Notes from Rob Nixon’s talk “This Brief Multitude: The Anthropocene and Our Age of Disparity”

Posted by on May 29, 2013

Rob Nixon, “This Brief Multitude: The Anthropocene and Our Age of Disparity”

These are notes taken live from Nixon’s plenary talk at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference in Lawrence, Kansas.

Basic points about the Anthropocene, Stoermer and Crutzen, Crutzen did the popularization; focus on Homo sapiens as agent of the Anthropocene; new beginning in planetary historiography; Great Acceleration: exponential spikes in many indicators; Nixon interested in the GA in geological terms, but also in economic terms; the Great Acceleration has been about the globalization and intensification of inequality; Smithsonian great ideas symposium—Nixon, Daniel Wildcat, and mostly scientists; test run for a plan to run an Anthropocene exhibit in the next couple of years, vast exhibits on the Anthropocene; mostly scientist driven though; if the idea balloons at this scale, it’s going to be a big deal; Nixon’s new book is about how the humanities can curate and narrate the Anthropcene; how we represent the global environmental crisis and crisis of inequality

Anthropocene as a meme; video clip of Liar Bird that imitates other birds, with D. Attenborough; imitating the Kookubura; imitating car alarm; imitating the sound of a chain saw; what we have on this “concept platform” is two soloists, the suberb liar bird and the superb Attenborough, both of whom mind the powers of seduction; 12 million youtube hits; sound of the chainsaw from the bird’s beak is a fracture in its mating song; cracked voice of habitat fracture; intimations of mortality in the mimic of the chainsaw; tension between continuity and closure; only human we see is Attenborough; chainsaw is audible but abstract, a planetary allegory, a Manichean showdown between nature and humanity; second chainsaw video: Israeli military cutting down olive trees to make way for the wall, Palestinians praying and protesting helplessly; this is a crowded militarized environmental scene, desparate residents fighting for the survival of their trees; makes no sense to talk about humanity as a species power here; the more heavily militarized group gets to destroy the trees; this is a very locally specific scene of human disparity, resource capture by the powerful, depletion for the dispossessed; Anthropocene is above all a species story, a grand narrative about a lifeform that has risen to the position of ultimate planetary superpower; “Forward into the Anthropocene!”; vs fragmented humanities and deepening inequality;

Timothy Noah: we are now living through the Great Divergence; 30 year upsurge in disparity/inequality; at a statistical level, even on the right, people believe in the disparity; some think it should increase; across the planet, communities being abandoned, environments subjected to destruction/depletion; many recent books about this GD (he flashes through twenty front covers); why hasn’t the arrival of the digital universe brought us together? You’ve got the death of distance (digital) and the Great Divergence; even in the Anthropocene, we need to remain alive to the GD; counterbalance the centripetal force of the Anthropocene with complicating centrifugal narrative; Since at least the 19C, scientists have singled out Homo sapiens as a terraforming agent; Rachel Carson: only within the moment of time of the present century has one species acquired this power; George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature; why did the Anthropocene catch on at this particular point? five reasons: hadn’t conceived in in terms of sratigraphy before, more advanced ice coring now, the heft of Crutzen’s nobel laureate stature, and his quick assembly of a team of advocates for the Anthropocene across disciplines in the sciences, and climate change now as a hot button issue; speed with which so many scientists embrace the Anthropocene a result of climate inaction and disaffection with the political environment; however critical rising CO2 levels are, the future can’t be reduced to climate change (science); the question is how people can take responsibility for, and respond to their changing world; the response is social cultural political ecological; Anthropocene drives this home; or could it revive Enlightenment hubris? could the name legitimize a self-involved anthropomorphism?; can the call for humanity as the planets mega-agent to take control over the climate lead to more problems and more narcissism?; gung-ho responses around techno fixes, geo-engineering; i.e. we could see the A. as a new geological epoch full of human opportunity; We run the earth, it’s our choice what happens here; Stewart Brand: we are as gods, we have to get good at it; In this example, Nixon sees the wax melting from Icarus’s wings..there was more inequality than he realized; we need to infuse a lot more geopolitical intelligence into the idea of geoengineering; we’re going to see a lot of controversy and politicization with these big museum exhibits; Zalasiewicz: the Anthopocene has the capacity to become political among geologists; Nixon: the politics of the Anthropcene is about what it means to promulgate the big H human as a cohesive geological actor, when the little h is  about deepening inequality

A hollowing out of the social middle as we witness resource hoarding by the super-elite; the ecological and human sacrifice zones grow ever larger; soon a huge proportion of the population will be living in megacities with huge sacrifice ones. Profound economic distance but physical proximity; Mumbai, Rio, Johanessburg, Jakarta, etc.; some would see overpop., Nixon sees an issue of distribution; the Gini coefficient as measure of inequality: the closer to ten the more unequal; Norway and Sweden at one end, South Africa at the other; but the Gini coefficient compeletely skews the idea of the average citizen; will the Anthropocene be a matter of adaptation by the rich, for the rich? a second, just as selective enlightenment Man, with corporations now included in the idea of Man?;

