The Anthropocene as a Question of Responsibility

Posted by on Jul 19, 2016
The Anthropocene as a Question of Responsibility

This piece by the CENHS predoctoral fellow and sociocultural anthropology PhD student, Magnús Örn Sigurðsson, is a short version of his essay that was one of the 2016 winners of the Greene Prize for Environmental Writing.

Using the idea of a new geological period, the Anthropocene, is a common way of demarcating the discussion within contemporary critical theory on the unprecedented human impact on the environment. Humans are said to have changed the ecosystem of the Earth so greatly that the sedimentary layers formed at present times should be named after our species; named after Anthropos, because they are thought to first and foremost represent the acts of humans. Representations are, however, always limited, and when they acquire a grand narrative status within discourse, as Isabelle Stengers suggests the Anthropocene has, it can have dire results for human understanding (Stengers, Davis and Turpin 2013). Isabelle Stengers’s ideas about ecologies of practices can offer a way to understand the discourse summoned by the Anthropocene, but they can also help us think about the human impact on the Earth—climate change, for example—in a manner that the Anthropocene discourse often forecloses. I will go through some criticism on the Anthropocene concept and present the usefulness of framing it, first and foremost, as a notion of responsibility rather than impact.

The major critique of the Anthropocene concept is that as a signifier of the human disruption of Earth it tends to turn a blind eye against the socially specific causes and consequences of these practices. Geographer Kathryn Yusoff has recently written of the need to acknowledge the social stratification of the Anthropocene. She speaks of this in terms of the need to not only uncover the Anthropocene’s geological formations but also the geo-social formations inherent in this most recent and still becoming geologic period. (Yusoff 2015) But what is a “geo-social formation”? A geological formation that can be read from a social perspective?

In one sense, the term Anthropocene already introduces a social dimension into the geological record, simply by offering a way to think about “humanity-as-stratum”. However, at the same time, it minimizes the meaning of the term social by thinking humans as a homogenous force, whereas “humanity is used as a term of erasure of material and political forms of differentiation” (Yusoff 2015, 7). The Anthropocene is a geo-social formation, but in singular. So what is needed is to detect geo-social formations within it, a stratification of the social, involving for instance linking specific sediments of the Anthropocene to historically or geographically specific socialities, or further specifying them culturally or by gender.

Human ecologist Andreas Malm has similarly criticized the Anthropocene concept and pointed towards a specific economic system as a different way to frame the responsibility for environmental degradation that the Anthropocene tends to assign to all humans. (Malm 2015) Like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Malm argues that capitalism, rather than humans per se, is the most disruptive force on planet Earth. But one might ask how much difference there is really between humans and capitalism in the contemporary world? “Capitalism” feels at least similarly all-encompassing as “humanity” and could for that matter be as flawed a framing as the Anthropocene when it comes to underscoring “homogenous forces”. Political scientist Elmar Altvater even thinks “it would be sensible to dub it the Capitalocene since human beings always act as social beings in societal structures and, at the latest since the Industrial Revolution, these have been determined by capitalism.” (Altvater 2015, 197) However, arguments like his that emphasize a specific human construction of the social––capitalism––can be a step towards highlighting the social stratification of the Anthropocene for instance in terms of the differential responsibilities for environmental degradation connected with different ideologies. But here we must also differentiate between “responsibility” in the form of causation and in the form of response, for example, as the response to a problem one presumably caused.[1]

A tapestry by Nancy Hemenway (1979-1980)

A tapestry by Nancy Hemenway (1979-1980)

