Consider the cover of Nature in March 2015, in which two Earths, one blue-green and one grey, are entangled in a human body. The title emblazoned across the man’s six-pack invites us to see this body as representative of ‘the human’. But there’s no such thing as a generic human, of course; the image repeats the centuries-old conflation of human with white man. Perhaps the artist sought to subvert such racist overtones by obscuring the man’s eyes, making him an unseeing subject blind to the damage he’s wreaked on his body and his planet. Still, the image impels a common critique of the Anthropocene concept: it attributes ecological collapse to an undifferentiated ‘humanity’, when in practice both responsibility and vulnerability are unevenly distributed.
What picture of the Anthropocene, for example, emerges when we begin our analytic adventure in Africa instead of in Europe? Minerals from Africa played a big role in motivating colonialism and powering industrialisation. Their extraction fuelled the Anthropocene. Saying that ‘we’ move more rock than all natural processes combined doesn’t even begin to capture these violent dynamics. Who actually moved the rock? How did this movement affect the people and ecosystems around the mines, not just at the time of extraction but decades later?