The stratigraphers are specialists at reading layers of rock, but we also need to do a reading of social stratification: impoverished, lower class, working class, middle class, upper class superimposed on image of geo strata; the Anthropocene as a shared geomorphic story about increasingly unequally shared resources; the geopolitics of geology’s shared assumptions [?]; we in the humanities need to engage with this profound geological gesture; in 2016 Zalasiewicz will chair a committee with the power to declare the Anthropocene as the real deal; but the public realm moves much faster than geologists; we cannot afford to remain bystanders and let scientists alone shape this story; we need preemptively to insist on the connection between rising oceans and rising plutocratic inequality; we need to disturb the image of humanity as a unified geological actor; beware when plutocrats speak of spaceship earth; as we cross the threshold, lets at least “mind the gap,” yes?

Question: but isn’t it too easy to blame the super-rich? A: individual actions are inadequate without international accords; international deregulation has reached a point where we need action at a higher plane, top down; we won’t return to the Holocene without global leadership (or at all); sorting garbage won’t do it; if we look at tax policies and salary disparities, the gap has been growing exponentially; hollowed out civic middle, makes it seem like you don’t belong to a society as a responsible social and ecological actor

Q: which arguments have you found most successful in speaking with scientists? A: in the humanities we’re afflicted with quantitative creep, the push to become more quantitative; Nixon thinks it’s a huge mistake; that’s not what scientists look for from us; they understand that there’s not some inevitable tipping point that leads to social change; scientists are appalled that there is so much anti-science out there, that there is so much of a gap between the numbers and the narratives; more and more scientists are acknowledging a place for the arts and for humanities scholars, at least those who can write accessibly, in engaging with the Anthropocene.

Q: why not call it capitalism, the source of the disparity? A: I’m a social democrat; don’t believe in reconstituting Marxism per se, but in critiquing this particular moment of capital accumulation; the end of Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums: we are many and the gods of chaos are on our side; with the spread of gated communities, the illusion of long term segregation; Hurricane Sandy; do we build a wall or not? will it deflect resources from a larger global attempt to deal with these crises, in order to protect Wall Street?; N’s thinking came from Williams, Gramsci, Said, but doesn’t think that Marxism as a solution has a lot to offer, except insofar as the levels of inequality have to do with things we can use Marxist concepts to describe, like primitive accumulation; megamergers: 50% of the world’s agricultural seeds controlled by mega-corporations; the issue of the power of corporations is quite different from anything in human history, it’s a specific component; Bill McKibben is right to say that the big corps are eroding the democratic process; that they destroy the social safety net

Q: the idea of the end of nature, that nature ever was untouched by humans is clearly wrong: it’s been happening for like 40,000 years. Has the Anthropocene become a shorthand for that sense of a socialized nature? could you comment more on what exactly environmentalism seeks to secure in this context, if not nature as a stable outside to the social?  A: Australia and Canada, extractivist thinking. Mine as fast as possible, deal with the problem afterward. Mineral wealth in Canada concentrated in Aboriginal territory; Aboriginals were under no illusion that they were living in untouched territory; it now has much more to do with the rate of change than returning to an Edenic moment.

Q: should we dismiss out of hand techno-utopianism? What is its role in our narration/curation of the Anthropocene?    A: innovation is a bad word. Innovation gets substituted for austerity. Innovation in the university means paying someone 1/3 as much to teach, you get points for it; on the possibilities of cloud seeding: U.S. agriculture will get more rain, less in the Sahara, but they’re used to suffering there; we need to avoid creating an Anthropocene Halliburton; Rebecca Solnit on the Google Bus; George Packer in The New Yorker; techno-geeks saying gov’t doesn’t work, we can do better, let’s have a Google bus; this just means public transport will be eroded; for teaching, Solnit and Packer work well together; we’re seeing the privatization of everything.


About Rob Nixon:

Rob Nixon is currently the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Nixon received his Ph.D. from Columbia Universityand is the author of London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford University Press); Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond (Routledge); Dreambirds: the Natural History of a Fantasy (Picador); and Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press 2011).

Professor Nixon is a frequent contributor to the New York Times; his writing has also appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Village Voice, The Nation, The Guardian, Outside, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Independent, Critical Inquiry, PMLA, Social Text, Slate, South Atlantic Quarterly, Transition, Cultural Critique, Contemporary Literature, Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, Ariel, Modern Fiction Studies, New Formations, andBlack Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. He has published over ninety journal articles, essays, and book chapters.

Professor Nixon teaches environmental studies, postcolonial studies, creative nonfiction, African literature, world literature, and twentieth century British literature. He is a former chair of the Border and Transcultural Studies Research Circle and is affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, theCenter for Culture, History, and the Environment (CHE), the African Studies program, and the Creative Writing Program.

Professor Nixon has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation Peace and Security Fellowship, and a National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities.


You can read an interview with Nixon here: