After my talk at the RSA London on March 12, 2015, Rowan Hooper, News Editor at New Scientist, has interviewed me about my perspective on the new epoch shaped by humans:
The Anthropocene geological era is not just the sum of our environmental problems, says Christian Schwägerl. It may also prove to be the age of humility
What does the term Anthropocene – the proposed name for the geological era we live in – mean to you?
Many people view the Anthropocene merely as the sum of all environmental problems. For me it is also the process of becoming aware of our collective responsibility in shaping the future Earth. Can we create a better or even positive geological record that will later tell the story of a planet that regenerated from exploitation?
Isn’t there a danger that if we define it as a geological era it will do the opposite and absolve people of responsibility?
There’s a risk that the Anthropocene idea is misunderstood as human entitlement to control planet Earth. That interpretation couldn’t be more wrong. The Anthropocene should be the age of responsibility, cooperation, creativity, inventiveness and humility. Fortunately, I see the debate moving in this direction.
A paper in Nature this week looked at arguments for an official start date for the Anthropocene. What’s your view?
The working group on the Anthropocene – part of the International Union of Geological Sciences – favours a date around 1950, because nuclear explosions and the start of modern consumerism really started to have long-term effects on the biosphere.
So how can we make something positive out of the Anthropocene?
The biggest challenge is to become less anthropocentric: we should stop optimising the planet for our short-term needs. Our economic system needs to start valuing healthy rainforest and the interests of future inhabitants of Earth. An anthropocentric Anthropocene would be very short.
How do you suggest we bring about such a change?
I’d like to see new cultural practices arise that express gratitude for what the planet does for us, even a sense of humility. Then perhaps in the future things will be totally reversed. Instead of one Earth Day per year, there will be 364. Once a year, we’ll have an Anti-Earth-Day and allow ourselves to destroy habitats, hunt rare animals, mess with the climate and put toxins in the water. That would act as a strange reminder of the early Anthropocene.
Can this year’s climate summit can succeed where the others have failed?
Paris 2015 may be the last chance to agree on global carbon dioxide reductions before there are so many greenhouse gases in the air and the oceans that things get really nasty. To succeed it would be good not to frame CO2 reduction as „burden-sharing“ any longer but as an opportunity for a prosperous future and as a gigantic call for new research and development in energy, agriculture and materials.
Also, the UN conferences need better food. The „Conference of the Parties“, as the meeting is called officially, should have more actual parties, with great food and drinks from around the globe. Environmentalism should be less sour and more celebratory about life.
How can our economic model be changed?
In my book I offer a fictional scenario. A powerful green movement arises in China and forces governments to act. As a result, the $500 billion global subsidies paid for fossil fuels today get diverted to renewable energies and materials. The future is no longer discounted in the ground rules of the economy. Do we hand over our future to the fossil fuel lobby and 90 super-rich people, or will there be an Anthropocene democracy?
You said we have to get out of the mindset of „Holocene thinking“. What do you mean by this?
Holocene thinking rests on the assumption that there is this big, inexhaustible alien space out there that we call the environment, from where we can get our raw materials and foods and where we can dump our waste. In my book, I describe how the environment becomes the „invironment“ in the Anthropocene – something we are deeply connected with.
What one thing could people do to help get us out of the mess we’re in?
Don’t get colonised by destructive industries. Enjoy breathing, eating, being in a forest or a green city space, enjoy helping others, paying attention to the colours and smells and creatures around you. In the Anthropocene we might one day cherish a square metre of untouched wilderness as much as a painting of the same size by Van Gogh or Cézanne.
Copyright New Scientist, 2015