Exploring the Anthropocene as an unsettling ontology

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We are an incredible force of nature. Humans have the power to heat the planet further or to cool it right down, to eliminate species and to engineer entirely new ones, to re-sculpt the terrestrial surface and to determine its biology. No part of this planet is untouched by human influence – we have transcended natural cycles, altering physical, chemical and biological processes- Gaia Vince, The Guardian, September 2015

While the term ‘Anthropocene’ (the epoch of the hu/man), has been accepted in the geological discipline landscape, there has been much debate about where the boundaries lie that would mark the arrival of this new epoch. Was it the Industrial revolution in the 18th Century or the ‘great acceleration’ of the mid 20th century with its increasing population growth, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, plastic production and start of the nuclear age with atomic bombs spreading detectable radiation to every strata of the planet (Davies 2016). The Anthropocene as used in my research is more than this, more than a timeline of human degradation or techno-positivist hubris. The Anthropocene reveals beyond the damage that there is no homogenous human race and that this scale of ecological impact is unequal, unethical and unjust; the poor, the children, and the nonhuman are more in it than the wealthy.

The term Anthropocene, has not emerged uncontested. Donna Haraway (and many others), have argued the naming of the Anthropocene constructs a certain model of the globe, a view that ‘the contemporary world is a human species act’ (Haraway et. al 2015, p. 1). She argues: ‘…in this moment of beginning to get a glimmer of how truly richly complex the world is and always has been, someone has the unmitigated arrogance to name it the Anthropocene’ (Haraway et. al 2015, p. 11). Nils Bubandt responding to Haraway acknowledges the disputed nature of the term but adds it has provided the opportunity for a galvanizing in academia:

 …the Anthropocene is a polluted concept, it is a contested concept, it is a problematic concept for all kinds of reasons. At the same time, it might still be utilized to do useful work, to galvanize already emergent forms of thinking and acting in academia. For instance, one could claim that it disrupts the global hierarchy of sciences. After all, it comes as an invitation to collaboration from the ‘hard sciences’, from the apex of the hierarchy of sciences, to the human and social sciences (Haraway et. al 2015, p. 14).

For many scholars in the humanities, especially education, these arguments should compel us to ask what is the role of education within the challenges this naming of the Anthropocene provides? As more come to recognize the impact of the new epoch will there be a clarion call for considering new ways that bring into question how we engage and educate with the ‘planet’ (including all nonhuman others) and how the ‘planet’ engages and educates with us?

This realization of the possibilities and implications of the events foregrounded in the era of the Anthropocene are compelling and while the concept is contested, in its contestation it evokes a desire in me to consider the enormous challenges its presents for all earthlings.  The Anthropocene, as expressed through the everyday, entangled lives of children growing up with a host of others in degraded city landscapes is the focus of my new research project and book: Children in the Anthropocene (Malone 2018). The key focus of this work is to consider how children (especially those in urban and less privileged positions) are implicated in discussions of the Anthropocene and how to represent and educate about these urban lives differently.

Gaia Vince writes cities are ‘microcosms of the planet fashioned for our [human] species and no other’ (2014, p. 338). Endeavouring to exist in this ‘entirely synthetic human creations’ are the children and nonhuman others whose stories appear as central to my research narratives but are mostly invisible in the techno-fixes of greening capitalism.  Theirs is the story of the great global urban migration – an outlier of the Anthropocene. Starting from a slow urban drift in past generations to what we see now; a massive tidal wave of humanity headed to live in the ambiguous spaces of some of the world’s largest cities, where often only traces of our pre-human existence.

City children are the most disadvantaged human group in the Anthropocene. They will not only grow up in the height of the Anthropocene; they will inherit its consequences.  Cities throughout human history have been difficult and risky places for children, with urban childhoods being played out in crowded, polluted environments, with limited opportunities to engage with nature, animals or other nonhuman elements. Living on the urban fringes of major cities in developing countries many children and their families live in poverty, exposed daily to a host of challenges. These challenges often contribute to a child’s inability to more freely and safely in order to play or work, or access schools and medical services.    But these issues for children are not new.

The argument supporting a recent child-city-nature disconnect relies on a belief that past generations of children had a closer and more intimate relation with the planet and de-emphasizes what has been ‘a long history of urban environmental degradation and childhood disconnectedness where the experience of being a child in the environment’ has not always been a positive one. This is especially true of the invisible childhoods of eighty percent of the world’s children who are not living white middle class western imagine lives (Malone 2017).

That is, the Anthropocene and its impact on children and nonhuman lives has been a work in progress since industrialisation. Over many generations of living being’s children and our nonhuman kin have suffered the most. As a capitalist project sacrificing a future life for the planet through its unrelenting desires for resources, it has been a measure of self-adulation of the human species positioning itself as earthly master. Working or living near factories; being exposed to pollutants in the soil, air, water; the loss of places to live due to rising sea levels; the impact of natural disasters; dying from radiation, these have all been the experiences of those species living on a planet in the face of an impending ecological crisis.  The Anthropocene reminds us we live on this damaged landscape; our porous bodies are susceptible to the contamination; our seemingly secure homes and jobs vulnerable; and with the likelihood of extinction of our species and a host of others impending – our future seems grim.

