Children of the Anthropocene: The Implications of the “Human Age” for the History of Childhood

DISCLAIMER: This article was written before the beginning of the ‘North East Environments of Childhood’ project, so is not strictly related. But I think it is relevant enough to be an interesting read.

Positioning the History of Childhood Within the Anthropocene Debate

Across the historical discipline the concept of Anthropocene is being used to redefine how we interpret and describe the relationships between humanity and the rest of the natural world. The notion of a “human history” and a “natural history” existing as two separate streams of academic interest has met the Anthropocene confluence, thrusting the two together into one inseparable river. Our acceptance that ‘Humanity has initiated an environmental “phase shift”’ as Jason Kelly puts it, has opened new fields of historical enquiry into the manner in which people influence the environments of which they are a part, and the manner in which those environments influence them in turn. The ever-increasing contemporary relevance of climate change to the everyday of people’s lives has furthered this interest, and has led many historians to note the ways in which the Anthropocene does not constitute a universalising force. That, as Jason Moore writes, ‘because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others’. Gender historians have taken a leading role in considering how the Anthropocene relates to the disparities between men and women as both contributors to, and subjects of, the consequences resulting from our new “human age”. Since Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) it has been recognised that both women and the natural world have been depoliticised, diminished, and distanced from the “standard” social order by the same dualistic enlightenment narratives. Both have been othered, defined as inferiors by an elite that has pretended ‘an illusory sense of autonomy’ rather than acknowledge its reliance upon them. The introduction of Anthropocene has evolved these arguments, shifting historians toward more wholistic understandings of an earth-system of wider interconnected dependency. As Jessica Weir notes, the Anthropocene has proven to be a useful conceptual tool in criticising prior narratives of ‘hyper-separation [that place] humans in a relation of mastery with respect to earth others and limit their capacity to respond to ecological devastation’.

Many other historians, including those of empire, race, ethics, and materialism (to name but a few) have also adopted the language of Anthropocene. Importantly, however, none have done so wholesale and instead each new voice has provided critique and novel perspective on the conceptual framework the Anthropocene provides. Dipesh Chakrabarty and Kathleen Morrison have argued that from a postcolonial perspective the term’s use is too often western centric and shaped by a set of ‘cultural blinders [that] impede our understanding of the complex and diverse history of the earth system’. This is likely because ‘much of the discourse on the Anthropocene has been dominated by Western scientific perspectives’. Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham have put up ‘capitalocene’ for consideration as an alternate that highlights the economic system’s role in contemporary climate chaos. Donna Haraway has contended ‘cthulucene’ and ‘plantationocene’ to be non-anthropocentric descriptors that better include life forms other than humans within their remit and ‘the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, bodies, and social relations’. Ultimately however, whilst the criticisms behind these proposed alternate terms are valid, they have remained as subcategories rather than risen to prominence because of Anthropocene’s preestablished prevalence and the fact that many academics see a utility in positioning ‘mankind’s growing influence on the planet’ at the centre of the debate during the present age of threat to the planet’s existing climatic structures. ‘Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making’, as Jedediah Purdy frames it.

The possibilities of exploring the history of childhood through the lens of the Anthropocene is the area of study this essay will seek to define. Compared to histories of gender or race this relationship is an underexplored one within the historiography to date, although outside the discipline there has been greater interest in this line of enquiry. Education studies, perhaps unsurprisingly, has proven the pioneer in exploring the relationship between children, childhood, and the Anthropocene and has sought to ‘understand children and their lives as social actors enmeshed in complex social and material networks’ and to challenge the ‘presumed naturalness of childhood’, as David Blundell argues in Children’s Lives Across the Anthropocene.  However, where articles such as these are rightly concerned with what Lili-Ann Wolff calls ‘the mission of early childhood education… in the epoch of the Anthropocene’, the lacking angle of the historian is one that explores how the Anthropocene as a concept can help us understand the manners in which environments have influenced childhoods in the past and how children have influenced them in turn.

In great majority the historical analysis that has addressed this relationship thus far has come from the works of historians of childhood and has focussed on how children’s spaces have been constructed, construed, and controlled by adult society. In the British context Matthew Thompson’s key work Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement is a typical example of such work that argues for a post-war transition of the relationship between children and the environment tending toward a ‘loss of freedom’ and a ‘turn toward increasing protection and restriction’ due to parental fears of strangers and cars. Similarly Sian Edwards’ Youth Movements, Citizenship and the English Countryside interrogates how the concept of the rural was adopted by organisations such as the scouts as an ‘antidote’ to a problematised urban sphere. In the study of more recent history there has been an interest from historians such as Richard Louv in the denaturalisation of childhood in the “digital age”, that which mainstream media has branded ‘nature deficit disorder’ or what Ian Rotherham calls ‘cultural severance’.

