An interview with philosopher René ten Bos (Radboud University), BY SANNE BLOEMINK
“The problems of the Anthropocene have grown far too large. In fact, nobody can be held accountable anymore. Our species has made such a mess of things, but can you blame humanity as a whole for that? The classical Marxist objection to blaming mankind in general is that, as Marx himself said, ‘Der Mensch is eine bloss Allgemeinheit’. The concept of humans as a species is far too abstract.”
René ten Bos is a professor of philosophy at Radboud University and Dutch ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’, an honorary title bestowed on him for the coming two years. He’s encountered quite a lot of debate about the concept of the Anthropocene Era. “Some say it’s not a good term, arguing that capitalism is to blame for our troubles, so this era should be called the Capitalocene. Intriguingly, there are also feminists who are convinced that in fact men are to blame and that Androcene would be more appropriate.” Professor Ten Bos dismisses the significance of blaming certain groups of people, or holding them accountable. “It’s a symbolic action.”
While discussions about the correct nomenclature for our current era may seem trivial, Ten Bos argues in his most recent book, ‘Wandering in the Anthropocene’ that naming is extremely important, since “names provide direction, even if they don’t provide content”. Ten Bos agrees that the term Anthropocene puts mankind, anthropos, back in the spotlight. On the other hand, such a catch-all term provides an umbrella under which incompatible concepts can converge: mankind and deep time, mankind and geology, mankind and cosmos. This is why Ten Bos suggests we do use the term, but then not with a capital A: the ‘anthropocene’. The diminutive form makes the term a bit less narcissistic.
In a three-minute animated video by artist Steve Cutts entitled ‘MAN’, we see a man put on earth who starts destroying everything around him. He leaves behind a trail of destruction until the entire earth is ruined, and then plops down on his throne and smokes a cigar, seemingly content. René ten Bos loves this video.
“I think it’s very funny. It makes me laugh. Tragedy and comedy are always very close together, of course. People recognise what Steve Cutts shows. Maybe it’s not entirely true, but it produces a kind of ‘truth effect’, as Foucault described it. What I find most beautiful is the beginning of the video: the guy is just put there, bang, out of nothing. And the human is a real meteorite, an invasive species. Just like the meteorite in Mexico once did, humans are now putting an end to certain species. It happens. The pace of extinction is much more rapid than ever before.”
We discuss the difficult paradoxes of humans. Ten Bos: “On the one hand, we don’t want to stress how extraordinary humans are. We are animals too; that’s what science tells us. On the other hand, we are an invasive species. Primatologists describe humans just like that. We are a species that shows up everywhere, invading, even in places that are not our original habitat. And we cause a lot of damage everywhere we go. In actual fact, we are not very well adjusted to the environment; instead, we adapt the environment to us. This lack of adaptability causes human species to try really hard to dominate, to multiply. We are the only primates that multiply like viruses and bacteria.” Ten Bos is visibly enjoying himself. “Now we’re talking!”
Another human paradox can be seen in how we deal with endangered species. Ten Bos talks about the example of the American crane, a migratory bird that used to spend winters in Texas and summers in Canada. “This poor crane is not doing well. There are only 300 of them left in an aviary in Wisconsin. These 300 birds have to mate, but they don’t feel like having sex. So what do the caretakers do? They dress up as cranes to seduce them into having sex! Just to ensure the continued existence of this species!”
“People profess all this love for animals,” Ten Bos exclaims, “but meanwhile we see species going extinct because of humans. After they were seduced into mating, the cranes had to be released back into nature. Two fertilised eggs were returned, but those chicks were going to need somebody to show them how to fly: an example, a role model. So they put a drone next to the eggs. As soon as the chicks were hatched, they saw the drone and followed it, thinking it was their mother. They followed the drone all the way to Canada, where the first bird died within three days and the second bird was never found anymore. That was the end of it.” Ten Bos chuckles, “Yes, it’s sad, but it’s also comical at the same time. That’s the paradox.”
The Pliocene is the first geological era in which humans walked the earth. Ten Bos thinks that the first human must have already felt despair back then. He discusses a poem by Czech poet Miroslav Holub, entitled ‘Hominisation’.
“It’s a poem about Lucy, one of the first primal humans, one of our ancestors. Holub imagines how Lucy sits beside a lake in Ethiopia and would never have been able to anticipate that people would turn out the way we did. I share the same question; we humans don’t really know who we are, nor what we are going to become. I try to extrapolate Lucy’s Pliocene despair to our current despair. We still don’t know what we’ll look like in the future: our bodies will have machine extensions; we will live much longer; we’ll have nanocomputers inside us. And then the other part of the story is that science tells us that the earth will have become uninhabitable in 20 to 30 years. So the interesting question then becomes: where will we live this much longer?”
What interests Ten Bos most is that these fields of science are two sides of the same coin. “They are both expressions of our total fascination, our obsession even, with the end times, with death, with our apocalyptic fantasies. We always have that. I’m now 57 and I still remember the 1980s, when AIDS was emerging, and we were awaiting a nuclear Armageddon. Now we have this. One way or another, I think we’ll plough on.”
