The Anthropocene-Fallacy: Learning from Wrong Ideas
The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. While it is not an academically established definition, as of yet, it is proposed to have begun in the 1950s. This article posits that the concept is erroneous in at least two ways. First, it relies on a normative, activist, appropriation of science. Second, it disregards the system-property of the ecosystem, which is marked by the continuous interaction between the system and its parts, or agents. But more than this, the idea of the Anthropocene is a case study for how activist agendas appropriate science and academia depriving it from an important academic feature, its skeptical method.
Science or activism?
“Anthropocene Syndrome: a complex of environmental degradation, biological annihilation in the form of species losses, non-communicable disease epidemics, climate change, and increasing incivility in public and professional discourse” (Prescott & Logan 2017, 19). This quote is indicative of many problems. First, it is a normative claim disguised as an academic piece; second, it is uninformed; and, third, it does not conform to the academic method.
Markers of the normativity in the quote are expressions such as “annihilation” and, ironically, the complaint about incivility in professional discourse. These indicate undeclared subjective preferences that might preclude the authors from applying the scientific method. More specifically, these preferences hinder the authors in reaching a conclusion that is independent from their own opinions. That, in fact, happens in the text, when the authors present their solution, similarly marked by normativity and reflective of their own opinions and not of a scientific argument. “The Symbiocene can transcend these trends. The health of people, place, and planet requires compassion, education by example, civility, and diversity of thought” (Prescott & Logan 2017, 41). Tellingly, the “scientific” word Anthropocene is identified as a problem, and the equally “scientific” expression Symbiocene, which seems to be at the same level of but contrary to the Anthropocene, is a solution.
The article is uninformed because, in spite of circa 150 endnotes, it does not once critically address its own assertions. There is not one counter argument, not even one that is refuted. All documentation is nothing but supportive for the normative claim of the authors. This might be a method, but it is not the scientific method, which method is characterized by steady skepticism, the multivariate test of theses or hypothesis with experiments and data or with pro- and counter-arguments in order to reach a conclusion that is independent from one’s intuition or opinion. In this skeptical method, not even the conclusion is definitive but invites to further skeptical investigation (Gauch et al. 2003).
Critically, one might argue that Prescott and Logan are just two scientists, their article is just one article (granted, an invited article that did not pass peer review), and the journal in which it was published is not ranked. The problem, however, goes beyond this article. The concept of the Anthropocene is indicative of how of activism is permeating academia, and even science; transforming both from an institutionalized skeptical method of discovery and creation of knowledge to a process of rationalization of opinions.
These academics sit in boards of multinational companies and other entities, often because of their scientific and academic pedigree. The very idea of having academic, or scientific, advice in these boards is because science is organized skepticism in the form of an expert opinion. Most importantly, methodological caution as it is embedded in the scientific method usually leads to proportional actions (Topitsch 1962). If this should cease to be the case, the case for academia as well as for its link to the practical world weakens, too.
Coined by stratigraphers Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 (Crutzen 2002), the “Anthropocene” took over from the Holocene once humans became the dominant force of geologic change. The term, however, is still under consideration by geologists. This deliberation has been ongoing since 2009. Among the many questions being asked in this deliberation is whether the changes that humans have wrought on Earth – from animal domestication to climate change – constitute an epoch or merely an age, or nothing at all. Another issue is to determine when the Anthropocene started.
As of December 2019, neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) nor the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) have officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geologic time, although the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the Sub-commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) of the ICS voted in May 2019 that the Anthropocene shall be treated as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit (Laurance 2019).
At the end, the Anthropocene is the definition of a period of history of the planet. It is the period marked by human interaction with the planet; this interaction is to the degree that it left an irreversible mark on the planet. This mark will be encountered in all future eons, eras, periods, and epochs (Ellis 2018, 40). One indication for defining these irreversible marks is the so-called “golden spike”. This is an informal but widely used term in geography denoting a specific point in a specific sequence of rock strata. Once these points are found, they are marked with a golden spike, hence the name.
In much of the Anthropocene discussion, the “golden spike” is being related to occurrences that do not necessarily lead to changes in rock strata. Instead, the Anthropocene Working Group decided to take a broader look into other elements indicating human interaction with the world, especially climate change. While they also referred to chemicals, marine biology, changes in fauna and flora, at the end, climate-change remained that driver and rationale of the working group. Keeping in mind that geologists should adhere to methods of their science, the only straightforward indicator for a new era or period was the spread of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, beginning with the Trinity Test of 1945 (Ellis 2018, 51).
