Anthropocene Communiqué no. 2: Practice

Just like the game in which fortune cookies are read with “in bed” appended, one could stick on “in the Anthropocene” to just about any topic and instantly charge it with import. Nouns, buzzwords, predictions: Water… in the Anthropocene. Disruptive innovation… in the Anthropocene. How to influence people… in the Anthropocene.

What does this do, besides make power point presentation titles instantly cooler? The Anthropocene becomes a container; something in which experiences happen. It gives experiences a shape, a significance, a way to see their contours, and hence new insights into their essence. This, in turn, offers another transformation of perspective. It places the observer outside the experience: a child studying a glass terrarium, or scrutinizing little ants tunneling away in a plastic ant farm. The Anthropocene is a meta-maker. All this shaping & containing, this new lens, transports one into meta-consciousness. Which is pretty neat. It’s an important stage in a child’s development to see herself as a maker and influences of worlds, ready to blast the ants or give them little leaves to carry around, whatever.

Alienation

The problems with Anthropocene as plastic container, however, have to do with (im)mediacy and alienation. One observes the Anthropocene from a distance; it’s not immediate. It is mediated; you sense it remotely, track its development, watch its representations evolve in print & on the internet— but you aren’t immediately in it, working with it, part of it. The body is a forced migrant within the Anthropocene, but the mind’s outside it. And so there’s a question of alienation.

For centuries now, social thinkers have been concerned about our alienation from our labors: let’s call that Classic Social Dilemma no. 1. The Anthropocene is like the ultimate alienation: you did this and you didn’t even know. We’re that distant from our actions, both as consumers and producers. In popular representation, the more alienated a phenomenon is, the more Anthropocene it gets. Gathering firewood? Seems quite Holocene. Immediate toil. Arctic mining? Tar sands oil? You can be burning tar sands oil and not even know: alienated. The product, and the processes and practices of getting it, are mediated by railroads and pipelines, by the water used in processing, by spot prices & financial instruments, by experts in refining, etc.; hyper-mediation. That level of extraction, of geologic shaping, requires extreme specialization to execute. It’s an Anthropocene practice available to a select few— those who are trained for it.

Specialization & disciplinary action

So now we’re back to Old Social Dilemma no. 2: increasing specialization. In many cases— such as extractive work, large-scale industrial farming, and financing these— executing “Anthropocene” earth-shaping activities requires complex training. Our “worker” is not just the smallholder farmer, but the agronomist who’s been trained for years in chemical management, the representative on the Fertilizer Board, the commodities trader.

One question here is whether there’s something in the specialization process, in the disciplining, which makes it difficult to see or care about the whole. To what degree is education another name for having loyalties bought? Is there a way to go through this specialization without becoming separated from the whole, from the implications of the activities and practices?

Indeed, this sketch of an Anthropocene in which alienated workers and consumers move around and observe themselves within their Anthropocene container doesn’t offer too much. So how about this: Anthropocene not as container for phenomena, but an Anthropocene composed of embodied practices. Anthropocene as something we do or make; Anthropocene as verbs. The focus is not on the transformed landscapes, the nouns— the factory farms, the parts per million— but on the activities, the transformations. The practices of design, of shaping and making.

And within these practices, let’s focus on how they can become participatory, democratic, and experienced by citizens. How they can become less alienating— the interest here is in direct experience.

Hydro-engineering. Landscape designing; planetary gardening. Food forest planting; vertical farming. Algae cultivating. Growing fishes. Digging ditches. Etc. These activities don’t wear the “Anthropocene” halo. The point is, that like using a lawnmower or driving a car, they scale up to something else.

The weight of practice

Someone will say: It doesn’t matter what practices you perform if there are x number of coal plants being built somewhere in the world each year. This is true. Of course sweeping policy changes are required to build a world we’d want to inhabit. That old chicken and that old egg… the point is that the political changes are not possible from this mindframe & cultural standpoint, so for the political mandate, the polity has to experience transformation first or simultaneously. Practices give this transformation weight, reality. In our calculated political discourse, though, people are votes or clicks or statistics or demographics, not individuals having experiences, so this personal, culture-as-experience dimension is downplayed.

But as for weight— the fires from the Bajil oil refinery can be seen from space. Who are we to talk about Anthropocene practices when ISIS militants inch closer to Baghdad? Adorno: to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. It’s dangerous to talk of modernism, of working towards a better imagination, when developmentalism helped produce the Anthropocene. Can these ideas— of an artful Anthropocene, of the Bajil refinery on fire— even inhabit the same reality?

They will tell you a good Anthropocene isn’t as weighty; that serious players are asking more serious questions in serious places. This is a trap. In reality, the further we travel towards a bad Anthropocene, the more gravitas and importance imagining a good Anthropocene takes on. Imagination is a political act— and to have a good Anthropocene sliced up and set down outside the bounds of imagination, to have those boundaries policed, is also going to serve someone politically. Joe Romm recently called the good Anthropocene “a euphemism as Orwellian as enhanced interrogation”. It could be that. It doesn’t have to be. Imagination is thought of as fanciful; it can also be strategic. It’s not an alternative to “hard policy targets” (shazaam!) but part of generating them.

