An ADOLESCENT anthropocene

5 General World History Books Everyone Must Read ...

In her book, “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None”, Kathryn Yusoff discusses how modern civilization has failed to “properly identify its own histories” (Yusoff 13). She credits the victors of history with incorrectly writing their own history, often leaving out, dehumanizing, or ignoring the exploitation of other cultures. Specifically, how White history does this to primarily black and brown people. Yusoff mentions multiple places where history has come up short, and asks us: who are we to define a new age if we cant even get our own history accurate?

I think that Kathryn Yusoff defies the common idea of an Anthropocene in quite an interesting manner. Instead of denying its potential existence, she instead denies its potential infancy. By asking us to “consider what historicity would resist framing this epoch as a ‘new’ condition that forgets its histories of oppression and dispossession” (15). There is no doubt in my mind that our history and geology are immensely incomplete in the way Yusoff describes, leaving out essential details that dehumanizes, and incorrectly defines many past events.

However, in the grand scale of things, I don’t see much vitality in understanding how we reached the Anthropocene. Rather, the fact that we are in one matters. And to me I don’t see how the points of incorrect history and geology effects that. And so while I agree with almost all of the points in the text that I understand, I struggle to find how it relates to the current issue at hand. I very much understand that I likely misinterpreted this text or took some of its points out of context or at least I hope that is the case as it did raise quite interesting points. They were just not ones that necessarily change how we should approach our rapidly incoming doom that is the Anthropocene. I hope to come to a better understanding of the text in next class.


A Willful Blindness

Slaves from Guinea digging for gold and silver in mines, for the Spanish in Hispaniola.
Image taken from America.- Part V.- Latin.; Originally published/produced in Frankfurt, 1595 (1617 ?). Wikimedia

Kathryn Yusoff, author of A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, offers a disconcerting perspective of the Anthropocene, stating that the now infamous geological era has warped into what we know it as today—a human, post-racial issue beginning with the Industrial Revolution and the steady increase of atmospheric CO2—from a much older origin with foundations in chattel slavery. Yusoff argues that this warping was intentional, done in order to erase the grim realities of the enslavement of people of color, and more specifically, to take the blame and responsibility away from the white perpetrators by making the proliferation of greenhouse gases, for instance, appear as an oversight in a period of overall progress (Yusoff 1-3).

Geology, suggests Yusoff, is the product of white people in power exploiting black and indigenous slaves by reducing them to materials and commodities to be extracted, equal to gold, coal, land, etc. Slaves were considered “matter”, “inhuman”, and commodities without agency or subjective will. This language of inhuman, extractable objects is so essential to geology, says Yusoff, that it is embedded in the grammar of geology itself. Therefore, according to Yusoff, slavery is inseparable from geology, which makes it also inseparable from any true discussion about the Anthropocene. Slave labor was a central element in the geological transformation of the world beginning in the 15th century, and this only ended once there were more efficient replacements, like oil, and eventually industrial factories (Yusoff 6). But geology’s horrendous beginnings still have substantial effects on today’s world, as evidenced by the environmental racism occurring with polluting industries relocating to poor cities with majority black populations, as well as in Native American reservations (Yusoff 13).

Yusoff makes the bold and likely controversial assertion that the reason we study geology at all is because humankind’s exploration into geology began from an extractivist mindset, which began specifically through slave labor (Yusoff 13). As powerful as this claim is for Yusoff’s argument, I have a hard time finding any outside evidence to verify this. Most things she has said in this book are consistent with my previous understandings of Anthropogenic history, but this aspect in particular is difficult for me to accept, until I find some information to support her theory.

I also have a hard time figuring out how this text is supposed to apply to the problem of the Anthropocene as know it. The primary reason being that it is difficult to settle on the best balance between two opposing progressive ideas: an appreciation of intellectualism (and, pardon the redundancy, a condemnation of anti-intellectualism), and a goal of making essential information as accessible to the general public as possible. I personally found this text, while fascinating and informative, somewhat beyond my reach and too esoteric for what the audience (presumably anyone who cares enough about Anthropogenic calamity) might be capable of comprehending. This is not necessarily a problem in other areas of interest, but when the clock is rapidly ticking to Climate Doom, it is vital that as many people understand these ideas as possible.

Geology is Written by the Victors?

