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Adam Kirsch’s new book, The Revolt Against Humanity, is a very short volume concerned with a very simple yet “seemingly inconceivable” idea: “The end of humanity’s reign on Earth is imminent, and...we should welcome it.” The idea, according to Kirsch, unites two camps that would otherwise seem to be at odds with each other. On the one hand, there are the “Anthropocene antihumanists,” who see climate change as evidence of humanity’s crimes against nature, which can only be expiated by our extinction. On the other are the “transhumanists,” who see in technological progress evidence of nature’s crimes against humanity and our ability to transcend them. That is, developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics show that our inborn limitations are not parts of our nature to be cherished, but mere obstacles to be overcome on the way to a new, superior species.
Kirsch catalogues the central views espoused by each camp not in order to support or criticize them, but because he believes that their prophecies may be sufficiently influential to become self-fulfilling. That is, the idea that humanity’s extinction should be welcomed might motivate people to speed up the death of our species in one way or another. Climate change is already being cited as a reason to forgo having children, for example, and a fixation on technology that liberates us from human limits may come at the expense of projects that make ordinary life on this planet livable. Kirsch’s concern, then, is not whether the predictions of either Anthropocene antihumanists or transhumanists are correct, but whether they are convincing.
So, are they convincing? To start with the former, it is certainly hard to deny that climate change is underway and that human action is to blame for it (though that doesn’t stop some people from denying it). Floods, fires, and all manner of devastating weather events are becoming more and more common. At the same time, calls to reduce emissions, waste, and consumption seem to be met with derision and defeatism, and policy solutions lag far behind what’s needed. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that climate activists see humanity as both in danger and a source of danger. We are destroying ourselves and the planet, and not only are we doing little to stop it, we are seemingly only making things worse. So why try to save the planet for humanity? Why not instead try to save the planet from humanity?
A major problem with this view—one Kirsch neglects—is that it conflates the destructiveness of particular humans with the destructiveness of humanity in general. Acknowledging that climate change is driven by human activity should not prevent us from identifying precisely which humans and activities are to blame. Plenty of people are concerned about climate change and have altered their behavior by, for example, using public transportation, recycling, or being more conscious about what they buy. Yet this individual behavior change is not sufficient because climate change is driven by the large-scale behavior of corporations and governments.
In other words, it is somewhat misleading to say we have entered the “Anthropocene” because anthropos is not as a whole to blame for climate change. Rather, in order to place the blame where it truly belongs, it would be more appropriate—as Jason W. Moore, Donna J. Haraway, and others have argued—to say we have entered the “Capitalocene.” Blaming humanity in general for climate change excuses those particular individuals and groups actually responsible. To put it another way, to see everyone as responsible is to see no one as responsible. Anthropocene antihumanism is thus a public-relations victory for the corporations and governments destroying the planet. They can maintain business as usual on the pretense that human nature itself is to blame for climate change and that there is little or nothing corporations or governments can or should do to stop it, since, after all, they’re only human.
Kirsch does not address these straightforward criticisms of Anthropocene antihumanism. This throws into doubt his claim that he is cataloguing their views to judge whether they are convincing and to explore their likely impact. Kirsch does briefly bring up the activist Greta Thunberg as a potential opponent of the nihilistic antihumanists, but he doesn’t consider her challenge in depth. He simply writes:
Thunberg’s speeches are calls to action, which implies that there are remedial actions to take and that people are capable of taking them. But for the most committed antihumanists of the Anthropocene, the corruption of our species goes deeper than today’s feckless governments and corporations. The state of the planet reveals that humanity is essentially a destroyer, and has been from the very beginning of its appearance on the planet.
To be sure, the goal of Kirsch’s book is to introduce, not refute, Anthropocene antihumanism, but a fuller introduction would present and evaluate basic criticisms and explore what resources, if any, antihumanism might have for responding to them. Absent this critical work, Kirsch makes these views look more convincing than they are.