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.
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.
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.