research project in it: to what extent are humans constitutively unable to be sustainable? But to assert the term is not accurate, in my view. Therefore, we have to refuse it. In its place, we should use “socially-caused, planetary-scaled, environmental change.” And then pursue to research project: which social processes produce unjust environmental change, at any scale?

    (b) The planetary scale of injustice demands that we think in a planetary manner. Hence, if you meant to suggest that doing so is part of the problem, I would urge you to reconsider. Precisely just for decolonial reasons, we need to think about collective action that includes everyone, not just the plutocracy. The name for this is anthroponomy. That is where the “anthropos” ought to end up in this debate, not in a causal claim, but in a collective responsibility claim. This is political responsibility, in Iris Marion Young’s sense, not liability. It is about what it would take to deal with the structural injustice, not who to blame for it, unless the “who” are specific people or offices standing for the unjust structure and impeding our changing it. Still, though, the issue is changing the structure, not playing the blame game. And the only way, normatively, to have an acceptable structure is for it to include the collective responsibility of everyone who is affected — of humankind as a whole, and into the far future. Call this utopian, but it seems morally and politically required. We need to step up to it.

    There are reasons why those who suffer most in the structure and have the least power or visibility ought to be most heard. The simple reason is that the vulnerable and powerless are most at risk of being destroyed or effaced. Out of resistance to tyranny and because of equality, anthroponomy must give special place to the formerly and persistently colonized in most cases. There is no “we” when part of the “us” is unjustly coerced or threatened. In this way, the planetary scaled picture, which is morally and politically required, must not overlook the formerly and persistently colonized.

    (c) What, specifically, we must resist today and now is plutocracy and more widely neo-liberalism: the conversion of public goods and questions of collective responsibility into market values ultimately directed by plutocratic boards and networks of the world’s 1%. So refuse the “Anthropocene,” affirm anthroponomy and its inherent commitment to decolonization, and resist neo-liberalism and the plutocracy.



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