Sometimes it is difficult to detect whether the Anthropocene is being used metaphorically or geologically, and many texts seem to be working with the term on both levels at the same time. Maybe that is the rhetorical strength of the concept. It has an empirical basis within geology while simultaneously it can refer very broadly, metaphorically or philosophically, to time. But let us focus, first of all, on the geological record. The problem with establishing social stratification within the Anthropocene as a geological period lies in the global character, of its core signal, climate change. A sedimentary layer in one part of the world that reveals impacts of global warming is generally difficult to connect to local anthropogenic actions or to the responsibility of a specific major polluter in a certain space and time. Thus, all humans are made responsible, because more specific causalities are difficult to discern. However, Yusoff and Malm are pointing out that making all humans responsible is also problematic, something that the social sciences and humanities have been considering for some time, especially the uneven responsibility of humans when it comes to climate change, in terms of gender, political views and socio-economic conditions (e.g McCright and Riley E. Dunlap 2011; Seager 2009). What is new in Yusoff and Malm’s discussions is how they point to differentiated responsibilities that are often missed in the literature on the Anthropocene as the concept itself works to flatten out social distinctions.

Is there then good reason to focus on the Anthropocene? Why for instance focus on thinking about the present as a geological epoch when geological epochs are mostly interesting as archives of the biological realm of the past? Epochs are interesting partly because as past they can tell us about life on Earth that we were not around to witness. Yusoff’s focus, too, is geological, distanced from the biological, though she calls for an opening into the social. However, the Anthropocene, unlike other geological epochs, is still here, it is present. It is not purely geological, but very much alive and becoming rather than dead or historical, and therefore it is still open to biological research. Paul Crutzen, the chemist that popularized the Anthropocene concept, underscored this aspect of the Anthropocene with a team of geologists a few years ago (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010). The popularity of the term is likely a result of how useful it has proven as a way to convey the extremity of human impact on the Earth, as humans have become a “geologic world-maker/destroyer of worlds” (Yusoff, p. 3). Still, its scientific popularity does not mean that it is a necessarily a good basis upon which to analyze human impacts in more specific and social terms.

The Anthropocene concept, whether in its narrow geological framing or a broader social-historical one, has the potential of producing a theory of responsibility, a way to assign responsibility for particular changes in the Earth’s ecosystems to humans. And as such it is valuable to consider the Anthropocene in relation to Isabelle Stengers’s theorization of an ecology of practices. Responsibility is an important idea for Stengers in her theorization of decision making situations in modern society. For Stengers, different “practices are introduced and justified, the way they define their requirements and obligations, the way they are described, the way they attract interest, the way they are accountable to others, are interdependent and belong to the same temporality” (Stengers 2010, 56-57). Furthermore, obligations are the binding material of an ecology of practices, as Stengers writes, “it is in terms of obligations rather than requirements that the unity of here and elsewhere can be asserted, the copresence of that which, at the same time, claims to be heterogeneous” (Stengers 2010, 80, my emphasis).

So reading the Anthropocene through Stengersian theory, it becomes an example of such a copresence, one that can unite the humans of “here and elsewhere” with their different cultures, living standards and practices, while still belonging “to the same temporality.” But while this copresence unites different practices they should not only be seen as undifferentiated unity. They “claim to be heterogeneous” and thus hide complexities that a focus on specific requirements and obligations can disclose. Analytic attention to such specificity offers a way to elicit the characteristics of each practice and their individual connections with one another, or, in other words, to illuminate the social stratification of the Anthropocene.

The Paris Agreement presents a simple example. The agreement establishes, in a very formal manner, an ecology of practices, that is, an ecology of emission practices. All nations emit greenhouse gases and the combined affect is a copresence, an Anthropocenic copresence:

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity. (UNFCCC 2015, p. 21)

However, the agreement also acknowledges that the richer nations in the world have a greater responsibility.

Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention. (UNFCCC 2015, p. 26)

I have my doubts about the overall usefulness of the Anthropocene term as it seems to steer people towards thinking in narrow terms about the present situation—positioning themselves within geologics (whatever those may be)—while our present is obviously still very open to biological investigation, let alone in terms of its sociological, psychological, and anthropological dimensions for that matter. However, given that this specific demarcation of thinking about human induced environmental degradation is strong enough rhetorically that it seems to be here to stay, I think that finding a way to distinguish different levels of responsibility between different cultural or social groups will prove a helpful corrective. The Anthropocene can be useful when reconsidered as copresence, giving people a sense of mutual responsibility and collective stake in the discussion. But it is important not to misunderstand this copresence as a statement of the homogenous responsibilities, requirements and obligations of humankind, of different nations, and social groups. Anthropocene discourse must engage in deciphering, interpreting and theorizing the nuances of responsibility when looking into the ecological practices of the past, present and future.

