Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins


Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

Super Wicked Problem – or, the Crisis Formerly Known as Climate

Farmer and author Paul Feather seeks the meaning of our planetary crisis, and names that can reflect its super wicked nature, in local spaces of resistance that serve as the wombs from which deeper understanding will be born.


2,000 words: approx reading time = 8 minutes


When we name our planetary crisis, it’s something like a birth. The problem is born into our dialogue and its umbilical cord is cut off from the organism that created it in the first place. When we name it the Climate Crisis, our dialogue is constrained by that name, and we respond to that crisis differently from a crisis named Runaway Capitalism or Mass Extinction. Even if we acknowledge that these other framings are relevant, naming the problem centers a particular way of thinking.

People have thrown names at the planetary crisis like it’s an indecisive couple’s new baby. We could call it the Anthropocene. And then there’s Patriarchy. How about Settler Colonialism, or maybe something with Justice in it? — so we sound woke. Sometimes I prefer broad, sweeping names like Polycrisis or Ontological Failure, but at the end of the day, we should probably admit we don’t really know what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a science person. There’s a lot of carbon in the atmosphere; and while we can debate about where exactly to put the lines between species — there are about to be a lot fewer of them. These are things we can measure. But in between and all around the measurements there’s this thing that we’re all going through, and it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

So what shall we call this thing we have made together?

Super wicked problems - a more-then-climate crisis. Showing tree signs in Atlanta forest,Georgia, USA.
“Forest defense is self-defense.” Atlanta forest, Georgia, USA. Photograph: public domain.

Super wicked

In social planning, a wicked problem is one that defies solution because it is closely intertwined with other problems, and solutions are constrained by different stakeholders with different worldviews and values.1 Beginning in about 2007, people began to talk about the climate crisis as a ‘super wicked’ problem, because it had all these wicked traits of complexity and social divisiveness, and also additional difficulties presented by an urgent timeframe and by social injustice wherein the nations who have the most responsibility for climate change and the most power to affect it also have the least incentive to do so.2

There’s actually an added bit of complexity that this framework leaves out, because while it acknowledges that the legacies of colonialism and slavery have shaped the power structures that now make climate change ‘super wicked’, these scholars typically don’t question whether these power structures are the most useful tool for addressing the crisis.3 This is a social planning and social engineering approach: it’s easy to assume that something so big as climate change would have to be addressed by the multinational corporations and governments who hold the levers of power in our society.

In this respect, the wicked problem framework fails to address added epistemological and ontological legacies of colonialism (i.e. colonization of the mind) that have been explored by at least forty years of Western scholarship4 — and a far longer Indigenous awareness of that legacy — that implicate this rational, engineering-centered onto-epistemology with the origins and development of the global crisis.5 This added level of complexity questions the whole framing of the crisis as a problem in need of solutions, but fortunately rather than leaving us with ultra-wicked problems, it’s more like some of the variables cancel out, and things actually get simpler.

Baby gets a new name

If we acknowledge that social engineering is not really a viable approach — that not only do the complexity of the problem and unjust power relations (i.e. its super wicked nature) doom that strategy to failure, but that the whole engineering paradigm is built on colonial notions of power and control that further implicate us with the crisis — then the framing of the crisis changes. We are no longer invested in designing complex international legal interventions to bring down CO2 emissions, nor even controlling the power structures that would presumably do this. It’s not even clear that we’re still centering CO2, because coloniality of power and knowledge are now part of the dialogue. This new framing follows the umbilical cord of the climate crisis to better integrate the origins of that crisis: the baby gets a new name.

When we stop trying to engineer our way out of wicked problems, and when we frame the crisis to include coloniality of power and knowledge, we become participants in the crisis rather than the detached observers that engineers must always be. We are no longer debating how to optimize the behavior of billions of (other) people to soften ecological collapse; but rather asking, how do I personally respond to a crisis formerly known as climate change that increasingly defines the human experience?

This does not mean that our response is a solo act unconstrained by social norms and arising purely from personal experience. On the contrary, there is a great deal of meaning to be found by interacting with communities that are already establishing social norms that oppose the systems of power that continually enact the ongoing crisis.

Communities of resistance

Showing a sign in Atlanta forest, Georgia: "You are now leaving the USA."
Atlanta forest, Georgia – “You are now leaving the USA.” Photograph: Public domain

My personal experience is that communities who actively challenge the dominant systems of power and knowledge arise from local resistance movements. In my own search for meaning, I have found the most clarity of purpose when participating in defense of specific places and people from equally specific governments and corporations. I believe that these spaces of resistance are the wombs from which a deeper understanding — even potentially a name — for our crisis will be born.

I have most recently spent time in the Atlanta forest, where a community of forest defenders has been enacting an abolitionist society without police for over a year. This community implicitly rejects a socially engineered response to the more-than-climate crisis, because individual autonomy is a central value. This is both a strategy to ensure group security in a community that is consistently under attack, but also an anarchist conflation of ends and means wherein the resistance community is structured to reflect the values of the society we aspire to create.6 Nonetheless, even in such a community there are obvious social norms and expectations that constrain individual action — and, for me, development and understanding of those norms is arguably as important as defending the forest: they are one and the same. This experiment in abolitionist society has been consistently attacked: at this writing about twenty people have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, and one forest defender has been killed by police. The violent suppression of this movement is an unfortunate testament to its success and potential.

