The Anthropocene

History and Legacy of the Colonial Mindset

Lorenzo Kamel | Aug 16, 2022

The first recorded war in human history took place around 2450 BCE between the Lagash and the Umma kingdoms in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It was triggered by competing claims over water sources and the supply of water. There are good reasons to believe that the last war on our planet will start for the same reasons. Even more so if we consider that, over 4,450 years later, the “majority of climate security risks revolve around water,” which has much to do with the epochal human-related changes that our planet is currently facing.

A painting of an astronaut, standing in a field and haloed by red, black, and gold lights. The earth hovers suspended in the top right.

As humanity steps into the future, can we learn from the histories that the Anthropocene, with all its flaws, represents? Fernando Norat (Instagram: @tropiwhat)

In light of the extent of such human-caused changes, it is hardly surprising that the current geological era is known to many as the Anthropocene (Greek: “new human era”). The Anthropocene, a term coined by biologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and popularized by chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, emphasizes how human actions shape the environment in all its physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. There is some disagreement on when the Anthropocene started. A number of scholars have argued that slavery and European colonization define the Anthropocene, while others have noticed that it entailed massive clearings of forests, the introduction of cash crops, the establishment of plantations, and economic exploitation. Thus, most historians and climatologists agree that a definition of the era must mention how some human groups used others to exploit the environment, and that colonialism is therefore a significant factor in its advent.

This idea of the Anthropocene, however, is not only largely inaccurate but also unfair. Generalized patterns of human behavior are no doubt present, but this pertains to certain societies and economies, located in particular in northern Europe, on the US Atlantic coast, and in eastern China. The rest of the world and its inhabitants bear little responsibility for the causes and dynamics related to the Anthropocene, but they share its dramatic effects. For example, climate change is widely regarded as one of the most obvious features of the Anthropocene. But the United States, inhabited by about 5 percent of the world’s population, produced about 30 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the 20th century. By comparison, China produced 7 percent of dioxide emissions, India produced 2 percent, and Europe produced 22 percent. The per capita emissions of India and China are still today “50–80 percent lower than the world averages,” and a country like Sri Lanka, whose life expectancy is similar to that of the United States (a year and a half of difference between the two countries), uses about 88 percent less resource than the United States and emits about 94 percent less emissions on a per capita basis. Humans as a species are not changing the environment; rather, a select few of their members are.

The marginal centrality of our planet and its inhabitants had been confirmed by many discoveries made in modern times, discoveries that reduced the significance of human actors.

Despite the Anthropocene being an imprecise and unfocused concept, one considered a “Eurocentric” and “unnecessary” intellectual posturing by some scholars, the ongoing debates surrounding it are nonetheless igniting a few positive discussions. One is related to the fact that the concept of the Anthropocene itself breaks down the distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities. Perhaps even more relevant, however, is the increasingly broad realization of the actual harmful impact of human beings on the ecosystem of which we are a part. More generally, the Anthropocene is a welcome reaffirmation of the centrality of human beings and their actions as the rise of modern science has diminished perceptions of human importance and agency.

From what planetary scientist Carl Sagan termed “a Cosmos perspective on the world,” the marginal centrality of our planet and its inhabitants had been confirmed by many discoveries made in modern times, discoveries that reduced the significance of human actors. Copernicus (1473–1543), to provide an iconic example, quite literally decentered humanity when he confirmed that the earth revolves around the sun and not the reverse; Kepler’s (1571–1630) telescopes, on the other hand, confirmed for the first time that the earth is only one planet among billions of others. The concept of Anthropocene is the most recent contribution toward tackling modern science’s inherent “perception of marginality” of human beings. More than just impotent apes on a cosmic speck of dust, the Anthropocene gives a new emphasis to the positive and negative impact that we can all exert on our planet.

