Welcome to the Anthropocene: Anthropology and the Political Moment

The Anthropocene presents to anthropologists and other social scientists a profoundly humanitarian obligation. As the Songhay people of Niger like the say: even though the path toward truth is long, it is one that is always worth taking.
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We live in very troubled times -- welcome to the Anthropocene, a new epoch during which human activity (industrial production and consumption) has provided us unparalleled wealth but also an unmistakable path toward potential ecological devastation. As Naomi Klein powerfully demonstrates in her new book, This Changes Everything, the structures of our political and economic systems, which are inextricably linked, are leading us toward irrevocable climate change and inconceivable social transformation.

During the Anthropocene we have witnessed the ongoing destruction of war and the ever-increasing celebration of terrorist atrocities. During the Anthropocene the stains of nativism and racism, both brought on by increasing ignorance and media malfeasance, has spread far and wide. During the Anthropocene, to put the matter bluntly, the unprecedented prosperity that human activity has generated has ironically resulted in widespread misery in the world.

In America our Anthropocene politics have brought us increasing income inequality, which means that social divisions are becoming increasingly rigid. Such social rigidity means that our middle class is shrinking, which, in turn, means that the number of families living in poverty is expanding. It is well known that in the US, supposedly the world's wealthiest nation, roughly 49 million of our citizens experience "food insecurity." One in five American children are hungry. Indeed, according to the 2014 Hunger Report, one in seven American families rely on food banks to feed their children.

Poverty and expanding social inequality also means that these alarming trends are likely to reinforce the social isolation of the poor. If we don't think about the poor, if we ignore those who are different from us (the aged, the sick, the homeless, and minorities of every ethnicity and sexual orientation), our problems will disappear and our social world will once again become strong and vibrant. Such are the politics of so-called personal responsibility, in which the rich, who work hard, deserve the luxuries of safe housing, copious food, and superb health care, and poor, who are lazy, pay the price for their "indolence." Such an ideology, which ignores history or any kind of social analysis, reinforces racism and ethnic discrimination. Such an ideology also celebrates ignorance and advocates the distrust of scientists who, based upon rigorous research protocols, put forward inconvenient truths. These rigorously researched insights challenge a market fundamentalism that reinforces a fundamentally skewed social order.

Consider the dramatically inconvenient statement that Naomi Klein showcases in her aforementioned book, This Changes Everything. In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency," wrote James Hansen, past director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, who are two serious players on the world stage, "society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us."(p.22)

Threatened by unprecedented climate change and intractable socioeconomic structures of exclusion, nothing seems to work. Consider the shameful racism of our criminal justice system in which cops get away with the murder of young black men like Michael Brown. Consider the apartheid of our economic system in which "who you know" has become more important than "what you know." Consider our hapless low information political system in which our elected officials celebrate their ignorance of science and social dynamics as they wave the tattered flag of market fundamentalism.

Something has got to give.

For me, the politics of the Anthropocene is an anthropological challenge. In the Anthropocene it has been human activity that has directed us onto a destructive environmental path. By the same token, human activity can also direct us toward more positive social ends.

Enter anthropology and anthropologists. Most of my anthropological colleagues have been passive rather than active players on the sociopolitical stage. In our discipline the institution has long celebrated arcane theoretical contributions for which practitioners receive research grants and endowed chairs. These times require a shift in emphasis. Given the political, social and ecological crisis we face, anthropologists are uniquely positioned to demonstrate in clear and concise language and image, how market fundamentalism, which generates climate change, social inequality, racism and the defamation of difference, has brought us to the social precipice. By moving from passive to active voice anthropologists, among other cultural critics, can provide the insightful information needed to construct a groundswell of change -a course correction on a path to social apocalypse.

Using a variety of social media that reach ever-expanding audiences, here's a sample of what active voice anthropologists can do:

1.Expand our blogs and documentary shorts and features about income and social inequality to demonstrate in plain language how economic exclusion is economically and social counter-productive.
2.Expand our discourses on the exercise of power and how it is tied to the ideology of market fundamentalism.
3.Continue our critique of the corporatization of the social life--especially the corporatization of the university.
4.Continue our discourses on the destructive dynamics of racism and ethnic discrimination.
5.Broadcast the insights of science and social science, again in plain language, to demonstrate how and why it is trustworthy.

This cultural critique must be constant and consistent. As frustrating as such an exercise might be, we will need to re-state and continuously refine our presentations so that our inconvenient insights will gradually convince people to change. In this way we might salvage some degree of compassionate social life on the planet. At the same time, we should develop further an anthropology of well-being to demonstrate how to siphon off measures of mirth in increasingly trying times.

The Anthropocene presents to anthropologists and other social scientists a profoundly humanitarian obligation. As the Songhay people of Niger like the say: even though the path toward truth is long, it is one that is always worth taking.

Will we do our part to make the world a bit sweeter for our children and grandchildren?

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