Indian troops, Cyprus
Troops from Indian under British rule are forced to do manual labor (Getty Images)

In her book, “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None”, Kathryn Yusoff argues that geology, particularly the new geologic era of the Anthropocene, normalizes historic marginalization of minority groups. While I agree that the propagation of western culture and globalization has disregarded numerous justice and equity issues, her analysis of geologic process and social injustices was too broad to have significant meaning. Yusoff’s comparisons between the extraction of slave labor and of coal and colonial violence and geophysics are analyzed from a perspective too far removed from the root of the problem. Her attempt to “naturalize” human actions and “humanize” geology is both offensive to those who she is talking about and to geologic science. Understanding and acknowledging our history of colonial violence and minority injustice is a crucial part to moving forward in society, but geology is not the mechanism to do so. 

As Yusoff notes “the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species life – anthropos – through a universalist geologic commons”, however she then goes on to explain how this “geologic commons” obscures historic racism in modern day society. There is nothing inherently incorrect in this statement, and I think that there is an ethical dilemma in placing blame on all humans for the environmental damage that we have caused when the majority of the damage originates from industrialized nations, however geology is inherently inhuman. The Anthropocene is characterized by human impact in rock formations and climactic patterns within our biosphere, not racial injustice, colonialism, nor slavery, nor should it be. 

However there are a variety of other fields dedicated to evaluating these human-nature interactions, including environmental justice, human geography, and most relevant to Yusoff’s book environmental determinism, which delves deep into how physical environments have supported colonialism and eurocentrism. These three fields of study along with social justice movements, the increase in vocalization by historically marginalized populations, and historical revisions to acknowledge of the horrors of colonization have had drastically higher benefits than abstract juxtapositions of social justice violations and geologic processes. 

Why Have “We” Written This Narrative into Geology and Greater Society?

In “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None,” Yusoff details the marginalization of POC through their depictions and relations to materials, much as how “we” have treated the resources of the natural Earth. I liked Yusoff’s framing of “we” in this text. In one passage, Yusoff states, “This unmaking of subjects constitutes a warp of dispossession in the progressive narrative of collective accumulation or geologic commons in which “we” all share” (Yusoff, 16). The author makes it clear that “we” is not an all-inclusive term. POC have continuously and aggressively been excluded from this collective “we” and have instead been labelled as nonbeings, or inhuman. POC have had no input into the exploitation and dehumanization of their lands and lives.

Yusoff goes on to state, “Rendering subjects as inhuman matter, not as persons, thereby facilitated and incorporated the historical fact of extraction of personhood as a quality of geology at its inception” (Yusoff, 17). POC have been seen, and quite frankly continue to be seen, as simply resources of the Earth for White Men to extract and use at their will to further their “innovation”. But this innovation has come with this price of corrupting not only the cultures of many groups, but also their land, or as “we” see it, territory to be expanded and pillaged. In the field of Geology, and in my opinion many others, Black and Brown People are referenced as simply property to be used to further ideation. They are used as simple tropes, tokens, or cherry-picked evidence of innocence or inspiration. In the words of Yusoff, “Why is it that the language of geology allows for the exchange of a person as a material object of property and properties” (Yusoff, 18). This line of questioning parallels the greater discussions surrounding why societal institutions have been built in such a way as to allow for racism to become institutionalized and permeable throughout society.

Yusoff makes a clear point that in order to truly examine this Anthropocene, we need to understand Geology’s origins and what made such exchanges of property that resulted the geological and societal crises possible. This needs to be uncovered while maintaining the thought that society today has constantly been profiting off the backs of POC communities – resulting in both innovations, and the degradation of the environment. Without the labor and resources of POC, our current era would not have come into being, yet time and time again they are treated as inhuman.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash

The way we write about geology…

The author of “A Billion Black Anthropocene or None” suggests that the way Geology is discussed and displayed undermines the long history of exploitation of people of color, specifically black and brown people. The author states that when categorizing matter as property and properties, “the slave in this formulation is rendered as matter, recognized through an inhuman property relation” (Yusoff 17). The author goes on to highlight how the way we talk about geology can ultimately suggest that those who were exploited were just objects. She seems to be arguing that by writing geology the way that we do we are in our own way justifying all the exploitation that occurred, we are erasing the human aspects of those who were wronged. 

When we are writing, especially about history it is easy to forget that the events that are being discussed actually happened and it directly affected real people at that time. It is so easy to distance yourself from it, but the word choices we use matter. Like the author discussed, the way we describe something can help to humanize a person or with a few quick changes we can completely strip them of their human aspects.

I thought this piece was really interesting to read, though I did have to read it more than once to understand it fully. I still feel as though I didn’t completely understand everything that was pointed out in this chapter, but hopefully being able to discuss it in class will help to clarify the last few things that I am not as clear on.

Image by Darius Sankowski on Pixabay