Moving on to the trailer of a 1979 Tarkovsky film, Stalker. It is Ten Bos’ favourite film: ‘I must have watched it more than 10 times!’ The film describes two intellectuals, simply called writer and professor, who want to go into The Zone, an labyrinthine area that nobody is allowed to enter. They are looking for somebody who is willing to be their guide, and that somebody turns out to be Stalker. The word has a different connotation in Russian: someone who enters illegal zones and helps you navigate them. The Zone resembles a maze. Ten Bos: “The good thing is that the Zone is incomprehensible. It responds to the presence of humans, adapting to how you think. This makes the Zone quite spooky for the two intellectuals. They are used to grasping the world around them with words, but that doesn’t work here anymore.”
There are many areas like this in Russia and the former Soviet Union: nuclear waste storage zones, secret experiments, areas that people are forbidden to enter. They filmed in Tallinn, Estonia, in one of those zones. The story goes that the filmmakers, including the director Tarkovsky, all died of cancer within 5 or 6 years of making of the film. Most likely, it was the pollution in that area that killed them.
Something in this film resonates deeply with Ten Bos: “I grew up in Hengelo, Twente, close to the Twente canal. We had a couple of extremely polluting industries in that area back then. And I did exactly what Stalker did. I was 13 or 14 years old and loved it: crawling into forbidden territories, forbidden grounds, going into bunkers. I saw oil and water and chemicals leaking away everywhere. There was always a terrible stench. Even so, there was also an eerie beauty to the whole scene. Just like in that movie. Industrial sites often have what I call a perverse aesthetic.”
“I use this film and my childhood memories to show that it’s not all very far away from us. What’s happening is also really close to us; we can see it everywhere. When we think about the anthropocene, we usually think about rising sea levels, the Maldives or Kiribati isles, all the islands that will disappear. These types of phenomena are also very close to home. Billions of mosquitoes emerging in Stavoren recently, or the recent sea sparkle ‘blooms’ along the shore in Katwijk. [Tiny bioluminescent organisms glow when disturbed, causing the sea to ‘sparkle’. – SB) Nobody knows what the consequences will be for humans, but events like this are happening more and more often. These are total disruptions of the food chain. In ecosystems, everything is always connected to everything else.”
Ten Bos believes that we should view the ‘anthropocene’ like the zone in Stalker, a zone where everything is connected, an area where humans and nature react to each other, where they are not seen as two separate entities, but truly connected.
“This zone leads to a feeling of complete disorientation. The writer and the professor are a bit lost and deeply confused. Secretly they are jealous of the stalker, who is much less of an intellectual and who can deal with this environment very well, better even. He is much more accepting of the fact that it really is crazy and weird there. I see in the stalker an example for us, a role model that we may need to follow. He represents a new form of intelligence that is needed in the anthropocene. Stalker finds that intelligence somewhere between his environment and himself, and that is exactly the new form we should be looking for: intelligence that is not captured in your head or in my head, but somewhere in between us. That is where it all happens.”
Before we try to understand our disorderly and disorienting times, Ten Bos argues, we should first try to feel a bit at home in this zone. He often uses the metaphor of being lost in the forest, wandering in a hostile environment.
“People usually say: wherever you find yourself, there’s only one thing you can do and that is to keep walking out of the forest in one straight line. So that means that you make a conceptual model, some kind of wheel with spokes, I’d imagine. If you walk in a straight line, you will always follow one of the spokes and be able to get out. But studies show that’s not actually how to survive being lost. You actually have to wander, to meander through the forest, if you want to get out. But most importantly: you shouldn’t start walking right away. You should first sit down and look around at your environment. I know what I’m talking about, because I’ve often gotten lost on purpose, just for fun. I did this in in rainforests, deserts, etc. Never walk in a straight line; it’s the dumbest thing you can do.”
To Ten Bos, this becomes a metaphor for the attitude you can take towards your environment. “We always want to solve everything right away. We want techno-fixes, geo-engineering. Yes, it’s getting warmer, so you know what? Let’s put mirrors in the desert. Or let’s build dikes in the Bering Sea. But you can never tell what the consequences will be for solutions like these. Ecology means that changing something here alters something else there. Everything is connected. In ecological systems, the solution to a problem is often much worse than the original problem. We have lots of experience with interfering with nature like this, and its catastrophic results. It’s plain human hubris.”
The borders between many formerly separate concepts are beginning to blur. Ten Bos thinks this process will continue in future. “First there was our separation from other animals, which has already changed in recent times. We now know that animals have an inner life and we realise that we are animals too. The next distinction is the one between life and death, between living organisms and inanimate objects.” He references the beautiful video by Wonbin Yang entitled ‘Segnister continuus’: “This film about ‘vibrant matter’ is truly gorgeous, but it also shows that things are not passive; they have their own agency. We must realise that our feeling of individuality is an illusion and we must use this new form of intelligence to connect ourselves to all things, living and non-living, around us.”