The Misanthropocene

This essay first appeared in The Earth Island Journal special issue on The Anthropocene. More here.

My first earthquake happened at four in the morning, when some small god picked up my apartment building and shook it lightly before setting it down like a Christmas box that would, soon enough, be torn apart.

At the emergency preparedness class I took soon after, our instructor told us: “Some people get to learn of the storm hitting their town just a few days out. Too late! Not enough time to find water, board up, and make a plan. The good thing about an earthquake is you’ve got plenty of warning. Here’s yours: With certainty, you’ll be hit by a major earthquake in the next 30 years. It’s an ideal disaster.”

Let’s run with this for a moment. An “ideal disaster” has three characteristics. First, it needs to be small enough to do something about. So the sun exploding is not an ideal disaster. It’s paralytic, too big to do anything about.

Second, an ideal disaster is one that is sufficiently far in the future to be able to mitigate. When I was growing up in England we had something called the Three Minute Warning – the time between the detection of Soviet nuclear missiles and the moment when London would be incinerated. This, too, was not ideal.

Beyond being sufficiently clear and insufficiently present, the final and unspoken quality of the ideal disaster is that it be narratable as a disaster. Before we can set about mitigating the worst, we need to be able to tell stories about what “it” is.

There are plenty of avoidable things about which we have advanced warning. Consider the diabetes epidemic that will affect one-in-three children in the US. Although there will be millions of premature deaths, billions of dollars of cost, plenty of warning, and much that can be done, kids dying of diabetes does not have the narrative force of an apocalypse.

Which brings us to the Anthropocene and, more importantly, what we do with the idea. The Anthropocene is a way of telling a story about how humanity has affected the planet so profoundly that we’ve punted ourselves from one geological era to another.

As disasters go, the Anthropocene isn’t ideal. It feels too big. We can’t undo the mistake, somehow pulling the Holocene back over us. Nor is there a decent warning, for the Anthropocene has already happened. In that sense, it’s like being told the sun has exploded, and that the light you see is old news, to be updated as soon as the corona expands to boil our planet.

The worry about the Anthropocene is that it announces a catastrophe of solar proportions. We’re screwed, and there’s not much to be done about it. Perhaps the only response is the kind that the characters in J.G. Ballard’s Crash embrace – looking at the mangle of the modern world and shagging on the roadside while the world burns.

What would be a better way to meet this disaster? It’s a question that Sasha Lilley and collaborators explore in a recent book of essays titled Catastrophism. The outlook isn’t rosy. In Western politics, catastrophe has been used by the left and right as an alibi for misanthropic, racist, and cold-blooded policy. Stalinists and survivalists unite behind the idea that, before things get better, society has to hit bottom. After that, the guardians of post-apocalyptic knowledge can come to save the day. Impending catastrophe has been an alibi for everything from Year Zero to cult suicides.

Herein lies the danger. We’re surrounded by catastrophic narratives of almost every political persuasion, tales that allow us to sit and wait while humanity’s End Times work themselves out. The Anthropocene can very easily become the Misanthropocene.

Read more in our special issue exploring the consequences of a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene.
If there’s good news, it comes from those who have lived in the new era for a while already: farming in greater harmony with natural systems, saving biodiversity, reducing their reliance on fossil fuels, creating more localized economies, recognizing the need for adaptation plans and resilient social systems. For those pioneers, the new geological age still comes with seasons and generations, just as the previous age did. The work of those seasons makes the task of change more manageable than a story of geology. Through a more human-scale conception of time and space – and through ecological invention – the Anthropocene is rendered more ideal.

We need those pioneers’ stories to be told in the metropolises that try to hide from ecology. The wisdom of peasants and Indigenous people can narrate an Anthropocene that tells the story of this disaster as one that we can, with rhythms and processes far from late capitalism, survive and from which we might even emerge better.

At the very least, we know this: We have been warned.

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