'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Saturday, April 11, 2015
Jedediah Purdy - Imagining the Anthropocene
NB: This is an extremely cogent and well-written article -DS The Anthropocene idea has been embraced by Earth scientists and English professors alike. But how useful is it?
Reflecting on a democratic Anthropocene becomes an
inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent – a state, or
even a movement – that could act on the scale of the problem. Indeed, it
reveals that there is no agent that could even define the
problem. If the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the
planet, well, there is no ‘humanity’ that agrees on any particular meaning and
imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc…This returns us to
the basic problem that the Anthropocene drives home: as Hannah Arendt observed
in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the idea of human
rights… is a chimera and a cruel taunt without a political community that can
make it good through robust institutions and practices. The Anthropocene shows
how far the world is from being such a polity, or a federation of such
polities, and how much is at stake in that absence. .. In the face of all these barriers, what could
all this talk about the Anthropocene possibly accomplish? Ironically, a useful
comparison lies in Arendt’s target, the mere idea of human rights. While mere
ideas are in fact sorry comforts in an unmanageable situation, they can be the
beginning of demands, projects, even utopias, that enable people to organise in
new ways to pursue them. The idea of human rights has gained much of its force
this way, as a prism through which many efforts are focused and/or refracted.
A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it
can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges
and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible
world, or a worse one…
Officially, for the past 11,700 years we have been living in
the Holocene epoch. From the Greek for ‘totally new’, the Holocene is an
eyeblink in geological time. In its nearly 12,000 years, plate tectonics has
driven the continents a little more than half a mile: a reasonably fit person
could cover the scale of planetary change in a brisk eight-minute walk. It has
been a warm time, when temperature has mattered as much as tectonics. Sea
levels rose 115 feet from ice melt, and northern landscapes rose almost
600 feet, as they shrugged off the weight of their glaciers.
But the real news in the Holocene has been people. Estimates
put the global human population between 1 million and 10 million at
the start of the Holocene, and keep it in that range until after the
agricultural revolution, some 5,000 years ago. Since then, we have made
the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the
Earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and industrial waste, the pollens
of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.
Rising sea levels are now our doing. As a driver of global change, humanity has
This is why, from the earth sciences to English departments,
there’s a veritable academic stampede to declare that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene –
the age of humans. Coined by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and
brought to public attention in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric
scientist Paul Crutzen, the term remains officially under consideration at the
Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London.
The lack of an official decision has set up the Anthropocene
as a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal
change in the human/nature relationship. The rise of agriculture in China and
the Middle East? The industrial revolution and worldwide spread of farming in
the Age of Empire? The Atomic bomb? From methane levels to carbon
concentration, from pollen residue to fallout, each of these changes leaves its
mark in the Earth’s geological record. Each is also a symbol of a new set of
human powers and a new way of living on Earth.
The most radical thought identified with the Anthropocene is
this: the familiar contrast between people and the natural world no longer
holds. There is no more nature that stands apart from human
beings. There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed. Our mark is
on the cycle of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA
that organises matter into life. The question is no longer how to preserve a
wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we
can’t help changing.
The discovery that nature is henceforth partly a human
creation makes the Anthropocene the latest of three great revolutions: three
kinds of order once thought to be given and self-sustaining have proved instead
to be fragile human creations. The first to fall was politics. Long seen as
part of divine design, with kings serving as the human equivalents of eagles in
the sky and oaks in the forest, politics proved instead a dangerous but
inescapable form of architecture – a blueprint for peaceful co‑existence, built
with crooked materials.
Second came economics. Once presented as a gift of providence
or an outgrowth of human nature, economic life, like politics, turned out to be
a deliberate and artificial achievement. (We are still debating the range of
shapes it can take, from Washington to Greece to China.) Now, in the
Anthropocene, nature itself has joined the list of those things that are not
natural. The world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.
The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents is
rooted in hundreds of eminently practical problems. The conversation about
climate change has shifted from whether we can keep greenhouse-gas
concentrations below key thresholds to how we are going to adapt when they
cross those thresholds. Geo‑engineering, deliberately intervening in planetary
systems, used to be the unspeakable proposal in climate policy. Now it is in
the mix and almost sure to grow more prominent. As climate change shifts
ecological boundaries, issues such as habitat preservation come to resemble
landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; they need
landscape-scale corridors and other help in migrating as their habitats move.
There is open talk in law-and-policy circles about triage in species
preservation – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save... read more: