Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses”

Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses”

Edited by Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan | 2016

Rachel Carson Center Perspectives | Transformations in Environment and Society

Introduction (excerpt from Emmett and Lakan 2016:7-8):
In his 2009 essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argued that anthropogenic climate change has signaled a fundamental shift in human history and human capacity. Once we have accepted the scientific evidence that human activities are re-shaping the Earth’s atmospheric patterns and geochemical cycles, he argues, we are compelled to recognize that human beings have, collectively, become a geophysical force capable of determining the course of climate for millions of years. A force of this magnitude is like the cyanobacteria that breathed oxygen into our atmosphere over 2.5 billion years ago, making life as we know it possible, or the asteroid that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. On such a scale, the narrow channeling of climate anxiety onto the technoscientific dimensions of a transition from fossil fuel-based sources of energy to renewables appears quaint. Chakrabarty argues that emergent forms of geological agency have driven a wedge into the continuity of human experience over time that undergirds historical understanding. With these ties to the past severed, human beings often find themselves lacking a useful account of collective experience that can guide future action.

The “Four Theses” has become a primary text for understanding the problematic nature of the Anthropocene as a cultural category, one that describes a collective, if unintended, human project whose implications extend far beyond geological inquiries about stratigraphic dating. Even as geologists continue to debate whether the Earth has indeed departed the Holocene, and if so, when, Chakrabarty has articulated what is at stake for our perception of human agency as a species when the timescales of human history become entangled in geological epochs. Reflecting on his “Four Theses” involves re-casting if not radically transforming the meaning of history and the purpose of humanities research in the age of global warming.

Chakrabarty has proposed four theses to understand the “deep contradiction and confusion” that climate change has produced for historical understanding. In this volume, Timothy J. LeCain compares the “Four Theses” to Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” for their potential to disrupt both humanistic and natural-scientific knowledge. Chakrabarty does not merely challenge the way we go about doing historical research; he argues that because climate change collapses the distinction between natural history and human history, it calls us to abandon the dominant way in which we have conceptualized ourselves since the Enlightenment. The idea of the Anthropocene severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity and globalization, whether of the neoliberal, progressive, or Marxist variety. Its geological hypothesis requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans, as colonial expansion and capitalist accumulation produced both historical inequalities and locked in future climate instability tied to humanity at the level of a global population. Considering species history and the history of capital together thus pushes us to the limits of historical understanding. Imagination and creativity take on renewed importance for navigating the currents of shared experience.

For historians interested in processes of globalization, decolonization, and environmental change, the “Four Theses” poses a concise challenge to phenomenological or hermeneutic understandings of the past, materialist analyses of capitalism, postcolonial understandings of the subaltern, and ecological histories that situate humans as biological agents. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chakrabarty argues, historians of all stripes assumed that the story of human affairs unfolded through acts of conscious self-reflection beyond the analytics of naturalistic explanation. Indeed, such assumptions about humans’ capacity for individual and collective self-fashioning ensured that considerations of freedom, rights, and struggles for emancipation have remained at the center of our historical imagination for the past 250 years, even when circumscribed by Karl Marx’s famous dictum that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”


Foreword and Introduction
Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan

Breaching the Divide: Human and Natural Histories
Heralding a New Humanism: The Radical Implications of Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses”
Timothy J. LeCain

Climate Change and the Confluence of Natural and Human History: A Lawyer’s Perspective
Josh Eagle

Human Niche Construction and the Anthropocene
Carol Boggs

Politics in/of the Anthropocene
The Geologic Challenge of the Anthropocene
Lori A. Ziolkowski

Rifts or Bridges? Ruptures and Continuities in Human-Environment Interactions
Jessica Barnes

Politics in—but not of—the Anthropocene
John M. Meyer

Species Capital: Consumption in the Anthropocene
Beyond Corporate Sustainability in the Anthropocene
Carol Hee

The Politics of Nature in the Anthropocene
Kathleen McAfee

Politics of Anthropocene Consumption: Dipesh Chakrabarty and Three College Courses
Laura A. Watt

Probing Our Limits
Narrative and the Geophysical Imagination Imagining Geological Agency: Storytelling in the Anthropocene
Alexa Weik von Mossner

Anthropocene Convergences: A Report from the Field
Lisa Sideris

The Crisis of Environmental Narrative in the Anthropocene
Daniel deB. Richter

Whose Anthropocene? A Response
Dipesh Chakrabarty

Download Whose Anthropocene?:

Read Dipesh Chakrabarty’s 2009 essay ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’: