Climate Change

There are so many problems with the Anthropocene definition: Amitav Ghosh

The author spoke to Down To Earth on the shortcomings of the narrative around the Anthropocene

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Monday 31 July 2023

The world recently got closer to accepting that it is in the Anthropocene—the age of humans. On July 28, the Anthropocene Working Group, set up in 2009 by a UNESCO subcommission to assess geological “reality” and the most suitable timing of the epoch’s beginning, announced 1950 to be the starting year.

The group’s study on a dozen sites found the presence of radionuclides, especially plutonium, in geological materials of early 1950s, showing the impact of nuclear tests by nations in the period, and indicating a date to mark the transformative effect humanity has had on Earth’s ecology and climate.

While the final acceptance of the Anthropocene Epoch is subject to its ratification at the International Geological Congress in South Korea next year, author Amitav Ghosh is conflicted about the development.

At the launch of his book, Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories, in Delhi, Ghosh talks to Rajat Ghai about the problems in the framing of the issue, the narrowness of the definition, the missing voices and histories in the narrative, and his latest book. Excerpts:

Illustration: Yogendra AnandAs a chronicler of history, how do you see these efforts by scholars to define the geological epoch currently we are in after humans?

I have very complicated feelings about it. I understand in a sense why the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) wanted to narrow the date down to one particular geological layer, to a certain stratum and in a particular place [Crawford Lake in Canada, which has accurately datable sediments showing plutonium’s presence]. It’s because they just wanted to make it as narrow as possible. Part of the reason people support this approach is because there is a sense that it might lead to greater political action or awareness of the problem. But I do feel that it is important to note that there have been several resignations from AWG over the narrowness of this definition because effectively, it ignores the prehistory of this problem which goes back three or four centuries to the invention of an extractivist economy, which is what my book The Nutmeg’s Curse is about.

One of the real problems with our approach to the issue of climate change is that we tend to abstract it from the past and project it into the future. Because of the way scientists work, because of the statistical horizons of their work, it always became a case of “by 2100 such and such will happen”. That allowed people to think that we have enough time and we can change course on the way. If you look at it from my point of view, or any historical point of view, these problems are just not new. They have a deep prehistory. In that sense, AWG’s very narrow definition conforms to a Western idea of the problems that we face, which is that it is a techno-scientific thing, which can be fixed techno-scientifically. Whereas the essence of the problem is geopolitical. That is what makes this problem so intractable, as Sunita Narain (Editor of this magazine) so brilliantly pointed out in the early paper she wrote with Anil Agarwal (Founder Editor of the magazine) on climate justice. The reason this problem is so intractable is because issues of justice become elided in thinking of this whole issue as just a question of technological fixes.

Do you think a Western lens has been applied in the declaration of the Anthropocene because indigenous, First Nation histories in selecting that site at Crawford Lake have been ignored in a way?

Completely. That is absolutely the case. For indigenous peoples and peoples elsewhere; else, what is happening right now is not new. It is part of a very long biopolitical war. What we are seeing today, the environmental impacts that are unfolding all around us, are essentially very similar to the biopolitical wars that were waged against indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia. It is a war of the rich against the poor. And not just the rich in rich countries, but even the rich in poor countries. Essentially, they are waging this war against the poor.

The Anthropocene shows that nature still holds much more sway over humanity than vice versa. Was that on your mind when you thought of a book on the opium poppy?

It was, very much. Actually, there are so many problems with this whole definition of the Anthropocene. The most common criticism of it is that it talks about Anthropos, that is humanity. It elevates all of humanity into this position, suggesting that all humans are responsible, which is not the case. Today, the annual greenhouse gas emission of an average Ethiopian is equal to one American fridge. So, the shocking thing is that when we talk about the Anthropocene, we are conflating all these great inequalities and reducing them to a single dimension.

