ALTHOUGH THE TERM Anthropocene was reputedly coined by biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the early 1980s, the person generally considered responsible for its entrance into public discourse is Paul J. Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist whose work on the hole in the ozone layer won him a Nobel Prize in 1995. The term, in growing popular use since Crutzen’s work at the beginning of the millennium, is daring: it names human beings (Anthropos) as a geological force, meaning that human activity in the form of, for example, colonization, industrialization, resource extraction, and urbanization, has registered in and on the earth in a way that physically marks the present moment as no longer part of the Holocene epoch that began nearly 12,000 years ago. Although the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not yet, at the time of writing, formally designated the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, the concept has gained considerable traction as a way of capturing and dramatizing the almost unthinkably immense impact that human beings have had on the planet. Perhaps especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (which, even if fully implemented, would still lead to a predicted three degree global temperature rise), it is worth taking stock of this concept: is it useful to think of people as a collective force when the actions of particular people, claiming to act on behalf of particular groups of people (“Pittsburgh, not Paris”) seem to weigh so heavily on the future?

The precise beginning point of this epoch — the “golden spike,” as it is known — is subject to scientific debate. Does the Anthropocene start with the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1945? Or does it begin with the Industrial Revolution, which saw, among other things, exponential expansion of the extraction and deployment of fossil fuels? Or is it the Neolithic Revolution, with its development of sedentary agriculture and significant accompanying increases in human population and social complexity? The choice of where to place the spike in the past is significant, as will become apparent below. Even more importantly, however, the term Anthropocene names and gives lithic solidity to widespread anxiety about the present and future of the world as we know it. Beyond critical resource depletions, beyond global-scale pollution, beyond mass extinctions, and even beyond climate change, the Anthropocene names the present moment as a crisis of the earth itself.

Feminist thinkers have taken issue with the idea of the Anthropocene almost since its inception: to name the human as a geological force is to mask the fact that not all humans share equal responsibility for the current course of anthropogenic destruction. Moreover, the processes of industrialization, colonization, urbanization, and extractivism that lie at the heart of the idea of the Anthropocene as an epoch are clearly bound up with issues of gender, race, class, and colony. At one level, failure to name the epochal “force” more precisely takes crucial attention away from the specific anthropogenic activities and relations that are the largest engines of planetary ruination. Sociologist Jason Moore has, as a result, suggested the term “Capitalocene” as a considerably more accurate reflection of the fact that the specific form of global economic and social organization that is capitalism — in which the planet and its human and more-than-human inhabitants are arranged and exploited primarily in order to maximize wealth and power for the few — should be singled out for its transformative effects. At another level, as anthropologist Anna Tsing has pointed out, the monolithic human behind the Anthropocene is really just another version of the white, male, colonizing, modernist Man that is a large part of the problem in the first place. This Man fashions himself as separate from, and over and above, a (feminized) Nature that comes to be treated as nothing but a universe of inanimate raw materials whose sole purpose on earth is to fuel his interests, and this Man needs to be displaced in any attempt to grapple with the social, economic, and ecological relations that have brought the earth to its current epochal crisis. Taken together, these critiques suggest that a feminist perspective on the Anthropocene (or Capitalocene, or one of several other terms currently available including my current favorite, the darkly humorous “Plasticene”) should emphasize the fact that gender, race, class, and colonialism are, both structurally and conceptually, part of the geologically scaled problem: how Man treats Nature, and how capitalism metabolizes the more-than-human world on which it depends, cannot be separated from the inequitable and exploitative social relations on which Man and capital both also rely.

Although you might not know it from most popular media representations, many feminists have been saying these sorts of things for quite a long time. Ecofeminists have, for nearly 30 years, pointed out connections between the patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist exploitation of the more-than-human world and the oppression of women, people of color, and Indigenous people. More recent work in new materialist feminism has, moreover, effectively challenged many of the exceptionalist conceits of humanism — especially the idea that the agency of Man is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the matter that is the rest of the world — and opened important conversations and collaborations between the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Geology and quantum physics, for example, have also been properly feminist territories for some years, as matter has come to matter in feminist politics. Still, the new anthology Anthropocene Feminism comes as a welcome and provocative addition to the conversation. Drawing on presentations from a 2014 conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, editor Richard Grusin has assembled a strong collection of feminist thinkers to tackle the question of what it means to put together the terms Anthropocene and feminism at this geopolitical moment. How does feminism, which has long insisted on challenging the category of Man invoked in the Anthropos, now find itself forced anew to “address the definition of the human as a geological force, the embrace of the naturalness of ‘man’”? In addition, how does feminism, which has also long insisted on the importance of situated, historicized, and socially liberatory forms of analysis, grapple with the contention that “humans must now be understood as climatological or geological planetary forces that operate just as nonhumans would, independent of human will, belief, desires [and politics]”? Perhaps beginning, for the reasons noted above, from the assumption that the Anthropocene needs feminism, the anthology also asks whether feminism now requires “a new formulation specific to the age of the Anthropocene, a new historical or period designation […] [that takes up] an altered relation to — an increased attention to or concern for — the nonhuman [or ‘more-than-human,’ or ‘inhuman’] world.” In other words, it isn’t only that the Anthropocene needs to be rethought through feminist theory; it’s that feminism is forced to reconsider its schematics for thinking of power, gender, and resistance at the current moment.