Previous conflicts have illuminated connections between power, policing, and climate: as for instance in the brutally repressed resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline,7 or Enbridge Line Three.8 In the Atlanta forest, these connections between hegemonic power and the more-than-climate crisis are particularly transparent. The forest is a key safeguard against climate instability for local communities, and the underlying conflict threatening the forest is the city’s agenda to expand policing with an immense new training center. This unique pairing of threats (climate and policing) explicitly connects climate agendas with abolitionist narratives that some scholars are already integrating into mainstream environmental justice dialogues.9 Finally, the movement’s centering of the site’s history and removal of the Creek/Muskogee Nation in the 1800s followed by forced labor on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm explicitly synthesizes decolonial, abolitionist, and mainstream environmental justice narratives. This ‘perfect storm’ of issues, place, and history situates Defend Atlanta Forest to make unique and lasting contributions to our mutual understanding of power, coloniality, and crisis.

Showing Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility.
Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was killed while opposing the Atlanta forest police training facility. Photograph: public domain.

The climate crisis is real, but it is exceedingly abstract. It does not feel easy for individual humans to find a meaningful response to this super wicked global problem. It lives in the atmosphere or in tiny molecules of CO2. It does not have a place. It is not a useful concept for orienting ourselves or making individual decisions — and in that sense it is almost meaningless.

Places like the Atlanta forest are the crucibles where people and movements spill over into each other and where new movements and new meanings are born.10 We participate in this process — and to some extent we do shape it — but our understanding and language is equally shaped by the places themselves as they are uniquely situated in history and space. If we will find our way through these confusing times, we will need simple answers to wicked problems; and we will find them in the trees, in the deserts, on city streets. We will find them where other seekers have gathered to fight for something meaningful together and in doing so to create a community bound by something that no amount of policing can destroy.


References

  1. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
  2. Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2007) Playing it forward: Path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the ‘‘super wicked’’ problem of global climate change. Paper presented at International studies association convention, Chicago, Il, February 28th–March 3.
  3. For example, see Lazarus, R. J. (2008) Super wicked problems and climate change: Restraining the present to liberate the future. Cornell L. Rev., 94, 1153. Although Sun, J., & Yang, K. (2016) The wicked problem of climate change: A new approach based on social mess and fragmentation. Sustainability, 8(12), 1312 does make some gestures toward less engineering-oriented approaches.
  4. e.g. counting from Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature (republished 1991 East African Publishers). See also a decent literature review in Clement, V. (2019), Beyond the sham of the emancipatory Enlightenment: Rethinking the relationship of Indigenous epistemologies, knowledges, and geography through decolonizing paths. Progress in Human Geography, 43(2), 276-294.
  5. Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017) On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 16(4): 761-780.
  6. Land C and King D (2014) Organizing otherwise: translating anarchism in a voluntary sector organization. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation 14 (4): 923-950.
  7. Burrell M, Grosse C and Mark B (2022), Resistance to petro-hegemony: A three terrains of power analysis of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota. Energy Research & Social Science 91
  8. Mittal P (2021) Extraction, Indigenous Dispossession and State Power: Lessons from Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en Resistance. The Arbutus Review 12(1): 121-141.
  9. Pellow D N (2017) What is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity, and also Menton M, Larrea C, Latorre S, Martinez-Alier J, Peck M, Temper L, and Walter M (2020) Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science 15: 1621–1636
  10. Perkins T (2021) The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California. Environmental Sociology 7(2):147-59.

Find out more

Defend Atlanta Forest, or Stop Cop City, is a decentralised social movement in Atlanta, Georgia, United States — where people occupying trees are being charged with terrorism. In Property ≠ Life, a recent piece he wrote for Resilience.org, Paul discusses the nature of violence and non-violence; “Stop Cop City is explicitly contesting the nature of violence, and this is profound for a society that is based on the violent exploitation of others: a society that doesn’t seem to know who it is without that violence, and whose customary language doesn’t differentiate destruction of life from destruction of property (or when it does seems to value the latter).”

In January 2023, The Guardian’s report, ‘Assassinated in cold blood’: activist killed protesting Georgia’s ‘Cop City’, covered the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who opposed the police training facility, while The Intercept reported that The Crackdown on Cop City Protesters Is So Brutal Because of the Movement’s Success. Atlanta Community Press Collective provides A brief history of the Atlanta City Prison Farm.

In thinking about spaces of resistance, you could explore the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, which documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues.

You can explore wicked problems in some previous content here on ClimateCultures, for example our About page on Ecological & Climate Predicaments, and Culturing Climate Change. For a discussion on super wicked problems, you can download the paper by Richard Lazarus that Paul cites above: Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.