In an article published in the New Statesman in January 2017, Martin
Lawrence paints a disturbing, dystopian picture of 2020s Britain. Brexit has undermined
economic growth and investment has collapsed. Robots and artificial intelligence are
threatening to push the country into a posthuman age. Finally, he notes, we are
“transitioning into the Anthropocene”
: species extinction is accelerating, resources are being depleted, and the planet is
continuing to warm. The immediate future is, he implies, basically rather terrifying.
This transition into the Anthropocene is unquestionably the deepest and most profound event
in recent history. While the term is only a couple of decades old, it has become hard to
imagine conceptualizing the impact of human beings on the earth—the collision of human
history and planetary geology—without it. But how should scholars working on British culture
and history respond to the conceptual challenges of the Anthropocene? How are we supposed to
combine two scales of analysis—the geological and the historical? To get our bearings, we
assembled ourselves as a roundtable of scholars with significant interest in these debates.
Chris Otter, the moderator, is associate professor of British history at Ohio State
University. Alison Bashford is research professor of history, University of New South Wales.
John Brooke is humanities distinguished professor at Ohio State University. Fredrik
Albritton Jonsson is associate professor of British history and the history of science at
the University of Chicago. Jason M. Kelly is director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities
Institute and associate professor of British history at Indiana University-Purdue University
First some background for those unfamiliar with the basic terrain of these debates: The
term Anthropocene was coined by Eugene Stoermer in the early 1980s, but it
fully entered the scientific community following the forceful adoption of the concept by
Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000.
The Anthropocene, according to Stoermer and Crutzen, is a new geological
epoch. It follows the Holocene, an approximately 12,000-year epoch with
relatively stable climate within which complex human societies developed. The transition
from the Holocene to the Anthropocene is, unlike any previous geological transition, caused
by the deliberate acts of sentient creatures: “This is not just an environmental crisis, but
a geological revolution of human origin.”
The concept of the Anthropocene, then, essentially argues that the history of human
societies cannot be separate from the histories of climate, the life of nonhuman species,
and the earth's biogeochemical cycles. History and geology have become interwoven, which is
a major conceptual challenge to the humanities.
There are, however, several competing versions of when this transition
took place. Three basic camps have emerged so far. Some scholars, such as William Ruddiman,
argue for a “long” or “deep” Anthropocene with origins in the Paleolithic or even further
back in the Pleistocene (the epoch before the Holocene).
This “deep” Anthropocene is sometimes referred to as the Paleoanthropocene.
Others postulate an “early modern” Anthropocene emerging as a result the ecological
disruptions of the Columbian Exchange.
However, there is most support, at least in scientific communities, for the idea
that the Anthropocene really gets underway in the industrial age and particularly after
1945. This post-1945 Anthropocene is often called “the Great Acceleration,” a period in
which “every indicator of human activity underwent a sharp increase in rate.”
This Great Acceleration is characterized by a swathe of phenomena including the
explosion of novel pollutants from plastics to synthetic nitrogen, the emergence of
megacities, and the steadily increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases,
which have pushed the planet beyond its Holocene climatic norms. For geologists, there are
many potential stratigraphical signatures, or “Golden Spikes,” which are possible candidates
as definitive markers of the Holocene-Anthropocene transition, including anthropogenic
soils, technofossils, hybrid plants, and lead concentrations. However, there is widespread
geological agreement that “the most dramatic isochronous contamination signature” is the
“global-scale spread of artificial radionuclides” evident from 1945.
This talk of Golden Spikes, technofossils, deranged biogeochemical cycles, and Holocene
norms might seem well removed from the everyday concerns of scholars working on, say,
Renaissance literature or Victorian politics. But the concept of the Anthropocene has
spilled out from the pages of geological journals into other fields, including history and
literature. The path-breaking work of Dipesh Chakrabarty is central here. Chakrabarty argued
that the Anthropocene forced humanities scholars to confront the reality of the human
species as a geological agent.
This assertion generated critique from scholars like Jason Moore and Andreas Malm,
who argue, in rather differing ways, that such a proposition ignores the specific role of
European capitalists, rather than the whole human species, in creating the extractive,
globalized, mineral economies that forced the planet over the threshold of the
Anthropocene—or as Moore would have it, the Capitalocene.
Other scholars, such as Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Christophe Bonneuil and Amitav
Ghosh, have produced more multi-causal accounts of the Anthropocene's emergence, including
an important emphasis on empire.
In his excellent recent summary of the Anthropocene debates, Jeremy Davies has
wisely emphasized a protracted “end-Holocene” event running from the Columbian Exchange to
today, within which humanity slowly but fatefully pushed the planet out of its comfortable
Holocene envelope into something far more turbulent and unpredictable.
