The great climate silence: we are on the edge of the abyss but we ignore it

21 02 2018

File 20170507 19145 8n95t4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Extract.

Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

After 200,000 years of modern humans on a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, we have arrived at new point in history: the Anthropocene. The change has come upon us with disorienting speed. It is the kind of shift that typically takes two or three or four generations to sink in.

Our best scientists tell us insistently that a calamity is unfolding, that the life-support systems of the Earth are being damaged in ways that threaten our survival. Yet in the face of these facts we carry on as usual.

Most citizens ignore or downplay the warnings; many of our intellectuals indulge in wishful thinking; and some influential voices declare that nothing at all is happening, that the scientists are deceiving us. Yet the evidence tells us that so powerful have humans become that we have entered this new and dangerous geological epoch, which is defined by the fact that the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.

This bizarre situation, in which we have become potent enough to change the course of the Earth yet seem unable to regulate ourselves, contradicts every modern belief about the kind of creature the human being is. So for some it is absurd to suggest that humankind could break out of the boundaries of history and inscribe itself as a geological force in deep time. Humans are too puny to change the climate, they insist, so it is outlandish to suggest we could change the geological time scale. Others assign the Earth and its evolution to the divine realm, so that it is not merely impertinence to suggest that humans can overrule the almighty, but blasphemy.

Many intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities do not concede that Earth scientists have anything to say that could impinge on their understanding of the world, because the “world” consists only of humans engaging with humans, with nature no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please.

The “humans-only” orientation of the social sciences and humanities is reinforced by our total absorption in representations of reality derived from media, encouraging us to view the ecological crisis as a spectacle that takes place outside the bubble of our existence.
It is true that grasping the scale of what is happening requires not only breaking the bubble but also making the cognitive leap to “Earth system thinking” – that is, conceiving of the Earth as a single, complex, dynamic system. It is one thing to accept that human influence has spread across the landscape, the oceans and the atmosphere, but quite another to make the jump to understanding that human activities are disrupting the functioning of the Earth as a complex, dynamic, ever-evolving totality comprised of myriad interlocking processes.

But consider this astounding fact: with knowledge of the cycles that govern Earth’s rotation, including its tilt and wobble, paleo-climatologists are able to predict with reasonable certainty that the next ice age is due in 50,000 years’ time. Yet because carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for millennia, global warming from human activity in the 20th and 21st centuries is expected to suppress that ice age and quite possibly the following one, expected in 130,000 years.

If human activity occurring over a century or two can irreversibly transform the global climate for tens of thousands of years, we are prompted to rethink history and social analysis as a purely intra-human affair.

How should we understand the disquieting fact that a mass of scientific evidence about the Anthropocene, an unfolding event of colossal proportions, has been insufficient to induce a reasoned and fitting response?

For many, the accumulation of facts about ecological disruption seems to have a narcotising effect, all too apparent in popular attitudes to the crisis of the Earth system, and especially among opinion-makers and political leaders. A few have opened themselves to the full meaning of the Anthropocene, crossing a threshold by way of a gradual but ever-more disturbing process of evidence assimilation or, in some cases, after a realisation that breaks over them suddenly and with great force in response to an event or piece of information in itself quite small.

Beyond the science, the few alert to the plight of the Earth sense that something unfathomably great is taking place, conscious that we face a struggle between ruin and the possibility of some kind of salvation.

So today the greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy. The indifference of most to the Earth system’s disturbance may be attributed to a failure of reason or psychological weaknesses; but these seem inadequate to explain why we find ourselves on the edge of the abyss.

How can we understand the miserable failure of contemporary thinking to come to grips with what now confronts us? A few years after the second atomic bomb was dropped, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a novel about the people of Nagasaki, a novel in which the bomb is never mentioned yet whose shadow falls over everyone. The Anthropocene’s shadow too falls over all of us.

Yet the bookshops are regularly replenished with tomes about world futures from our leading intellectuals of left and right in which the ecological crisis is barely mentioned. They write about the rise of China, clashing civilizations and machines that take over the world, composed and put forward as if climate scientists do not exist. They prognosticate about a future from which the dominant facts have been expunged, futurologists trapped in an obsolete past. It is the great silence.