There have been fewer works on this topic from an environmental historian’s perspective, those there have been beginning with the history of the American frontier. Elliott West’s Growing Up With the Country (1989) is one foundational text of this type wherein West finds that the fundamental difference between children and their elders on the frontier was in how they related to the landscape. For adults the frontier was something new but for children it was familiar, giving them a ‘kinship’ with it that was unique. The only attempt in monograph at a work such as this since has been Pamela Riney-Kehrberg’s The Nature of Childhood: An Environmental History of Growing Up in America Since 1865 which, similarly to Lost Freedom, charts what the author frames as a declension in the quantity and quality of interaction between children and environment over time. However, as with the publications of education studies, the central perspective at the heart of all these works is one of the adult. The trend has been to ask how factors such as parenting, social policy, and architecture can influence and shape children and childhoods via changing environment, and whilst these are important questions to ask, there is a surprisingly absent space left for “child-centred” and “environment-centred” narratives. This is one thing the introduction of the Anthropocene concept to the history of childhood affords, as with histories of gender and others before it, an opportunity for historians to highlight the unique experiences and relationships of children with their environments that stem from their independent agency. Whilst we might argue with some justification that the use of an alternative term such as “adultocene” or “ageocene” would better suit our needs, it will be more useful (and indeed, simpler) to explain how stories of children and childhood can be brought forward and made distinct from the “human experience” when using the Anthropocene as a framework of understanding.

Approaching the history of childhood with this perspective gives the historian new questions to ask of their source material and new ways of answering them. How do children, through exploration, work, and play shape their own environments? How do their wants and needs, or those perceived, influence the attitudes and actions of adults toward children’s environments? In what ways does the Anthropocene as a force and a concept uniquely affect the lives of children, and in what ways do children affect the Anthropocene? Before investigating these further however, it must be acknowledged that it would be hypocritical whilst proselytising the importance of acknowledging divergent experiences of environment not to point out that “childhood” itself is not a universal experience. Within childhood there are a multitude of identities that will to greater or lesser extents modify one’s relationship with the Anthropocene. As one example from Fikile Nxumalo’s Situating Indigenous and Black Childhoods in the Anthropocene:

‘school gardens for young Black children in urban schools are often positioned from deficit perspectives, as a way to bring nature to certain children who lack it. Here nature becomes entangled with anti-blackness as it is positioned as a site of potential transformation for Black children deemed at risk or lacking “normal” connections with nature’

A similar argument could be made with regard to working class children who are perceived to be lesser for their lacking something that those of middle-class parentage typically have. As Affrica Taylor summarises: ‘The assertion that children need nature has become commonplace, but should we ask which children?’. This essay, iterating and evolving upon the existing historiography and source material pertaining to British childhoods (predominantly southern urban ones), cannot claim to speak with authority on the childhood or environmental experience. However, it is an example of how the Anthropocene can assist us in examining a history of childhood, and a pointer toward new avenues for inquiry and potentials in exploring this conceptual marriage further.

“Presencing” Children in the Anthropocene

Despite the present dearth of historical material that seeks to presence children in the Anthropocene, the basis for study of such a relationship is strong, as western societies have long presupposed a connection between children and the natural world deeper than that of their elders. As historians of race and gender have already demonstrated, the dichotomy built between the human and natural worlds in the past has been inextricably bound to dichotomies drawn between certain groups of people and what society considers the “normal”. Anthropocene narratives that require a radical shift in the way humanity as a species constructs its own image of self are useful challengers to these old oppositions. However, for this essay it is important to understand the enlightenment philosophies of the 18th and 19th centuries which defined (and still define) the strong perceived links between children and nature in European society today before we can appreciate how the Anthropocene concept contests them.

In broad perspective the enlightenment birthed two competing schools of thought regarding children and environment, the rationalist, and the romanticist. The romantic movement began with works such as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and then William Blake, Mary Shelley, and Alfred Tennyson in reaction to the increasingly rationalism-informed industrial European world those authors inhabited. The predominantly emotional countercultural arguments they presented knotted children and the natural world together as joint symbols of hope that were not only innocent and pure in and of themselves but lent an innocence and purity to one another. Their relationship was symbiotic, children were a part of the natural world in a way that adults were not, and could not, be. As Rousseau argues in On Education (1763), childhood should be defined by teaching that is ‘beyond our control’ and follows ‘the goal of nature’. William Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) similarly conjures images of an ideal youth as natural and pure:

‘When the voices of children are heard on the green

And laughing is heard on the hill,

My heart is at rest within my breast

And every thing else is still’

