MORE BROADLY, The End of Man is designed as a critical intervention into what is currently being treated as a defining concept of our times: the Anthropocene. Posited as a new geological epoch in which human influence on the geo- and biosphere has been irreversible, the Anthropocene has become a new epistemological filter through which we humans can see ourselves. It has also triggered the production of multiple images and narratives about ourselves and about the world around us. The Anthropocene is often presented as a consequence of the excessive use of the resources of our planet, whereby seemingly interminable growth eventually leads to depletion, scarcity, and the crisis of life in its biological and social aspects. The term encapsulates not just “peak oil,” “peak red meat,” “peak growth,” and “peak stuff,” but also, perhaps more ominously, “peak man.” The Anthropocene is therefore a story about a presently unfolding planetary emergency that affects both rich and poor regions of the world—although not all of them with the same impact or intensity. Yet it is worth pointing out that the apocalyptic tropes that underpin the Anthropocene narrative have actually been reoccurring through Western (and non-Western) cultural history—from premodern religious texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse of Saint John) to contemporary cultural productions such as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels including The Handmaid’s Tale and MaddAddam, and TV series such as Survivors and The Walking Dead. Critic Frank Kermode has pointed out that “apocalypse and the related themes are strikingly long-lived,” while theologian Catherine Keller has gone so far as to suggest that “we stand . . . in an unfinished history of apocalyptic finalities.”
At the same time, the reoccurring apocalyptic narrative, in all its deadly guises, has acquired a new lease of life and a new sense of direction after becoming linked to the Anthropocene. Although the latter term has only gained currency in scientific and popular debates in the last few years, the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch is variously dated to the early days of agriculture, the launch of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and the “great acceleration” of population growth and energy use in the years after 1945. Human and nonhuman extinction, and the destruction of life as we know it on our planet, loom as the end point of this epoch. Interestingly, the inflection of this particular apocalyptic narrative changes depending on who is telling the story. For example, the concept of the Anthropocene can be used to establish an inherent link between capitalism and the modern way of life, and thus alert us to the injustices of the ever-encroaching neoliberal market logic that has now absorbed nature and climate under its remit. But it can also be mobilized to praise human ingenuity and problem-solving skills, and to promote capital-driven solutions to climate change such as nuclear fission, carbon offsetting, and geoengineering. Scientists still have not unequivocally agreed that the declaration of a new epoch is warranted, yet the Anthropocene has already been renamed by cultural and political theorists as the Anthrobscene, the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene, the Eurocene, the Plantationocene, and the Technocene, by way of challenging the inequality and injustice the original name was said to perpetuate. So even though we are nowhere near solving the Anthropocene’s climate issues, in some areas of critical theory we already find ourselves post-Anthropocene, it seems.
My own critical intervention involves delving into the knot of material processes, objects, and meanings that have accrued around this term in recent years in a variety of academic disciplines and in the wider cultural and media landscape. Rather than attempt to offer large-scale solutions to global ecological problems, or even to undertake a detailed critique of the various positions on the Anthropocene that have emerged from different intellectual and political quarters, my aims in this book are more modest. I am predominantly interested in exploring the “structures of mourning” that the Anthropocene has both drawn upon and ushered in as its affective framework and intellectual foundation. My focus is on the aforementioned “peak man,” the impending population excess that will put unbearable constraints on our planet and that is consequently being posited by some as a harbinger of the end of the human species. Tracing the apocalyptic undertones of the Anthropocene story as a story of the existential crisis of humanity, I want to look at a number of recent developments surrounding the human both as a philosophical concept and as meaty materiality: the panic about the scarcity of resources available to sustain us, concerns over the aging of populations, renewed activity around AI on the part of Silicon Valley researchers and investors, and biotechnology research into ways of upgrading the human all the way to immortality. Last but not least, I want to locate the recent turn to the Anthropocene as an explanatory concept against the horizon of various current political events across the globe: the war on terror, the rise of rightwing populism, the refugee crisis, the Trump phenomenon, Brexit.
With all these different conceptual threads and points of inquiry, what I am concerned about first and foremost are the unspoken anxieties, desires, and fantasies that the finalism denoted by the “end of man” prophecy linked with the Anthropocene implies. I want to pay particular attention to the gendering of the Anthropocene story, with a view to querying some of its foundational assumptions and underpinning structures. Through this, I aim to take some steps toward sketching a different narrative for the human subject who, once again, finds himself on the precipice of time. I also wish to engender a more anchored, embodied, and localized sense of response to, and responsibility for, the milieu we earthlings call home. “The end of man” pronounced as part of the current apocalyptic discourse can therefore be seen as both a promise and an ethical opening rather than solely as an existential threat. If the Anthropocene names a period in which the human has become a geological agent, my plan is to cut through some of the sedimented layers of meaning that have already accrued around the Anthropocene; to carve a better, more responsive, and more responsible picture of ourselves, here and now.
Ultimately, the goal of the book is to break what Keller has termed “an apocalypse habit.” This habit manifests itself in a “wider matrix of unconscious tendencies” that shape finalist thinking, with its moralistic underpinnings, whereby moralism comes at the expense of the analysis of power relations on the ground. My method involves working through and across various academic and popular narratives on the Anthropocene. Temporally, The End of Man is a follow-up to my earlier book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, but it is also a parallel or even an alternative project. While it shares the conceptual spectrum and minimalism of form of the previous volume, as well as a desire to make a critical intervention into debates about the world in all its geophysical formations, The End of Man also offers a different pathway through the Anthropocene debate. This path does not lead so much via philosophy and ethics but rather traces the adaptation and transformation of philosophical ideas in a broader set of cultural scripts: journalism and wider media debates, sci-tech industry narratives, explicit and implicit religious beliefs, and political events.