Geologists point out that radioactive fallout is absorbed by rock strata and hence qualify as a “golden spike”. While this is methodologically correct, it is interesting that this option emerged only late in the discussions of the Working Group. Rather, its protocols indicate that the first proposal – and the one discussed the longest – was to date the Anthropocene with the beginning of industrialization relying on carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, in the discussions about the Anthropocene, geologists were willing not to look at rock strata but, for the first time in the history of their science, consider other data. It is not by chance that they focused for so long on greenhouse gas emissions, more specifically, on carbon dioxide emissions. The very idea of the Anthropocene was conceived in the discourse about climate change; not even in its academic vein, but in an activist momentum (AWG Protocols 2019).
It seems dubious for geologists to seek empirical material outside the boundaries of their methods and areas of competence. Their turning, late, to the rock strata, which is in the core of their domain, might be more indicative of a cause looking for rationalization than the fruit of a skeptical, indeterminate, open-ended scientific discourse. In short: the process creates the impression that it was settled matter to have an Anthropocene – and science just had to deliver the corresponding rationale. The AWG confirms this suspicion by stating:
“Broadly, to be accepted as a formal geological time term, the Anthropocene needs to be (a) scientifically justified, i.e. the ‘geological signal’ currently being produced in strata now forming must be significantly large, clear and distinctive; sufficient evidence has now been gathered to demonstrate this phenomenon (b) useful as a formal term to the scientific community. In terms of (b), the currently informal term ‘Anthropocene’ has already proven highly useful to the global change and Earth System science research communities and thus will continue to be used. Its value as a formal geological time term to other communities continues to be discussed.”
While acknowledging that the Anthropocene is not a scientifically justified term (yet), the AWG calls it nonetheless a useful formal term. What is the exact difference between a scientific and a formal term? The AWG was tasked with studying whether there is an Anthropocene period in geology, not with standardizing language. This, again, is indicative of an activist rather than academic discourse. Even the logic applied in the statement above warrants some caution: Apparently, it does not even matter, if condition (a), the academic condition, is fulfilled or not. The term can be formally (!) justified merely by it being useful. Semantic pragmatism, while an academic theory is not the default theory of geologists. In fact, no other instance of semantic pragmatism is known in geological discourse (Foster 2018).
Is there, apart from these deficits in scientific method, something else wrong with the Anthropocene? The discourse on the Anthropocene is indicative of two broader fallacies in contemporary academia and science. First, as a narrative, the Anthropocene is changing the nature of science. More particularly, it is turning the scientific endeavor into activism, or ideology, while depriving academia from its freedom of thinking and openness in thinking. Second, the discourse on the Anthropocene does not seem to take a systemic view of the interactions in and on the planet, due to some notion of contemporary humans’ exceptionality.
Fallacy I: Bad Science
The public discourse on climate change is a reality. It takes place on the public square, in politics, in different realms of the economy and society, as well as in academia. It would be surprising – and maybe disappointing – if academia would not react to it. In as much as astronomy studies newest planetary data and economics is interested in the distributed ledger technology, different disciplines and sciences would naturally develop an academic or scientific interest in climate change (understood at large) as an object of study.
The problem arises if the scientific interest becomes a vested interest, activism, or ideology. For example, it is becoming more common, especially in academic circles, to refer to a belief in climate change (Hulme 2015). While academia can study the belief in climate change, it cannot believe in it, if this belief prevents the application of the scientific method to climate change and to the belief in it as well. This separation of belief and science, or rather, the missing separation between them, lies at the heart of the Anthropocene fallacy. It was the belief in climate change that prompted geologists to seek its conformation by way of the Anthropocene, even fitting data and methods to do so. A different approach, more conforming to the scientific method, is to ask “given climate change, can one find indications for it in rock strata and if so, do these indications constitute the methodological markers of a new unit of time?” or even “what is the relation between so-called climate change and rock strata?”.
One might argue that it is very difficult to deny the amount of scientific data pointing at climate change, however, it is equally imprudent not to accept any further scientific inquiry on it. The scientific method is by definition skeptical; steadily questioning its basis, its methodology, and its conclusions. Without skepticism, science would have never begun studying the climate at all (Edwards 2011). The purpose of scientific, or academic, study is not to endorse or falsify a thesis, but to study it, as the tentative questions posed in the last paragraph indicate.
