116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Acting out Anthropocene Fantasies

Simon C. Estok, Sungkyunkwan University

Understanding ecophobia and human exceptionalism permits analyses of the staging of the Anthropocene and the human role in acting out Anthropocene fantasies: without the Humanities, such recognitions are simply not possible in any meaningful way.


In a 2012 article published in Bioscience, Swedish environmental historian Sverker Sörlin posed the question, “What do the humanities have to do with the environment?” He noted that “our belief that science alone could deliver us from the planetary quagmire is long dead.” The humanities are a necessary conduit for translating complex scientific narratives about anthropogenic climate change and the Anthropocene. Literature, mainstream media (such as CNN), Hollywood films, music: these are central to promoting environmental literacy and to bringing, as Glen Love put it, “the obscure biological discipline of ecology out of the field and the science lab and into public consciousness.” It is delusional to think that we can continue with business as usual. The hard realities of Anthropocene fantasies are upon us. The fact that the very Head of the Environmental Protection Agency (Scott Pruitt of the EPA) can claim that CO2 doesn’t cause climate change (and keep his job) tells us more than the simple fact that Mr. Pruitt is a sycophant, flunky, and pawn to businesses and politicians who oppose sustainable industries; it tells us that there is a continued need for Bruno Latour to have to write about “telling friends from foes in the time of the Anthropocene” and for the Goulds and the Wilsons to theorize about bridging the great divide between the sciences and the humanities. The rift has been known (and has been growing) for some time now, but the urgency of our current situation requires a stepping up of the humanities onto the stage of this ongoing drama. The fantasy of limitless development and expansion has been growing for a long time. Human impacts on geology date back more than 12,000 years to the commencement of agriculture. The Anthropocene, in this sense, is not new; rather, it is staged. Following the early stage (agricultural) came what has been called “the Great Acceleration” (the first part of which began with the steam engine, the second with the development of our nuclear capacities). But as I explain in The Ecophobia Hypothesis (Routledge 2018), the origin of the Anthropocene itself rests in the collective human condition of ecophobia. The ecophobic condition exists on a spectrum and can embody fear, contempt, indifference, or lack of mindfulness (or some combination of these) towards the natural environment. While its genetic origins have functioned, in part, to preserve our species, the ecophobic condition has also greatly serviced growth economies and ideological interests. Ecophobia, simply put, sets the stage for the Anthropocene. My talk will argue that to understand firstly human involvement with the staging (and the stage) of the Anthropocene (an involvement encoded in the term itself) and secondly the role of the human in acting out Anthropocene fantasies requires a dual recognition of ecophobia and of our sense of human exceptionalism (both of which cause us to prioritize humanity over everything else), and I will show that without the humanities, such recognitions are simply not possible in any meaningful way.