Book Review: Kathryn Yusoff’s ‘A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None’
Originally published in The Conservation & Livelihoods Digest, Vol. 1, Iss. 2, pp. 20-22 (here).
The Anthropocene — a term that has been coined to describe the new geological epoch. The epoch of humankind, altering the planet as never before in world history. Even though it is not yet an official term, it has become rather popular and is being used unofficially in science and political discourse. Paul J. Crutzen, who played a crucial part in popularising the term, writes in 2006 that the Anthropocene’s “starting date coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1782” (Crutzen, 2006, p. 16).
Enters A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. This book is truly unique in so far as it links geological epochs — or at least the Anthropocene — with racism, subjugation and black feminism. I personally would have never linked these issues together, but that also shows how far advanced, how long back in time, even open-minded persons like myself have been influenced by ‘norms’ which fully neglect black history. One example: Yusoff argues that the entire discipline of geology is essentially rooted in the exploitation of Africans and indigenous peoples in the Americas. The geological epochs that could be determined through different layers of rock appeared only because of the hard, forced labour conducted by enslaved black people. Millions of them were taken as slaves and even before, when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America, it was indigenous peoples that were subjugated and enslaved only to engage in inchoate extractive industries. The Anthropocene, the author consequently argues, started much earlier than in 1782. It already started in the 15th century — for the people who were uprooted, kidnapped, enslaved, having to develop new deep connections to the ‘new worlds’ they were forced to live in.
This inevitably leads to the recognition that our common understanding of the Anthropocene and its origins, i.e. somewhere around the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, are inherently racist, because it completely leaves out the histories and fates of those people having been used as tools to make this happen. Indeed, race as technology, meaning the utilisation of black human energy to exploit natural resources, lies at the heart of the current biodiversity and climate crises. “While Blackness”, writes Yusoff, “is the energy and flesh of the Anthropocene, it is excluded from the wealth of its accumulation. Rather, Blackness must absorb the excess of that surplus as toxicity, pollution, and intensification of storms. Again, and again” (p. 82).
As mentioned above, I personally have never linked these issues with the current crises, which makes this book extremely valuable for me, since it provides me, and probably others as well, with intense food for thought. For instance, the French Revolution, Yusoff argues, could not have happened as it did without the enslavement of millions of people. The bourgeoisie, having become more and more unhappy with the societal status quo, essentially benefitted from the slave labour elsewhere and was therefore able to think about issues such as liberty, justice and equality. While in Europe, and eventually on the world stage, this led to the foundational principles of human rights, the black blood that sticks to these developments has hardly ever been discussed. Similarly, the ongoing biodiversity and climate crises could have never happened without the reckless exploitation of black lives. One could therefore argue that the entire notion of subhumanness, the contempt for non-white lives, is a key driver for the near-destruction of this world.
The inherent racist logic of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch is probably best expressed on page 96 where Yusoff writes: “Slavery and genocide are the urtext to discussions of species and geology, their bedrock and epistemic anchor.” While this might sound harsh and very radical at first, a closer look at the history of geology and biology shows that entire regions, lands, continents were conquered by European forces and in the aftermath named, cartographed and divided into plots of land that have their own governments, but that do not even have their own legal systems or their own languages anymore. While places, resources and species all have their respective names nowadays, these are in all likelihood either given or at least shaped by Eurocentric attitudes. Think of the country Greenland, for instance. I dare to say that the fewest readers of this review — unless familiar with the place — know that its native name is Kalaallit Nunaat. Scott Manning Stevens has shown how after the US Civil War, native American place names were actively eradicated from US American history (Manning Stevens, 2015). And Yusoff now convincingly demonstrates how geology, and ultimately the Anthropocene, are concepts and processes that are rooted in one of the most destructive evils in the world: racism.
Without the need to delve further into the content of this rather short book, I am simply left impressed by its extremely thought-provoking character and the way it approaches the topics at hand. It took me a while to get used to the writing style of the book since it uses terms and expressions which are, as a legal biodiversity-scholar, sometimes not necessarily easy to understand. Also the very frequent uses of parentheses are somewhat hindering the reading flow to some degree and it is necessary to read the sentence without the parentheses first in order not to lose track of what is being said.
But these are rather small issues that can be criticised. Probably the biggest issue that occurred to me after having finished the book is this: Who is the main audience? It is difficult to pinpoint who this book is directed at. At first glance it seems very academic, very theoretical and maybe somewhat far out there. But this is at second glance not the case anymore. To me, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None is a meta-book, a book of utmost relevance for all different kinds of disciplines, a book that tackles ‘only’ the racism of the Anthropocene, but which opens up avenues of thinking previously unthought before. Especially for a caucasian scholar such as myself, this book is extremely insightful. At the same time, it is shocking to realise how little time I have spent thinking about the black perspective of the Anthropocene and, indeed, world history. Too great is the influence of everyday discourse and too few are the counter-narratives, such as the present book. And this fact alone — apart from the many, many new thoughts that are triggered by it — make this book key for truly integrative, future-oriented and sustainable environmental policy-making that does away with the destructive past and, to speak with the words of Dr Martin Luther King, “to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Crutzen, P.J. (2006). The ‘Anthropocene’. In: Ehlers, E. & T. Krafft (Eds.). Earth System Science in the Anthropocene Emerging Issues and Problems (pp. 13—18). Berlin: Springer.
Manning Stevens, S. (2015). American Indians and the Civil War. In: Sleeper-Smith, S., J. Barr, J.M. O’Brien, N. Shoemaker & S. Manning Stevens (Eds.) Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Bibliographic information on the reviewed copy
Yusoff, K. (2018). A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 115 pp., paperback. ISBN 978-1-5179-0753-2.