However, an increasing amount of peer-reviewed academic papers are being published in ranked journals proposing to make not only denial of climate change, but even skeptical academic inquiry about it illegal. Lavik (2015) is an example; according to his argument, anything that delays climate action is unjust. Critically assessing it delays it, therefore, it is unjust. His recommendation is to make it illegal. Crownshaw (2019) goes so far as portraying skeptical inquirers as “perpetrators” – a term used in criminal law. While one can feel aggravated by people critiquing ecological efforts, it is a whole different of category to claim them to be acting with criminal intent.
A similar amount of enmity was present in the AWG’s deliberations on the Anthropocene (AWG protocols 2019). Skeptical members of the working group were asked to leave or at least to cease their participation in the discussions. Even those members that did only complain about the changing of the method in order to find the “golden spike” became the aim of ad personam disqualification during the meetings. It was with a thin majority, and already late in the process, that the group acquiesced to finding the “golden spike” in nuclear decay rather than in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
This underlying phenomenon may be best characterized by Foster’s (2018) analysis. In his view, there is a change of paradigm in contemporary academia. This change is twofold: it changes the objective and the way of the discourse. The objective becomes politicized and the way less rigorous, more subservient to the objective. Foster (2018, 0) portraits it as thus:
“The Hungarian philosopher of science Imre Lakatos once complained that Thomas Kuhn had reduced scientific research to ‘mob psychology’ . In ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962), Kuhn famously suggested that scientific communities organized their inquiry around particular paradigms of successful research, like Copernicus’ heliocentrism, Lavoisier’s mass chemistry or Faraday’s field theory. Kuhn’s paradigms have a family resemblance with Lakatos’ research programs, so it’s likely not this feature of Kuhn’s account that irritated Lakatos. The irritation was Kuhn’s further suggestion that scientists changed paradigms or research for reasons that were basically arational if not entirely irrational. The community of researchers is guided less by reason and logic and more by a psychological impulse to chase after specific scientific successes or potential successes. This impulse was colourfully described as a ‘contagious panic’. Whatever the specific merits of Lakatos’ characterization of Kuhn, it would seem difficult to deny that, for better or worse, there is at least a little mob psychology at work in academic research. The recent stampede towards ‘the Anthropocene’ may be an apt example.
Foster’s analysis itself is not without problems. On the one hand, Kuhn and Lakatos both set up criteria determining what constitutes a paradigm-shift or a research program. Striving for objectivity or intersubjectivity as well as the institutionalization of skeptic feedback is present in both. Neither Kuhn nor Lakatos suggested or intended for or considered an activist academia or science. Foster seems to subscribe to Lakatos’ error in interpretation of Kuhn. While Kuhn’s theory better accommodates “mob psychology” to some degree, Kuhn did not give up on the in-built skepticism to academic discourse. Rather, his contention was that the ways in which objects and the type of academic object shift are heavily dependent on the communal preferences of the academic community.
There is, however, merit in Foster’s characterization. Kuhn’s theory on how the academic discourse changes leaves an open flank: What if there is a new consensus to abandon the skeptic and inquisitive standards altogether? Kuhn does not seem to offer a safeguard against this. Can this process still be called science? This must remain open, since Kuhn did not provide an answer. But outside of his theory, such a morphed version of science can only be rejected as bad science. In his survey of how this new, Anthropocene, paradigm influences Humanities and advances an activist agenda, Foster (2018, 1) states:
“The newly published volumes work on a recognizable model: rehash a well-established topic in the humanities or social sciences and add the phrase ‘in the Anthropocene’. Long-standing concerns and well-worn paths of analysis are thus momentarily re-invigorated. The critique of capitalism, the nature-nurture distinction, cybernetic post-humanism, the domination of nature, ecological stewardship and virtue ethics all are familiar topics.”
From this characterization, it seems that the Anthropocene-paradigm is more an activist, or self-serving narrative, than the object of an academic discourse. This does not mean that any discussion of the Anthropocene is non-academic or unscientific; however, it points out that the Anthropocene cannot be called a research paradigm in Kuhn’s sense, because it lacks the typical markers of academia, or science, that are valid even in Kuhn’s theory. The reason is that what makes the academic and scientific discourse is not the consensus, not even the consensus of the academic community, but the independence of results from opinions, the rationality of arguments, and the intersubjective understanding, which presupposes liberty of research (Sankey 2016). Of course, these values are not definite but are themselves openly textured. On the other hand, if science and academia do not even strive for safeguarding the scientific method, their practice stops being scientific and academic, becoming prescriptive policy. In its worst turn, it becomes oppressive ideological activism.