On the other, more instrumentally influential, side of this debate were the rationalist thinkers such as René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke. Their lines of philosophy, just as present in the 21st century as those of the romanticists, saw nature as a force of reason, the basis of order and reason, even. However, where romanticists sought to learn from a nature they saw as inscrutable, the rationalists desired to understand and control a nature they considered as being fundamentally conquerable. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) exemplifies this approach with his famous description of children as being ‘tabula rasa’, a blank slate. In Locke’s view the child, like nature, would become wild if not carefully managed, but with the correct instruction they could be formed into an instrument of reason. Whilst it is tempting to reduce this tension between romanticism and rationalism to “nature versus nurture”, as William Cronon and Thomas Dunlap warn in Faith in Nature, both ideologies incorporated aspects of the other and looked to the natural world as a unifying, present force that could replace a role in society that had traditionally been fulfilled by religion. As Sara Maitland writes in Gossip From the Forest: ‘wilderness finds its complement and counterpart either in conceptions of childhood moral innocence or the child as tabula rasa’. Most importantly for this essay however, both drew a line between the natural and human worlds, although for different purposes, and both identified children as beings who could permeate that boundary to some extent.

In the contemporary context these two philosophies still carry weight in how humanity responds to the environmental consequences of the Anthropocene in regard to children. Romanticism has come to play an important role in many environmentalist movements, best exemplified by the rise of Greta Thunberg and the global youth climate strike movement that, whilst being symbolic of the agency of the child, are also caught up in ‘environmental stewardship discourses that position certain children as future saviours of nature’. The same can be said for the rationalist perspective prevailing in technocratic circles who see environmental issues as ‘merely a physical Earth problem, and not an ethical one’ and view the young as saviours of the status quo via theorised future innovations and ‘the promise of one more generation’. These forms of romanticism and rationalism are dangerous as they detach the adult world from any responsibility or agency in addressing climate concerns.

The introduction of the Anthropocene concept uproots this rationalism/romanticism dynamic. Far more than being a simple obstacle for humanity to solve, the reality of the Anthropocene has implications that have ‘the potential to challenge conventional ways of seeing those constructions of nature found at the heart of Enlightenment modernity and confront its contradictory positions’. Its very existence is proof an implicit and deep connection between humanity and the natural world that sets aside the notion that they are antitheses of one another. Indeed, it highlights how much they are the same. This realisation deromanticizes the natural and childhood worlds, unlocking them from the fairy tale, almost orientalist perspective with which they have been perceived. Free from this timelessness they can be considered more as active agents of change that have the ability to play important roles within the global network of factors that has brought about the birth of the Anthropocene. In the new “human age” where humanity has come to be seen as the integral operator in the earth’s “natural” systems, what the romanticists posed as a force opposite to that of nature has since become it. At the same time the Anthropocene undermines the empiricist perspective by showing that whilst humanity has the capability to influence the natural world, they cannot remove themselves from their relationship with it. Having made themselves more integral to the earth’s ecosystems than ever, humans are more at risk than ever when those systems change as a result of their actions. If humanity as a species was truly incontrolof the natural world, it would not have chosen to create the Anthropocene.

In other terms, if we accept the idea of Anthropocene, we must accept that the “human” identity as constructed must be one that incorporates itself into a wider view of nature and the planet as part of one earth-system. Therefore, the natural world cannot be construed as “other” through either romanticism or rationalism. This view of an ‘earth-system’ is one that is important for the history of childhood as it understands the planet as a ‘unified, complex, evolving system beyond the sum of its parts’, which is a view that presences and places importance on historical actors that have otherwise been deemed negligible.

The Becoming World

Understanding how the Anthropocene highlights environmental and ideological faults that underly contemporary and historical perceptions of child and nature will allow historians to construct revised narratives of childhood and environment alike. This means acknowledging and exploring how children act upon their environments both personally and extensionally through the ‘nature-culture hybrids’ of the societies they inhabit. Interdisciplinarity will be key to unlocking such stories as the chimera of the Anthropocene requires the expertise of geographers, biologists, earth-system scientists, amongst many others, to fully interpret. At the same time, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg point out in The Geology of Mankind?, such professionals are not necessarily knowledgeable in the study of human relations with the planet, ‘the  composition  of  a  rock  or  the  pattern  of  a  jet  stream  being  rather different from such phenomena as world-views, property and power’. Only studies that take an interdisciplinary approach will have the capability to understand what childhood means in the Anthropocene in both environmental and humanist senses.