The Children in the Anthropocene book explores the everyday lives of children who reside in these fragile city environments. Education, health services, employment, shelter, food and water have become alluring possibilities that large urban environments bequeath an impoverished rural child. Through the global projects of ‘sustainability’ cities have become the ‘solution to the ecological crisis’, the problems of the age of humans fixed through human ingenuity. Cities proclaimed as the means for providing shelter and resources for the steadily increasing human populations, have placed us in conflict with planetary ecologies. Under the auspices of a capitalist apparatus on sustainable development and green capitalism; the rural and indigenous persons have been encouraged/forced to move from a country taken up by the corporates machine, on the dream of a better life.  Despite the hardships encountered, the draw is great, the Anthropocentric urban revolution promised children a healthier, educated life. But the lure of the city and the call of the Anthropocene, hasn’t always delivered its promises. Children in the Anthropocene seeks to reveal the complexities of children’s lives entangled with each other, their families, the communities of humans and the collective of human-nonhuman that are tied together; knotted in knots in intricate ecological communities in cities. They are revealing stories, illustrating the potential for a different way of being with the planet, one that is often invisible within the dominant humanist project.

Therefore, as an unsettling ontology that disrupts the persistent ‘humanist’ paradigm in disciplines such as education the concept of the Anthropocene allows new conversations to happen around human-dominated global change; human exceptionalism; and the nature/culture divide (Lloro-Bidart 2015). The Anthropocene rather than just scientific facts, verifiable through stratigraphic or climatic analyses, becomes a ‘discursive development’ that problematizes a humanist narrative of progress that has essentially focused on the mastery of nature, domination of the biosphere, and ‘placing God-like faith in technocratic solutions’ (Lloro-Bidart 2015, p.132). A useful heuristic device for gaining a deeper understanding of how we ‘humans’ have come to locate ourselves as master of a 4.5 billion year old planet when we have existed for the mere blink of an eyelid.  Gan et. al. (2017, p. G5) encourage us through our storying of the Anthropocene to ‘track histories that make multispecies livability possible’ by wandering ‘through landscapes, where assemblages of the dead gather together with the living’. They remind us the traces of the past live on through those kin who are amongst us; disasters and devastation formed our present; and that hope lies in considering these many pasts, as part of our future.

Are we on the final steps to sealing the fate of a myriad of species, including our own? Will the damaged landscapes left behind hold only thin traces of the human/nonhuman histories through which ecologies have been made and unmade? (Gan, Tsing, Swanson & Bubandt 2017). The naming of the Anthropocene, acknowledges this incredible force and nowhere is this impact more dramatic then in cities, and no species has more to lose then our children.

References

Davies, J. (2016). The Birth of the Anthropocene. California: University of California Press.

Gan, E, Tsing, A, Swanson, H, and Bubandt, N. (2017). Introduction: Haunted landscapes of the Anthropocene, in Tsing, A, Swanson, H, Gan, E, and

Bubandt, N. (eds) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press: USA.

Haraway, D., Ishikawa, N., Gilbert, S. F., Olwig, K., Tsing, A. L., & Bubandt, N. (2015). Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene. Ethnos, 81(3), 535- 564.  https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2015.1105838

Lloro-Bidart, T. (2015). A Political Ecology of Education in/for the Anthropocene. Environment and Society: Advances in Research, 6(1), 128–148. http://journals.berghahnbooks.com/environment-and-society.

Lorimer, J. (2012). Multinatural Geographies for the Anthropocene. Progress in Human Geography, 36(5), 593–612. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132511435352.

Malone, K. (2017). Ecological Posthumanist Theorising: Grappling with Child-Dog-Bodies. In K. Malone, S. Truong, & T. Gray (Eds.), Reimagining Sustainability in Precarious Times. Singapore: Springer.

Malone, K. (2018) Children in the Anthropocene, Palgrave, UK.

Vince, G. (2014). Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, Canada: Milkweed Editions.

Vince, G. (2015, September 25). Humans Have Caused Untold Damage to the Planet. The Guardian. Viewed 1 March 2016. http://www.theguardian.com

Further information email Dr. Karen Malone  k.malone@westernsydney.edu.au

 Children in the Anthropocene book available: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137430908

Project Website: www.childrenintheanthropocene.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ChildreninAnthropocene/

This post is a summarised extract from the introduction chapter of the book Children in the Anthropocene and a summary of the speech given by Karen Malone (the author) at the book launch on 24 October 2017 @ Western Sydney university. The book is due to be released by Palgrave in mid-November, 2017.

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