Reflections on the Plantationocene: A Conversation with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing

A red dirt road through the planted rows of the Sime Darby plantation

This is the sixth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

Few scholars have been as influential as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing in imagining new ways of being in a multispecies world at the edge of extinction. We were delighted to have these two creative and inspiring thinkers join us in a wide-ranging conversation on the Plantationocene on April 18, 2019. The conversation took place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Miami, Meskwaki, Sauk and Ho-Chunk peoples, who were forcibly displaced from their home areas through acts of violence and dispossession.

Over the course of the evening, the discussion spanned from the possibilities and limits of the Anthropocene as a new geologic epoch, to the enduring legacies of the plantation, to the symbiotic and mutualistic associations that constitute all forms of life, to the capacity of joy and play in a world facing warming temperatures, rising seas, accelerating species extinction, and widespread land dispossession.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights and a full transcript, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

These transcribed interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Find the full transcript of their conversation available as a PDF here.

Gregg Mitman: I want to start with this concept that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, the Anthropocene—this notion of the age of the human, that we are now living in a geologic age where humans are a geomorphic force on the planet at the planetary scale. I know both of you have somewhat different relationships to this concept, and I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about what possibilities it offers, what limitations it poses, and why it angers you so, Donna?

Donna Haraway: Or does it still?

GM: Let’s begin there.

Anna Tsing: I use the concept of the Anthropocene despite acknowledging the importance of many criticisms, including Donna’s, concerning how this word can mislead us. There are two reasons that I use the word anyway. Maybe a third reason is my general philosophy that it’s better to try to add meanings to words rather than to subtract words. But there are two substantive reasons. The first is that it’s the term that allows interdisciplinary conversation between natural scientists and humanists, and I think that conversation is essential to learning anything about what’s going on in our planet these days.

Gregg Mitman, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing sit in chairs on stage during the Plantationocene seminar, as Tsing speaks into a microphone.

Gregg Mitman, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing speak at the Plantationocene seminar. Photo by Romulo Ueda, 2019.

The second reason has to do with some of the very worst things about the term’s Enlightenment legacy. The term appeals to a false universal of homogeneous “Man,” which was created with a white, Christian, heterosexual male person as the basis for the universal. Paying attention to that legacy can help us to figure out what’s happening on the planet. It allows us to ask, for example, why so many landscape modification projects were made without thinking at all about what their effects might be on the people who live around them as well as local ecologies. That problematic legacy can help us focus in on the uneven, unequal features of planetary environmental issues.

DH: It’s not that I disagree with anything that Anna said, and I also tend to want to work by addition and not by subtraction, multiplying terms to a point where you can foreground them and background them to do different work differently situated.

The cover of the PDF booklet Reflections on the Plantationocene

Read their full conversation here. Layout by Nicole Bennett, 2019.

Also, I think the term Anthropocene has simply been adopted, and that it is no longer a question about whether to work within this category in productive ways and in the kinds of alliances that it encourages. I share very much with Anna the sense that my natural science colleagues understand the Anthropocene and can speak to me or to others about it while other terms—like Capitalocene, for example—kind of put them off. But this strength is also a problem.. My natural science colleagues—and for that matter myself and my colleagues in general—have a tendency to think that apparatuses and terminologies like, for example, climate change are going to be translatable somehow to all parts of the world, even if the phenomena in question are experienced differently.

For example, the astute peoples of the circumpolar north have developed Indigenous vocabularies and both analytical and experiential ways of talking about the changes in the ice, the changes in the waters, the changes in the position of stars in the sky because of the way sea ice and fog will refract differently and so on. These people, who live on the land might react to the notion of climate change as another southern importation that tends, yet once again, to make it almost impossible to propose local terms for analytical work.

I want to nurture—to somehow force, if necessary—the attachment sites and contact zones so that all of the players have to somehow learn each other’s idioms in a way that changes everybody so that no one remains the same as they were at the beginning and can perhaps find more collaborative, decolonial ways to address urgent problems. Often, Indigenous people are forced to learn southern idioms, but the reverse is much less true. That is not tolerable.

I want to nurture the attachment sites and contact zones so that all of the players learn each other’s idioms.

The power of a term like Anthropocene, it’s importance, has a very problematic quality. Then I’m also less generous than Anna about the potential of remembering the Enlightenment dimension of the “Anthropos” and of “Man” because I experience, in fact, among my colleagues across activist and scholarly worlds, a tendency to think that Anthropocene really does mean a species act. That the problem really is humanity, not “Man” in the Enlightenment sense, but humanity in its evolutionary social history on this planet— its increase in numbers, its increase in demands. This strengthens the illusion that turning all that is Earth into resource for humanity is inevitable, if tragic.

