Anthropocene - questions regarding the extent of human agency and responsibility

The Anthropocene is an epoch in which we observe active human intervention in the processes that drive the geological evolution of the planet. It is humans who are modifying the parameters of the planetary system by changing the climate, degrading soil, acidifying oceans, disrupting biochemical cycles, and contributing to the loss of biodiversity. Therefore American biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen proposed that the modern geological era be called the Anthropocene. It embodies the theoretical challenges, philosophical dilemmas, axiological tension and the fears of the instable century we live in. It also embraces questions regarding the extent of human agency and responsibility. For Stoermer and Crutzen, the symbolic beginning of the Anthropocene was the Industrial Revolution and patenting James Watt’s steam engine in 1784.

In the media, Anthropocene emerged in 2010, and in 2014, the term was added to The Oxford English Dictionary. Professional scientific journals dedicated solely to the topic of the Anthropocene have also been published including “The Anthropocene Review”, “The Anthropocene” and “Elementa. Science of the Anthropocene”. There is even talk of a multidimensional, interdisciplinary shift towards the Anthropocene, which has the potential of becoming the most important discussion of the 21st century.

Environmental discussions and global responsibility

Contemporary environmental discussions constantly redefine what we deem to be worthy of protection, and one of the key issues in the discourse on the Anthropocene is the irreversible loss of nature, biodiversity and climatic stability. By modifying our environment, we have redistributed agency in an unprecedented way, which has caused that the world we have known and understood is no longer recognizable. Certainly homo sapiens as a geological force occupies a completely different position than any other species. Here, we return to the question of the permissible extent of human freedom. To what extent do we have the right to interfere in the functioning of the atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere? Is climatic engineering of humans acceptable?

In the difficult conditions of Anthropocene instability and the epoch of climate engineering, the concept of freedom should be reconsidered and redefined in the direction of thoughtful planetary responsibility. The Anthropocene is an epoch in which investment decisions have a geological, political and existential dimension, and the global economy must be considered as a driving force in shaping the biosphere. Is there a public debate about the fact that due to the planetary borders, we will require extensive social and economic changes already in the first half of the 21st century? How can we then make the dream of planetary responsibility come true? The demands of global responsibility and sustainable development were made a topic of international discussion at the UN “Earth Summit” Conference in Rio de Janeiro already in 1992. The ethics of global responsibility are crystallized thanks to reflections on the increasing human agency in the era of industrial civilization and weapons of mass destruction, and address the issue of threats to the future of civilization. Therefore, global responsibility is understood as responsibility for the current and further existence of humanity on Earth. The idea of global responsibility is also associated with the question of who is responsible and the extent of their agency and freedom. In addition, the question arises here of to which instances should global responsibility be borne? Does it concern nature or future generations?

Helplessness and marasmus

It should also be noted that the state of reflection on the Anthropocene is characterized by disappointment and helplessness. It is described as an era of repression, short-sightedness and burying one’s head in the sand of denialism (in particular climate change denial). The marasmus of the Anthropocene is associated with the irrationality inscribed in the dominant economic system of late neo-liberal capitalism that overlooks environmental costs. Paraphrasing the Indian proverb: “The system will recognize that you can’t eat money only when the last tree has been cut down – and not earlier”. The colonization of the social world by the logic of gain and market-oriented thinking causes that social imagination shows signs of fatigue. The result is environmental marasmus and a deficit of environmental reflection. Alternative values to economic growth such as leisure time or social well-being are frequently not taken into consideration. Marasmus is also strengthened by geopolitical conditions, an absence of determination, solidarity and trust at the interstate level. The power and agency of oil companies and the mining and automotive industries have led to the creation of disinformation campaigns that reinforce denialism. Another reason for marasmus is the poor condition of modern democratic systems where the political apathy of citizens is based on the self-centeredness of the consumer culture of developed countries, in which individualistic attitudes dominate and there is no room for concern for the common good.

The moral condition of the Anthropocene

The moral condition of the Anthropocene is a condition of irreparable loss, lost opportunities, and the loss of the future and the planet. For this reason, discussions about the Anthropocene are fuelled by fear of losing control and equilibrium. The question is whether we, as humanity, have gone so far that the world is out of our control?

What is at stake here is controllability and predictability in the social, political, legal and organizational aspect. The entire discussion around the Anthropocene concentrates on the question of whether such controllability can be achieved or maintained at the current level. Programs of low-carbon policy, sustainable development, nature policy, and degrowth are concentrated around co-existence without conflicts, crises or collapse, based on principles subject to stable planning. It is up to us to determine future conditions that ensure the survival of ecosystems enabling agriculture in order to ensure that climate change, rising water and sea levels, droughts and anomalies lead not to conflicts that disrupt political and legal systems. For this reason, climate threats mainly concern society and people, not the planet itself.


















Photos by Edyta Pietrzak