Welcome to the Misanthropocene
Misanthropy /mis-an-thruh-pee/: a hatred, dislike or distrust of humankind.
Anthropocene /ænˈθrɒpəˌsiːn/: the Anthropocene, a proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment.
The Misanthropocene: the phenomena of cultural misanthropy, including the desire for humanity's demise, in the age of the Anthropocene.
My tagline above is "How Humanity Learned to Hate Itself. And Then Died." True, we're not dead. Yet. But we are destroying ourselves and the world as we know it — and I don't mean physically.
Yes, according to the best available scientific literature, we are doing that, and in increasingly dangerous and accelerated ways.
But we're killing ourselves off in other ways, too. We're caught up in what I describe as a wave of cultural misanthropy in which we imagine again and again the end of humanity. In social, fictional and theoretical realms we've placed the human under erasure as we speculate about the fate of our world and our place within it.
My research looks at the undertones of misanthropy in contemporary representations of Western humanity in the Anthropocene as they appear in literature and film, environmental advocacy, political ecology, and theory. There are at least three intersecting research realms where these misanthropic themes tell us something deeper about what it means to ask the question of the human in our contemporary era.
The first space I see this happening is in our cultural obsession with apocalyptic and eco-disaster narratives in both popular culture and traditional literary arenas. These doomsday narratives — whether driven by natural disasters, human accident or zombies — allow us to investigate a world after the human. Many of these narratives bring us to the near edge of human extinction where only a small handful of survivors act out an abridged, brutalized politics of survival. Others deal with the more blunt end of all human life. Still others imagine a future post-humanity where the human-as-we-know it is obliterated from the gene pool. It could be argued these speculative works of fiction all touch on aspects of a secular apocalypse: while they don't reveal a 'true order' or offer a revelatory insight into a higher truth, they modify or play with the apocalyptic theme to discover what an anthropogenic, non-transcendental and even meaningless end of the world might look like and reveal. The eco-horror genre might be seen, for example, as a theatre in which the story (or even morality play) of Nature's Revenge can play out. The vengeance of Mother Nature finally wrought upon humanity's destruction and hubris is a storyline born of the Misanthropocene. We can see the apocalyptic and misanthropic theme in many works of speculative fiction, including hits like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Max Brooks' World War Z, or Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, or television series like The Walking Dead, its prequel Fear the Walking Dead and The Leftovers. There is no doubt we are keen to explore storylines that remove humanity from the face of the earth. The question is what is revealed in these narratives? Who wins and who looses and who even appears at the end of the world?
Another space dominated by apocalyptic themes and cultural misanthropy is the realm of social movements and public discourse, particularly in certain areas of environmental and political discourse. We know that the environmental crisis requires human intervention and yet, at the same time, we know that so many aspects of the environmental crisis are the outcome, even if unintentional, of blind, hubristic human intervention. So now we're caught in this horrible bind where we know we need to do something and yet no longer trust ourselves to do it right (some will argue that the sciences still harbour a dangerous humanocentric and rationalistic faith in human human ability, but I would argue that even that is changing. At least, if you look at the recent IPCC reports on the state of climate science, you'll see some of the world's top scientists acknowledge that we're hurtling towards an unknown future that is becoming increasingly uncontrollable and that we should start looking to non-western, non-traditional ways of being, like indigenous cultures, for cues to non-destructive human-nature relationships).
3. THIRD. My final area of interest involves the recent turn towards post-humanism and speculative realism in contemporary theory and philosophy. By post-humanism here I mostly mean the critical practice as it inheres in the post-anthropocentric vein of philosophical and theoretical thought (rather than in the transhumanist vein which explores bio and technological transcendence of the human - although that is arguable a manifestation of human self-hatred, or misanthropy, too). Much like cultural representations of the zombie apocalypse, the theoretical trend to 'disappear' the human from thinking - to make epistemology post-human - is critical to understanding not only how western individuals think themselves in the Misanthropocene, but how humanity attempts to think beyond the human, or outside the traditional realm of human reason, values and concerns.
As Timothy Morton writes in Hyperobjects, we're ushering in the "end of the human world."
Think about the emerging environmental argument that's meant to calm our nerves during dinner conversations that have dreadfully been derailed by climate change: "The planet is going to be fine. It will bounce back. We're the ones that are fucked."
That's exactly it. That is the logic of the Misanthropocene. That's it's hard kernel of truth moment. And it's precisely the undeniable persuasion of that argument, and how it bleeds out into a larger cultural ethos, that I'm so interested in exploring.
I think that we've already begun adjusting to that eventual demise and now we're busy thinking about and exploring what that will look like.
We live in strange times. With the multiple environmental crises that collectively represent the Anthropocene bearing down upon us, it isn't just the existence of the natural world that is up for question - it's the very question of our humanity. And not just if we survive, but what we will survive as and what we will survive for.