Enter Anthropocene, c.1610

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Glasgow Review of Books on 9/27/2015. Thanks to those who commented on it!

Old Man Anthropos has a new date. I don’t believe in magic numbers, but this one has got me thinking.

The Age of Man, or Anthropocene, has become the word of the day. Making a bid to replace the Holocene, or Age of the Present, as the scientific term for the geological era in which we live, the Anthropocene has caught the attention of scientists, scholars, artists, poets, theorists, and the general public. As humanist and post-humanist critics explore the era’s implications, scientific debate continues about its precise nature. The question of origins remains vexed: when did the Age of Man start? The most recent candidate for the Golden Spike, or GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point), which marks the start of the Anthropocene is 1610. Geologists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue in the journal Nature that the clearest geological markers of human influence on the global climate appear in 1964 and 1610. The late twentieth-century date reflects the peak of radioactive particles in the atmosphere, which subsequently declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. But the earlier date catches this Shakespeare professor’s eye: 1610 is three years after the founding of the Jamestown colony and one year before the first staging of The Tempest. Amid the glories of the English Renaissance sits an ecological spike. When Sir Walter Raleigh graced Queen Elizabeth’s court and Shakespeare’s dramas were first staged, our Anthropocene nightmare began. Or so goes the story.

It’s a problem that choosing this date might advance the swerve into modernity narrative that’s been receiving much-needed pushback in recent years. (I will take a few swings at triumphalist conceptions of this history in Shipwreck Modernity, out in December 2015 from University of Minnesota Press.) But Lewis and Maslin don’t base their claim for a 1610 spike on newly-recovered manuscripts of Lucretius or on the Baconian trio of print, gunpowder, and the compass. Instead these scientists state that 1610 marks “an unambiguously permanent change to the Earth system” generated by the ecological mixing of the Americas with Afro-Eurasia. The starkest consequence of this mixing from a human perspective was death on an unprecedented scale, primarily among Native Americans. Estimates vary, but the New World may have experienced the loss of nearly 50 million souls, out of an estimated pre-Contact population of roughly 60-65 million, during the century of first contact. No period in recorded history matches this death toll on so vast a scale. The massive die-off of the human population and subsequent “cessation of farming and reduction in fire use” led to the “regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland” (Lewis and Maslin). The open vistas of the New World were not destiny’s gift to European settlers. These empty landscapes were visible evidence of the Anthropocene. The Age of Man is an Age of Death.

Lewis and Maslin name the 1610 date the “Orbis” spike, from the Latin for “world,” because its drivers are global: the worldwide movements of human and nonhuman populations, as well as other factors including “colonialism [and] global trade.” As Dana Luciano noted in Avidly this past spring, this spike describes an Anthropocene that emerges not from industrial expansion but through such phenomena as the “concurrent history of the Atlantic slave trade.” The 1610 Anthropocene represents the early stages of what we now call “globalization.” What might a global Anthropocene that shares its era with Shakespeare and Pocahantas mean?

Image removed.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA4.0

It takes some imagination to conceive that the Age of Man started in 1610, but now that we know the date we can find the words. Listening with Anthropocene ears, we hear familiar old lines differently. The magician’s voice has changed. On the upper stage stands Prospero enrobed, singing out magnificent poetry in the voice of Gandalf and Magneto:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back…

If we have ears to hear, we realize Shakespeare’s wizard sings destruction and the depopulation of the world. He creates and revels in ecological disorder:

I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war…
[G]raves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, ope’d and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.

Whether in Milan or the magic island, Duke Anthropocene presides: enchanting, indulging, releasing, destroying. His voice isn’t the only one to which we should listen — I find more hope and value in shipwrecked sailors, lovelorn poets, and disoriented pilots — but since we’ve been listening to him for so long, it might be time to reconsider what he is saying.

A Renaissance Anthropocene echoing in blank verse suggests some unexpected things about this increasingly popular term.

The 1610 Anthropocene means death, not heat, is humanity’s primary historical driver. We’re not just making the world warmer but making it deadlier. I think Thomas Pynchon nailed this one back in 1973, writing from his beach pad in southern Cal:

This is the world just before men. Too violently pitched alive in constant flow to ever to be seen by men directly. They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal. Alive, it was a threat: it was Titans, was an overpeaking of life so clangorous and mad, such a green corona around earth’s body that some spoiler had to be brought in before it blew the Creation apart. So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death (Gravity’s Rainbow 720).

The 1610 Anthropocene means that the most consequential historical and ecological forces in the Age of Man have been inhuman viruses, not mortal industry. Smallpox and influenza cleared the New World for colonization; malaria made its tropical regions ripe for transatlantic slavery. This inhuman globalization connects with Jason Moore’s notion of the 450-year old Capitolocene as “a way of organizing nature” (Capitalism in the Web of Life 78). Moore’s project brings the nonhuman into capitalism through “a world history in which nature matters not merely as consequence, but as constitutive and active in the accumulation of abstract social labor” (84). Eco-modernity is not only a human story.

The 1610 Anthropocene means that the key motivation of our species was a desire for global connection, not simply our ability to produce things or grow our population. Columbus sailed for China. His successors midwifed global ecological catastrophe. There are many ways to blame, aggrandize, or describe the globalizing energies of early modern expansion. In addition to the almost-canonical Anthropocene and newer Capitolocene, I seek space for the Homogenocene, an Age of increasing Ecological Sameness, a Thalassocene or Age of Oceans, and — my real favorite — Naufragocene, the Age of Shipwreck. Each ‘cene jostles the others; each connects and disconnects.

The 1610 Anthropocene used to be called the “Columbian Exchange,” but that term is too reminiscent of “great man” theories of history. Old Man Anthropos may have started it, but He’s never been in control. The better phrase, “ecological globalization,” takes the soup out of human hands. That’s where it should be. We’re in it, not cooking it. Even Moore’s eco-Marxist reconceptualization of human history as “environment-making” (45) risks granting too much agency to humans.

Reconsidering the 1610 Anthropocene through both capitalist expansions and more-than-human collisions helps emphasize that the core story, the story that still needs telling and that meaningfully precedes the supposed modernity of the past half-millennium, concerns the production of hybrids through the collision of Unlike Worlds. Creating hybrid newness isn’t just a 1610 question, even if some forms of hybridity blossomed during that period. Hybrid-production typifies human cultural history, from neolithic art to postmodern architecture. Bruno Latour has given us a robust language for hybridity, but our best guide here may be Caribbean poet and theorist Éduoard Glissant, whose idea of Relation promises “a new and original dimension allowing each person to be there and elsewhere, rooted and open, lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea, in harmony and in errantry.” That’s the way to navigate storms, in or beyond the Anthropocene. Harmony and errantry, sailing together.

The 1610 Anthropocene takes the latest claim for the radical newness of today and submerges it back into History, with all of history’s messiness and swirl. A four-hundred-year-old Anthropocene promises an unstable future, and one in which it’ll be worth recalling our past as itself disorienting and malleable. If human civilizations have always been environment-makers, the mutual implication of human and non-human actors may not be so new after all. It turns out that this latest thing is also an old thing.

To recast an old phrase that has new resonance in an age of rising global temperatures: the past isn’t dead. It’s just getting warmed up.

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