Is the Anthropocene a Disaster or an Opportunity?

Bradley Cantrell Pod-mod

Bradley Cantrell Pod-Mod

Recently the journal Nature published a paper arguing that the year in which the Anthropocene, the proposed geological era in which the collective actions of the human species started to trump other natural processes in terms of their impact, began in the year 1610 AD. If that year leaves you, like it did me, scratching your head and wondering what your missed while you dozed off in your 10th grade history class, don’t worry, because 1610 is a year in which nothing much happened at all. In fact, that’s why the author’s chose it.

There are a whole host of plausible candidates for the beginning of the Anthropocene, that are much, much more well know than 1610, starting relatively recently with the explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945 and stretching backwards in time through the beginning of the industrial revolution (1750’s) to the discovery of the Americas and the bridging between the old and new worlds in the form of the Columbian Exchange, (1492), and back even further to some hypothetical year in which humans first began farming, or further still to the extinction of the mega-fauna such as Woolly Mammoths probably at the hands of our very clever, and therefore dangerous, hunter gatherer forebears.

The reason Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin (the authors of the Nature paper) chose 1610 is that in that year there can be found a huge, discernible drop in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A rapid decline in greenhouses gases which probably plunged the earth into a cold snap- global warming in reverse. The reason this happened goes to the heart of a debate plaguing the environmental community, a debate that someone like myself, merely listening from the sidelines, but concerned about the ultimate result, should have been paying closer attention to.

It seems that while I was focusing on how paleontologists had been undermining the myth of the “peaceful savage”, they had also called into question another widely held idea regarding the past, one that was deeply ingrained in the American environmental movement itself- that the Native Americans did not attempt the intensive engineering of the environment of the sort that Europeans brought with them from the Old World, and therefore, lived in a state of harmony with nature we should pine for or emulate.

As paleontologists and historians have come to understand the past more completely we’ve learned that it just isn’t so. Native Americans, across North America, and not just in well known population centers such as Tenochtitlan in Mexico, the lost civilizations of the Pueblos (Anasazi) in the deserts of the southwest, or Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley, but in the woodlands of the northeast in states such as my beloved Pennsylvania, practiced extensive agriculture and land management in ways that had a profound impact on the environment over the course of centuries.

Their tool in all this was the planful use of fire. As the naturalist and historian Scott Weidensaul tells the story in his excellent account of the conflicts between Native Americans and the Europeans who settled the eastern seaboard, The First Frontier:

Indians had been burning Virginia and much of the rest of North America annually for fifteen thousand years and it was certainly not a desert. But they had clearly altered their world in ways we are only still beginning to appreciate. The grasslands of the Great Plains, the lupine-studded savannas of northwestern Ohio’s “oak openings”, the longleaf pine forests of the southern coastal plain, the pine barrens of the Mid-Atlantic and Long Island- all were ecosystems that depended on fire and were shaped over millennia of use by its frequent and predictable application.  (69)

The reason, I think, most of us have this vision in our heads of North America at the dawn of European settlement as an endless wilderness is not on account of some conspiracy by English and French settlers (though I wouldn’t put it past them), but rather, when the first settlers looked out into a continent sparsely settled by noble “savages” what they were seeing was a mere remnant of the large Indian population that had existed there only a little over a century before. That the native peoples of the North America Europeans struggled so hard to subdue and expel were mere refugees from a fallen civilization. As the historian Charles Mann has put it: when settlers gazed out into a seemingly boundless American wilderness they were not seeing a land untouched by the hands of man, a virgin land given to them by God, but a graveyard.

Given the valiant, ingenious, and indeed, sometime brutal resistance Native Americans gave against European (mostly English) encroachment it seems highly unlikely the the United States and Canada would exist today in anything like their current form had the Indian population not been continually subject to collapse. What so ravaged the Native American population and caused their civilization to go into reverse were the same infectious diseases unwittingly brought by Europeans that were the primary culprit in the destruction of the even larger Indian civilizations in Mexico and South America. It was a form of accidental biological warfare that targeted Native American based upon their genomes, their immunity to diseases having never been shaped by contact with domesticated animals like pigs and cows as had the Europeans who were set on stealing their lands.

Well, it wasn’t always accidental. For though it would be sometime before we understood how infectious diseases worked, Europeans were well aware of their disproportionate impact on the Indians. In 1763 William Trent in charge of Fort Pitt, the seed that would become Pittsburgh, besieged by Indians, engaged in the first documented case of biological warfare. Weidensaul quotes one of Trent’s letters:

Out of regard to the [Indian emissaries] we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect (381)

It’s from this devastating impact of infectious diseases that decimated Native American populations and ended their management of the ecosystem through the systematic use of fire that (the authors of the Nature paper) get their 1610 start date for the beginning of the Anthropocene. With the collapse of Indian fire ecology eastern forests bloomed to such an extent that vast amounts of carbon otherwise left in the atmosphere was sucked up by the trees with the effect that the earth rapidly cooled.

Beyond the desire to uncover the truth and to enter into sympathy with those of the past that lies at the heart of the practice and study of history, this new view of the North American past has implications for the present. For the goal of returning, both the land itself and as individuals, to the purity of the wilderness that has been at the heart of the environmentalist project since its inception in the 19th century now encounters a problem with time. Where in the past does the supposedly pure natural state to which we are supposed to be returning actually exist?

