Telos 177 (Winter 2016): Rethinking Nature in the Anthropocene

Telos 177 (Winter 2016) is now available for purchase in our store.

While the term Anthropocene was used in the USSR already in the 1960s to refer to the late Quaternary era, it rose to prominence more recently when introduced by Eugene F. Stoermer and Paul J. Crutzen. As the very word indicates, this is an epoch when humanity has taken center stage in the sense that its activities now have a major, global, and lethal impact. The shadow of human-caused global destruction and mass death haunts this epoch, and indeed, humanity’s newly acquired capacity for devastation is one of the Anthropocene’s most marked traits. While mass extinctions are hardly new phenomena and while the specter of the extinction of humanity due to some sudden catastrophe was there even before human beings were aware of it in scientific terms, the actual capacity of humanity to extinguish itself along with a large swath of other species on the planet is new, and the stakes of human action are higher.

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Comparative Understandings of the Human Political Actor: An Entryway into the Critique of Totalizing, Modernist Monopolies over Ethics and Politics

Consider the Aristotelian maxim that humankind “is by nature a political animal,” whose capacity for speech, unique “among the animals[,] . . . serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust.” If one accepts this dictum (and, crucial to this article’s line of thinking, by no means must one necessarily adhere to Aristotle’s rationalist model of “man,” nor any other universalist account of humanness), then the ceaseless question remains: what specific sort(s) of speaking, morally reasoning animal might the human be read as constituting, from within the interpretive mindset of a particular historical and civilizational milieu? Of course, this question presupposes, in a manner that may well be at odds with the anthropological premises of a universalist modern political doctrine like human rights, that, rather than exhibiting a fixed, unitary essence, the human acts as a signifier; as such, this human signifier might potentially refer to myriad worldviews, and sources and assemblages of contextualizing meaning, across which the understanding of humanness can be differently constructed and construed.

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There Is No Anthropocene: Climate Change, Species-Talk, and Political Economy

Anthropocene scholars push a new universal history and subject: we (the “anthropos”) are digging our grave as a species. Though this rhetoric is effective for drawing attention to the ecological crisis, the Anthropocene concept is dangerous for social theory. By generalizing responsibility and guilt for our contemporary ecological crisis to the point that it encompasses the human species, the concept and discourse elide the particular people and structures responsible for creating it. Rather than clarify the origins of the contemporary crisis—the history of capitalism, colonialism, and simplistic ideas about nature—it occludes them through forays into “deep history” and tales of technology disembedded from their social context. Lacking this history, the Anthropocene operates as an empty cosmopolitanism. Rather than provide a ground for a new political ecology, the Anthropocene removes it. Worse, the concept may prove useful for global actors who wish to hide their climate debts, using the rhetoric of collective responsibility that the Anthropocene makes possible.

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Interstellar and the Environmental Crisis

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar paints the portrait of a brave new time in the future when we will finally cut the shackles attaching us to our dying home planet and embrace our nomadic nature. Having turned the earth into a gigantic dust bowl, where the soil is increasingly barren and the air unbreathable, we will move on to greener pastures, in the shape of as yet unpolluted planets in faraway galaxies. After all, why shouldn’t planets be more like paper tissues—one soiled and tossed, another one already on the way?

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