Responsibility and geoengineering in the Anthropocene

As the Anthropocene Working Group debate the start date of a new geological era, Jack Stilgoe asks what the Anthropocene means for how science takes responsibility for the climate. In this excerpt from his book, Experiment Earth, Jack looks at the relationship between the identification of the Anthropocene and the arrival of proposals for geoengineering, the deliberate manipulation of the Earth’s climate.knitted earth

Image: Pale Blue Dot, by The Bees on Flickr (cc by-nc 2.0)


‘My dream holiday is to get in a boat and start from one end, go to the other end of a river and never see anybody apart from the people I’ve chosen to go with… I get to these places… and I think ‘this is no longer natural because somebody has geo-engineered the place.’  You know, there’s a hundred million years of geology and in the blink of an eye we’ve fucked it up and now the sky’s a slightly different colour and actually nowhere is wild; nowhere is natural.  And then I realise that that’s a complete fallacy… Just because you can’t see carbon dioxide it doesn’t mean we haven’t already had a profound change. And so our relationship with nature is rather complicated and very, very difficult to conceptualise’.

(From an interview with a geoengineering researcher)

Scientists have sought new ways to represent the rapid disjuncture in the life of planet earth caused by the arrival and industrialisation of humans. For some scientists and environmental campaigners alike, climate change makes complete the ‘end of nature’. Bill McKibben has argued that ‘We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial’.

More recently, some scientists have begun to talk about ‘the Anthropocene’ as a new phase in the Earth’s geology. At the time of writing, an ‘Anthropocene working group’ of the international commission on stratigraphy, who pronounce of such matters, has yet to report.

But this line of thinking has already captured attention. The front cover of the Economist in May 2011 announced ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’. Scientific papers have determined the arrival of a new epoch. Where we previously thought we lived in the Holocene interglacial, a period with a calm, habitable climate, we are now told that a Rubicon has been crossed. The Anthropocene is imagined to bring new instabilities. Geology, once thought to pass humanity by without breaking its slow step, would now appear to be under our influence.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ was introduced by Paul Crutzen at the turn of the millennium, writing with Eugene Stormer. Crutzen, who would turn his attention to geoengineering a few years later, is a Dutch atmospheric chemist. In 1995 he won a Nobel Prize for his research on ozone, revealing dangers from chlorofluorocarbons that were rapidly tackled using an international agreement – the Montreal Protocol of 1987 – that scientists still hold up to highlight the possibilities of science-based policy. Crutzen possesses the extended public authority that comes with any Nobel Prize, but especially with one in a policy-relevant area of science.

Since the 2000 Crutzen and Stormer paper, there has been a proliferation of visualisations of the Anthropocene. Photos of the Earth at night with its visible cities contrast with the ‘pale blue dot’, Carl Sagan’s phrase capturing the fragility and loneliness of the planet. Scientific papers show a range of graphs marking the disjuncture. Human population, GDP, fertiliser consumption, water use, numbers of motor vehicles and McDonald’s restaurants all show the hockey stick shape, ticking upwards in the second half of the twentieth century, and are taken as indicators of human influence.

There is a vociferous scientific discussion about the start date of the new era, with some arguing for the industrial revolution and others for the Neolithic spread of agriculture thousands of years earlier. My UCL colleagues Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin recently offered two other start dates – 1610 and 1964, the former being the start of substantial species movement to the Americas and the latter marking the end of nuclear weapons tests.

Jeremy Baskin makes the point that, because the term is a hybrid scientific/political one, the community around the idea need the Anthropocene to be current and sudden. Regardless of the precise start date of the Anthropocene, these ideas have important connections with politics. The Anthropocene, though it purports to be a geological concept, is as much a vision of our future. The Anthropocene is a scientifically constructed mirror with which humanity is expected to rethink its responsibilities.

Humans would seem to have broken down the wall between natural history and their own history. The Anthropocene means admitting a new degree of ownership and stewardship. The Anthropocene casts these responsibilities in scientific terms, even though human beings are hard to fit into scientific frames. It is scientific knowledge of our impact on the planet that separates negligence from recklessness.

The argument runs that we can no longer excuse our actions. Andy Revkin puts it like this: ‘It was easier to be in a teen-style resource binge before science began to delineate an edge to our petri dish. We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.’ The language of the Anthropocene has drawn close together previously disparate questions of understanding, responsibility and control as applied to the Earth. Andrew Mathews argues that the recent reawakening of geoengineering ideas has been encouraged by the ‘cosmopolitics’ of the Anthropocene and the scientific imagination of climate change at a global scale. Geoengineering represents a particular way of scientists’ taking responsibility for what we know about climate change, in the light of policy recalcitrance on mitigation.

The anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene provides would-be geoengineers with a rationale, and it forces even those who blanch at the idea of geoengineering to consider humanity’s responsibility for a changing climate. Perhaps we should not be surprised therefore to find Anthropocene writers arguing that ‘Many approaches could be adopted, ranging from geo-engineering solutions that purposefully manipulate parts of the Earth System to becoming active stewards of our own life support system’.

For some influential voices, embarking upon geoengineering would be nothing new. It would merely entail improving our stewardship. James Lovelock has argued that ‘we became geoengineers soon after our species started using fire for cooking’. For Stewart Brand, geoengineering is a mere extension of gardening. Brand’s slogan at the start of his Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 – ‘We are as gods and we might as well get used to it’ – soon morphed into ‘We are as gods and we might as well get good at it’ for later editions of the book.

The hybrid nature of the ‘Anthropocene’ term – a set of technical and political claims wrapped in geological language – has allowed it to gain traction and move well beyond the community of Earth System Scientists. As it moves and morphs, we should take care not to throw the term about too freely. It is heavier than it looks.


Jack Stilgoe is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London. This blog post is adapted from his book  Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering, recently published in paperback by Routledge.

One comment:

  1. Hello altogether,

    Please have a look at the link in German.

    The sense of it in short:

    When the salty seawater of the Seven Seas would not evaporate in order to moisten the air, then all land would remain dry as hell. So, to improve the global water situation, we have to copy the method of nature. We will succeed by enlarging the surface of the water. Droplets in size of about 100 micron accelerates evaporation with the factor 10.000, compared to the closed sea surface.

    Best regards

    Jürgen Friedrich

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