In his 2015 article, “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective,” historian Tim LeCain argues that the term Anthropocene succumbs, however unwittingly, to the hubris of anthropocentrism. Humans acquired their destabilizing empowerment, he says, “only at the price of throwing their lot in with a lot of other things, like coal and oil, whose powers they only vaguely understood and certainly did not really control.” LeCain advocates granting these substances and their attributes significant historical agency, recognizing the unexpected ways in which they have “shaped humans and their cultures.”
According to LeCain’s logic of shared agency, we did not create our climate problem on our own. The abundant resources of the planet have aided and abetted us. They have beckoned us with a siren song of immense reserves of available energy. From this angle, nature seems less benevolent than many strains of romantic environmentalism would have us believe. As LeCain puts it, “some seemingly beneficent and nurturing planets—like those with easily accessible deposits of coal and oil, for example—might not really be all that hospitable to intelligent life” after all.
With his neo-materialist turn of argument, LeCain provocatively critiques the habit of making our climate predicament a morality play featuring humanity as its sole actor. His reasoning suggests that we stop imagining the Earth as an Eden despoiled by shortsighted exploitation of its resources and begin holding it responsible for its abundance of dangerous fossil fuels. The point is less that this critique tends to let humans off the hook (although the implications of that effect are worth pondering), and more that any moral story of the accelerating changes to global climate hinges on how we allocate agency. The term Anthropocene preserves our habit of locating a monopoly of agency within ourselves, making us either the failed stewards of our Eden or the technological heroes who can geo-engineer our planet into a more reliably hospitable state. By granting some agency to the materials around us, we curb this habit, and open up roles for such players as coal, methane, and oil.
With agency, we might say, comes both power and accountability. If we impute all agency to human beings, then the earth and its materials maintain a passive innocence; they wait until acted upon by homo sapiens, who then bear full responsibility for any havoc that ensues. But if we impute some agency to the tricky materials with which the planet and its atmosphere are composed, a more complex moral story emerges. We might think of ourselves as mischievous and clever beings, surrounded by mischievous and clever materials. Like impish children left to together in a basement to play, we biological beings and our geological cousins have discovered ways of interacting that may bring down the house.
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