“A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None”

 
CITATION:
K. Yusoff, 2019, University of Minnesota Press.
 
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
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ABSTRACT:
Kathryn Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. She initiates a transdisciplinary conversation between black feminist theory, geography, and the earth sciences, addressing the politics of the Anthropocene within the context of race, materiality, deep time, and the afterlives of geology.
 

No geology is neutral. — the final sentence of Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? — T.S. Eliot, “The Rock” (1934)

I hope we can gaze back on the summer of 2020 and say that an awakening happened— and that it was authentic— that it permeated even the aloof arbiters of scientific discourses. Societal events pushed me personally into reading well beyond my own disciplines— or at least to unrealized edges of it, where I found myself both disturbed and intrigued by A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None by Kathryn Yusoff.

I’m a geoscientist. I “get” the Anthropocene. Or I thought I did. It’s about time, and about the human impact on the planet. We— homo sapiens— are a geological force. We’re changing atmospheric and oceanic chemistries, exceeding planetary boundaries, and catalyzing extinctions.  Articles and blogs and editorials abound about aspects of the Anthropocene, including every post on this blog.

Yes, details remain yet to be sorted, such as nailing the start of the Anthropocene, the placement of the “golden spike” in stratigrapher’s parlance. But beyond that, the concept of humans exerting sufficient force as to create ecosystem disruptions and mass migrations seemed— if deeply disquieting— at least relatively cut and dried.

It’s just a name, a time interval. We’re just objectively describing this phenomenon. Nothing more to see here, folks.

Then summer 2020 hit, with its horrific reminders that we live in a deeply racist world. And my readings plunged me into areas where I felt uncomfortable, and drawn to disavow myself of formerly revered ideas and figures. Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None engaged me with themes that wove concepts of geology, race, and matter, among others.

Yusoff’s book challenged my idealized vision of geology as a purely scientific quest— an effort, at its most basic level, to read the planet’s history— because, in Yusoff’s words “No geology is neutral.” She argues that, as a science that emerged from the need for resources, geology lies entangled inextricably with notions of conquest. Geology identifies and enables resource extraction, but does so without acknowledging the impacts of this activity on human subjects. “Geology is a hinge that joins indigenous genocide, slavery, and settler colonialism through an indifferent structure of extraction” (p. 107).

Reading it made me disoriented, defensive, deflated. Studying, discovering, naming… imbue the discoverers, the namers, with power.  Yusoff writes “In an act of intrusion, I seek to undermine the givenness of geology as an innocent or natural description of the world, to see its modes of inscription and circulation as a doubling of the notion of property” (p. 10). When geology tells the history of the Earth, it tells the history of a white, colonized Earth. And now white, western scientists have named and advocated for recognition of the Anthropocene, because now even they sense its effects. The realization that even the atmosphere has sustained colonization (Bassey, 2012), rendering planetary systems of sustainability compromised, solidified the arrival of the Anthropocene in the mind of the white, western scientist. 

USGS Survey

William Henry Jackson, The U.S. Geological Survey in camp at Red Buttes (1870) (Wikimedia Commons)

Yusoff argues that “the Anthropocene is not reducible to anthropogenic climate change or to a carbon or capitalist imaginary” (p. 40). Rather it is merely the latest in a long history of traumatized worlds, beginning most recently with that attendant to exploitation of (overwhelmingly) black and brown peoples associated with the resource extractions that enriched western European colonizers. State-sponsored geological inquiry originated as a means to discover, describe, and designate Earth materials for extraction. U.S Army expeditions to begin mapping the U.S. commenced in the 19th century, with the topographical engineers accompanied at times by the Cavalry to “pacify” the native Indians (Thomas and Warren, 2008).  The Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (1867) was the first to specifically target natural resources across the newly expanded US, and led ultimately to the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS & Rabbitt, 1975). 

The human impact of resource exploitation encapsulates those who served as the tools of extraction— the enslaved and the colonized, yes— as well as the working class— including my white immigrant grandfather who toiled in the Pennsylvanian coal mines prior to his early death from Black Lung disease. Eastern European immigrants were treated as disposable in the company towns of the time, the families denied even death benefits by company doctors who refused to acknowledge silicosis on the death certificates.  But black and brown bodies continue to disproportionately bear the toll of resource extraction, and the environmental destruction attendant with extraction and exploitation (motivating intersectional activism).

And now when geoscientists, who are disproportionately white (Dutt, 2020), sweep into conferences and journal pages to save the day by exposing the severity of our climate crisis, the seriousness of the Anthropocene, and rampant ecosystem destruction, is it laudable or ludricrous? If I were an indigenous person, I might feel as though the concept of the Anthropocene captures the epitome of mansplaining, Exhibit A of a time when the Knowledge-Makers divorced themselves from the Havoc That Knowledge Wreaks. Because— whose Anthropocene? If I were an indigenous person I might be overwhelmed by the hubris associated with a group that deems to label — for all— a time and state of world destruction (see, e.g., Whyte, 2017).