Critiques of anthropocentrism developed by scholars in recent years push back against this, proposing ontologies in fields like animal studies that aim to decenter the human. By marginalizing human beings, the idea is to promote humility in the face of nature, to honor and to cultivate mutualistic bonds with nonhuman organisms, without which life is not possible. From the perspective of those supporting these analytical approaches, marginalizing the human is actually a good thing because it prompts awareness of how human activities impact all kinds of life-forms. Amélia Polónia and Jorge M. Pacheco have offered a middle ground by rightly pointing out the importance of not disregarding “the way ecosystems reacted to the invaders and become themselves builders of different environments”—that is, the necessity of not overlooking “the evolution and adaptability of ecosystems, as well as the adaptation of Europeans to pre-existent environments.”

Both positive constructions and negative critiques of the Anthropocene show that the concept is directly linked to climate colonialism, the human perception of ourselves as dominators of an ecosystem, rather than part of an ecosystem. This is often most evident when examining colonialism itself, which entailed massive clearings of forests and the development of vast plantations of highly sought-after products such as tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee. In other words, a number of key features connected to the Anthropocene can be traced back to a relationship to nature that emerged after the European “discovery” of the Americas, one that opposed and supplanted, for example, sumak kawsay, the Indigenous Andean idea for away of living in harmony with the environment.

In fact, the current early stages of space tourism suggest such unequal ecological exchange is poised to repeat.

The Indian Ocean, a strategic transit route between Africa and Asia where modern colonialism profoundly influenced the processes of mass production and economic dynamics that still affect us today, shows a similar pattern. The Malay Peninsula, now politically divided among Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, serves as a sort of “microparadigm” of this influence. The peninsula was largely converted into a plantation economy geared to the industrial needs of Great Britain and the United States. Such policies were rooted in economic motivations, aimed at meeting the needs—raw materials and new markets—created by the Industrial Revolution. From an intraregional perspective, however, their main effect was to push millions of Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese workers to tackle colonial policies, while, at the same time, pursuing the unsustainable exploitation of the local natural resources (providing a strong contribution also to the deforestation ofBorneo) in search for new forms of livelihood. The latter is a scheme that has bound together, in different ways and forms, many postcolonial spaces that are today particularly affected by climate-related dynamics: colonialism, in the words of Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, is inseparable from the history “of unequal ecological exchange,” and, one might add, capitalism and its global expansion. In this sense, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s recent claim according to which “colonialism is neither as powerful nor as profound in its impact as our decolonisers proclaim” risks fostering a unidimensional, homogenous understanding of what decolonizing means.

But it would be a mistake to limit these anthropogenic, colonialist dynamics to our planet alone. In fact, the current early stages of space tourism suggest such unequal ecological exchange is poised to repeat: the wealthiest 1 percent are already responsible for around 50 percent of aviation emissions, which orbital tourism only increases. It should be stressed that colonizers have always been motivated by the impression that everything exists for their use. As noted by Ramin Skibba, the widespread attitudes toward space that focus on power and profit appear worryingly similar to the 19th-century mindset of European and American colonial powers and may have similar repercussions in the future of humanity. In this sense, decolonizing the cosmos means that, instead of treating Mars and the moon as sites of conquest and settlement, it’s necessary to develop a new sumak kawsay of space exploration. If the Anthropocene is helpful in situating us in history, it might also be a concept we can use to map our possible futures.

Millions of human beings excluded as agents by the Anthropocene—particularly Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the United States, among other countries—are today the bearers of a powerful message that should not be ignored or downplayed. They are disproportionately affected by climate-related dynamics. And so they demand that the energy resources of our planet are used in a more equitable way. They call for rights—more precisely “the right to have rights”—that can undermine the postcolonial and structural discriminations that punctuate their daily lives. Most importantly, they are reclaiming the public space and want to have a role in creating and presenting the narratives and historiographies of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. In other words, they want to be part of the history that has already been written and the one that has yet to come.

Lorenzo Kamel is a professor of history at the University of Turin, a faculty member in the PhD program in Global History of Empires, and director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali’s Research Studies. He tweets at @lorenzokamel

Tags: Features Global History Environmental History

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