I heard of a dinner party during which one of Europe’s most eminent psychoanalysts held forth ardently on every topic but fell mute when climate change was raised. He had nothing to say. For most of the intelligentsia, it is as if the projections of Earth scientists are so preposterous they can safely be ignored.

Perhaps the intellectual surrender is so complete because the forces we hoped would make the world a more civilised place – personal freedoms, democracy, material advance, technological power – are in truth paving the way to its destruction. The powers we most trusted have betrayed us; that which we believed would save us now threatens to devour us.

For some, the tension is resolved by rejecting the evidence, which is to say, by discarding the Enlightenment. For others, the response is to denigrate calls to heed the danger as a loss of faith in humanity, as if anguish for the Earth were a romantic illusion or superstitious regression.

Yet the Earth scientists continue to haunt us, following us around like wailing apparitions while we hurry on with our lives, turning around occasionally with irritation to hold up the crucifix of Progress. 

The Conversation(This is an edited extract from Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene, published last week. The extract was first published in the Guardian. )

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Advertisements




The banality of the Anthropocene

25 05 2017

It is often said that the biggest mistake humanity ever made was move from hunting-gathering to agriculture. This is easy to say with 20/20 hindsight and 10,000 plus years after the fact, but in my opinion, the biggest mistake we ever made was adopt fossil fuels, and misuse them. There’s no doubt fossil fuels have brought us many improvements, but I find it difficult to not wonder whether the advantages actually outweigh the disadvantages…….

Combine the two, and we have industrial farming. Now there was a major mistake. This insightful article from the Resillience website discusses this at length, and I recommend sharing it widely. Wherever you see written ‘Iowa’, insert wherever you live, because it’s appropriate for almost anywhere on the globe these days…. enjoy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Heather Anne Swanson

Heather Swanson

I want to propose an Anthropocene territorialization and a subject-making project in which anthropologists might want to engage. The territory of which I write is a place called Iowa.

There are plenty of troubling things about the Anthropocene. But to my mind, one of its most troubling dimensions is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.

For many living in precarious situations, the Anthropocene is already life-altering, life-threatening, and even deadly. It comes in the form of a massive flood or a rising tide that takes their homes away. Or as an oil well that poisons the river on which they depend.

But for others, especially the white and middle-class of the global North, the Anthropocene is so banal that they do not even notice it. It is the green front lawn, the strip-mall parking lot, the drainage ditch where only bullfrog tadpoles remain.

Iowa lies at the heart of this banal Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, here, is wholesome. It is the cornfield and the industrial pig farm. It is the 4-H county fair and eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July. It is precisely this banality, this routinized everydayness (see Arendt 1963), that makes the Iowa Anthropocene so terrifying.

I write of Iowa not from the outside, but from a place of connection. I, too, am Iowa. Without it, I would not be where I am. My mother and father were born and raised in Iowa, and its mid-twentieth-century agricultural modernization and postwar dreams for better futures propelled their upward mobility. It allowed them to get off the farm and become the first people in their families to go to college. Iowa’s industrial agriculture and its surpluses thus made my own scholarly career possible.

Indeed, we are all implicated in Iowa. We are all entangled with the everyday violences of industrial agriculture and nationalist projects in a way that substituting an organic latte for the hot dog or shopping at Whole Foods won’t solve. We cannot make ourselves clean. The urbanized coasts are made possible by the production of the heartland. New York is standing on Iowa (cf. Moore 2010).

How is it that Americans, especially white middle-class ones, learn not to notice such entanglements, to not be affected? How do we learn not to see the damage around us?

Inline_92283867_6ea9043798_o

Barn along Highway 1, south of Fairfield, Iowa. Photo by Ken K.