Another critique of it is that actually the problems we are talking about arise from industrialism, capitalism. Many other different vectors of the problem have also been suggested. But in my case, I would say one of the real problems is that the Anthropocene suggests that humans have become all powerful and so on. The great irony of this is that just as humans have started to leave geological traces on the planet, they have become more vulnerable than ever. We see this every day. In fact, this whole mythology of human omnipotence is now being destroyed by all the environmental catastrophes that we see unfolding all around us. One of the reasons why I felt it very important to write this book is that the story of opium is the opposite one. It shows us how vulnerable and frail humans are and how fragile human civilisation is because a completely ordinary flower can completely undermine all these structures of civilisation. They did it in China in the 19th century and are doing it now in parts of India and across the Americas. Mexico has become so profoundly destabilised by opium. Similarly, the US is increasingly destabilised.

All human societies have used some psychoactive substances and the idea that they can be eradicated is just frivolous. That is never going to be possible. But the thing about opium, unlike most other psychoactive substances, is that opium has a very determinate history. It enters in a large-scale into human society, first with the great Mongol Empires which then became the various gunpowder empires—the Ottomans, the Mughals and the Safavids.

But then it is the European empires from the 17th century onwards that amplify the opium trade by orders of magnitude. So, suddenly you have this enormous acceleration of the trade in opium and that, in itself, is analogous to the acceleration that has created the problems of climate change.

So, the whole history of opium, I think, is a prefiguration of the problems that we are facing today. It contains many dangerous precedents but it also suggests some possibilities of hope for environmental activists today. After all, the anti-opium movement of the late 19th century achieved something very important. It managed to create this whole coalition of groups across the planet and it created this international movement which was ultimately successful in creating controls.

The whole idea of restraint is repugnant to a certain kind of modernity. Most of all to a certain kind of liberalism. Because liberalism celebrates the idea that everyone should be able to do what they want to do. As we can see, the whole issue of climate change posits exactly the opposite: that we all have to voluntarily accept certain restraints or rationing. The whole idea of the anti-opium movement was exactly that: of creating restraints.

Smoke and Ashes
by Amitav Ghosh 
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
How different is the story of the opium poppy from other plants that have shaped history, say cotton, cane, coffee or spices?

It is very different. All these other botanical entities like sugarcane or cotton played a major role in human history for a couple of centuries. Then they receded. Opium, on the other hand, has not receded. In fact, it has grown more powerful today. More opium is grown today than at any other time in human history, despite every major state trying to control this production. But opium has defied all of them.

Returning to the Anthropocene, can global diplomacy, realpolitik halt the epoch?

Even 10 years ago, it was possible to believe that. But what recent events have shown is that all the global approaches amount to “blah, blah, blah”, as Greta Thunberg has famously said. At this point, if anyone is going to tell me that the global structures are going to solve this problem, I can say to them ‘I will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge’. The saddest and most devastating consequence of climate change is that it has shown us that these Western structures of governance, which were presented to us as the ultimate achievement of humanity, are in fact completely hollow. They cannot do what they claim to do.

You also use the term “traffickers of fossil fuels” in your book. Would that be a very strong term to use?

I do not think so. After all, trafficking just means indulging in commerce. That is just one of the meanings. And certainly, fossil fuel companies in that sense do “traffick” in fossil fuels. The second thing is that these companies not only sponsored the research that has shown us how dangerous fossil fuels were but they have actively worked to suppress that knowledge in the same way that the East India Company actively worked to suppress the knowledge about how dangerous opium can be. So, there is a close parallel.

What position do you see for literature in this Anthropocene Epoch?

It would be foolhardy for me to say literature holds the solutions. Obviously, it does not in a world where people are completely willing to ignore the catastrophes that are occurring all around them. You see this in Delhi now (in the Yamuna flood). The catastrophe is there. But climate change or greenhouse gas emissions are not mentioned. It is just political bickering.

But for me, the issue is not really whether my writing will change things in the world. The issue is, does my writing live up to what I want it to do. So, it is from that point that I approach it. It is my duty to represent the world as I see it.

Do you see climate change, global warming increasing their footprint in global literature?

Absolutely. The big inflection point was 2018, which again was filled with climate disasters. Since then, there has been a major change. There are many more people writing about these subjects, not so much in India but in the rest of the world.

This was first published in the 1-15 August, 2023 edition of Down To Earth

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