The Deeper Meaning of the Anthropocene

TheSublime1938

Last year when I wrote a review of E.O. Wilson’s book The Meaning of Human Existence I felt sure it would be the then 85  year old’s last major work. I was wrong having underestimated Professor Wilson’s already impressive intellectual stamina. Perhaps his latest book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life  is indeed his last, the final book that concludes the trilogy of The Social Conquest of Earth and the Meaning of Human Existence. This has less to do with his mental staying power ,which I will not make the mistake of underestimating again, than because it’s hard to imagine what might follow Half Earth, for with it Wilson has less started a conversation than attempted to launch a crusade.

The argument Wilson makes in Half Earth isn’t all that difficult to understand, and for those who are concerned with the health of the planet, and especially the well being of the flora and fauna with which we share the earth, might initially be hard to disagree with. Powerfully, Wilson reminds us that we are at the beginning of the sixth great extinction a mass death of species on par with other great dyings such as the one that killed the dinosaurs.

The difference between the mass extinction of our own time when compared to those that occurred in the past is that rather than being the consequence of mindless processes like a meteor strike or bacteria breathing poison, it is the result of the actions of a species that actually knows what it is doing- that is us. Wilson’s answer to the crisis we are causing is apparent in the very title of his book. He is urging us to declare half of the earth’s surface a wildlife preserve where large scale human settlement and development will be prohibited.

Any polemic such as the one Wilson has written requires an enemy, but rather than a take aim at the capitlist/industrial system, or the aspiration to endless consumption, Wilson’s enemy is a relatively new and yet to be influential movement within environmentalism that aims to normalize our perspective on the natural world.

Despite the fact he that definitely has a political and ideological target with which he takes umbrage being a scientist rather than a philosopher he fails to clearly define what exactly it is. Instead he labels anyone who holds doubts about the major assumptions of the environmental movement as believers in the “Anthropocene”- the idea that human beings have become so technologically powerful that we now constitute a geological force.
The problem with this is that Wilson’s beef is really only with a small subset of people who believe in the Anthropocene, indeed, Wilson himself seems to believe in it, which shows you just how confused his argument is.

The subset he opposes would include thinkers like Emma Marris or Jedediah Purdy who have been arguing that we need to untangle ourselves from ideas about nature that we inherited from 19th century romanticism. These concepts regarding the purity of the natural as opposed to the artificiality of the man made- the idea that not only is humanity distinct from nature but that anything caused by our agency is somehow unnatural- are now both ubiquitous and have become the subject of increasing doubts.

While mass extinction is certainly real and constitutes an enormous tragedy, it does not necessarily follow that the best way to counter such extinction is to declare half of the earth off limits to humans. Much better for both human and animal welfare would be to make the human artifice more compatible with the needs of wildlife. Though the idea of a pure, wild and natural place free from human impact, and above all dark and quiet, is one I certainly understand and find attractive, our desire that it exist is certainly much less a matter of environmental science than a particular type of spiritual desire.

As Daniel Duane pointed out in a recent New York Times article the places we deem to be the most natural, that is the national parks, which have been put aside for the very purpose of preserving wilderness, are instead among the most human- managed landscapes on earth. And technology, though it can never lead to complete mastery, makes this nature increasingly easy to manage:

More and more, though, as we humans devour habitat, and as hardworking biologists — thank heaven — use the best tools available to protect whatever wild creatures remain, we approach that perhaps inevitable time when every predator-prey interaction, every live birth and every death in every species supported by the terrestrial biosphere, will be monitored and manipulated by the human hive mind.

Yet even were we to adopt Wilson’s half earth proposal whole cloth we would still face scenarios where we will want to act against the dictates of nature. There are, for instance , good arguments to intervene on behalf of, say, bats whose populations have been decimated by the white nose fungus or great apes who are threatened extinction as a consequence of viral infections. Where and why such interventions occur are more than merely scientific questions ,and they arise not from the human desire to undo the damage we have done, but from the damage nature inflicts upon herself.

From the opposite angle, climate change will not respect any artificial borders we establish between the natural and the human worlds. It seem clear that we have a moral duty to limit the suffering nature experiences as a consequence of our action or inaction. We are in the midst of discovering the burden of our moral responsibility. Perhaps this discovery points to a need to expand the moral boundaries of the Anthropocene itself.

Rather than abandoning or merely continuing to narrowly apply the idea of the Anthropocene to the environment alone, maybe we should extend it to embrace other aspects of human agency that have expanded since the birth of the modern world. For what has happened, especially since the industrial revolution, is that areas previously outside the human ability to effect through action have come increasingly not so much under our control as our ability to influence, both for good and ill.

It’s not just nature that is now shaped by our choices, that has become a matter of moral and political dispute, but poverty and hunger, along with disease. Some even now interpret death itself in moral and political terms. With his half earth proposal Wilson wants to do away with a world where the state of the biosphere has become a matter of moral and political dispute. This dismissal of human political capacity and rights seems to run like a red thread through Wilson’s thinking, and ends, as I have pointed out elsewhere, in treating human like animals in a game preserve.

Indeed, the American ideal of wilderness as an edenic world unsullied by the hands of man that Wilson wants to see over half the earth has had negative political consequences even in the richest of nations. The recent violent standoff in Oregon emerged out of the resentments of a West where the federal government owns nearly 50 percent of the land. Such resentments have made the West, which might culturally lean much differently, a bulwark of the political right. As Robert Fletcher and Bram Büscher have argued in Aeon Wilson’s prescription could result in grave injustices in the developing world against native peoples in the same way the demands of environmentalists for wilderness stripped of humans resulted in the violent expulsion of Native Americans from large swaths of the American West.

Eden, it seems, refuses to be reestablished despite our best efforts and intentions. Welcome to the Fall.

 

Advertisements

Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet

realistic_pencil_sketch_photo_effect

My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.