2.3 The Anthropocene Illusion

The Anthropocene Epoch has been proposed as a name for the current phase of Earth history. Used in this sense it is a geological term. Taking the Anthropocene seriously as a geological concept offers the opportunity to integrate humans, society, and technology, i.e., the technosphere, into our scientific understanding of the planet.

Such an expansion of our geological picture of the world is required with the recognition that the technosphere is a new Earth sphere, joining the classical spheres of air, water, rock, and life. Recognizing the technosphere as a global geological system will help clarify the physical unity of a wide range of disparate phenomena that play out on the planet, not just of glaciers and dust storms, but also of humans and technology. My first step will be to analyze the technosphere at a purely physical level, without attribution of properties to its parts except those required for its most basic functionality.

The hope is that adopting a perspective that is free from any a priori assumption of human exceptionalism, or really of any specific human quality at all, but faithful to the limits of what is possible under physical law, will offer a clearer vantage point from which to address problems of the human condition in the modern world.

The hope is that adopting a perspective that is free from any a priori assumption of human exceptionalism, or really of any specific human quality at all, but faithful to the limits of what is possible under physical law, will offer a clearer vantage point from which to address problems of the human condition in the modern world. The point is not whether humans are exceptional or not, among the many entities that comprise the Earth. Rather, whatever the human role may be, the objective is to avoid initial commitment to a central role in technosphere dynamics for this single species. Failure to adopt an initially agnostic view of how humans fit into the Anthropocene risks building into our conceptual picture an indelible anthropocentric bias. The goal is to clarify the scope for human action in the Anthropocene, not to make recommendations based on assumptions about how humans participate in a technosphere system of which they are not the sole author and whose complex behavior none of us really understands.

Unfortunately, there is a major impediment to wide acceptance of an approach to analyzing technosphere behavior that begins by lumping humans together with all other technospheric parts, such as hammers and washing machines.

The Anthropocene Illusion is the belief that agency is a property exclusive to humans and is lacking from technological artifacts and systems. This results in the misimpression that the technosphere is solely a human creation.

Unfortunately, there is a major impediment to wide acceptance of an analysis of technosphere behavior that begins by lumping humans together with all other technospheric parts, like hammers and washing machines. The difficulty stems from a common belief that humans occupy an elevated status in the nature of things; that humans, and by extension society and technology, deserve special consideration in any attempt to decode the system of the modern world. After all, the notion of the Anthropocene came into being in response to a major transformation of the planet in which humans clearly played an essential role. Global warming, pollution of rivers, accelerated erosion of soils, and loss of biodiversity seem undeniably to be consequences of human actions, and it appears obvious that technological artifacts and systems are human creations, the product of our well-developed capacity for foresight, imagination, planning, and design.

Perhaps the key factor that impels many humans to assume almost automatically that they are responsible for the state of the world today is the sense we have of our own agency, of our own purposefulness.

Perhaps the key factor that impels many humans to assume almost automatically that they are responsible for the state of the world today is the sense we have of our own agency, of our own purposefulness. Every one of us has goals, wishes, and wants. We can act on our wishes, and so acting move toward, and perhaps accomplish, our goals. If I want food for dinner, I go to the store and purchase something to eat. If I don’t have money, perhaps I might steal a loaf of bread. Humans seem full of purpose, with their actions often directed toward desired ends.

But most of the rest of the world appears agency-poor (excepting perhaps animals like the scrawny cat who stalks the sparrow). Rivers run to the sea according to physical law, they don’t seek lower ground “on purpose”, and a hammer strikes the nail as a result of human muscle work, not because of some kind of intrinsic goal held by the hammer. Or so it seems. Indeed, almost the whole of physical science over the last few centuries has been directed at stamping out teleological explanation—the idea that actions are the result of some kind of attraction toward a future state.

