Anthropocene Communiqué no. 1: PRIMAL

How many times have you been “welcomed” to the Anthropocene as if it’s some kind of dark sexy ironic thing: a new nightclub maybe, or a flight that’s just dimmed the lights en route to some exotic foreign country?

This is not that.

How many times have we heard about the primal spectre spicing up this Anthropocene— along the lines of McKenzie Funk’s new book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming:

There’s another possible response to melting ice caps and rising sea levels, to the reality of climate change— a response that is tribal, primal, profit-driven, short term, and not at all idealistic. Every man for himself. Every business for itself. Every city for itself. Every country for itself.

This is not that either.

The contestation isn’t that capitalists will take advantage of crisis: we know that happens. The thought-trap here is in the characterization of the primal.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s just as primal to love and protect and nurture and care for my child or partner or community or world. This is something I cannot help. It is neurochemical, wired in. I see stranger’s babies in the supermarket or chipmunks in the grass or little jumping spiders or bumblebees and I love them, beyond any reason or choice to.

So who gets to speak for what’s primal? Primal conveys prime, unitary, one base; a prime number, irreducible. First. Essential. Yet with these complex brains, it’s more likely there’s a multiplicity of what’s primal. We know that humans have histories of sharing, altruism, aid, tending— yet those histories aren’t highlighted; become lost. The ghost of Hobbes hangs heavy on this time of ours. The frontiers of accumulation, the rapaciousness, are followed with historical interest and sublime fascination, culminating in what Michael Klare calls “the race for what’s left”. This is “not just a continuation of past behavior; rather, it represents a new stage in humanity’s relentless hunt for critical materials— a drive without true precedents.” We all get to star in the final explosive chapter of primal self-interest. You Better Man Up…

How is this stuff still compelling? It’s been going on since the 1970s at least, and seems even more heavy-handed now. Of course there have been conquests, colonializations, rape and pillage— but those aren’t the only human stories. Frankly, these rapacious characters— the eating human, the selfish human, or should we say man, every man for himself— are predictable and boring. How many “scrambles” and boys-with-toys stories must we suffer? If I have to hear the import-weighty anecdote about Chilingarov’s 2007 Russian flag-planting at the North Pole seabed one more time… like Canada’s foreign minister said upon that micro-play, this isn’t the 15th century. But that’s an aesthetic complaint; more important is the political point: these characters serve the interests of a specific few. They are cheap stories of explanation and justification; cover stories. Take minerals from the deep seabed? Well, that’s just what we do, it’s “primal.” Nevermind the immense calculations and years of logistical planning involved with high-tech extraction— primal rapacious human nature. Better sign a few more defense contracts to protect ourselves from our other rapacious brethren— our primal nature’s playing out in a steakhouse in Tyson’s Corner tonight. I saw our primal nature last Tuesday in a BMW whizzing down I-66; savagely tearing up the fairway in Fairfax; conquering the Starbucks and the Starbucks and the Starbucks in Arlington. Cover stories.

How about these Anthropocene humans instead:

She’s building a sand castle. He’s making a little house out of twigs. She’s plowing the dirt into little ridges with her fingers and he’s building new tools, you know, messing with nature, playing around. She’s appraising the horizon, tracking the trend lines, figuring out what intervention will do the most good. He’s thinking of his children, studying the soil, working on which nutrients and microbes will enrich it. Foraging in thickets of data, the thrill of discovery. Artists and craftspeople and designers, intervening with primal, tribal, wild care & devotion to the long-term.

Aren’t there compelling stories to be told with these Anthropocene characters— stories of their art, craft, & passion? Why is the press so in love with the other Anthropocene man— why is that the one with the book sales & airplay? It’s common journalistic and literary wisdom that fear sells, if it bleeds it leads; that conflict makes the story, and I would like to (generously) think this Hobbes & Malthusian Resurrection is a literary exploration of our shadow side which we will eventually work through. But fellow storytellers, citizens, journalists, activists and scholars and re-posters, let’s not forget the politics at work behind our stories and how they are told.

First premise: that the Anthropocene calls for a new imagination and articulation of what it means to be human, more ancient & futuristic than the self-interested character we’ve been taught is inherently us.

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  • March 27, 2016
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