Friday, December 9, 2011

Welcome in the Anthropocene

The Hamburger KlimaCampus recently dedicated a workshop to the anthropocene. While nobody doubted that the Holocene has transformed into the anthropocene, this new age was almost unanimously interpreted as a state of emergency.
The American scientists and conservationists  Emma Marris, Peter Kareiva, Joseph Mascaro and Erle C. Ellis see this differently in today's New York Times; they indeed see "Hope in the age of man":
Some environmentalists see the Anthropocene as a disaster by definition, since they see all human changes as degradation of a pristine Eden. (...) But in fact, humans have been changing ecosystems for millenniums.
The authors follow a line of arguments that sees the anthropocene as a challenge:
Yes, we live in the Anthropocene — but that does not mean we inhabit an ecological hell. Our management and care of natural places and the millions of other species with which we share the planet could and should be improved. But we must do far more than just hold back the tide of change and build higher and stronger fences around the Arctic, the Himalayas and the other “relatively intact ecosystems,” (...).
They go way beyond the traditional defensive environmental agenda of saving what is still left to be saved. Instead, they understand "creation" as an activity:
We can accept the reality of humanity’s reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon. We can restore once magnificent ecosystems like Yellowstone and the Gulf of Mexico to new glories — but glories that still contain a heavy hand of man. We can fight sprawl and mindless development even as we cherish the exuberant nature that can increasingly be found in our own cities, from native gardens to green roofs. And we can do this even as we continue to fight for international agreements on limiting the greenhouses gases that are warming the planet.
To my European ears, this sounds like post-modern techno - hippies, with one hand planting flowers and with the other consecrating a new carbon-free nuclear plant. Gardening and geo-engineering, and: no politics, please. Instead, the slogan is taking into possession what once was considered as God's work:
This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.
This op-ed piece reflects a current trend in (American) environmentalism away from the idea of pristine nature towards the active management of nature, the embracing of technology and the will to actively form and shape the world we inhabit. I guess it's not by coincidence that this piece is published while the world's leaders meet in Durban; it is an attempt to unleash the inherent power in the environmental movement, which currently is still focused exclusively on the "big solution" provided by the climate summit in Durban on the one hand, and the creation of another national park on the other. Seen from this perspective, embracing the anthropocene might mark the end of catastrophism and open a new chapter in the long history of environmentalism.


Cees de Valk said...

They are just observing reality, in my view. Make a long flight and look down; you see a planet being shaped by humans, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. We just need to figure out how to manage it, and for this, we will first need to learn a lot more than we currently know.

eduardo said...

What is pristine nature ?

The question often reminds me of the attempts to define a pristine language, a pristine society, ect. It also often hides the assumption that 'pristine' actually means ' as I think it should be'.

Life, and not only human life, has been changing the planet since it appeared on Earth, not only for 'millenniums' (sic) but for aeons. When photosynthetic bacteria made their appearance, they started to produce oxygen as waste, which essentially killed all other forms of life that had existed so far Now we see oxygen as a 'pure' element, essential for (our) life. Yet it was poison for many other forms of life that existed before us. What is a pristine atmosphere , one with oxygen or one without it ?

Mathis Hampel said...

pristine nature is like clean air.