Utopia’s afterlife in the Anthropocene

Authored by: Anahid Nersessian

The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138786745
eBook ISBN: 9781315766355
Adobe ISBN: 9781317660194


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Utopia has always been a dirty word. Recent developments, both environmental and theoretical, have made it effectively anathema, and for good reason. Here we may rehearse a well-worn roll call of present and impending catastrophes—sea level rise, mass extinction, ocean acidification—to ground a claim that, under the grim-faced aegis of the Anthropocene, to speak of the perfect world is vapid, credulous, or a form of disavowal: deck chairs on the Titanic and all that. Whatever the pros and cons of “Anthropocene” as a descriptive or discursive term, those may be hotly debated without the debate itself making a dent in the circumstances of anthropogenic climate change. In other words, the nomenclature of the crisis might change, but the crisis itself would seem to remain incommodious to anything that smacks of utopianism, if by utopian we mean optimistic. This chapter leaves the question of the Anthropocene’s rhetorical propriety somewhat to the side to ask: how might an awareness of planetary fragility, and of the role of the human species in intensifying it, prompt a redefinition of the long-lived political concept of utopia such that it might join and help steer creative, credible conversations about the future, even in that future’s apparent intractability?

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