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.

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