H-Bomb test

First hydrogen bomb test, Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952 (Wikimedia Commons)

For many peoples, the Anthropocene arrived several generations ago. We recently passed the 75th anniversary of the nuclear annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A year later, the Bikini bathing suit was introduced— so tiny as to evoke the diminutive atom itself, and inspired by the eponymous island that sustained the first nuclear tests following WWII.  Sixty-eight years ago, the world’s first hydrogen bomb vaporized Elugelab Atoll, wiping it off the face of the planet. The US conducted 44 weapons tests near Enewetak Atoll, and 23 at Bikini Atoll, ultimately rendering them unfit for human occupation, essentially forever. The Marshallese (Bikini—as well as Elugelab, and Enewetak— are all part of the Marshall Islands) suffered nuclear colonialism; after being displaced, they endured total and essentially eternal destruction of their Home. Subsequent generations will forever grapple with the literal and figurative fallout— the world destruction— of this colonialism. Indeed, so ubiquitous is the fallout from nuclear testing that it serves as a candidate for the “golden spike” marking the start of the Anthropocene.

Yusoff’s Billion Black Anthropocenes calls to mind this multitude of examples of colonialism and attendant resource exploitation, reminding us that the Anthropocene is simply the latest in a centuries-long string of world destructions enacted by western colonizers.

Where in this lies the hope, and — for me as a geoscientist— the redemption of geology? Perhaps in abandoning the reductionist approach of isolating a commodity to study and instead considering the context of the commodity within the larger system of Earth and its inhabitants. In acknowledging our interconnectedness with one another and with all of what Mexican-Chilean climate activist Xiya Bastida calls the sacred elements (rather than resources) of Earth. In recognizing geology’s insights to Earth as a system, an approach long embraced in the indigenous community, and using that power for creation—creation of new spaces, new voices, new worlds—instead of destruction.


Acknowledgement 

I first began this post in summer 2020, but found that—as a geoscientist—I needed considerable time to digest Yusoff’s work. I thank my daughter Emily Soreghan, who also read Yusoff’s work, for many discussions that illuminated the thoughts presented here.


References

Bassey,  N. 2012, “Africa in the vice-grip of the climate crisis” in Oil Politics— Echoes of Ecological Wars: Daraja Press, pp. 21-34.
Dutt, K., 2020, Race and racism in the geosciences: Nature Geoscience, v. 13, no. 1, p. 2–3. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0519-z.
Thomas, B.A., and Warren, L.M., 2008, Geological conservation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Burek, C.V., and Prosser, C.D., eds., The History of Geoconservation: Geological Society of London, Special Publications, v. 300, p. 17-30.
USGS & Rabbitt, M.C., 1975, A brief history of the U.S. Geological Survey: U.S. Government Printing Office, Washtington D.C., 36 p. https://doi.org/10.3133/70039204
Whyte, K.P., 2017, “Our ancestors’ dystopia now: Indigenous conservation and the Anthropocene,” in Heise, U.K., Christensen, J., and Niemann, M., eds, The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, London, 506 p.

Gerilyn (Lynn) Soreghan (ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6925-5675) is Director of and Eberly Professor in the School of Geosciences, Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, at the University of Oklahoma. 

“Socio-energy systems design: A policy framework for energy transitions”

[This is first in a set of posts coordinated with Dr. Clark Miller’s (virtual) visit to OU’s Climate Change in History Dream Course. The video of Dr. Miller’s talk will appear here Friday, followed next Wednesday by Dr. Grady’s response.]

CITATION:
Clark A. Miller, Jennifer Richter, & Jason O’Leary. 2015. Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 6, pp. 29-40.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
In the context of large-scale energy transitions, current approaches to energy policy have become too narrowly constrained around problems of electrons, fuel, and carbon, the technologies that provide them, and the cost of those technologies. Energy systems are deeply enmeshed in broad patterns of social, economic, and political life and organization, and significant changes to energy systems increasingly are accompanied by Continue reading

“The Floral Archive”

Anton Kerner von Marilaun

Anton Kerner von Marilaun

CITATION: Chapter 10 of Coen, D. R. 2018. Climate in motion: science, empire, and the problem of scale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
ABSTRACT: Chapter 10 introduces the reader to Anton Kerner von Marilaun (1831-1898), who is known for documenting the flora of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In addition to compiling a list of the plant species that occurred within the empire’s sprawling borders, Kerner also Continue reading

“Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice”

CITATION:
Kari Marie Norgaard and Ron Reed. 2017. Theory and Society, vol. 46, pp. 463-495.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
This article extends analyses of environmental influences on social action by examining the emotions experienced by Karuk Tribal members in the face of environmental decline. Continue reading

Current Biology: The Anthropocene Special Issue

CITATION:
Current Biology. 2019  Vol. 29, No. 19: R942–R1054.
ABSTRACT:
This special issue of Current Biology includes a collection of Features, Reviews, Primers, Essays and Quick guides on a wide range of topics surrounding various detrimental impacts of human activity on the biosphere.

