Anthropocenophobia: The Stone Falls on the City

Renata Tyszczuk

A fear of or anxiety about the Anthropocene—the new epoch of human making; also harboring a fear of the excessive deliberations about either human epochal prowess or human frailty.

A portmanteau term derived from Anthropocene and phobia.

Related terms
Holocenophilia derived from the Holocene—the official geological epoch of the last 11,700 years, often associated with a nostalgia for clement and relatively stable times.

She found that the frequent references to a new epoch brokered by a novel sense of human calamity and talk of an “apocalypse that was already here and now” induced in her a kind of Anthropocenophobia. She was aware of an unfolding global catastrophe—who wasn’t? She didn’t care what it was called, whether it was a good or a bad Anthropocene, whether it was about saving business-as-usual or this-changes-everything. She simply found it frightening: fear of human hubris, fear of human vulnerability, fear, in fact, that in spite of all the epochal talk, nothing would make a difference. The sky would just keep on falling.

The Anthropocene, or “the age of humans,” has been proposed as the new geological epoch to succeed the Holocene.1 This moment in time, anticipated in terms of geological strata, relates to a particularly precarious historical juncture that has seen predictions of human-induced climatic tipping points and extinction events. The Anthropocene announces a period of radical instability. It is identified by large-scale geomorphic transformations of the earth’s surface, including rapid urbanization, the acidification of oceans, the relentless destruction of biota, and, above all, by anthropogenic climate change.

Whether or not the term is formally adopted, human impacts on the earth promise to be even more “stratigraphically significant” and hence even more frightening in the future.2 The advent of the Anthropocene is presented by many as an emergency, imperilling the “safe operating space for humanity with respect to the earth system.”3 Concerns over dramatic and irreversible transformations of the earth’s systems are accompanied by a sense of urgency, panic, even tragedy that a once hospitable planet may no longer offer the shelter that humans tend to take for granted. At the same time, there is a good deal of caution at the changes that Anthropocene thinking carries with it. Along with an imperative to intervene more in earth systems in a bid to sustain a more
Holocene-like state—and to do so quickly and effectively—there is an agonizing lack of understanding as to how to go about it. The challenges of inhabiting and acting in a world without precedent can easily turn such ironies and anxieties into an Anthropocenophobia.4

Anthropocene Rock

Since the term “Anthropocene” was deployed by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, it has worked its way beyond the disciplinary boundaries of geology, stratigraphy, and earth sciences. By identifying the Anthropocene as but one more stratum—Anthropocene rock—in a long and turbulent earth history, the human species is thrown into a strange historicity: in the same moment that humans are asserted as equivalent to a suprahuman force of change, they are diminished altogether. Indeed they are consigned to the imaginary of a possible trace in some future rocks that may or may not be legible to a future posthuman observer. Along with increasing alarm at the prospect of widespread anthropogenic planetary transformation, the Anthropocene announces a “crisis of agency.”5 For just at the moment when humans are called on to recognize their planetary-scaled agency they are also made aware of their limited capacity to do anything at all. Furthermore, naming a geological epoch after anthropos—some kind of unitary human—reinforces the presumption that everything is configured around “us humans” and “our time,” just as we have started to question humanity’s exaggerated sense of its own place in the world, the ethics of political difference for different humans, the nature of disciplinary divisions, and human relations with—and even obligations to—the nonhuman natural world. There are many names offered to account for the complexity of an epoch of geopolitical and ecological turmoil, among them Capitalocene, Ecocene, Misanthropocene.6 Yet all that this naming and renaming achieves is to indicate that we are still short of a word or two to describe the present predicament where human actions are dislodging the ground and upending the sky. Fearful and uncertain times require a new lexicon.