The line between policy and science is walked by the AWG as well. The idea is that a vote on whether to call something the Anthropocene is prescriptive policy rather than a scientific enterprise. Votes are manifest opinions. Does the scientific method not urge scientists to put their opinions on hold? Voting might indicate a consensus of a grouping of scientists; it is not, however, a marker of good science. To use a belabored analogy, in a certain period of time of European history, the consensus among scientists was that witches did exist. It does not follow from this consensus that witches do exist, neither that scientific method was used in asserting their existence, neither, interestingly that those people researching witches were unanimously persuaded by their existence; in fact, the skeptics consistently and methodologically voiced their dissent (Levack 2015).
Fallacy II: Human vs. Nature
More in line with what Kuhn (1962) would have called a paradigm (but not with a research program according to Lakatos (1970)); the second fallacy of the Anthropocene is a fallback in a dualist view of the human opposed to nature, or even outside nature. Foster (2018) calls this an Anti-Copernican turn. The discourse of the Anthropocene sees the human as an agent and all other natural environments as objects affected by human agency. While it has a high intuitive explanation, the scientific method would have to argue, skeptically, contra this contention in at least two ways: First, how is human agency as well as natural objectivity to be observed, what are their respective markers, how to model them and how to treat potential series of events that seem to contradict the contention? This is especially important in the light of the second skeptical argument: While there might be human agency and while other natural environments are affected by human agency, humans are affected by other natural environments as well, sometimes these effects come in form of a feedback loop, and sometimes they happen without prior human agency. Additionally, humans are not the only group to affect other natural environments, subgroups of other natural environments exert effects on one another.
The insistence of adjectivizing natural environment with “other” makes the point that is lost in most of the Anthropocene discourse: humans are part of the natural environment. More bluntly, humans are part of nature, and of the planetary ecosystem or biosphere (Williams, 2000). To the present knowledge, humans evolved with nature during the course of known time. Treating them as alien to nature conflicts with what biology and other natural sciences call the systemic approach, i.e. modeling the complex relationships in nature as series of feedback loops (see DeAngelis 2012). The human exceptionality in the Anthropocene discourse often goes on to claim that the contemporary human society is the only or first to know how humans have affected the planet (Steffen et al. 2011). This is false on two academic, or scientific, accounts. It is historically false because, in many prior periods of time, scientists have claimed to have understood how the planet and its ecosystem work (Gooding et al 1989). It is also false because there is no indication that present knowledge is complete, or even right. In fact, scientific method cautions against the assumption of either. Knowledge is a process of evolution, accumulation, and correction. Assuming that present knowledge is definite and final is unscientific – it also is arrogant.
But the problems with the dualism between humans and nature go on: If humans were not – somehow – part of a complex system called nature, most probably conceptualized as a multivariate circular mechanism, a specific natural science for human interaction with the planet would have to be set up. Perhaps, the Anthropocene discourse will try to establish it, but if that were the case, it is the discourse’s burden of proof to show what and in how far this specific natural science differs from the general one and on which principles it is grounded. The burden of proof also applies to the differentiation between human agency and the agency of others. There is, for example, evidence to suggest that phytoplankton produce dimethyl sulphide which promotes cloud condensation when it is oxidized in the atmosphere. The extent of cloud cover affects planetary albedo and therefore surface temperatures (Charlson et al. 1987). Another example is photosynthesis, when plants produce oxygen. These interactions are as meaningful to life on the planet as human interactions are. The question becomes, then, what the categorical distinction between the importance of human agency and the importance of other natural agencies might be.