For most biologists, inhabiting the Anthropocene also means working in it. There are very few topics in the life sciences that are not confronted with Continue reading

“Archaeological assessment reveals Earth’s early transformation through land use.”

CITATION:

ArchaeoGLOBE Project*. 2019 Science 365(6456):897–902.

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ABSTRACT:

Environmentally transformative human use of land accelerated with the emergence of agriculture, but the extent, trajectory, and implications of these early changes are not well understood. An empirical global assessment of land use from 10,000 years before the present (yr B.P.) to 1850 CE reveals a planet largely transformed by Continue reading

“Elysium”

CITATION:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1997.  Part IV, Letter XI (pp. 386-401) of Julie, or the New Heloise. Tr. Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché. In Collected Writings of Rousseau (Volume 6). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
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ABSTRACT:
Julie is an epistolary novel set in mid-eighteenth century Switzerland. The plot involves the relationship between St. Preux, a young man who is hired as a tutor to the title character. They become lovers, but he is Continue reading

“Contrasting the effects of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow on urban evolution in white clover (Trifolium repens)”

CITATION:
Marc T. J. Johnson, Cindy M. Prashad, Mélanie Lavoignat, Hargurdeep S. Saini. 2018.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 285, no. 1883, published on-line July 25, 2018: pp. 8-33.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Urbanization is a global phenomenon with profound effects on the ecology and evolution of organisms. We examined the relative roles of natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow in influencing the evolution of white clover (Trifolium repens), which thrives in urban and rural areas. Continue reading

“A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth”

CITATION:
Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Fridolin Krausmann and Irene Pallua. 2014.  The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1: pp. 8-33.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
We search for a valid and quantifiable description of how and when humans acquired the ability to dominate major features of the Earth System. While common approaches seek to quantify Continue reading

Urban Metabolism and Degrowth, part 1

TITLE
Democracies with a future: Degrowth and the democratic tradition
CITATION:
Marco Deriu. 2012.  Futures vol. 44, pp. 553–561.
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ABSTRACT (partial):
The interrogation of a possible connection between degrowth and democracy inspires some questions of political epistemology. Is degrowth a socio-economic project which can be simply proposed as an ‘‘issue’’ and a ‘‘goal’’ in the democratic representative system, without discussing forms and processes of the political institutions themselves? Continue reading

“Urban Metabolism and the Energy Stored in Cities: Implications for Resilience”

CITATION:
David N. Bristow and Christopher A. Kennedy. 2013.  Journal of Industrial Ecology, vol. 17, no. 5: pp. 656-667.
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ABSTRACT:
Using the city of Toronto as a case study, this article examines impacts of energy stocks and flexible demand in the urban metabolism on the resilience of the city, including discussion of Continue reading

“Environmental Crises and the Metabolic Rift in World-Historical Perspective”

CITATION:
Moore, Jason W. 2000.  Organization & Environment, vol. 13: pp. 123-157.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
This article proposes a new theoretical framework to study the dialectic of capital and nature over the longue duree of world capitalism. The author proposes that today’s global ecological crisis has its roots in the transition to capitalism during the long sixteenth century. The emergence of capitalism marked not only a decisive shift in the arenas of politics, economy, and society, but a fundamental reorganization of world ecology, characterized by a “metabolic rift,” Continue reading

“Moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ in order to grow economic food futures in the Anthropocene”

CITATION:
Hill, A. 2015.  Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 32: pp. 551-563.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Agrifood scholars commonly adopt “a matter of fact way of speaking” to talk about the extent of neoliberal rollout in the food sector and the viability of “alternatives” to capitalist food initiatives. Over the past few decades Continue reading

“Cities in the age of the Anthropocene: Climate change agents and the potential for mitigation”

CITATION:
Pincetl, S. 2017. Anthropocene, Vol. 20, pp. 74-82.
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ABSTRACT:
Cities are human creations where many of the emissions causing climate change originate. Every aspect of daily life in cities Continue reading

Early Cities and Other Urbanisms

Galata bridge in Istanbul, bridging east and west, old and new. By Moyan Brenn [CC BY 2.0)]

Urban landscapes provide useful spaces for thinking through the complexities of the Anthropocene. They are hybrid locations in which the social and ecological Continue reading

“The Politics”

CITATION:
Aristotle. 1981. Tr. T.A. Sinclair, rev. T.J. Saunders. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
Internet Classics Archive version (tr. Jowett) at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html
ABSTRACT:

In The Politics Aristotle addresses the questions that lie at the heart of political science. How should society be ordered to ensure the happiness of the individual? Which forms of government are best and how Continue reading

“Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene”

CITATION:
Cantrell, B., Martin, L.J., and Ellis, E.C. 2017. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 156–66.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Maintaining wild places increasingly involves intensive human interventions. Several recent projects use semi-automated mediating technologies to Continue reading