But humans seem different. So when a desired future arrives that is the apparent result of our own actions or the actions of others, we have an almost unshakeable sense that the fundamental cause was indeed human agency. When we order a book on the internet, it arrives on the doorstep a few days later. We desire some end result, and successfully work toward making that goal a reality. The book doesn’t arrive at our house because it wants to come, but because we want it to come. After all, books don’t have agency, do they? A seeming clincher for an exclusive role for human agency in the world is attested by technology, in the design, fabrication, and deployment of technological artifacts and globe-spanning systems that had never existed in the history of the planet prior to the arrival of humans.

This belief that agency is a property exclusive to humans (and some animals) and lacking from most of the rest of the furniture of the world, such as technological artifacts and other non-human objects and systems, is what the German philosopher Erich Hörl calls The Anthropocene Illusion

This belief that agency is a property exclusive to humans (and some animals), and lacking from most of the rest of the furniture of the world, such as technological artifacts and other non-human objects and systems, is what the German philosopher Erich Hörl calls The Anthropocene Illusion—the misleading impression of cause and effect one gets when viewing the world through anthropocentric glasses. This view is misleading because anthropocentric conceptions of agency are inadequate to capture the behavior of a global technospheric system that has evolved undesigned out of the Earth, and whose complexity and speed of operation forestall detailed human understanding or prediction of its future trajectory. Because it is so widespread and deeply embedded in the human view of the world, the Anthropocene Illusion affords perhaps the clearest example of why a bare-bones picture of the technosphere that strips away every trace of human essence is a good starting point for analyzing the human condition in the Anthropocene. Constructing such a picture is the task of much of this essay.

Further reading

Philosopher Erich Hörl introduces The Anthropocene Illusion in a dialog with me in Berlin in 2014 (partial transcript):  E. Hörl and P.K.Haff (2016) “Technosphere and Technoecology”, in Technosphere Magazine, edited by K. Klingan and C. Rosol, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

See also Hörl’s chapter “Introduction to general ecology: the ecologization of thinking”, in General Ecology, the New Ecological Paradigm, edited by E. Hörl and J. Burton, Bloomsbury Academic, London (2017)

Next up: Breaking the Anthropocene Illusion. The Anthropocene Illusion as an effect of scale.

2 thoughts on “2.3 The Anthropocene Illusion

  1. Your reasoning opens the door widely to including a) sociology and b) cognitive sciences in your physical approach. Regarding the former, authors such as Callon or Latour argued that agency is a property that emerges in networks made up of humans and artefacts. A special term for that is ‘agencement’. In Emglish, I prefer ‘distributed agency’. In my own work, I combine this with the notion of ‘affordance’ (Gibson) in the cognitive science. In simplest terms, that means, we do things, and things do us. A related notion has been emerging in the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind, referring to ‘extended mind’. Again, that means that cognition is not something ‘inside us’ but distributed across networks that include both other humans and artefacts. In other words, what is emerging here is a notion of agency that is ontologically hybrid. I believe that this can provide a kind of ‘microfoundation’ for understanding the technosphere. This would no longer be rooted in human agency, but in interactive systems that involve both humans and artefacts.
    There is one interesting question, then. Vernadsky did not only introduce the notion of ‘biosphere’, but also of ‘noosphere’, i.e. the domain of networked minds. How can minds be networked? Only via artefacts, i.e. external media. Perhaps we need to recognize that language is also a kind of technology, though being based on a genetically transmitted disposition and capacity: But notice that we are not borne with a language. Certainly, writing is a technology, as it is printing, and so forth. I think this is a wonderful example to make clear how humans and technosphere are deeply involved with each other. As I have argued elsewhere in more detail, technologies such as fire have become part and parcel of our biological make up, because we cannot survive without them anymore, and even bodily features have been adapted to them.

    1. I will get to some of the points you mention later in this essay. But for now: agency indeed is diffused throughout the technosphere and other social systems, but it is more than this. Agency is a general physical property of systems, _whether or not_ humans are present. Humans have agency, but they are not the only source of agency.

      Also, as you say, “we do things, and things do us”. Agreed. But more–this can be shown, I think, to be a kind of generalization of interactions within any system. It mimics Newton’s third law. I tried to capture this in the “Rule of Reciprocity”, a reference to which I’ll stick in here later if I remember to do so.

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