When I was a child, my friends and I would occasionally annoy each other by repeating a word over and over and over again in attempt to strip it of its meaning. The constant repetition of the word, a signifier that carried with it a clear signified in our minds, would quickly lose its signified image as we spoke it repeatedly.
“Jungle jungle jungle jungle jungle jungle jungle jungle.” Jungle? What is a jungle?
“Guitar guitar guitar guitar guitar guitar guitar guitar.” Guitar? What is a guitar?
I had heard the phrase “Anthropocene” mentioned a few times before I entered this class, and had a basic understanding of what it was: some sort of recently-proposed new geologic era, or epoch, or something like that in which we now live, marked by humankind’s effect on the earth and its systems. The Crutzen reading that we were assigned on the first day of class confirmed this, and I began the semester with a clear idea of what the phrase signified.
In nearly every class that followed, however, the clarity of this sign began to fade. Yes, by definition “The Anthropocene” was what I had originally thought it was, but as the readings, speakers, and discussions built on one another, it slowly morphed into a sign with a plethora of potential meanings. The Anthropocene is a recently proposed epoch that we currently live in, although its exact origins are undecided. The Anthropocene is also a societal status quo, which Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover determine to be constructed by our driving cars, eating Chipotle, and living in condos named after Gardens. But “Anthropocene” is used to refer to both the cause and the result of the current climate crisis; the Anthropocene is our destruction of the planet’s natural systems, yet paradoxically we live in the Anthropocene because we destroyed the planet’s natural systems.
“Anthropocene Anthropocene Anthropocene Anthropocene Anthropocene.” Anthropocene? What is an Anthropocene?
I am concerned by the versatility with which we use this word. This fear developed after hearing Dr. Luciano’s “break up letter,” in which she articulated a similar frustration with the Anthropocene, from the point of a humanities scholar. Yet from the point of others involved in this greater discourse – say, a scientist or a political activist – I feel that this frustration exists as well. If we use the Anthropocene as a timeframe, a description, and an all-encompassing substitute phrase for climate change, are we detracting from its potential power? Are we taking something that could be a strong tool with which to fight for the future of our planet, and merely turning it into a buzzword, a phrase that, like quickly loses its effect the more we repeat it?
When Paul Crutzen initially uttered the word “Anthropocene” at a conference at the turn of the millennia, it immediately resonated with those in attendance – so much so, that “The Anthropocene” as a concept quickly spread to many working in the academy and earth sciences. But now, it is used as a filler word for almost anything that involves climate change, and because of this, it runs the risk of losing its signified meaning. Therefore, we must be cautious with the use of “Anthropocene” in order to keep it from losing its power. Perhaps classes like ours will help us come to realize this and approach the Anthropocene in a more diligent manner. Perhaps I’m being overly concerned. Perhaps it’s already too late.