There’s a way in which the Anthropocene is considered a species act as opposed to an historical, situated set of conjunctures that are absolutely not a species act. Most peoples on this planet have precisely not lived and exercised the same kinds of processes that break generations, that radically simplify ecologies, that drastically force labor in a mass way that creates a kind of global transformation and global wealth that is in and of itself genocidal and extinctionist. That is not a species act; it’s a situated historical set of conjunctures, and I think to this day the term Anthropocene makes it harder, not easier, for people to understand that.

An aeriel view of strawberry fields, with workers bent over in planted rows picking berries.

The plantation invokes a site made through the discipline of plants and people. Pickers harvest strawberries from a California field. Photo by Glenn Nelson, 2009.

GM: You talked about proliferation of terms and the importance of that in terms of generative thinking. You yourself have really helped us with that in generating some more ‘cenes beyond the Capitalocene. In the midst of a conversation around the Anthropocene that you and Anna had at Aarhus a few years ago, you said, “Well, what about the Plantationocene?” So, what is the Plantationocene? Why did you feel the need to introduce that term? Maybe we could just begin with this question: what is a plantation? This is actually not so simple. We’ve been wrestling with that definition here in the conversations and seminars we’ve been having.

DH: We were wrestling with it, too. There is a way in which the Plantationocene forces attention to the growing of food and the plantation as a system of multispecies forced labor. The plantation system speeds up generation time. The plantation disrupts the generation times of all the players. It radically simplifies the number of players and sets up situations for the vast proliferation of some and the removal of others. It’s an epidemic friendly way of rearranging species life in the world. It is a system that depends on forced human labor of some kind because if labor can escape, it will escape the plantation.

The plantation system requires either genocide or removal or some mode of captivity and replacement of a local labor force by coerced labor from outside, either through various forms of indenture, unequal contract, or out-and-out slavery. The plantation really depends on very intense forms of labor slavery, including also machine labor slavery, a building of machines for exploitation and extraction of earthlings. I think it is also important to include the forced labor of nonhumans—plants, animals, and microbes—in our thinking.

The capacity to love and care for place is radically incompatible with the plantation.

So, when I think about the question, what is a plantation, some combination of these things seems to me to be pretty much always present across a 500-year period: radical simplification; substitution of peoples, crops, microbes, and life forms; forced labor; and, crucially, the disordering of times of generation across species, including human beings.

I’m avoiding the word reproduction because of its productionist aspect, but I want to emphasize the radical interruption of the possibility of the care of generations and, as Anna taught me, the breaking of the tie to place—that the capacity to love and care for place is radically incompatible with the plantation. Thinking from the plantation, all of those things seem to be always present in various combinations.

AT: I’ll just add briefly that the term plantation for me evokes the heritage of a particular set of histories involving what happened after the European invasion of the New World, particularly involving the capture of Africans as enslaved labor and the simplification of crops so as to allow enslaved laborers to be the agricultural workers. In many small, independent farming situations, dozens of crops are raised that need to be tended by farmers who are invested in attending to each one. In designing systems for coerced labor, ecological simplifications entered agriculture.

The plantation was precisely the conjuncture between ecological simplifications, the discipline of plants in particular, and the discipline of humans to work on those. That legacy, which I think is very much with us today, is so naturalized that many people believe that that is the meaning of the term agriculture; we forget that there are other ways to farm. The plantation takes us into that discipline-of-people/discipline-of-plants conjuncture.

Want more of their conversation? Edge Effects is excited to provide a full transcript of Gregg Mitman’s interview with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, in an accompanying booklet designed by Nicole Bennett with Addie Hopes and Laura Perry. Click here to read—and we hope you’ll share it, too.

Featured image: An oil palm plantation in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, operated by Sime Darby Plantation. Sime Darby is the world’s largest palm oil plantation company by planted area. It was granted a concession by the Liberian government in 2009 for a 63-year lease on up to 220,000 hectares to grow monoculture oil palm. Still from The Land Beneath Our Feet (2016). Photo by Sarita Siegel.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Donna Haraway is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Attending to the intersection of biology with culture and politics, Haraway’s work explores the string figures composed by science fact, science fiction, speculative feminism, speculative fabulation, science and technology studies, and multispecies worlding. Her recent books include Making Kin Not Population, co-edited with Adele Clarke and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Website. Contact.

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His most recent work includes The Land Beneath Our Feet, a documentary co-directed and co-produced with Sarita Siegel on history, memory, and land rights in Liberia, and Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, co-edited with Marco Armiero and Robert S. Emmett. He is the founding director of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) and co-organizer of the multi-year John E. Sawyer Seminar, Interrogating the Plantationocene, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His previous contributions to Edge Effects include “Plantation Legacies” (January 2019) and “A History of the Anthropocene in Objects” (May 2018). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Anna Tsing is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Between 2013 and 2018, she was a Niels Bohr professor at Aarhus University where she led the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) group. She is the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins and a co-editor of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (with Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt). Her newest work is a digital project, in preparation, entitled Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include the podcast episode “The Best of End Times: A Conversation with Anna Tsing” (September 2017). Website. Contact.