One way of doing this is to focus on specific practices, and, as a PhD student, trying to figure out such an approach is part of what occupies my mind these days. How to analyze climate change mitigation practices driven by international agreements? Could such research inform our understanding of how responsibility is ascribed on the international level? For instance, what are the potentials and limits of nation-states acting as ethical subjects in assigning responsibility for mitigation, and what kind of technologies are deployed and implemented on the domestic level to distribute this responsibility within the government, civil society and business sectors? The Paris Agreement leaves plenty of room for different implementations of mitigation mechanisms, which can result in variable levels of responsibility being adopted by nations. But this will be to a large extent self-ascribed responsibility since there are no binding international agreements on emission reduction. Analyzing and comparing mitigation actions of different nations could therefore be a way of examining how the responsibility they take for climate change, or the Anthropocene, can become socially stratified.

If the goal of critical theory is to take a politically critical approach to the subject, as in the manner of Malm’s and Altvater’s fingerpointing towards capitalism, one could attempt to distinguish the ideological underpinnings of mitigation practices, that is, the “response” element within “responsibility.” Can specific actions be seen as materialization of the bureaucratic power of free market capitalism, such as the EU Emission Trade System, or is the ETS rather a form of ordoliberalism? Or can a lack of compliance with international agreements on a state’s behalf be interpreted as an anarcho-capitalist point of view? Such approaches, rather than disclosing a social stratification of the responsibility taken for climate change by nations or sectors, would primarily unearth new social strata of the Anthropo- or Capitalocene by establishing ideological underpinnings of responsibility. The homogeneity of the Anthropocene concept can prove problematic at this level of analysis, but despite the shortcomings of the term, I believe it still offers a powerful way to demarcate the broad transdisciplinary field of scholarship seeking to answer questions about the current unprecedented human disruption of planet Earth.


[1] These distinctions between different forms of responsibility build on James Laidlaw’s discussion (Laidlaw 2013) of such distinctions in Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity (Williams 1993) where responsibility is theorized as being the construction of four elements: cause, intention, state and response.



Altvater, Elmar. 2015. “Securing the Planetary Boundaries”, Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray, Vapor volume, eds. Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, Bernd M. Scherer, Berlin: Haus de Kulturen der Welt, and Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, pp. 196-208.

Laidlaw, James. 2013. “Taking Responsibility Seriously” in The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 179 – 213.

Malm, Andreas. 2015. “The Anthropocene Myth: Blaming All of Humanity for Climate Change Lets Capitalism of the Hook”. Published on March 3rd 2015. Accessed on July 2nd:

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap. 2011. “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States”, Global Environmental Change 21, pp. 1163 – 1172.

Seager, Joni. 2009. Death by Degrees: Taking a Feminist Hard Look at the 2 Degrees Climate Policy. Kvinder, Kon & Forskning (Denmark) — Women, Gender & Research, 18 (3-4), pp. 11 – 22.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Transl. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. Original French edition published in 1997.

Stengers, Isabelle, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin. 2013. “Matters of Cosmopolitics: On the Provocations of Gaïa: Isabelle Stengers in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin”. Open Humanities Press.

UNFCCC. 2015. “Adoption of the Paris Agreement”. Conference of the Parties, Twenty-first session, Paris, 30 November to 11 December, published 12 December, pp. 1-32.

Williams, Bernard. 1993. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2015. “Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene”. Theory, Culture & Society 0(0). DOI: 10.1177/0263276415581021, pp. 1-26.

Zalasiewicz, Jan et al. 2010. “The New World of the Anthropocene: The Anthropocene, following the lost world of the Holocene, holds challenges for both science and society.” Environ. Sci. Technol., 44 (7), pp. 2228 – 2231.