Imagining the Anthropocene

Mining operations near Green Valley, Arizona. (NASA)

 

Almost a year ago now, while reading an article by the historian Yuval Harari in the British newspaper The Guardian, I had a visceral experience of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Harari’s piece was about the horrors of industrial meat production, and as evidence of the scale of the monstrosity, he listed a set of facts that I had either not known, or had never taken the time to fully contemplate. Facts such as that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.  It struck me while reading Harri’s piece the degree to which we as a species had changed much of nature into something mechanically hellish, and I shuddered at the thought.

If one conducted a kind of moral forensics of the human impact on nature certainly industrial farming would be among its darkest aspects. Luckily for us, such a forensics would also result in some signs of human benevolence, such as the millions of acres many of the world’s nations have set aside for the protection of wildlife, or our growing propensity to establish animal rights.

While a moral forensics would give us an idea of our impact on the natural world right now, the proposed geological epoch known as the Anthropocene is measured in the duration of the geological and atmospheric scars we are leaving behind, for geological epochs are marked off by the differences in the layers that have been put down by planet transforming processes. Collectively we have become just such a process, and hypothetical geologists living in the deep future will be able to read evidence of how we have shaped and changed the earth and the rest of life upon it. Whether that evidence ultimately comes to reflect our uncontrolled and self-destructive avariciousness and shortsightedness, or our benevolence and foresight, remains up to us to decide.

Communicating the idea that the Anthropocene is both the period of greatest danger and a historical opportunity to right our relationship to the planet and to one another isn’t easy in an age of ever sharper ideological divisions and politics performed in 140 characters. Nevertheless, such communication is something Steven Bradshaw’s newly released documentary ANTHROPOCENE does brilliantly introducing viewers to the idea in a way that retains its complexity while at the same time conveying the concept in the visceral way only a well done film can accomplish.

ANTHROPOCENE  conveys the perspective of seven members of the working group on the Anthropocene, along with an environmental expert, on what it means to say we have entered the Anthropocene. Among them are some of the leading figures of twenty-first century environmentalism: Will Steffen, Erle Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Andrew Revkin, John McNeil, Monica Berger Gonzalez, Eric Odada, and Davor Vidas.

The working group was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale”. Its task is to establish whether we have truly exited the geological epoch in which humans have lived since our beginnings- the Holocene- and caused the onset of a new epoch the Anthropocene.

It was the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen who in 2000 helped revive the term “anthropocene” and propel it to its current unprecedented traction. The idea of the Anthropocene may be academic, but such ideas have consequences and conveying them to the larger public, as Bradshaw’s documentary sets out to do, is extremely important in light of these consequences. Only when we have some intuitive sense of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet since the industrial revolution can we overcome the much older sense of being dwarfed by nature and that anything we are capable of doing pales in comparison to what nature herself does to us.

Bradshaw’s ANTHROPOCENE tells the story of the development of humanity into a force capable of shaping the whole of nature in the form of chapters of a book. While the early chapters set the stage and introduce us to a human species that has always shaped, and, as with the extinction of megafauna, severely disrupted, nature to our own interests, the rising action of the story does not occur until as late as the 1950’s with the “Great Acceleration”, when human population growth and energy use began their exponential rise. And though the developed countries have since fallen off of this exponential curve, the majority of the world’s population is only now undergoing a Great Acceleration of their own.

While human beings prior to the contemporary period that began around the middle of the last century have always had an outsized impact, only after 1950 has our effect been such to both leave behind evidence that will be discoverable millions of years into the future, and which are of a completely different order than the kinds of scars left by non-human natural processes.

Many of these scars will be located in what the documentary calls “sacrifice zones” areas such as islands in the Pacific where countries tested the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built.  Sacrifice zones are also comprised of the vast areas of the earth that have been scared by our resource extraction, whole mountains torn into in the quest for coal or precious metals. In addition there will be the huge swaths of territory where we have disposed the waste of human civilization. Our plastics and toxins will likely far out last us, while those aspects we most identify with the pinnacle of urbanism- being built of concrete and glass- may survive for less time than the stone monuments of prior civilizations.

Still, much of the underbelly of cities along with other structures and artifacts that become subsumed by tectonic plates will form an event layer, which will speak of the strange species who dominated a world only to lose it, that is ourselves.

It will not only be these debris and artifacts which will call out from the geological  strata the sheer fact of our past existence, that is, what is there, but we will also be legible through what is absent. If we succeed in causing what some are calling the sixth great extinction then many the anthropocene strata will be a kind of dead-zone lacking the great diversity of plants and animals found in the strata before it.

The idea of a planet scared for millions of years by our technological civilization is certainly disturbing, yet the ultimate message of Bradshaw’s documentary neither surrenders to the dystopian spirit of the times, nor does  it counsel stoic resignation to our self-destruction. The message I took from the film was much more nuanced: we have spent the last few centuries transforming a nature we believed separate from us only to learn that this distinction was like a child playing pretend. If we can mature quickly enough we can foster a world good for both ourselves and the rest of life. But should we fail to grow up in time the earth will shrug free from our weight, and the life that remains will continue into the deep future without us.

* Bullfrog Films is the distributor the documentary ANTHROPOCENE and holds the license to to public performance rights. The DVD is featured in their catalog:  http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/anthro.html

 

 

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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.