The Anthropocene discourse often refers to the irreversibility of human interaction with the planet as a criterion. Most literature on the Anthropocene, remain, however, ambiguous, on which kind of criterion and what should be a criterion. It is difficult to conceptualize irreversibility as the criterion for a specific natural science of human agency, since time itself is irreversible. Even if there were a separate time for humans, time for nature still maintains its irreversibility independent from human action. Moreover, in a dynamic view, everything is irreversible, especially evolution. The evolution of species also seems to have irreversibly transformed the planet. Evolution continues steadily and is not confined to the natural realm; there seems to be evolution of ideas, genes, technology, nature, and even of space-time (Ridley 2015). This, again, argues against a human exceptionality and in favor of including humans in the systemic view. Sometimes, the Anthropocene discourse argues that the changes humans made to the biosphere at, this point of time, are unique and irreversible. Is this a criterion for the Anthropocene or a criterion for a separate natural theory of human agency? In any case, an obvious counter argument is that any change is unique. The first time that an ancient culture diverted a river, the planet has been impacted in a manner never seen before. For any future, that change had become irreversible. The first rice paddy in China changed the biosphere radically and irreversibly, so did the Industrial Revolution. It seems also difficult to relate the Anthropocene, which seems to have begun in the 1950s, to this theory of irreversible change. While some contemporary human endeavors are practically irreversible, think of a coal mine, so were the pyramids in Egypt or Ming tombs, otherwise they would not have been found. Many more geological phenomena are as irreversible as human agency, for example earthquakes, and tectonic shifts. The uniqueness and irreversibility arguments exist, but they fail to provide a discernable criterion for the Anthropocene, let alone for the specific natural science of human agency, to be identified. They fail because they rely on the exceptionality of contemporary human agency. By doing so, they retire humans from the biosphere but also from the time-continuum.
Lessons learned from bad science
There are different lessons than can be learned from the discourse on the Anthropocene. Three different types can – non-exhaustively – be named.
On a scientific level, the whole discourse on the Anthropocene is flawed in many ways, as has been discussed here. If judged for what it is – as activism – it is a totalitarian, or oppressive, project. An indicator of this mindset is Ellis claiming (2018, 4) “The Anthropocene is both a new narrative relating humans and nature and a bold new scientific paradigm … with the potential to radically revise the way we think of what it means to be human”.
In the paper quoted in the introduction, it became clear that the Anthropocene is not just an epoch, but also “a problem”; and the solution to the problem, as proposed by those, is an all-encompassing program of change, or command-and-control, over the economy, but also society, eating habits, health, leisure time. If the Anthropocene is the problem, command-and-control seems to be the solution. In other words, the Anthropocene is not a scientific discourse studying some phenotype, but a normative clause, which opens the door for a prescription. The radical political dimension of the Anthropocene discourse becomes clear in journals such as The Anthropocene Review, Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, or Ethics & the Environment.
The Anthropocene, therefore, is not only bad science; it is also a political program masquerading behind a scientific narrative. It as a program containing radical policies, dualism between the human and the natural, and subjection of the scientific method to the opinions of its proponents.
There is a third lesson, however. This comes out of the counter program to the Anthropocene; it comes out of the scientific method. If one is to take all preoccupations prompting agents to think about the Anthropocene seriously but still reflect on them in a manner guided by the scientific method: how would one proceed? Here is a skeptical suggestion. It is a series of skeptical and open-ended indeterminate questions that would set out a research program:
- If there are “problems” related to the Anthropocene, can they be divided into analytical issues – research programs – that can be assessed with scientific methods, for example climate change (or de-faunation, or biodiversity)?
- If the “Anthropocene” is indeed happening – even if it has been exacerbated by human activity – what evidence sufficiently demonstrates that contemporary human society has the capacity to reverse it, and to maintain a steady-state set of natural conditions?
- Assuming that, even with great effort, the Anthropocene could be addressed, how can it be demonstrated that the cost of doing so is not greater than the cost of simply allowing it to continue?
- Is it possible that the benefits of the Anthropocene – e.g. rendering uninhabitable arctic regions suitable for settlement and agriculture, or offering possible new energy sources – might outweigh the potential damage it causes?
- Would human society not be better off adapting to changing circumstances and creating emergent solutions for survival rather than attempting to control macro-level phenomena, possibly even from the top down – especially since, if history is any guide, it usually fails in attempting to do so?
- Could the unintended consequences of attempting to control the Anthropocene through political intervention be worse than the benefits of actually controlling it?
- Is it not possible that creating centralized clusters of power – or one centralized system of governance – intended to curb the Anthropocene might actually trigger its own set of disasters?
- How to address all these questions without duplicating the numbers of explanations, or models, needed? How to treat these questions while still using “Ockham’s razor”?
Where academia and science stop analyzing facts and models and becomes a narrative – at the same time unbound by method and prescriptive in content – it stops being academia or science. It turns into activism. This very turn leads to science and academia losing their credibility and therefore the capacity to inform politicians, the economy, and society at large. If science stops being a competitive process in which conclusions are skeptically challenged by outliers and non-conformists, or in which the skeptical method is embedded, and becomes a collusion of vested interest, it stops being useful.
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