Thursday, March 11, 2021

Rediscovering the sense of the human in a chaos of "ceneisms"

by Silvia Peppoloni*

This article was published in ReWriters Magazine, in Italian and English:

* Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome (Italy); Secretary General of the IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics; Councillor of the IUGS - International Union of Geological Sciences; Member of the Ethical Board of ICOS - Intergrated Carbon Observation System; Coordinator of IAPG-Italy; Member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Geological Society. Email:

Silvia Peppoloni
The words accompanying the final scene of the movie "Antropocene: the Human Epoch" (2018) try to relieve us of the anguish induced by the images on the anthropogenic planetary disaster and to alleviate our powerless regret of human beings, accomplices of the state in which the Earth is, allowing us to glimpse a way for our redemption: "The Earth is four and a half billion years old; we can read her story in the rocks. Modern civilization has only developed in the last 10,000 years, but our species has managed to push the planet’s systems beyond their natural limits. We are all involved, some more deeply than others. But the tenacity and optimism that have made us progress can help us return these systems to a level that ensures the safety of life on Earth. Recognizing and re-evaluating the signs of our domination is the beginning of change."

The Anthropocene, on the one hand domination and abuse, on the other awareness and hope.

The Anthropocene has been discussed for about twenty years. The term was introduced by Eugene Stoermer in the eighties to indicate the recent epoch dominated by the human being, but it assumed global significance at the beginning of the 21st century thanks to Paul Crutzen, who has recently deceased, Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his studies on the ozone depletion.

Since then, the scientific community, as well as the philosophical and the social sciences ones, have been animated by heated debates around this word and the implied concept. In the scientific field, geoscientists are still trying to understand whether it is possible and correct from a stratigraphic point of view to call Anthropocene a new geological epoch after the Holocene, which in turn began 11,700 years ago at the end of the last glacial period. To do this, it would be necessary to identify a stratigraphic marker, clearly anthropogenic, within the most recent geological deposits, unequivocally associated with a geo-environmental transition, persistent in geological time and detectable in various points of the Earth, with planetary extension and  temporally coeval, so as to be able to represent a precise chronostratigraphic limit in the deep time scale of geology, a transition between different moments in the history of the planet.

There are numerous ideas about it, as I have illustrated in the book "Geoetica" (in Italian), recently published by Donzelli Editore, but the question is intricate and full of meanings, not only scientific. Philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians talk about it in their analyzes, emphasizing inequalities, the logic of power and domination, the darker side of capitalism that the current idea of Anthropocene brings with it. Moreover, beyond its possible scientific certification, the Anthropocene is the epoch in which the history of the planet and human history are intertwined, and is in fact characterized by "Homo sapiens", unopposed ruler of nature, incessant modifier of his/her ecological niche according to needs and the desire to satisfy the instincts of primacy over his/her fellowmen. The Anthropocene, therefore, as a paradigm of the rigid application of anthropocentrism in its most negative meaning, in which the human being acquits him/herself of the charge of having caused the destruction of other living beings, the biosphere, the entire Earth system.

These considerations are usually linked to a series of criticisms and attacks, sometimes with moralistic tones, on Western civilization, responsible for all that is negative in past and present history, including the current "ecological crisis".

Starting from this vision, after all agreeable and full of useful ideas to initiate the essential changes to reverse the course, over the years a series of subcategories of the Anthropocene have been derived, progressively used to connote the main features of our time, an undergrowth of terms with the common suffix "-cene" (from the Greek kainós, which means "new, recent"). Here are some of these proposals: Thermocene, Anglocene, Capitalocene, Thanatocene, Phagocene, Fronocene, Agnotocene, Polemocene, Sinforocene, Plasticocene, Pandemiocene, Tecnocene, Econocene, Homogenocene, Chthulucene, Entropocene, even Trumpocene …. and I'm certainly forgetting others. All these terms ultimately dissect the Anthropocene analytically and then recompose it into a complex molecule of "ceneisms".

However, behind the scientific-philosophical dissertation that supports the reasons for one or the other proposal, definition, sub-categorization, there is a possible risk: the very rich human experience could be simplistically considered something to be totally denied, and the Anthropocene could be reduced to the set of products of a polluting, abusive, cynical and slaughtering human being, in an iconoclastic battle against anthropocentrism, for which the human species would be the true virus of the planet. And in this condemnation process, the best of the human beings could almost vanish: their creativity, curiosity, ability to be supportive and empathetic, to build bonds of love and friendship. In the same way, the achievements and the best expressions of the intellectual and technical commitment of the human being, such as art, science, technology, law, philosophy, democracy. Reducing the Anthropocene to this could only generate anxiety, frustration, schizophrenia, the loss of all hope for the future.

Human beings build and determine themselves in their individuality, but it is their sphere of relationships that gives meaning to their existence: social and natural interactions are expressions of their nature beyond their own body. This dense network of relationships constitutes the human, without interruption in its being.

Reflecting on this can make us hope that the Anthropocene, in its most negative sense, even before it begins, can already be considered finished, past, dissolved in the light of a new awareness of mutual belonging and commitment to responsibility. Moreover, it can accelerate that crisis of conscience arising from the Anthropocene able to ferry us as soon as possible towards the Koinocene, which the anthropologist Adriano Favole defines "… a new era in which the human being will be able to recognize similarity, community, participation, relationships … between all living and non-living beings who inhabit the planet."

The Earth, therefore, as a space of relationships, a place where the concept of koiné, as a common and unifying language, is specified in its expanded meaning of universal civilization, of community, of a social dimension shared by all the peoples that constitute the complex mosaic of humanity, of participation without dichotomies and contrasts between human and non-human beings, animate and inanimate, between nature and spirit.

In this continuous and frantic race to understand what we are, often identifying ourselves in a schizophrenic way outside of ourselves, we unconsciously deny ourselves, defining our complexity with unsatisfactory words. And while we focus our analyzes on frustration, considering it the cause and not the effect of a split in ourselves and from our nature, we guiltily forget the human being in his/her authenticity.

Perhaps in order to avert irreversible planetary events, it is not necessary to change the human being, the true, authentic, wise one, but only to learn to rediscover and listen to him/her.


Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

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