There is, then, an emergent historiography of the Anthropocene. Although some might argue
the term has become gratuitously polysemous, the opposite is arguably the case: literatures
are often at their most provocative, dynamic, and exciting when concepts are pliable and
molten. The urgency and stakes of these debates makes them essential reading for all
scholars, irrespective of discipline. The Anthropocene is clearly important to think
with. Moreover, beneath the conceptual jousting, there are real and
profoundly alarming phenomena here—climate change and biodiversity loss, for example—about
which there is no serious disagreement at all. Additionally, there can also be no serious
disagreement that these phenomena were products of human activity, mediated through
capitalism, imperial expansion, fossil fuels, and mechanization. These processes are, of
course, the stuff of historians—and not least British historians—and also novelists, poets,
and artists. Indeed, numerous scholars have explicitly connected the emergence of the
Anthropocene to British capitalist and industrial development. This is certainly Andreas
Malm's argument in Fossil Capital. In The Shock of the
Anthropocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz even argue that “from the standpoint of climate,
the Anthropocene should rather be called an ‘Anglocene.’”
Dipesh Chakrabarty, meanwhile, reminds us that the most cherished of anglophone
political ideals, freedom, “stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.”
The concept of the Anthropocene has thus catalyzed tremendous cross-disciplinary debate and
stimulated vibrant and challenging scholarship. But should all modern British historians
care about coal? Rather like earlier waves of scholarship on, say, class, race, gender,
culture, and empire, the various dimensions of the Anthropocene debate concern all
historians and are something we should all be aware of, even if our scholarly focus lies
elsewhere. History—and British history specifically—has been inseparable from multiple forms
of subject-creation and oppression and profoundly complicit in them. British history has
also been deeply implicated in the dramatic reconfiguration of the environment. Both these
processes—one human and one nonhuman—inform the turbulent, troubled present.
What follows is a conversation in which four scholars introduce readers to the various ways
in which the Anthropocene concept has influenced their thoughts and scholarship. It shows
how attempting to think geologically and historically, in a British context, can lead one in
very interesting and innovative directions. These are not the last words on the subject but
very much thoughts about work in progress.
First, however, I must address two concepts that are of particular importance. The first
concept is that of scale. As Chakrabarty notes, any historical
understanding of the Anthropocene has to combine human and planetary time in a single,
multi-scalar framework. Historians have perhaps tended to be more comfortable with the
microhistorical than the longue durée and with the local rather than the
global, while the modern novel, as Ghosh reminds us, operates at very human time scales. It
is easier to feel, conceptualize, and narrate the immediate, spectacular violence of war or
genocide than the glacial, silent violence wrought by carbon emissions.
Confronting the Anthropocene does not mean abandoning microhistory and the intimacy
of modern novels, but it does involve an appreciation of scaling effects. Simply put,
large-scale phenomena are not linearly scaled.
As the scale of an entity increases, novel, unpredictable, and emergent phenomena
appear. The Victorian hearth, the symbol of intimacy, is nonlinearly connected to the amount
of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the quantity of particulate matter in human lungs.
In the Anthropocene, historians need epistemologies, cultural frameworks, and imaginative
strategies and policies that allow us so shift back and forth between different scales of
analysis. As Deborah Coen has shown, scaling also has a long and complex history: all
cultures, at different historical times, have had specific ways of mediating between the
smaller and the larger, the close and the distant.
Scholars of Britain routinely scale back and forth between geopolitical units
(nation and empire, for example). The Anthropocene invites us to complement such practices
with new types of scaling techniques, particularly ones extending across long periods of
time and linking technologies (steam engines, cars) to vast nonhuman entities (ecologies,
climate). These emergent scalar challenges are epistemological and ethical challenges of the
The second concept is that of the agency of nonhumans. The idea of
nonhuman agency has been popular in science studies for many years.
Indeed, it has become so commonplace as to appear unremarkable. But the stakes for
historians are important. Climate, animals, machines, and cities cannot now be regarded as
simply the passive backdrop of history, if indeed they ever truly were. They are also
actors, even if they lack the intentionality and reflexivity that has made humans such
profoundly effective geoengineers. History is now about the interactions not simply of
humans with other humans but also humans with the entire earth system, revealing “devious
chains of cause and effect.”
The widespread reintroduction of nonhuman agency, or capacity, into British history
and culture involves a changed perspective. It is commonplace to hear that the concept of
the Anthropocene really adds nothing to history, since we knew coal and industrialization
were important. But as Ghosh notes, acknowledging the teeming diversity of agents and their
myriad interactions makes history uncanny: the same history becomes vitally
It is at once biological, technological, and geological, no longer
ontologically insulated from wider earth processes. In the Anthropocene, historians can no
longer deny that our “nonhuman interlocutors” are here to stay as active parts of our