Who is the “human” behind the Anthropocene?

Humanity, in the sense of human beings inhabiting the planet, is not equally responsible for the environmental crisis.

With the recent release of the sixth report of Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the current state of climate science, there was one sentence that stuck in the minds of those who only retweeted the opinions of those who did read the 3,372-page report (not counting supplementary material): “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, the oceans and the land.

With this sentence, the scientists of Group 1, dedicated to reviewing the latest advances in climate science, communicated their indictment, judgment, and verdict on the state of affairs: without a doubt, humanity is to blame for the climate change we are experiencing.

On the one hand, this certainty is of great significance in the sense that global warming can no longer be attributed to natural causes, and therefore, it should be a call to action to stop the source of the problem: the burning of fossil fuels. However, it should be noted that while this burning of fossil fuels is done by humans, it is not an innate instinct of our species or a characteristic that defines someone as human, but is the result of more than 200 years of a system of socio-environmental organization known as racial capitalism, so using the word “humanity” as a substitute for this extractivist system at this point is not only naive but also has repercussions on how we visualize the solution to this problem.

The Age of Humans

Just as the Mesozoic is also known as the Age of Dinosaurs, in recent years it has become increasingly common to hear that we are in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch determined by the deep marks we have left as a species on the face of our planet. Although this term gained popularity at the beginning of the new millennium, since the mid-18th century, the Anthropozoic had already been suggested as a new era marking human domination over the non-human.

In contrast to the negative connotation that the Anthropocene has today, naturalists such as the geologist Antonio Stoppani and Georges Louis Leclerc, Count de Buffon, saw the idea of human domination as something positive, an identifier of a new stage in the civilizational evolution of the human being as an agent that modifies the geology of the planet and is finally capable of subjugating nature. Although they also used the prefix anthropos, Greek for “human,” it is clear that this category only referred to a subset of all humanity: European society. This was because, for them, “man” had finally become independent of nature, and this characterized modernity and the progress of the civilization to which they belonged. On the other hand, all those groups (not societies nor civilizations) that were still at the mercy of their environment were considered “savages”, “barbarians”, and “beasts”, very far from the predestined path of civilization and very close to the “natural”.

This kind of thinking was not unusual at the time. On the contrary. Since the conquest of America and the establishment of the transatlantic trade of people of African origin, considering others as non-human or sub-human was integral to justifying their exploitation and enslavement, the dispossession of territory, and the destruction of their communities. As such, the era of the “civilized” human has been characterized by the dehumanization of the vast majority of the population, with the purpose of expanding empires, accumulating wealth, and imposing a very limited vision of who can be human, in terms of beliefs, skin color, social organization around gender and, of course, their relationship with nature. Moreover, as the scientific advances of the 18th century started to replace religious explanations, the likes of Stoppani and Count de Buffon found a way to adapt the discourse of dehumanization to a perspective of social Darwinism, with different societies positioned at different points on the evolutionary ladder, the European one being the point of reference for all the others.

One world, one community

Well into the 20th century, this “pinnacle of civilization” began to face the consequences of its own actions: its conception of dominating nature also brought repercussions for itself in the form of environmental problems, problems that reached a global scale in the form of nuclear threats, the hole in the ozone layer and climate change.

Universalist discourses began to emerge where suddenly all humans were in the same boat and, more importantly, had the same responsibility for the cause of these problems. Big campaigns emerged, such as “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It” by the Keep America Beautiful coalition, where disposable product manufacturers invited the public to take responsibility for recycling. Ironically, in the campaign’s advertising, a Native American man (played by an Italian actor) stood crying by a highway, suffering the consequences of pollution.

More recently, we have the case of the oil company BP and the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, who in 2004 launched a carbon footprint calculator, a tool for all of us to measure the amount of carbon dioxide we emit in our daily activities. For many years, the idea of individual footprints has redirected the attention away from fossil fuel companies’ emissions and focused it on placing the efforts and the feeling of guilt at the individual level.

But even though this type of greenwashing puts us all in the same boat, that doesn’t mean that dehumanization has stopped and that there are no longer humans who consider others as less human. This attitude continues, as in the case highlighted by the writer Sylvia Wynter, where the Los Angeles police used the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) in cases where officers choked young Black men. Likewise, expressions such as “savage” or “primitive” continue to be used in a derogatory way to attack those who are against progress as defined by the dominant project of capital. Even the fact that many mainstream organizations still consider the alleged overpopulation from racialized communities as the cause of environmental problems indicates a continuity of this logic. They see these communities as bodies without agency of their own, as groups to be judged and saved, as the church argued 500 years ago.

So, in conclusion, Humanity is and is not responsible for the climate crisis. It is in the sense that for so many years, humanity has symbolized an imperial and extractivist project, causing the current environmental problems, but within which only very few have been considered human. At the same time, humanity, in the sense of the human beings that inhabit the planet, is not equally responsible for the problem, so it is important that we question the use of this expression in documents as widespread as the IPCC report.

However, although we could see these nuances as an exoneration from responsibility, it is not a blank check to stand idly by and wait for those really responsible to start doing something. They should be another reason that pushes us to join the struggle for a new world, one where everyone fits,  as the Zapatistas say.

Originally published in Spanish on Sopitas.com

Cover image by Scott Rodgerson in Unsplash