Blog Post

The Neologismcene

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

This particular terminological game is just about up, I think, and it's no surprise that Anthropos has won again. I don't think we'll be using any word but Anthropocene to describe the ecological present anytime soon. More's the pity, perhaps—but the Anthropocene is here to stay.

But as we environmental humanists embark on necessary efforts to pluralize the Anthropocene!, it might be worth assembling a list of the alternative preterites whose names are even now being passed over in our efforts to make sense of the changing eco-now. There may never be a more neologism-filled moment in the environmental humanities. What do all these 'cenes have to say? What pluralities can we try to recover and value while facing the onrushing tide of the Anthropocene?

Here's my stab at a list of also-ran 'cenes. Suggestions and additions welcome!

Agnotocene: Derived from the term "agnotology" in sociology and the history of science, which studies "the production of zones of ignorance" (198), this jaw-breaker is one of the many alternative 'cenes suggested by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz in their stunningly-wide ranging and brilliant book, The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso, 2016).

Anglocene: In a side-note within their chapter on the Thermocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz remark that another possible term would be the "Anglocene," a name chosen to emphasize the outsized contributions of Great Britain and the United States to global carbon emissions. Or, as they put it in slightly more political terms: "The overwhelming share of responsibility for climate change of the two hegemonic powers of the nineteenth (Great Britain) and twentieth (United States) centuries attests to the fundamental link between climate change and projects of world domination" (117).

Anthrobscene: Jurri Parrika's coinage, which appeared in 2015 via U Minnesota Press's Forerunners series, emphasizes the obscenity in today's 'cene. I wrote a bit about it on the Bookfish a couple years ago.

Capitalocene: This term has been taken up by the eco-Marxist historian Jason W. Moore, among others, to argue that the environmental villain is Capitalism, not Humanity or even Man writ large. Moore's Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015) explores the progress of capitalist exploitation of the natural world from roughly 1500 until the present.

Chthulucene: Donna Haraway's term, from Staying with the Trouble (Duke, 2016), asks for more-than-human alliances with "diverse earthwide tentacular powers and forces" (101), though she pointedly rejects the label "posthumanist" and isn't writing about Lovecraft's cosmic figure. (She emphasizes that her Chthulu does not equal his Cthulhu: "note spelling difference.") She proposes the slogan: "Make Kin not Babies!" (102). She also makes the case that our current era may be well-described by Kim Stanley Robinson's term, "The Dithering" from the sci-fi novel 2312—but since that word has no 'cene in it I'll leave it out.

Homogenocene: I first found this one in Charles Mann's brilliant work of popular ecological history, 1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created (Vintage 2012); Mann cites his scholarly source as M.J. Samways, in a 1999 article in Journal of Insect Conservation. The Homogenocene presents a horrifying vision of a world in which all things in all places grow increasingly homogeneous in physical, ecological, and even cultural terms. (See also Plantationocene.)

Naufragocene: My own invention, in Shipwreck Modernity (Minnesota, 2015), this 'cene uses shipwreck—naufragia—as a master-trope for the age of catastrophic environmental change that exposed itself through ecological globalization in the early modern period and, in different forms, continues today.

Oliganthrocene: I can't locate my source for this one, but the name tells a clear enough story: the age of (political) oligarchy, the form of elite domination typical of, but not limited to, capitalism, colonialism, and industrial modernity.

Phagocene: Another 'cene from Bonneuil and Fressoz, the Phagocene puts consumerism and "disciplinary hedonism" (157) at the center of climate destruction. They diagnose modernity as "a throw-away culture" (159), which they connect primarily to twentieth-century American mass-production of consumer goods, especially the automobile and its cognate, the suburb.

Phronocene: One of Bonneuil and Fressoz's more paradoxical coinages, the Phronocene explores the longstanding awareness by European central planners and early ecologists of environmental vulnerability. They conclude ruefully that "our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing" (196). In this view, efforts to increase our "environmental awareness" seem futile, because although such awareness has been plentiful in the historical record, it has not yet succeeded in slowing humanity's destruction of nonhuman systems.

Plantationocene: I first spotted this one on twitter via Tobias Menley, but it also appears in recent articles by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing. In Tsing's compelling formulation, "Plantations are machines of replication, ecologies devoted to the production of the same." (See also Homogenocene.) The Age of the Plantation reformulates the Capitolocene so that the slave plantation, rather than the factory, represents the dominant economic and ecological engine of progress and disaster.

Planthropocene: A coinage of medievalist ecocritic Rob Barrett, for a work in progress about which I'm eager to hear more.

Polemocene: Bonneuil and Fressoz use this 'cene to emphasize a long history of political struggle motivated by social justice and "environmentalism of the poor" (253). Resistance to industrialism and "progress," they show, is as old as the industrial revolution, which means that political resources and histories are available to continue this struggle today. #resist!

Sustainocene: As championed in a TED talk by Harvard professor Daniel G. Nocera, this neologism proposes an era of "personalized energy" made possible though compact photosynthesis devices.

Symbiocene: I found this one via the artist Cathy Fitzgerald, who cites Glenn Albrecht's 2016 article in Minding Nature. As an alternative to the "ecocide of the Anthropocene", the symbiocene "emphasizes ideas and practices to enhance the mutual flourishing of all life."

Thalassocene: My other original-ish coinage in Shipwreck Modernity, I neologize this 'cene by way of the "new thalassology" of the environmental historians of the premodern Mediterranean Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell (The Corrupting Sea 2000). In my global rather than Med-centric sense, the Thalassocene writes human history through and on the World Ocean, whose currents and storms shape exchanges of cultures, products, creatures, and stories.

Thanatocene: Bonneuil and Fressoz's term for an Age of Death reads the twentieth century's signature contributions to climate catastrophe through deadly global wars and ecological devastation. They emphasize that the "petrolization of Western societies" owes a powerful debt to, and is perhaps unthinkable without, the global mobilizations of the Second World War (138).

Thermocene: In Bonneuil and Fressoz's "political history of CO2," familiar hockey-stick climate curves get placed in the larger context of industrial modernity. Insisting that we must "denauturalize the history of energy" (107) requires also acknowledging that the history of energy regimes is "political, military, and ideological" (107).

Trumpocene: [OK, I just made this one up. I leave its elaboration as an exercise for the reader.]

Devising an adequate response to the vast plurality of all this 'cene-salad comprises one of the essential questions for this moment in the environmental humanities. Let's get started on it!

Professor of English
I teach English literature at St John's in New York City, with a focus on oceanic literature and culture, Shakespeare, ecocriticism, and histories of changing media technologies. My current book publications include a monograph on early modern maritime disaster narratives, *Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719* and a collection of essays, *Oceanic New York*, that respond to New York's urban waterways, Hurricane Sandy, and the place of art in times of crisis. I'm working now on the early modern Anthropocene and concepts of error in ecological thinking.