Introduction: Whiteness, coloniality, and the Anthropocene

Baldwin, Andrew; Bruce, Erickson
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

In his essay ‘The Souls of White Folk’, written generations before the International Stratigraphy Committee would begin debating the Anthropocene concept, W.E.B. Du Bois (1920: 29) made an observation which remains as pertinent today as it was when he wrote it 1920. ‘I am given to understand’, he wrote, ‘that whiteness is the ownership of the Earth forever and ever, Amen’. Although Du Bois’ famous line is in reference to the imperial origins of the First World War, it nevertheless anticipates one of the core themes of this special issue on ‘race’ and the Anthropocene, that lurking just beneath the surface of the Anthropocene concept is a racialised narrative about white Earthly possession.
The ‘Anthropocene’ is a term used in both popular and scientific discourse to designate a unit of geological time in which humanity, anthropos, is said to be leaving its own stratigraphic signature on Earth’s geology. The recent popularisation of the term is credited to Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer and their article in 2000 in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Newsletter which Crutzen followed up with a piece in Nature in 2002. As Michael Simpson illustrates (p. 53), there is a longer discursive history of an ‘age of man’ within European scientific circles (see also Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016), but it was only after the publication of this article that the term would gain popular notoriety and come to be considered a credible epochal label. In 2008, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was the first to recommend official consideration of the inclusion of the Anthropocene into the Geological Time Scale. The International Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) was formed shortly thereafter to report to the International Union of Geological Sciences on this possibility. Throughout the 2000s the term entered popular discourse as a signifier of environmental crisis (see Kolbert, 2006), such that by 2011, The Economist could boldly declaim on its cover ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’.