‘I hope this finds you well’: living in the Anthropocene

Dahlia Simangan

A view of the charred bushland, twelve days after the Gippsland bushfire swept through Victoria, Australia, January 11, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

This blogpost is part of a new blog series, ‘Re-thinking IR’, in which International Affairs contributors weigh in on key theoretical debates.

The coronavirus pandemic is the Anthropocene materialized

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch when human activities have become the main driving force behind the changing Earth system. It is still an unofficial term, but there is now broad recognition within the scientific community of the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the threat this poses to the survival of humanity. The Anthropocene is manifested in climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, water and air pollution, resource scarcity, and other human-induced environmental transformations. Indeed, there is compelling work to suggest that contemporary human activities disrupt ecosystems in ways that make the transfer of pathogens between species much easier, as occurred with COVID-19. The spatiality and temporality of the Anthropocene are understandably difficult to grasp, but the current pandemic forces us to experience its magnitude and complexity in a much closer scale and faster pace.

Differentiated experiences of borderless threats

The coronavirus does not discriminate, but how we experience its impact does — from militarized lockdowns to physical distancing rules. Social media shows us the contrast between celebrities self-isolating in their mansions and street vendors walking for miles to buy produce. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is geared to become the first trillionaire while millions have lost their jobs and millions more will be out of work amidst the looming economic downturn. As I write in the comfort of my Japanese apartment, equipped with modern amenities that make working from home convenient and productive, I am heartbroken by the news from my home country, the Philippines, of the sick and hungry, and those detained for violating quarantine orders. We are not all in this together! These sentiments are not new, but they demand reiteration until they are heard and acted upon. This global health crisis, as well as major catastrophes in the Anthropocene, will hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the earliest and the hardest.

The structural inequalities that recently have become more manifest are rooted in legacies of racism, colonialism, and oppression. These inequalities and the system that permits them will continue unless historically marginalized voices are free to engage with conversations and influence collective responses to the challenges in the Anthropocene.

The problem of universal narratives

Monolithic articulations of the Anthropocene are problematic, and IR as a discipline should be up to the task of diversifying the Western-centric roots of the Anthropocene. However, as I explained in my recent review article for International Affairs, the discipline still has a long way to go when it comes to challenging the dominant views about the relationship between human societies and the natural world.

I conducted a systematic review of Anthropocene-related IR articles published in academic journals between 2000 and May 2019 and found that, much like the whole Anthropocene discourse, Global South perspectives are under-represented. A discipline known for its critique of structural inequalities could do so much more in unmuting marginalized voices. I argue in the same article and elsewhere that regional investigations can help unpack the universal narratives about the Anthropocene, appreciate its complexity in a relatively manageable way, and bridge global action and local capacity when responding to the changing socio-ecological systems.

I found limited work on the Anthropocene in most IR journals, particularly those considered high ranking, suggesting that the topic is of peripheral interest in the discipline. Some discussions are situated within the context of environmental issues exacerbating conventional conflicts of international concern. However, these discussions remain firmly anchored in statist and modernist priorities, such as militarized state security and economic growth. These priorities preserve an international order that proves unable to confront the challenges beyond the nation-state system while continuing to benefit the privileged few.

There are, fortunately, signs of shifting away from a statist and modernist worldview of human-nature relations. Scholars like Rohan D’Souza and Donna Houston situate the Anthropocene in the context of vulnerability and historical injustice. Such contextualization is important because a universalist language tends to favor blanket approaches when allocating ecological responsibility and blame. These approaches are likely to ignore the impact of historical injustice — particularly colonialism — on the capacity of postcolonial societies to adapt to their changing environment. The limitations of the modernist worldview that humans are separate from nature are also being recognized. Christina Yumie Aoki Inoue and Rafi Youatt, for example, highlight other ways of knowing and living with/in nature found in indigenous practices. These ecologically aligned ontologies can then inform and reform the territorial and Westphalian conception of the international system. Martin Calisto Friant and John Langmore’s article on Ecuador, for instance, demonstrates the agency of vulnerable populations or societies to challenge the dominant structures of such a system.

The contribution of IR to the Anthropocene discourse

IR as a discipline needs to engage further with the concept of the Anthropocene by examining environmental issues within the contexts of vulnerability and historical injustice, through a non-modernist understanding of nature, and with respect to the agency of the vulnerable. These approaches can expose structural inequalities and amplify marginalized narratives, thereby broadening and diversifying the Anthropocene discourse. Now is an opportunity for the IR discipline to contribute to the re-imagination and re-configuration of a global society attuned not only to the changing Earth system but also to the different realities in the Anthropocene.

In the same way human activities have altered the global environment, the Anthropocene is already altering the social, political, and economic contours of human life. We are now witnessing this transformation as we navigate life in a pandemic. The coronavirus has shown us the differentiated vulnerabilities of human experiences and the shortcomings of a statist system when addressing borderless threats. Similar events in the Anthropocene will intensify these differences and accelerate the obsolescence of the current status quo. If we want to find ourselves living through the Anthropocene, how we respond to these threats cannot be more of the same.

Dahlia Simangan is an Assistant Professor at the Network for Education and Research on Peace and Sustainability, Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hiroshima University. Her research focuses on international relations in the Anthropocene and post-conflict peacebuilding.

Her recent article, ‘Where is the Anthropocene?’ was published in the January 2020 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here

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