Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace The Anthropocene
It was a very young Bill McKibbon who introduced many of us to the concept of the Anthropocene in 1989, but he didn’t call it that. He called it “The End of Nature“.
“In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage,'” he wrote. “But that was like stabbing a man with toothpicks: though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of lymph or blood.”
But with climate change, he said, we seemed to be touching those organs and blocking those paths — and in ways that meant the world would never be the same.
In deference to the state of the science at the time, he phrased it in terms of risk vs reward: the risk associated with doing nothing was high, and the risk associated with reducing emissions was low, because the long-term costs of doing nothing far outweighed the short-term costs of doing something. If we made the cuts and then found the models were wrong, then at least we had cleaner air and a more sustainable economy. If we ignored the emissions and the the models proved right, however, we’d have more erratic hurricanes, crazier winters, longer droughts, mass migrations of animals, shortages of water, and crop failures — all beginning a few decades into the new century.
Twenty-five years later (and just one decade into the new century), we’ve had the harshest of seasons and mildest of seasons for both hurricanes and winters as fish began migrating slowly towards the poles to avoid the hot water. There’s good news, too — if you’re a bug. The Northern Pine Beetle, for example, now has two breeding seasons per year, enabling its young progeny to feast on forests across the northern US and Canada.
The list of early warning signs goes on and on, and we’ve only just begun: global temperatures are up a mere 1.5°F (0.85ºC) since 1880. The next century promises to double that at least — and maybe quadruple it or more.
But as our scientific certainty has increased, our vigilance has plummeted. Instead of rising to this challenge, many of our species cling to the belief that it’s something we can easily adapt to by moving away from the coasts or migrating to the north — ignoring the fact that others have the same idea, and that soils up north aren’t nearly as rich as those of the global breadbaskets. Still others among us deny the reality of climate science — a development McKibbon foreshadowed back in 1989:
“We never thought that we had wrecked nature,” he wrote then. “Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces — the wind, the rain, the sun — were too strong, too elemental.”
So here we sit: petrified. Old-school environmentalists cling to a Utopian dream of returning to Eden while policymakers remain fixated on the short-term costs of meeting the challenge but oblivious to the long-term consequences of doing nothing. Even climate scientists, for the most part, have failed to communicate the severity of our situation or the radical changes we must undertake if we’re to get ourselves out of this mess.
That’s what prompted me to start The AnthropoZine.
As editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, the environmental news service launched by NGO Forest Trends a decade ago, I’ve had a unique opportunity to see what works, what doesn’t, and why. I’ve seen cities like Philadelphia harness environmental finance to develop their nature-based “green” infrastructures, and I’ve seen farmers in Kenya restructure entire valleys to protect themselves from the risks of climate change. I’ve seen projects work because they are developed systematically — with people in mind.
On all scales and in all ways, we are altering the planet’s living ecosystems to help us adapt to the changes we have already made, and we’ve already crossed several points of no return. We will soon cross more, and no one knows where this will all lead.
In the process, we are mapping and managing the entire surface of the planet, identifying the ways all of our systems interact with each other and altering the mosaic of interlocking ecosystems on which we depend. We are in the midst of a massive and now-necessary re-engineering of our planet’s surface, and few people outside a small echo chamber of practitioners and policy wonks really understand it.
I’d been looking for a way to frame this issue for years when I met South African political scientist Anthony Turton in March of last year. He was speaking at a conference on groundwater governance in the Dutch city of Utrecht, and he was describing a massive engineering effort designed to cleanse a degraded aquifer. Someone in the audience guffawed, and Turton paused.
“If you believe, as I do, that we are living in a new epoch — the Anthropocene — then you have to build your solutions on the premise that man has already changed the planet in ways that render many of the old rules obsolete,” he said.
I’d never heard of the Anthropocene before, but I instinctively knew what it meant. Anyone who works on climate issues knows that “anthropogenic” means “man-made”, as in “anthropogenic climate change”, and Turton’s statement seemed to crystallize everything I’d learned since joining Ecosystem Marketplace seven years earlier. Yes, I thought. That’s it, isn’t it? We are in a new epoch with new rules! Only if you view the world through that prism will everything that’s happening in ecology, economics, and policy make sense.
I’ve since learned that the term was coined by University of Michigan biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the late 1990s and popularized in 2000 by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen when he was vice chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. The IGBP offers a better summary of the term and its history than I ever will, and I encourage you to visit their site.
In launching The AnthropoZine, my goal is not to re-explain the wheel, but rather to act as a sort of traffic cop: directing like-minded people to the literature that already exists, to add to that literature where necessary, and to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Only by tying together the disparate efforts already underway can we hope to navigate ourselves through this terrain. This is my small contribution to that endeavor.