2.4 Breaking the Anthropocene Illusion

The Anthropocene Illusion–that human agency is the driving force of the modern world–helps us navigate that world at human scale. It makes clear the connection between our desires and the actions we take to achieve them. We have our own human interests, and purposeful behavior on our part is often sufficient to reach a desired goal. If I am thirsty, then I fill a glass with water and take a drink. A human-centric view of agency is usually adequate for accomplishing human-sized tasks whose scope falls within our personal, human-sized capabilities.

For projects much larger than filling a glass with water, the combined action of a group of people is usually required. Perhaps I want to build a house. Humans are a cooperative species, and by engaging a construction company I am able to coordinate my purpose of house-building with the purposeful work of carpenters, stonemasons, roofers and others provided by the firm. There would be no house without the presence of human agency—mine and that of others involved in the project. Similarly we engage with many other large entities, some corporate, some governmental, some technological, to help us achieve our goals.

One reason the Anthropocene Illusion is persistent is because it is hard to dispel the notion that institutional agency is “just” a stand-in for the purposes of the humans who “run” the institution.

Aside: Such a conceptual error may lie behind the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

At small scales, we are used to mentally filling in for data missing from direct experience, for example imagining the effect of a swift current should we try to swim across the river. Such imaginary scenarios are obviously useful in daily life. However, human imagination can, with almost no effort, be extended to realms not accessible to personal experience.

When ignorant about how the larger world works, it is easy—because there is no up-front penalty for errors of fact—to construct imaginary worlds piece by piece, as in mythologies of classical Greece with its made-up deities.

One example from the ancient world is the substitution of imagination for knowledge in attributing the origin of thunder to a non-existent being like the god Zeus in Greek mythology. When ignorant about how the larger world works, it is easy—because there is no up-front penalty for errors of fact—to construct imaginary worlds piece by piece, as in mythologies of classical Greece with its made-up deities. The most robust of these belief-systems, like those common in nativist notions of national exceptionalism, exhibit a degree of internal consistency that enables logical reasoning about its own structure, and hence can provide an apparent explanation and thus defense of its existence and purpose. This shared vision and structure serves to bond together those who accept and believe it.

Breaking the Anthropocene Illusion. The goal is to replace a planet of belief (belief in the Anthropocene Illusion) with a planet of scientific understanding

The aggregation over time of a set of unsubstantiated beliefs into a cohering whole leads to what physicist Sean Carroll has called a planet of belief, in analogy to the physical aggregation by gravity of small masses into a single astronomical object. The difference between a planet of belief and a geological planet, or what could be called a planet of science, is that whatever logical consistency the planet of belief might have internally, it lacks a connection to the physical world of the kind that ties the processes of a geological planet to physical reality. These ties to reality are of course those provided by science.

Aside: In some circles “reality” is a loaded term. Nonetheless, I soldier on here toward the goal of describing the Earth as it “really” is, humans and all. If warranted, I will try to return to the question of reality at some later point in this essay.

In any case, the Anthropocene Illusion is part of a secular planet of belief shared by many humans who take the devices and systems of the Anthropocene, as expressed in society and civilization, to represent a world built by human agency. In this view humans with needs and wants have brought the modern world into existence primarily through the mechanism of their own purposeful actions.

The problem with putting all the credit and responsibility on human agency is that human wants are not the only source of agency in the world.

Certainly, human agency plays an essential role in structuring and maintaining the functionality of the modern world. The problem with putting all the credit and responsibility on human agency is that human wants are not the only source of agency in the world. As will be developed through physical arguments in later posts, the technosphere itself has purpose and pursues its own goal (and for that matter so do technological artifacts).

Many of the challenges presented to humans by the rise of the Anthropocene stem from a separation in scale between the expression of human agency and technospheric agency. Strategies to deal with extant global-scale problems like atmospheric warming or risks from new technologies like weaponized drones can be placed on a firmer footing if we lay aside our anthropocentric lenses for the moment, stand back, and look as clearly as possible at the physical requirements and implications of living as obligate components of a purposeful technosphere.

Of course I want in the end to come back to the human element, which is why this essay is entitled Being Human in the Anthropocene. But first it is necessary to break the Anthropocene Illusion, and to replace a faulty planet of belief with a more secure planet of science, in which all observable phenomena, including agency, are understood as having a physical origin in a dynamic Earth.

Further reading

Sean Carroll on planets of belief: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Dutton reprint edition, 480 pages, 2017.

Next up: Two revolutions. From Copernicus to the Anthropocene.

2 thoughts on “2.4 Breaking the Anthropocene Illusion

  1. These are the days when many people, especially in Germany, reflect upon Karl Marx’ legacy, because of the 200 years anniversary. I think that the ideas that you pursue have much in common with some of the fundamental ideas Marx pursued. Do not feel embarrassed! I explain. The first is that Marx clearly rejected the idea that capitalists are driven by evil intentions. He shifted agency to the system level, and even assigned it to an abstract notion, namely ‘capital’. Capitalists do what the system forces them to do, and if you do not like that, you just drop out. In other words, that agency is systemic, and not individual, was one of his central ideas. You do not need to become a Marxist to find some value in it. The other point is that Marx also talked about illusions, building on Hegel’s notion of ‘alienation’ and introducing his notion of ‘fetish’. The capitalist system builds on the fact that the bourgeois has an ideology that hides the true nature of the system even before him, creating the illusion of freedom and agency. Again, this sounds very similar. And do not forget that technology (‘productive forces’) played a central role in his thinking.
    Referring to Marx is fruitful because it shows that more complex notions of agency have a long intellectual history, and even ideas about illusions that we succumb to. That also means that what you pursue is ‘enlightenment’, or, as Marx had it, getting rid of ideology.
    At this point, I even believe that Marx had some arguments which are indeed valid. I think that what is missing in the debate so far is the role of the economy. In fact, many economists also argue that markets transcend human agency, even though they stick to, well, the ideology of methodological individualism. But if Hayek, for example, argued that markets process more information that humans can ever understand, and therefore guide us in our best interests, that is just the same idea as Marx had, only combined with another political value proposition. Thus, I suggest that rethinking economics must be an important part of rethinking agency in the Anthropocene.

    1. Thanks for seating Marx at the table. One of my objectives in treating the technosphere is to avoid at the outset any commitment to a particular system, such as a specific national economy, or to a particular kind of system, such as a capitalist economy, but rather to examine initially only general systemic properties. In this approach, there is no difference between say a capitalist and a socialist economy. What is interesting to begin with is instead their similarities. Some general features emerge early-on similar to Hayek’s claim that markets (sufficiently complex systems) process more info than any human can, or to the Invisible Hand allegory of Smith–itself practically a logical consequence of Hayek’s idea. Also, Marx tackled a harder problem than the one I focus on, because he is interested in the development of a system over time. And he specifies the contents of the system (eg, people, technological artifacts etc) and conjures by imagination and empirics rules of interaction and hence how the system and the relation of its parts may change over time. By contrast, I consider more of a snapshot in time. I pose no laws of history, nor take any initial stand on questions of composition (workers, bosses etc) or how that composition might change. The virtue of this somewhat abstract approach is that one can gain some insight into general structure, and its consequences, that should apply to any actualized model, economic or otherwise. Tx for your comment.

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