The geologic story of the boundary conditions of this accidental and frightening new epoch has become entangled with human history, or, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, “the contingent history of our falling into the Anthropocene.”7 Researchers are currently exploring various proposals for dating the start of this new geological era. Possibilities include the release of methane from the first human agricultural communities (5000 BCE), the colonization of the New World (1610), the liberation of coal-based energy during the Industrial Revolution (1800s), or the radioactive fallout from the first atomic tests (1950s).8 A decision is expected at some time in 2016. In the meantime, the Anthropocene has become a catchall for the perils associated with the present day. Along with warnings regarding imminent climatic tipping points and predictions of catastrophe, there are concerns that time is running out for the countermeasures that might still be taken (ranging from local adaptation to planetary scale geoengineering) and a whole host of anxieties about increased vulnerability, societal breakdown, and resource wars. In short, there is plenty to be fearful of. The Anthropocene is a cautionary tale of its own making. Its byproduct is Anthropocenophobia. For the Anthropocene brings with it fear and foreboding that while the world (as we know it) is ending, the sky will keep falling.

ESA, Comet over London, 2014. Comparing Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the city of London.

ESA, Comet over London, 2014. Comparing Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the city of London.

Cosmic Agencies

Fears of the sky falling, the sky vault shattering, the sky dome collapsing, or heavenly bodies crashing down to earth go back to ancient times. The Roman prophecies spoke of a “great conflagration from the sky falling on the earth,” and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh describes the earth being ravaged by fire, brimstone, and floods following the appearance of a comet.9 The sighting of comets inspired dread, fear, and awe, and was often associated with a bad omen. Halley’s Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, and red rain, and was even excommunicated by Pope Calixtus III as the instrument of the devil. Meteors and comets were known by the word disasters, which literally means “a fallen, dysfunctional, or dangerous, or evil star (dis-astron).”10

As cultural historian Marie-Hélène Huet notes, “the word is thus directly related to disorders of uncommon magnitude: the destruction, despair, and chaos resulting from the distant power of cosmic agencies.”11

Cosmic impacts have been significant in shaping the history of life on earth and on rare occasions have collided with human history. Describing the shift to an “open system” view, theorist Mike Davis observes that “the biggest step for the earth sciences has not been the admission of an occasional catastrophe or two, but rather the acceptance that terrestrial events, at a variety of time-scales, form a meaningful continuum with extra-terrestrial processes.”12

A heavy bombardment in the solar system occurred early in our planet’s 4.5-billion-year history and a low-level “rain of rocks” continues today, as comets and asteroids, debris from the formation of the solar system, occasionally intersect the orbits of the planets. Those that come close and can pose a danger to earth are collectively called Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs. On average, earth should still expect to be struck by a nine-mile-diameter NEO every hundred million years or so. NASA’s programs to detect and track NEOs were set up to guard us from such cosmic dangers: “While there are no known impact threats at this time, the 2013 Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the recent ‘Halloween Asteroid’ close approach remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky.”13 NASA is also monitoring the Anthropocene sky for space debris: defunct satellites, probes and landers, spent rocket stages, disintegrating spacecraft, and remnants of satellite collisions and explosions. It estimates that there are now over half a million pieces of space junk circling the earth in a giant halo at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour.14 Space junk threatens the infrastructure of terrestrial communications for weather and GPS. This in turn threatens security and safety for billions of humans on earth (and the few that inhabit that city-in-space, the International Space Station). The dangers ascribed to the proliferation of space junk, or the ex-terrestrial and the extraterrestrial, suggests that the human “conquest of space” literally imperils the “common-sense experiences of earthbound creatures.”15

Nuclear Winter

Crutzen has spent a good deal of time worrying about the sky. His research into ozone depletion in the 1970s demonstrated that human activity could significantly affect a fundamental part of the earth system. Studies of the atmospheric impact of nuclear weapons testing with climate modeling eventually led to the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985.16 In 1982, Crutzen and chemist John Birks coauthored the ominously titled article “The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon.”17 They forecast that a nuclear war would propel enough smoke and dust into the atmosphere to cause the darkening of the skies, and enough hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen to cause dangerous levels of air pollution, all potentially leading to global crop failure. In 1983, the “nuclear winter” hypothesis was advanced by a group of scientists, including Carl Sagan, known as the TTAPS group.18 They used computer models to project the future of the earth’s atmosphere in the aftermath of a nuclear war. “Nuclear winter” brought the prospect of environmental collateral damage of nuclear war to a planetary scale. It combined the wholesale destruction of total war wrought on cities across the globe with dangerous pollution and devastating climate change. “The Nuclear Winter,” Sagan’s article announcing TTAPS’s research, was published in Parade magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement that reached an estimated 20 million readers. “In a 2-megaton explosion over a fairly large city,” he wrote, “buildings would be vaporized, people reduced to atoms and shadows, outlying structures blown down like matchsticks and raging fires ignited.” But there was worse to come. The resulting dust and smoke from nuclear firestorms incinerating cities could blanket the entire planet, reducing sunlight penetration, causing temperatures to plummet, and, eventually, leading to the demise of life on earth. As Sagan warned, “the cold, the dark and the intense radioactivity, together lasting for months, represent a severe assault on our civilization and our species … There is little question that our global civilization will be destroyed.”19 Echoing the predictions of the aftermath of nuclear war by the fictional USSR ambassador in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Sagan compared the surface of the earth to a pockmarked moon and warned of a doomsday shroud wrapping the earth for 93 days.