“Political power is not only about controlling the means of coercion but also about controlling the means of imagination, where imagination is understood as the ability to express possible/play/pretend beliefs and emotions that might become the basis of a better world.” — Nigel Thrift, Halos

Education

And so we’ve talked about practices, and the suggestion is that a practiced, personally experienced Anthropocene offers political, aesthetic, and educational advantages. Education? Since the vision here is for practices beyond specialization— democratic practices— this practiced Anthropocene suggests a whole different mode of education. It implies training citizens who have capabilities in many areas. This also implies a different approach to work— one which doesn’t privilege working in the same narrow track, but cross-training, branching out, exploring. This can be seen in some job postings for startup companies, ones that request a “jack-of-all-trades.” Here and there, we see small gestures towards revaluing flexible capabilities.

A new Renaissance Wo/man looks distant. S/he is an old dream, however, both futuristic and classical— Comte imagined a scientist who knew something of all the sciences, including the social; Marx believed that “Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science”; Durkheim called for a new science that would reconstitute the unity of the sciences.

The jack-of-all-trades vision continued to fall by the wayside through the twentieth century, but it’s oft-acknowledged that varied competencies, going by the bland trade name of “interdisciplinarity”, are necessary for the Anthropocene. There is gathering and analysis of data; there is engineering and design; there are the humanities which help us make wise and moral choices. Omit one and the endeavor towards a better Anthropocene veers off course.

In a few hours, I’ll head off to a lab in the hills of Southern California, where a group of students are performing DNA electrophoresis in order to insert a specific gene into algae. The blue dye has bound to the DNA; it slowly slides across the gel at 150 volts. Great: they learn to follow lab procedure, to keep neat records. They will be masters at following precise instructions by the end of the exercise, and understand the necessary software. Most of these students are millennials worried about getting jobs, and so this is useful stuff for them.

But as for what it means, what it implies, to use restriction enzymes to cut pieces of DNA— that’s not part of the class. Yet we can imagine a class where it would be. It’s not hard. We can imagine students reading about the history of these procedures, the cultural context in which they were developed, the patent decisions on PCR and other genetic modification techniques, the possible social relations in which experiments are conducted… before they head off to the bench and the computer laboratory. And we can imagine students sitting down afterwards and discussing how it made them feel, how they would choose to use these techniques and what uses people in different cultural and economic contexts might have for their work. Why not? A better Anthropocene depends on taking the time for this.

Education must be reworked not just in content— in the subjects studied— but in form. With this emphasis on practice, it follows that an education for the Anthropocene is experiential, practice-focused, inquiry-led. Students follow their curiosity to gather data about the world, identify challenges, imagine and build remedies. But the education goes deeper than this, deeper into how we learn to think and communicate.

Right now, we teach an adversarial, dualistic mode of discourse which won’t serve us in the problem-solving we need. Students today are taught a mode of critical thinking that helps them identify problems, particularly in the postgraduate level of education. Teaching of argument starts in primary school. Identify the opponent’s weak points. Persuade. Use evidence. Structure your argument. Etc. We teach linear, “strong”, argument-driven thinking and writing; we punish “weak” arguments or failure to stick to the argument— and we get a room full of dead ends, gridlock, obstinance, boys with rants. The capacities we should be teaching? Exploration— to venture off the argument path and search for new ideas, the confidence to play around, even at the risk of having a weak argument or non-linear structure. Empathy, cooperation: understanding another’s point of view in order to cooperate with them, not make them look weaker. The adversarial mode places the reader as a person to be persuaded or educated; the new Anthropocene mode places the reader as person you’re inviting to a conversation, an equal who is going to help you reach a goal, even if they don’t share the goal at the beginning. Writing and thinking become relationship-building, working across disciplinary and cultural barriers. If we teach each other to think, write, and communicate differently, we build the capacities needed to practice a better Anthropocene.

A big part of this re-training how to think is transcending dualistic thinking, which has been much in vogue since the Cold-War-educated boomers dominated intellectual discourse in this country. New technologies are either bad or good, new eras are bad or good, new socioenvironmental relations are bad or good— one, two, three, argue! But citizens need the “negative capability” to hold things simultaneously true, and to look at things from many viewpoints. This intellectual flexibility may look dangerous or counter-radical, unless you grant that human beings are intelligent and compassionate enough to carry it out, to know right from wrong.

Education, often carried out by women, is usually seen as a “soft” discipline, and infrequently spoken of in relation to the “hard” Anthropocene of data, technology, and earth-engineering. Of course, anyone who’s tried to educate knows that it’s hard, brilliantly hard, one of the toughest roles there is, requiring deftness and a broad skill set. Education & educators are what we need, though, to help us remove the mediacy of the Anthropocene, to thin the alienation we have from this new era and teach us practices for making it ours— not a container that someone else built, which we’re now trapped in, but our home.

– Summer 2014

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  • March 28, 2016
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