Socrates in the Anthropocene


I want to thank Scott Knowles for encouraging me to leave my little town of Denton, Texas, and come up here for the Anthropocene Campus Philadelphia at Drexel University. A word of warning as I follow up my colleagues on the roving plenarist panel: I never say anything new because there is too much good stuff that bares reexamining. So I will be touching back on a few things that came up as I dialogued with so many of you over the last few days.

Let me say: I came here admitting to knowing very little about the Anthropocene myself, and I got to interact with so many folks–expressing a wonderful amount of humility–each demonstrating what it means to heed their vocation as thinkers rather than merely do their jobs as academics.

When Scott initially asked me to participate, he outlined a program where I would corner folks and have a Socratic exchange, asking them to please explain what they mean by X or how they define Y as it regards the anthropocene. Of course, as soon as I began to talk to folks, I realized that Socratic inquiry would be somewhat limited because—as the old Stonemason himself recognized—experts actually do know the things which make up their specialty . Moreover, most academics have learned to be very wary in wandering too far from their area of expertise.

So the real trick would be to get folks talking about what they know and then wander along with me into what neither of us know… Pretty much, that was the concept of the Anthropocene itself.

While there were quite a few people from diverse areas of study here, I never had a chance to dialog with a geologist or geoscientist, someone who might justifiably say, I know the Anthropocene to be “…an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change…”†

Rather, whether a marine biologist or sociologist or historian or artist or even philosopher, my dialogs wandered with other people who were here to figure out how the concept of the Anthropocene impacted their own research if not their very lives. Some saw it as the backdrop to the most pressing issues facing us as a species. Others saw it as a way into how academics frame issues of great public importance before the public at large even really knows it could be a problem.

Outside of asking how my fellows understood the notion of the anthropocene, there were a couple of other common queries:

  1. What human activity most directly affects the world and makes this the Anthropocene?

Most attendees offered a critique of thoughtless consumerism alongside capitalist industrial practices that do not heed the delicacy of the natural world.

  1. Do you believe that a gathering about the Anthropocene is symptomatic of the Anthropocene? [That was my “cute” question, I thank Ana Matilde Sousa for this wonderful terminology based on her studies of Anime and Manga].

99% said yes but for so many different reasons: from the environmental impact of traveling for the event to the reality that this is what we do—try to control, screw it up, try to fix. “Apply. Rinse. Repeat.”

  1. One query I only asked a few folks, How do we queer the anthropocene?

Among those I asked, such a move was regarded as absolutely necessary. Many of us recognized a real danger that the Anthropocene will become the Manthropocene††, More particularly, attendees noted the probability of a EuroAmerican technoscientific colonialism that ignores or downplays the response of indigenous peoples and third world nations to our situation.

I thought about all of this a great deal over four days. I had toyed with the notion that maybe we should be more honest in about our own Westernizing cultures—the societies that have benefited the most from industrializing the world. Industrializing nations have effectively turned turned every place into a resource territory, a fabricating region, or a financial district. In that case, we might talk about the Occidentalicene or the Capitalocene.

But let me make the bold sweeping claim by which academic philosophers make their bread and butter. My answer to my own question: “No, a gathering such as this is not indicative of the Anthropocene but of the Plastocene.”

As I learned more about the slower disaster of plastics versus the (relatively) faster disaster of uranium pollution, it indicated a necessary reconsideration of our place in the long durée of “earthing”: We must think not only in terms of the impact of plastics from fossil fuels but our very own moldability. We are not only entities that find the pliable parts of nature and fix those to our needs; we are plastic beings, creatures that bend our own selves as developers-of-environment. And I believe this fits as a description whether one goes all the way back to the ancient land between the rivers that gave birth to agriculture or one tarries closer-at-hand in modernity’s turning over of nature by techno-economic progress. I hope you will consider letting the Plastocene into your meditations until our next meeting. Maybe a few of you would like to develop the notion with me.

It’s time for me to round out my rambling recollections of the last few days. The host of the Anthropocene Campus happening next year in Australia, Timothy Neale, ended his roving plenarist talk just now with true words, “Existence must be defended.”

Keeping with how I do not really say anything new, allow me to tweak that from the perspective of a thinker in the tradition of the German existential philosopher, Karl Jaspers: Existenz must be defended. That is, the possibility that lets humankind stand out and go beyond its own bad decisions must be safeguarded, must not be allowed to drift into numbness. And such a defense appears as what Jaspers calls the “loving struggle” of open communication. If we will both stand firm as those who resist the destruction of the world as well as use our plasticity to change our own thinking, we accept the burden of our freedom in what Bernd Scherer so beautifully called “the everyday in between.”

What is this ordinary interest in life? The vocation of humanization which can only be accomplished through freedom. I end here with an etymology… something I usually do. Freedom literally means that we are doomed to be free. But free is connected itself to the word “friend.” Freedomis the duty of friendship, the having-to-be-with those others who will befriend not only humans but animals, plants, and rocks. If I am encouraged by nothing else at this gathering, it is what Scott Knowles often called the success of the meeting: the chaotic crash of ideas. It sparked wonder. It encouraged friendship. And I believe all of us going forward hear more clearly our vocation in the Anthropocene.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene  Accessed 22 Oct 2017.

†† I was pointed in the direction of this formulation AFTER our meeting by my UNT colleague Derrick Harris. The notion, however, fit the discussions I had with a few folks at the Campus.

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Day 1: Scott Knowles (Drexel University) opens the #AnthropocenePHL by welcoming keynote Max Liboiron (Director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) at Memorial University of Newfoundland). 
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Day 2: Bernd Scherer (Director, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin) delivers a plenary talk on the “The Public Antrhopocene”
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Day 3: Wandering along the Schuylkill River on our way to two field site visits for #AnthropocenePHL
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Day 4: Participants at #AnthropocenePHL break out for discussion
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Day 5: Everyone gathers together one last time for final remarks from the Roving Plenarists.

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