As the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28) continues in Dubai this week, the notion that the climate crisis is caused by all of humanity is one that we’ve become accustomed to. But in a new collection of essays edited by Trinity Emeritus Professor Steve Wilmer and Professor Audronė Žukauskaitė (Lithuanian Culture Research Institute) this narrative is challenged, and the question is asked: who is the “Anthropos” in Anthropocene?

Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene evolved from the 2019 conference ‘Art in the Anthropocene’ held in Trinity College Dublin and features contributions by prominent contemporary philosophers and theorists, including Catherine Malabou, T. J. Demos, Graham Harman, Jussi Parikka and Cary Wolfe.

What is the Anthropocene?

The Anthropocene is described by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer as “a new geological era which marks the irreversible effects on the planet produced by human activity.” In this new collection, it is critiqued for its use as a blanket term which focuses on the collective impact of humanity rather than acknowledging the presence of power and agency, and examining factors including capitalism, gender and race. 

“Can we blame all humanity for all of these human-made catastrophes? Because it's clear that there is no such thing as Anthropos, a universal human being,” argues Professor Žukauskaitė.

The editors highlight different interpretations of when the Anthropocene began. One of these interpretations suggests that the epoch of ‘Anthropos’ began in 1610 with the expansion into new territories and the destruction of indigenous populations through colonialism.

Another interpretation is that the Anthropocene began together with the industrial revolution and modern capitalism, therefore some critics now prefer the term ‘Capitalocene’ to acknowledge that environmental damage is more closely related to the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Another possible interpretation is that the Anthropocene began with the nuclear testing in 1945, which left clear radioactive traces in geological strata.

This makes us think that not everyone is equally responsible for the effects of the Anthropocene. In the chapter ‘Climate Control: From Emergency to Emergence’, T. J. Demos notes that the “Anthropos serves to distract attention from the economic class that has long benefitted from the financial system responsible for the catastrophic environmental change.”

Prof Steve WilmerProfessor Wilmer, whose research has looked extensively at migration and is also the co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Theatre and Migration, refers to those who are least responsible for the climate crisis but will likely suffer the most: some people are being abused by what’s going on as opposed to profiting from it. If you think of climate migration, for example, where you have people living in an island nation which might disappear altogether like Kiribati, then you have the problem of where the people will go. If they will lose their nation, do they try to build walls around their nation to make sure it doesn't disappear? Or do they emigrate? And if they emigrate, what happens to their culture?”


Rather than “outsourcing” the responsibility for climate change to “universal humanity”, Professor Žukauskaitė says this is where the term the “posthuman condition” can help re-frame how we think about our relationship to the world around us. 

“Posthumanism questions a humanist philosophy, which expresses a Eurocentric masculinist approach and introduces the figure of a man at the top of human hierarchy. Posthumanism offers different approaches like feminism and gender studies, colonialism and postcolonial studies, and also emerging indigenous cosmologies”, explains Professor Žukauskaitė who acknowledges the pioneering work done by the philosopher Rosi Braidotti in popularizing this term.

Prof Audronė Žukauskaitė

Professor Žukauskaitė continues by noting that “beside humanism, we also have to give up anthropocentrism, and acknowledge our connectivity with non-human others, including animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, the environment.” As Richard Grusin points out, “we have never been human”, because we have always been connected and co-evolved, co-existed, or collaborated with non-human others. This doesn’t mean the end of the ‘human’ as we know it, she says, but an acknowledgement that the human being is always interconnected with other species and the environment. 


How can we access a different perspective?

Professor Wilmer has a long-standing interest in how theatre and the arts can influence society and social behaviour. This edited collection helps to draw out the role of the arts and philosophy in trying to understand and find new approaches to the Anthropocene.

At the 2019 conference that heavily influenced the work in this book, Professor Wilmer said he was moved by how people in different parts of the world, in different positions are impacted by the Anthropocene and “how they’re using art to confront it, or to embellish it, and comment on it”. “The arts can reveal particular problems such as the relationship between humans and the environment, and humans and non-human animals.”

Professor Žukauskaitė says “art could be very important in allowing us to understand what’s happening. We know that climate is changing but we still continue our usual way of life, similarly as we know that smoking is very risky, but we still continue to do that. Art provides effective forms which make this change perceptible and somehow touch us.”

On the cover of this new edited collection, we see a man trying to navigate through what looks like a series of webs or networks. Professor Wilmer notes that this piece by the artist Tomás Saraceno shows that, “like humans, spiders and other species are able to construct things. They can be artistic, they can have creative abilities. And he's showing how spiders can create things which humans probably wouldn't be able to do themselves. The image draws attention to the issue of possible communication across species.”

Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene book cover

Inter-species communication and eco-translation is the subject of a chapter by Trinity Professor Michael Cronin and former MSCA fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Anna Barcz. Here the “speculative” notion of an ‘Inter-species Internet’ is presented as an internet that non-humans would also be able to participate in. Professor Wilmer notes, “It’s a way of looking forward to possible ways in which to engage in communication with non-human others.”

Professor Žukauskaitė adds that Professor Cronin is “proposing a new notion of translation, which is maybe not just language oriented but also sign oriented, because animals are capable of producing sign systems.”

Elsewhere in the book, Agnė Narušytė seeks to capture alternative perspectives of landscape and environment through the eyes of other animals, and present their work as art, elevating their status among humans. 

Solutions to climate change will only come if we “rethink the notion of the human subject and how we relate to our environment”, Professor Žukauskaitė concludes. “Without this, I don’t think we can reach any new solutions regarding climate change.”

Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene is edited by S. E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė and published by Edinburgh University Press.