Iowa is objectively one of the most ruined landscapes in the United States, but its ruination garners surprisingly little notice. Less than 0.1 percent of the tallgrass prairie that once covered much of the state remains. You’ve seen the Anthropocene J-curves: the rise of atmospheric CO2, human population growth, and dammed rivers, to name a few (Steffen et al. 2015). The decline in Iowa prairie makes a reverse J. Between 1830 and 1910, Iowa lost a whopping 97 percent of its prairie acreage. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The reorientation of Iowa’s landscape toward capitalist agricultural production has resulted in the obliteration of worlds that once occupied it. The American Indians who carefully tended the prairie through burning and bison management have been forced out of the state. Nearly every acre has been privatized. Today Iowa ranks forty-ninth out of the fifty U.S. states in public land holdings.Ninety-nine percent of its marshes are gone. The level of its main aquifer has dropped by as much as three hundred feet since the nineteenth century, largely due to the extraction of irrigation water. Water quality is a mess, too. Between 2010 and 2015 more than sixty Iowa cities and towns had high nitrate levels in drinking water due to the leaching and run-off of agricultural fertilizers. And those same fertilizers wash down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where they have created an aquatic dead zone the size of Connecticut.

Few people, either within or beyond Iowa, notice the profundity of these changes. When my uncle, a farmer in northeast Iowa, gazes out at his cornfields, he does not see the annihilation of the prairie, the loss of the bison, or the displacement of American Indian communities. He does not notice the contamination of groundwater, even though he had to redig his well a few years ago due to bacterial seepage from a nearby pig farm. He simply shrugs off such things and wonders what the crop prices will be next year.

Blindness proliferates: when my uncle becomes blind to the violence of his own corn, he becomes blind to others in neighboring farmhouses, in the neighboring towns, in neighboring states. He cannot see Standing Rock, and he cannot see why Black Lives Matter might matter to him.

It isn’t exactly his fault that he doesn’t notice. White middle-class American subjectivities are predicated on not noticing. They are predicated on structural blindness: on a refusal to acknowledge the histories we inherit. As Deborah Bird Rose (2004) has shown in the case of Australian settler colonialism, dreaming of futures requires blindness to the past.

Michel Foucault’s work reminds us that the discourses that shape our subjectivities are not just words; they are also the bricks of the prison, the institutional form of the clinic (see Hirst 1995). But we have failed to see that they are also the monocrop cornfield. Iowa’s landscape infrastructure produces us and the Anthropocene. The cornfield is an assemblage that brings the so-called common good of progress and nationalist growth into being. It produces grain futures markets and cheap hamburgers. How can we better see its terrors and erasures?

One of these terrors is that there are countless Iowas beyond Iowa. I currently live in Denmark, where I am a member of a research project called Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA). One of my colleagues, Nathalia Brichet, uses the term “mild apocalypse” to draw attention to the normalized degradation of Danish landscapes. In the midst of Denmark’s rolling fields and highly managed forests, the Anthropocene continues to be stubbornly hard to see.

Donna Haraway has called for curiosity as both scholarly method and political practice, as an antidote to these learned blindnesses. In her book When Species Meet (Haraway 2008), she becomes curious about who and what she touches when she reaches out to pet her dog. That curiosity becomes a radical practice of tracing and inheriting histories, such as the dog-herding practices of livestock-based Australian colonization efforts and the making of purebred dogs. But in a world of structural blindness, such kinds of curiosity do not come naturally. They must be cultivated. But how? How, in the words of Joseph Dumit (2014), do we wake up to connections?

Can we imagine corollaries to Bible study meetings or consciousness-raising groups in which people would be encouraged to trace the histories of the landscapes they inhabit, a process that might draw them into new ways of seeing themselves and their worlds? I imagine such practices as a multispecies analogue to Foucauldian genealogy (see Foucault 1970). Might exploring the genealogies of Iowa cornfields, for example, denaturalize them and counter the power of their banality? Might they enable Iowans and all of us to become more curious about the conditions of our own subjectivities and, in turn, how we might transform the landscapes with which they are entangled? This is the important work of making curiosity more common, of troubling the Anthropocene.

References

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.

Dumit, Joseph. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 344–62.

Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon. Originally published in 1966.

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hirst, Paul. 1995. “Foucault and Architecture.” In Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments, Volume 4, edited by Barry Smart, 350–71. New York: Routledge.

