Whence this Anthropocene?

Over the last few days I've been a party to a very interesting twitter exchange (as a bystander, mostly) among The New York Times' Andy Revkin, Grist's Nathanael Johnson, author/ecophilosopher Clive Hamilton, and University of Syndey professor Christopher Wright. At question is the nature of the Anthropocene and whether any silver lining can be wrested from a future that looks to be highlighted by Earth's sixth greatest extinction. You can get a sense of this exchange by checking out this conversation on the subject among Revkin, Hamilton, and Johnson. 

Whether there is anything 'good' about the Anthropocene, now or in the future, is a difficult question. A year ago I would have argued an unequivocal no, but six months ago my wife and I had a baby nearly 3 months premature. She's thriving, but without modern medicine she likely wouldn't have made it through the night. I think that's a good thing. 

Civilization has excelled at making a few people marginally more comfortable, but the cost has been the destruction of millions of years of cultural and biological diversity.

Yet, I've argued elsewhere that it is itself an injustice to promote benefits of climate change, which is unequivocally a product of the Anthropocene, when so many people are suffering (and will suffer) as a result. Indeed, injustice is arguably part of the fabric of modern civilization: it has excelled at making a few people marginally more comfortable, but the cost has been the destruction of millions of years of cultural and biological diversity. Calling modern medicine or the internet or even Beethoven's 5th Symphony 'good' is a difficult moral pill to swallow if you take the long view when calculating costs and benefits. And I believe that any talk of an 'Anthropocene' requires that we take a long view; it is being proposed as a geological epoch, after all.

As a bit of an important sidebar I want to note that "Anthropocene" is a terrible name, one inconsistent with the naming of other geological epochs. Paleocene, for example, means "older," Eocene means "dawn of new (modern)," and Holocene means "entirely recent," all of which refer to the fauna and flora represented in the geological record. Anthropocene, however. means "man recent," which breaks the convention of choosing names that describe global trends in biodiversity. A more accurate term would be something along the lines of "Apolecene", after apóleia, the Ancient Greek word for destruction. 

More to the point, "Anthropocene" is also factually inaccurate: anatomically modern humans were present for most if not all of the Pleistocene. Yet the name (especially when used as a short hand for environmental degradation) effectively places blame for all of the environmental challenges of today on our species as a whole. It is not humanity itself that has caused these problems, however, it is civilized humanity. The philosophy that nature was made for man and man was made to control it, which author Daniel Quinn argues is the philosophy that got us to the problems we now call the Anthropocene, is only a few thousand years old. Its an anomaly as far as human nature goes, perhaps even a pathology.

We can devise ways to keep building on the good things about our societies without perpetuating the costs that we’ve become so adept at ignoring.

Yet here we are, in an anachronistic world that has Beethoven's 5th and neonatal care that may as well be magic it is so amazing, but that is also plagued with deforestation, extinction, ocean acidification, and two billion undernourished people. I agree that guilt and restraint are not the messages that are going to inspire a sustainability revolution. The question, in my mind, is less about good versus bad and more about our potential to be way better. We are creative; we can devise ways to keep building on the good things about our societies without perpetuating the costs that we've become so adept at ignoring.

What we can't do is think of the Anthropocene as simply a new set of operating parameters for business as usual, which is exactly what people do when they look at climate change and see only business opportunities. Change is coming whether we like it or not, and the magnitude of ecological overshoot that we have gotten ourselves into is so great that I am skeptical that there's any way to correct it without much more human and biological devastation. 

What I am sure about is that we can't mistake the destination for the path we need to take to get there. We do need to devise transformative ways for living sustainably such that our lives and livelihoods are closely coupled to the land and seascapes around us. Yet, we also need to attend to how we get there and how we get other people there, lest we want a sustainable future built on genocide of unequaled proportion.