Although the individual contributions to Anthropocene Feminism are quite diverse (in particular, a chapter by feminist geologist Jill Schneiderman and an interview with artist/computer scientist/engineer Natalie Jeremijenko open the conversation about a feminist Anthropocene to the natural sciences), two major themes emerge as central to the rethinking that characterizes the collection. First, there is no question that an Anthropocene feminism must confront the ways in which life and death are at stake in contemporary bio- and geo-politics, here meaning life both beyond and within the human (i.e., both the more-than-human world and the specific human lives erased in the conception of Man). Michel Foucault wrote, famously, in The History of Sexuality, that “for millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.” In thinking about life and death in the Anthropocene, several authors respond specifically to this idea of biopolitics. Elizabeth Povinelli notes that the specific mechanisms through which politics now organize and control life are sufficiently transformed from Foucault’s formulation as to warrant new figurations that take into account “the possibility that humans are responsible for the death of all life on the planet […] rather than the killing or letting die of specific human populations” (her emphasis). Indeed, she proposes the term geontology to represent the extraordinary intensification of biopower involved in both mass extinctions and the proliferation of biopolitical logics into the realm of nonlife, creating new assemblages of power/knowledge/matter that move well beyond older tactics of organizing and specifying life and living. (I am reminded, here, of Donna Haraway’s comment in the mid-1980s that Foucault’s biopolitics is a “flaccid premonition.”) Lynne Huffer, similarly, brings Foucault and Judith Butler together in conversation with new materialist feminists, especially Elizabeth Grosz, to consider the inevitably historically specific unfolding of life, even as that life clearly exceeds and complicates any particular historical conception and organization. “Foucault,” she writes, “allows us to rethink life not as a timeless metaphysical substance whose features are derived from modern biology but as a strange, nonhuman writing we might read and ‘think differently’ in shifting interplays of space and time.” This project is, for Huffer, foundational to rethinking more-than-human ethics in the Anthropocene.

The second, very powerful theme in Anthropocene Feminism is the clear, collective emphasis on geocapitalism as the particular mode of bio-/geo-political organization in which all of these different struggles for life and death take place (the concept is shared, the term is not). Claire Colebrook, for example, responds to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that “had humans not embarked upon the intense depletion of planetary resources that has resulted in the Anthropocene, human enslavement would have been worse than it has been”: the movement of globalism and humanism (and even feminism) that has accompanied Eurowestern capitalist modernity is precisely linked to the mass exploitation of geological resources (especially fossil fuels) and more-than-human lives. As Colebrook writes, “the idea of a life that could develop to its utmost potentiality without incurring debt or death to itself is both what drives technological-industrial investment and generates the delusional idea of a life without expense, loss, or misprision.” Rosi Braidotti notes that feminist movement into an ontological and political embrace of nonhuman life (zöe) may thus resist, but cannot be separated from, the increased penetration of capitalist investment into these same forms of life: “the biogenetic structure of contemporary capitalism […] produces a paradoxical and rather opportunistic form of postanthropocentrism on the part of market forces which happily trade on ‘life itself.’” Even more directly, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr point out that differentials — the inherently exploitative structural inequalities such as gender, race, and class that enable capitalist accumulation — are not, as Chakrabarty argues, effaced in a new epoch of humans as a singular force but are, rather, recreated and intensified in the Anthropocene because of its inherently capitalist nature. Although they acknowledge that the term Anthropocene “might be thought of as a struggle for a cognitive grasp on a unification of human and natural history,” they warn us not to allow that link to obscure the presence and impact of the Capitalocene.

These insights are extremely important. Moreover, they go a long way toward creating a more sophisticated feminist ecology that rests on both historical materialism (the emphasis on the world-making effects of capitalist economic, social, and biopolitical relations) and new materialism (the emphasis on the agential participation of more-than-human beings in this unfolding process). What is missing from the anthology, however, is also extremely important. Although individual chapters refer to biopolitical concepts developed by Black feminists (Stacy Alaimo, noting the contributions of Sylvia Wynter) and consider the centrality of historical and ongoing colonialism to the Capitalocene (Myra Hird and Alexander Zahara, whose chapter on waste as a vector of colonialism in the Canadian Arctic is a standout in this regard), the absence of sustained engagement with Indigenous, postcolonial (except for Chakrabarty), and people of color perspectives on biopolitics and capitalist fashionings of life in the Anthopocene is pretty stunning. This is especially so for an Anthropocene feminism that purportedly begins with a move to demonstrate the vital differences (or differentials) that lie behind the idea of Man as a singular force; attention to racial and colonial biopolitics, and thus more deeply to what Wynter calls multiple “genres” of the human, will allow, as Alaimo advocates, for a much more “politically forged and conjuncturally specific conception of the Anthropos [that will] enable new modes of struggle for social justice, environmental justice, climate justice, biodiversity, and environmentalisms.” Anthropocene feminism requires more than pussy hats on the climate march; it requires rethinking of feminist politics itself in, and from, new genres.

¤

Catriona Sandilands is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University (Toronto).