Moore, Jason W. 2010. “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part One: The Alchemy of Capital, Empire, and Nature in the Diaspora of Silver, 1545–1648.” Journal of Agrarian Change 10, no. 1: 33–68.

Rose, Deborah Bird. 2004. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonization. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Steffen, Will, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. 2015. “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration.” Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1: 81–98.





Humanity is in the existential danger zone, study confirms

19 01 2015

The Conversation

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological time scales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.

This in the year that the UN climate change circus will pitch its tents in Paris. December’s Conference of the Parties will be the first time individual nations submit their proposals for their carbon emission reduction targets. Sparks are sure to fly.

The research, published in the journal Science, should focus the minds of delegates and their nations as it lays out in authoritative fashion how far we are driving the climate and other vital Earth systems beyond any safe operating space. The paper, headed by Will Steffen of the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk.

It argues climate change along with “biodiversity integrity” should be recognised as core elements of the Earth system. These are two of nine planetary boundaries that we must remain within if we are to avoid undermining the biophysical systems our species depends upon.

The original planetary boundaries were conceived in 2009 by a team lead by Johan Rockstrom, also of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with his co-authors, Rockstrom produced a list of nine human-driven changes to the Earth’s system: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, alteration of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, freshwater consumption, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol and chemical pollution. Each of these nine, if driven hard enough, could alter the planet to the point where it becomes a much less hospitable place on which to live.

The past 11,000 years have seen a remarkably stable climate. The name given to this most recent geological epoch is the Holocene. It is perhaps no coincidence that human civilisation emerged during this period of stability. What is certain is that our civilisation is in very important ways dependent on the Earth system remaining within or at least approximately near Holocene conditions.

This is why Rockstrom and co looked at human impacts in these nine different areas. They wanted to consider the risk of humans bringing about the end of the Holocene. Some would argue that we have already entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which recognises that Homo Sapiens have become a planet-altering species. But the planetary boundaries concepts doesn’t just attempt to quantify human impacts. It seeks to understand how they may affect human welfare now, and in the future.

It’s been a stable 11,000 years.
Steffen et al

The 2009 paper proved to be very influential, but it also attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, it has been argued that some of the boundaries are not in fact global in scale. There are very large regional variations in consumption of freshwater and phosphorus fertiliser pollution, for instance.

Phosphorous pollution in croplands.
Steffen et al

That means that while globally we may be in the green, there could be an increasing number of regions that are deep in the red.

Updated boundaries

The latest research develops the methodology so that it now includes regional evaluations. For example it assesses basin-level freshwater use and biome-level species extinction rates. It also includes a new boundary of “novel entities” – new forms of life and novel compounds the likes of which the Earth system has not experienced and so impact of which is extremely challenging to assess. Ozone-depleting CFCs are perhaps the best example of how a seemingly inert substance can produce planetary damage.

Tree cover remaining in the world’s major forest biomes.
Steffen et al

The paper also gives an update on where we stand on some of the planetary boundaries. At first sight, it looks as though there may be some good news in that climate change is no longer in the red. But then closer inspection reveals that a new yellow “zone of uncertainty with increasing risk” has been added to the previous green and red classification.

2/9ths into the red.
Steffen et al

Climate change impacts are firmly within this new yellow zone. Our atmosphere currently has about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. To recover back to the green zone we still need to get back to 350ppm – the same precautionary boundary as before.

Perhaps most importantly the research produces a two-tier hierarchy in which climate change and biosphere integrity are recognised as the core planetary boundaries through which the others operate. This makes sense: life and climate are the main columns buttressing our continual existence within the Holocene. Weakening them risks amplifying other stresses on other boundaries.

Reasons not to be cheerful

And so to the very bad news. Given the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of the Earth’s climate and the other planetary boundaries, it is with real dismay that this study adds yet more evidence to the already burgeoning pile that concludes we appear to be doing our best to destroy it as fast as we possibly can.

Extinction rates are very hard to measure but the background rate – the rate at which species would be lost in the absence of human impacts – is something like ten a year per million species. Current extinction rates are anywhere between 100 to 1000 times higher than that. We are possibly in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.