Adopting methodologies of new materialism has proved one of the most popular styles of exploration in this category, much of the work so far for which has come from anthropology. Away from the conceptual, the Anthropocene Epoch reminds us perhaps first and foremost of the tactile, how much the human relationship with the planet is one based fundamentally on physicality before philosophy. Where children are concerned, their physical interactions with their environments are based on specific wants that substantially differ to those of their elders, most evidently the wants of play and exploration. Children are therefore inhabitants and engineers of unique environments and relate to “adult” spaces in unconventional ways; they ‘interactively embody their surroundings through play’ as Kirsti Pederson Gurholt describes in Curious Play. This includes particular interest, born of novelty and of these divergent wants, in aspects of the natural world that adults show less toward. An attraction to death and dead animals is one common current that runs through materialist analyses of childhood, from Pamela Riney-Kehrberg’s description of the bouncy-castle horse carcasses of New York’s city streets to Eduardo Kohn’s accounts of the spoils brought home from the hunts of the Quechua people that offered little interest to the adults but garnered much from the children. The presentation of unidealized accounts that genuinely examine children’s relationships with the material world, rather than those that others have conceived for them, works to undermine misleading enlightenment conceptions of childhood that would have them repulsed and disconnected from the “unnatural”. In the Anthropocene, where the objects and materials humans accumulate and throw away have come to be powerful agents of environmental transformation, we are required to challenge  ‘deeply rooted cultural oppositions such as animate versus inanimate and active versus passive’ that ignore the materiality of the planet and of children’s lives.

Beyond objects and materials, the landscapes of childhood are equally important to recognise as ‘inherently pedagogical contact zone[s]’, meaning a recognition that all environments are environments of learning. Young people are often drawn to the abandoned and the secretive over the idyllic, spaces such as a den or old factory where you can “make your own fun” proving to be more intriguing propositions than deliberately constructed environments such as playgrounds or youth centres. These spaces that children choose to inhabit, which generally fall outside of the “adult world”, allow them greater freedom and a more authentic pedagogical relationship; such relationships that will go on to be instrumental in their adult attitudes towards particular environs. As Gibson and Graham write in A Feminist Project for Belonging in the Anthropocene:‘The Anthropocene calls to us to recognize that we are all participants in the ‘becoming world’, where everything is interconnected and learning happens in a stumbling, trial and error sort of way’. The “human age” asks us not only to consider what the environments of childhood can teach us about environment and childhood, but also what they can teach to each other. Indeed, it asks us to reframe and presence spaces of childhood in the historiography that have been deemed before as “abandoned” or ahistorical. 

If we embrace the spatiality of children’s environments we gain appreciation of children (and the natural world) as ‘social actors who are enmeshed in richly diverse social worlds’ rather than ‘separated out, disconnected individuals understood solely through developmental needs and discourses of rights’. As a global phenomenon the Anthropocene touches all human lives to greater and lesser extents and does not do so proportionately toward those groups of people who have most influence over it, thus drawing distinction between “children’s environments” and “adult environments” as separate entities is unhelpful. If the Anthropocene does not confine itself to the adult domain and we cannot confine our studies so either. It pushes us to consider the construction of our built and landscaped environments more carefully, with greater sensitivity to how children will know, sense, touch, and exist in them. As Karen Malone concludes in Children in the Anthropocene, only with an appreciation of spatiality can we ‘acknowledge how it is to be child with a host of others and the potential differences… their ‘acting’ as an ecological collective can have on the ecosystems of the planet’.

However, the relationship between environment and child as an element of wider earth-systems extends beyond the material. All historical agents act extensionally upon their environments through how other agents act toward and around them, and this holds especially true for agents such as children and the natural world that are perceived in wider society to lack agency for themselves. Holding to enlightenment form, whether construed as ‘wayward, chaotic and disordered’ or ‘pure, innocent, and in need of protection’, there is a sense of need or even duty to act for them rather than with them. In the Anthropocene, the concept of what childhood means and has meant is changing.  Childhood is seen as being under threat in a way that other human life-stages cannot be, the perceived symbiosis between child and nature being so strong that the threat of Anthropogenic climate change to the natural world is naturally a threat to childhood also through cultural severance. At the same time children are cast as the saviours of the planet and symbols of environment(alism) in a process that Peter Hopkins and Rachel Pain call ‘fetishising the margins’. The natural world is simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, especially for children who are ‘inherently more sensitive’ to its hazards in both physical and psychological contexts. The Anthropocene invites us to consider multiplicities within childhood and environment that previously were singularities. As Alan Prout writes:

‘the singular universal and naturalised category of childhood [should] be replaced by childhoods understood as dynamically configured, diverse and entangled assemblages of natural, cultural and technological elements’

The study of childhood brings a focus to Anthropocene studies of smaller more intricate environments, where the tendency is often toward grander overarching histories of ecosystems and global networks. It asks us to consider how environment is presented to children, what narratives are taught through our stories and schooling about the natural world and how do those influence us in adulthood. The Anthropocene also asks for a reappraisal of the narratives that adults tell themselves about childhood and environment, particularly those of nostalgia that idealise or demonise certain types of youth, as these reflect ‘anxieties about social and economic change and its impact on the child, and the individual sense of identity and belonging, present in everyday life.’ The study of how children’s lives are changing in the Anthropocene era is an important undertaking, but the conceptual framework this provides can also be used to study the history of childhood, and tell new stories that presence the child and their environments on their own terms.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 2nd of December 2020

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