Salvaging the Anthropocene
A lecture by Troy Vettese.
Countless scholars within the environmental humanities have uncritically embraced the new metanarrative that dare not speak its name: the Anthropocene. Historians co-author articles with natural scientists and contribute concepts that vary from vague (the ‘great acceleration’) to the incorrect (the ‘expensive tissue hypothesis’). In turn, natural scientists conscript historians to help them place the ‘golden spike’ for the start of the Anthropocene, yet they struggle to find a clear answer. Other scholars seem to instead compete by endlessly riffing on the Anthropocene with new neologisms (e.g., Capitalocene, Chthulucene, etc.). After two decades under the shadow of the Anthropocene, academic debates have not only failed to produce a politics commensurate with the gigantic scale of the crisis, but they are regressing politically. The apolitical nature of actor-network theory has its own problems, but what’s worse is the revival of avant-garde Malthusianism, which one can detect in the works of leading Anthropocene scholars. We seem to be having the wrong debate over the Anthropocene. The concept is mostly used as shorthand to discuss the climate crisis despite the fact that humanity’s deformed relationship to other creatures is both a major cause of the Anthropocene (e.g., factory farming) or will be reflected in the fossil record when countless species become extinct. Instead of connecting animal studies to the Anthropocene debate, humanists content themselves with acting as handmaidens to natural scientists as the latter pursue their preferred solution to the crisis – geoengineering.
This lecture will offer a critique of the Anthropocene scholarship carried out by Marxists, new materialists, and environmental historians, and suggest how synthesizing the strengths of these approaches offers a new way to understand today’s environmental crisis and how we might overcome it.
Troy Vettese is an environmental historian and post-doctoral researcher associated with ECOINT at the European University Institute in Fiesole. In 2019, he graduated from New York University and began a two-year fellowship as a William Lyon Mackenzie King scholar at Harvard University. His research focuses on energy history, animal studies, and the history of environmental economics. He is the co-author of Half-Earth Socialism (Verso 2022) with Drew Pendergrass. Currently, he is writing a monograph and editing an essay collection on neoliberal environmental thought. His popular writing has appeared in the Guardian, the New Statesman, Jacobin, In These Times, the New Left Review, and Bookforum.