I’m writing this second post in a day (rare) because I was struggling earlier about my feelings about the different labels for the current geologic epoch. Many say we’re in the Anthropocene, as in the Epoch of Man. Donna Haraway has brilliantly argued for/against/with this, as well as the Capitalocene as the Epoch of Capital, and her favorite the Chthulucene. The last one is the Epoch of Entanglements and Tentacular Becoming-with, as best as I can tell. (Her writing is dense, go read it nonetheless.)
I’m beginning to think that the whole endeavor is wrong, in part because I cannot get behind the sound of the Chthulucene, even if it wasn’t on purpose. Perhaps timelines are the wrong idea in the first place, assuming an organization and experience of time that is uniform and agreed upon. (Who does the agreeing? Mostly white men with letters behind their name, hardly a representative majority.)
Why can’t the epoch simply be concurrent? Let me explain:
Each of these terms fail because none of them fully encapsulates the moment in time we’re privileged to participate in. We know too much about the goings on of recent history to reduce it to any single line. Previous epochs, eons, and eras don’t have the same problem. Our view of them is murkier, reduced to rock strata and fossils. (Even then, science has become so good at extracting information from these that the boundaries do indeed become blurry.)
It is in those blurred boundaries that we live in today, geologically speaking.
The previous epoch was the Holocene, starting around 12,000 YA (years ago), and it saw optimal conditions for the Agricultural Revolution and human civilizations it spawned. Along its general trajectory (frequently interrupted by collapses and interruptions), there were other “revolutions” spanning the globe. These can be counted in rough chronological order as the Capitalocene, Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the rise of democracies worldwide, and so on to the present moment of ecological devastation and rising ecological consciousness. This present, developing moment is the one Haraway would name the Chthulucene.
While the stable climatic conditions of the Holocene could be arguably said to have ended effectively in the 1980s (and certainly after the year 2000, given records), the Capitalocene hasn’t breathed its last as much as we would like it to. Capitalism seems to be reaffirming its grip on the world now through the rise of fascism in the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro. It cannot long withstand the climate crisis that is here, however. Whether by 2050 or 2100, as this recent paper seems to suggest, the global Capitalist enterprise will come tumbling down under the weight of its failures, taking the rest of us with it.
What happens afterwards is a question no one can really answer. If the paper is correct and we–that is, humanity as a whole–haven’t prepared for this, chaos and war will decide our future. A new epoch might be launched in blood and bullets, or we might end the possibility of continuing with the existing nuclear arsenals scattered throughout the world. That will be the death-throes of the Anthropocene; whatever happens afterward cannot truly be our epoch.
I chose to believe that we will prepare, at least somewhat, and enter the tail-end of what the Anthropocene has to offer for the rest of the century with hope. By 2100, the epoch will truly end. Either humanity will continue to exist, or is wiped out, or eeks out a irradiated existence in the rubble. The Chthulucene can begin then, once we know what the heck we’re doing with our lives and the planet.