Such an untrammeled state would seem to exist either before Native American’s development of fire ecology, or after their decimation by disease before European settlement west of the Allegheny mountains. This, after all, was the period of America as endless wilderness that has left its mark on our imagination. That is, we should attempt to return as much of North America as is compatible with civilization to the state it was after the collapse of the Native American population, but before the spread of Europeans into the American wilderness. The problem with such a goal is that this natural splendor may have hid the fact that such an ecology was ultimately unsustainable in the wild  state in which European settlers first encountered it.

As Tim Flannery pointed out in his book The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, the fire ecology adopted by Native Americans may have been filling a vital role, doing the job that should have been done by large herbivores, which North America, unlike other similar continents, and likely due to the effectiveness of the first wave of human hunters to enter it as the ultimate “invasive species” from Asia, lacked.  Large herbivores cull the forests and keep them healthy, a role which in their absence can also be filled by fire.

Although projects are currently in the works to try to bring back some of these large foresters such as the woolly mammoth I am doubtful large populations will ever be restored in a world filled even with self-driving cars. Living in Pennsylvania I’ve had the misfortune of running into a mere hundred pound or so white tailed deer (or her running into me). I don’t even want to think about what a mammoth would do to my compact. Besides, woolly mammoths don’t seem to be a creature made for the age we’re headed into, which is one of likely continued, and extreme, warming.

Losing our romanticized picture of nature’s past means we are now also unclear as to its future.  Some are using this new understanding of the ecological history of North America to make an argument against traditional environmentalism arguing in essence that without a clear past to return to the future of the environment is ours to decide.

Perhaps what this New Environmentalism signals is merely the normalization of North American’s relationship with nature, a move away from the idea of nature as a sort of lost Eden and towards something like ideas found elsewhere, which need not be any less reverential or religious. In Japan especially nature is worshiped, but it is in the form of a natural world that has been deeply sculpted by human beings to serve their aesthetic and spiritual needs. This the Anthropocene interpreted as opportunity rather than as unmitigated disaster.

Ultimately, I think it is far too soon to embrace without some small degree of skepticism the project of the New Environmentalism espoused by organizations such as the Breakthrough Institute or the chief scientist and fire- brand of the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva, or environmental journalists and scholars espousing those views like Andrew Rifkin, Emma Marris, or even the incomparable Diane Ackerman. For certainly the argument that even if the New Environmentalism contains a degree of truth it is inherently at risk of being captured by actors whose environmental concern is a mere smokescreen for economic interests, and which, at the very least, threatens to undermine the long held support for the setting aside of areas free from human development whose stillness and silence many of us in our drenched in neon and ever beeping world hold dear.

It would be wonderful if objective scientists could adjudicate disputes between traditional environmentalists and New Environmentalists expressing non-orthodox views on everything from hydraulic fracking, to genetic engineering, to invasive species, to geo-engineering. The problem is that the very uncertainty at the heart of these types of issues probably makes definitive objectivity impossible. At the end of the day the way one decides comes down to values.

Yet what the New Environmentalists have done that I find most intriguing is to challenge  the mythology of Edenic nature, and just as in any other undermining of a ruling mythology this has opened the potential to both freedom and risks. On the basis of my own values the way I would use that freedom would not be to hive off humanity from nature, to achieve the “de-ecologization of our material welfare”,  as some New Environmentalists want to do, but for the artifact of human civilization itself to be made more natural.

Up until today humanity has gained its ascendancy over nature by assaulting it with greater and more concentrated physical force. We’ve damned and redrawn the course of rivers, built massive levies against the sea, cleared the land of its natural inhabitants (nonhuman and human) and reshaped it to grow our food.

We’ve reached the point where we’re smarter than this now and understand much better how nature achieve ends close to our own without resorting to excessively destructive and wasteful force. Termites achieve climate control from the geometry of their mounds rather than our energy intensive air conditioning. IBM’s Watson took a small city’s worth of electric power to beat its human opponents on Jeopardy! whose brains consumed no more power than a light bulb.

Although I am no great fan of the term “cyborg-ecology” I am attracted to the idea as it is being developed by figures such as Bradley Cantrell who propose that we use our new capabilities and understanding to create a flexible infrastructure that allows, for instance, a river to be a river rather than a mere “concrete channel” which we’ve found superior to the alternative of a natural river because it is predictable, while providing for our needs. A suffocatingly narrow redefinition of nature that has come at great costs to the other species with which we share with other such habitats, and ultimately causes large scale problems that require yet more brute force engineering for us to control once nature breaks free from our chains.

I can at least imagine an Anthropocene that provides a much richer and biodiverse landscape than our current one, a world where we are much more planful about providing for creatures other than just our fellow humans. It would be a world where we perhaps break from environmentalism’s shibboleths and do things such as prudently and judiciously use genetic engineering to make the natural world more robust, and where scientists who propose that we use the tools our knowledge has given to address plagues not just to ourselves, but to fellow creatures, do not engender scorn, but careful consideration of their proposals.

It would be a much greener world where the cold kingdom of machines hadn’t replaced the living, but was merely a temporary way station towards the rebirth, after our long, and almost terminal assault, on the biological world. If our strategies before have been divided between raping and subduing nature in light of our needs, or conversely, placing nature at such a remove from our civilization that she might be deemed safe from our impact, perhaps, having gained knowledge regarding nature’s secrets, we can now live not so much with her as a part of her, and with her as a part of us.

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5 comments on “Is the Anthropocene a Disaster or an Opportunity?

  1. Thanks for writing this – I had no idea about the extent of Native American agriculture, so it was quite enlightening. It also challenges our idea of what is “natural.” I would love to see similar research done in Australia (my home). I know that Indigenous Australians used fire to periodically regenerate bushland, but I don’t quite know the extent.

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