Forget ‘saving the Earth’ – it’s an angry beast that we’ve awoken

28 05 2014

The Conversation

 

Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton

Article by Clive Hamilton, Vice Chancellor’s Chair, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

Originally published here.

Extreme fire is part of life in places like San Diego, USA, pictured earlier this month. But local fire captain Richard Cordova says it’s “very odd for the month of May to have these types of fires”. Michael Nelson/EPA

Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to “save the planet” and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.

Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as “the wakened giant” and “the ornery beast”, a planet that is “fighting back” and seeking “revenge”, and a new era of “angry summers” and “death spirals”.

Whether you consider yourself to be an environmentalist or not, the warnings from Earth system science have far-reaching implications for us all.

Nature fights back

In its early days, the science of ecology showed how easily complex ecosystems could be degraded and species obliterated. In 1962, by observing the damage to humans and nature caused by factories and industrial agriculture, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring presented nature as highly vulnerable to destruction by the power of synthetic chemicals.

The early view of nature as fragile, that is, easily disrupted and unable to repair itself, has been tempered somewhat by evidence that many ecosystems are more resilient and can adapt to new circumstances.

But whether fragile or robust, the Earth has been understood as unresponsive, neutral and essentially benign.

This understanding has various expressions, including “Mother Earth” as nurturing, feminine and easily damaged entity. The notion of living harmoniously with nature took hold, inspired by images of pre-industrial peoples living close to the natural world.

Underlying these conceptions is a view that, while humans can cause a great deal of damage, nature is passive and always our victim.

Yet now we see that the planet has been disturbed from its resting state, jolted out of the providential era of climatic stability characteristic of the last 10,000 years, and is now on a new and largely uncontrollable path that is creating conditions dangerous for human life.

Seeing the bigger picture

The rise of Earth system science – which has brought together many different fields of science so that we can better understand how the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and other systems work together – has changed the way we see the world.

Now, the Earth is understood as a dynamic system with strong feedback effects, which can suddenly shift it to a new state when critical points are crossed.

So profound has been the influence of humans that scientists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, defined by the fact that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.

NASA explains the basics of Earth systems science.

 

As Earth scientist James Syvitski writes:

At some point, we graduated from adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us … But now we regularly decelerate and accelerate natural processes, focus energy in extraordinary ways and alter, destroy or create ecosystems.

That means we must no longer see the Earth as the submissive repository for supplying our resources or taking our wastes, nor as the docile victim of our rapacity or carelessness.

This newer understanding of the Earth has been vividly expressed by palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker:

The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.

When the Earth is understood this way, the task of environmentalism can no longer be to “save” or preserve the planet, for the planet we wanted to save has already become something else. Our task now is to do what we can to pacify, or at least not aggravate further, something vastly more powerful than we are.

If we have wakened the slumbering beast by poking and prodding it, the prudent course is firstly to stop. But we cannot put it back to sleep.

There is no return to the peaceful conditions of the Holocene, at least not for thousands of years; but to provoke it further, as we still are, is foolishness on an epic scale.

Respect, not love

Yes, the Earth still demands our respect, but it is a respect founded on trepidation rather than love. If we are inclined to think of the planet as Gaia, we would do better to regard it not as the all-loving, all-nurturing Mother Earth of the romantics, but more like the half-crazed, bloodthirsty and vindictive goddess of the original Greek tales.

Some like French philosopher Michel Serres have argued we must negotiate a new contract with nature. Under the terms of this natural contract humanity would reject mastery “in favour of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect”. The contract would grant nature rights and make reparations.

Twenty years ago, that kind of thinking seemed to make sense. But today we must ask whether the Earth, roused from its slumber, is in any mood to sign a contract with us.

Earth system science now teaches us that the planet to which we might have hoped to graciously offer a peace deal – the receptive, predictable object of our exploitation and neglect – existed only in our imaginations.

The Earth does not want our love. Instead of talking restitution, would we perhaps be wiser to be preparing for retribution?

This article is based on a speech at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.





The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)

 

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

*          *          *

The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

*          *          *

Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

*          *          *

The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

*          *          *

Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

*          *          *

Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.