The jeopardy of nuclear war had another cosmic counterpart. One of the spurs for the nuclear winter hypothesis was a 1980 article by physicists Luis and Walter Alvarez and a team of researchers on the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event caused by the impact of an asteroid approximately 65 million years ago. They reported finding a distinctive geological layer of clay at the K-T boundary containing enormous levels of the element iridium, characteristic of extraterrestrial bolides rather than terrestrial rocks.20 They further hypothesized that the main cause of the mass extinction was not the asteroid impact or even the immediate aftermath, but the ensuing “impact winter.” Dust and debris from the impact would have darkened the skies, blocking the sun, suppressing photosynthesis, and reducing surface temperatures on earth.21 These climatic malfunctions were thought to have caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs, ammonites, and countless other species whose fossil records coincided with the K-T boundary. Diverse plant communities in forests were wiped out and marine ecosystems collapsed, remaining in a depleted state for millions of years. What was significant about the extinction-event hypothesis was the idea that even relatively modest impacts from cosmic debris might have a catastrophic effect on earth because of ensuing climatic disruptions. The Anthropocene identifies the widespread impact of fossil fuel activities coinciding with fundamental changes in earth systems and possible extinction trajectories for many species. Thus, it is expected to leave a significant trace in the rocks, marking a sudden change in the trajectory of geological processes. As one scientist puts it, “We are the asteroid.”22 We are the falling sky.

Comet Landing

The Rosetta spacecraft traveled four billion miles over a decade to catch a comet moving at a rate of 34,000 miles per hour. It reached Comet 67P (Churyumov-Gerasimenko) within two minutes of its scheduled arrival, the Philae landing probe making a wobbly touchdown on November 12, 2014. The New Scientist ran a series of informative articles claiming this moment as a human triumph of science and technology. We were invited to witness the mission’s probing of the mysteries of the origins of life on earth, as comets are “pristine planetary building blocks.”23 We were given an account of the educational potential of testing specialist equipment like drilling machines. According to the New Scientist, asteroid and comet mining promise to give us all the resources we need on earth, as well as unlimited fertilizer for space farming.24

The European Space Agency (ESA) was keen to give us a sense of scale: we should think of the Philae probe as being approximately the size of a washing machine, and imagine it landing on a comet that was approximately the size of a city. On its blog, the ESA published renderings of the comet above major European cities, including London, where the comet’s length was observed as the distance between Big Ben and the Tower of London.25 Photoshopped images of Comet 67P hovering over cities became an Internet meme.26 On the day of the Philae landing, the website of the New York Times published an image with the following caption: “The body of Comet 67P/C-G is about as long as Central Park.”27 These images recall illustrations made during the Cold War. An issue of Collier’s magazine from 1948 with the story “Rocket Blitz from the Moon,” and a special issue in 1950, “Hiroshima USA,” were illustrated with images of mushroom clouds and detonations superimposed on Manhattan.28 Similarly, Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s Dome over Manhattan (1960) proposed covering a two-mile–diameter section of midtown Manhattan in a climate-controlled transparent dome as a safeguard against adverse weather and pollution. In an era of “duck and cover” drills, it was perhaps inevitable that a whole city should be made ready for a range of worst-case scenarios.

R. Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao, Dome over Manhattan, ca. 1960.

R. Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao, Dome over Manhattan, ca. 1960.

The Sky Is Falling

“Chicken Little,” the well-known fable about a chicken that runs around panicking that the sky is falling, is now so familiar that the phrase “the sky is falling” has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Hence its ready connotation with Anthropocene crisis narratives—shrill announcements of runaway, unprecedented, or catastrophic climate change.29 The label “Chicken Little” is often attached to environmental extremists or “eco-loons” and global warming alarmists or “warmists,” while “the sky is falling” has become a byword for scaremongering. In Margaret Atwood’s version of the fable, however, the activist Chicken Little argues with her detractors: “‘The sky is falling’ is a metaphor, said Chicken Little huffily. It’s true that the sky really is falling, but the falling of the sky represents all sorts of other things that are falling as well. Falling down, and falling apart. You should wake up!”30

We could also take heed of the words of Chief Vitalstatistix, a character in the comic series Asterix the Gaul, whose rallying cry was: “We have nothing to fear but the sky falling on our heads.”31 This comic book punch line is rooted in historical accounts and these ancient fears have been traced back to a comet impact in Europe that took place sometime between 465 and 200 BCE. The perpetual fear that the sky might fall is not entirely misplaced. Atwood’s plucky Chicken Little and the fearless chief remind us that in a world of falling skies, it is important to be alive to fear but not ruled by it.

The Stone Falls on the City

“A big chunk of nature falls in the middle of the city,” writes philosopher Michel Serres in his retelling of the story of the philosopher Anaxogoras, who was put on trial for suggesting that the sun was a burning stone larger than the Peloponnese.32 Anaxogoras was also reputed to have foreseen the fall of a meteorite that landed near Aegospotami (modern northwestern Turkey) in 467 BC. The meteorite was, for him, evidence of the sun falling apart. Serres connects this story to the myth of Tantalus, a king condemned to eternal punishment who, in some versions, waits for a delicately balanced rock to fall on his head. Serres considers the implications of humanity as a geological force, but also suggests it was always going to be too late to renegotiate a contract with nature:

So, the stone falls on the city, the earth quakes and thus shakes our walls and our constructed certainties; nature bursts in on the citizen, who believes only in the assurances provided by human labor and by the political order or police … We ought to admire the madness or wisdom of our ancestors the Gauls, who feared, it is told, that the sky would fall on their heads: indeed, that could happen this morning, unannounced, and what’s more it will surely happen some fine morning. Their madness or wisdom is just like ours, alive and brief, the eternal anguish of the king in hell, threatened by the rock.33

For Serres, nature is not the reliable and stable background to human activity, but is, instead, prone to catastrophe. Perhaps the Anthropocene is the epoch where the sky is always falling. Indeed, for Davi Kopenawa, shaman of the Yanomami people of the Amazon, who are tasked with holding up the sky, we live in the time of the “falling sky.”34 The Anthropocene is also the time when humans are themselves the falling sky. We have nothing to fear but the sky falling on our heads. The sky falling is everything we have to fear, for, on earth, chaos ensues, variability prevails, and change is to be both expected and feared. If we have fallen into the Anthropocene, a return passage to a safe Holocene epoch is impossible.

Thinking about “falling into the Anthropocene” prompts reconsideration of the increasingly unruly aspects of a disastrously anthropogenic world. It asks how humanity might live more responsibly while shaping Anthropocene rock and Anthropocene sky. It alerts us to “living with earth and cosmic processes … in the context of a deep, elemental underpinning that is at once a source of profound insecurity.”35 Perhaps this Anthropocenophobia can help us to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition, which, despite its fundamentally earthbound nature, remains ungraspable and incalculable. In a “world beyond our control,” confronting our intractable fears is important. This may help us to consider more responsible pathways to futures that are inevitably and irrevocably bound up with resource poverty, inadequate evacuation plans, and infrastructure breakdown, as well as planetary scale adjustments and cosmic upheavals. The Anthropocene sky will keep on falling whatever we do. This novel sense of fearfulness won’t diminish the range of challenges we face, but it may help us respond to them in more just, considerate, and purposeful ways.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1