NYT DotEarth: A good Anthropocene?

New York Times Anthropozän

New York Times “Dot Earth” blogger Andy Revkin ran my perspective on the question whether a “good Anthropocene” is possible. Here’ the link the the blog and here is my text:

Is a “good Anthropocene” possible? Having explored the Anthropocene idea over the past eight years in my book, the large cultural-scientific “Anthropocene Project” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and an ongoing special exhibition at Deutsches Museum in Munich, I find it laudable that the recently published “Ecomodernist Manifesto” of the Breakthrough Institute attempts to encourage a debate about this question.

Fostering a more positive, optimistic reading of Paul Crutzen’s and Eugene Stoermer’s idea of a geological epoch shaped by human actions is not against the spirit of the Anthropocene concept, despite claims of the Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton in his recent blistering critiques of the Manifesto, titled “The Technofix is in” and an even harsher attack called “’The Theodicy of the ‘Good Anthropocene’” presented to the Breakthrough Institute’s recent dialogue session in Sausalito.

Seeking a good path in a turbulent era, an endeavor also undertaken in different form by Andy Revkin, who runs this blog, is in my eyes a necessity.

Like hundreds of millions of people, I share the fear of runaway global warming and ocean acidification, of losing the richness of life forms we humans share the planet with, of plastic and other toxics substances contaminating the biosphere. Having witnessed a lot of these problems firsthand over the past 25 years as a science and political reporter, I know that Hamilton’s concerns are well founded.

But it is not true, as Hamilton writes, that Paul Crutzen was solely driven by “anxiety” and a negative outlook when he framed and developed the Anthropocene idea. It was not Erle Ellis or the Breakthrough Institute who first speculated about a “good Anthropocene”, but Crutzen himself.

Even in his seminal Nature article of 2002, “Geology of mankind,” Crutzen concluded a long list of environmental problems with a call for “scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene” – with that, Crutzen defined his own vision of a “good Anthropocene” as a goal.

In a 2007 article in Ambio journal, Crutzen, together with climate scientist Will Steffen and environmental historian John McNeill, described three “stages” of the Anthropocene: Stage 1 is the Industrial Era from 1800-1945; stage 2 is defined as the “Great Acceleration” from “1945-ca. 2015″’ stage 3 is a hypothetical new era starting in 2015 in which humans act as “stewards of the Earth System.” In this part of the article, Crutzen, Steffen and McNeill describe a number of factors that could support a change for the better:

“The growing awareness of human influence on the Earth System has been aided by i) rapid advances in research and understanding, the most innovative of which is interdisciplinary work on human-environment systems; ii) the enormous power of the internet as a global, self-organizing information system; iii) the spread of more free and open societies, supporting independent media; and iv) the growth of democratic political systems, narrowing the scope for the exercise of arbitrary state power and strengthening the role of civil society. Humanity is, in one way or another, becoming a self-conscious, active agent in the operation of its own life support system.”

What follows in this paper are three scenarios for how the future might play out:
— a business-as-usual scenario with “collapse of modern, globalized society under uncontrollable environmental change” as one possible outcome;
— a “mitigation” scenario with improved technology and changes in societal values and individual behavior triggering a “transition of our globalizing society towards a much more sustainable one”;
— finally a “geo-engineering” scenario in which options are weighed, including the “possibility for unintended and unanticipated side effects that could have severe consequences.”

In this important paper, Crutzen, Steffen and McNeill describe the Anthropocene future as inherently open, with both negative and positive potentials. They warn that “the Great Acceleration is reaching criticality.” But at the same time, radically different pathways become possible through “innovative, knowledge-based solutions.”

The authors conclude: “Whatever unfolds, the next few decades will surely be a tipping point in the evolution of the Anthropocene.”
When I interviewed Crutzen for my book and the catalogue of the Anthropocene exhibition (on display until next year at the Deutsches Museum — the German Technology Museum), he pointed out that he doesn’t define himself as an “optimist.” Nevertheless, he saw reasons for hope. So Clive Hamilton and others should really be more careful when rejecting the notion of a “good Anthropocene” as against its originator. While I share many of his fears and can relate to a sense of despair in light of continued growth in CO2 emissions, habitat destruction and plastic pollution in the oceans, I see many reasons why it is absolutely necessary to explore and pursue the possibility of a “good Anthropocene.”

Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change. Constant warnings about an imminent ecological doomsday might turn out to be counterproductive as they encourage short-term thinking and an eleventh-hour panic. If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, would I really plant an apple tree? I, for one, would prefer to eat apple cake.

Defining the Anthropocene as “not good” discourages the development of concrete and attractive alternatives to the rampant destruction caused by the currently dominant economic ideology which is blind to the multi-dimensional values of nature. An Anthropocene defined as the mere sum of all environmental havoc would present humanity as stuck in this crisis for an entire geological epoch and could actually become misinterpreted as an entitlement by those who are driving forces of environmental destruction. Those critics who call the Anthropocene the “Capitalocene” to blame Western lifestyles for all ills don’t seem to understand that they are, in essence, ceding this epoch to the dominant economic model. Instead of literally carving today’s problems in stone, it would be better to strive toward an Anthropocene that gives all humans equal influence or even extends political representation beyond the human sphere.
Strangely, doomsday environmentalism and destructive capitalism have a couple of things in common: for one, a certain future-blindness. Capitalism devalues all future life with its emphasis on quarterly earnings. Likewise, certain environmentalists don’t think beyond a self-chosen threshold of predicted global self-destruction — be it a year, say, 2050 or a number like 2 (degrees Celsius of warming). Secondly, what current capitalism and doomsday environmentalists share is a tendency to frame nature and resources as scarce, when they aren’t. This raises prices for commodities and helps draw attention to scary eco-headlines, but it stops us from developing a really intimate relationship with the circular, networked and plentiful nature of living nature.

Framing nature as scarce and as doomed due to the existence of humans makes it hard for hundreds of millions of people in the younger generation to connect with the living world in a healthy and positive way and to experience its abundance and richness.
In any debate there are optimists and pessimists, pragmatics and utopians. With his approach, Clive Hamilton injects a darkness that hopefully helps others to think more positively. Ultimately what is needed are not more scenarios of Anthropocene Apocalypse but more ideas of how a “good Anthropocene” might emerge with the help of new societal values, new economic rules, landmark political decisions, individual behavior changes and, yes, new technologies.

But does this mean that the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” is a particularly convincing articulation of a good Anthropocene? Not at all. The Breakthrough Institute essay is full of outdated ideas that have actually contributed to the very problems we are faced with today. The manifesto’s central idea of “conscious decoupling” from nature by technological solutions independent from surrounding ecosystems is what has brought us over-industrialized agriculture with zero regard for the planet and the people around it. What is needed in the Anthropocene, in my view, is the opposite: “conscious coupling” – a re-integration of human civilization into the fabric of life.
True, the idea of “conscious decoupling” is deeply rooted in the environmental movement, as Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute claims. As early as the 1970s, “deep ecologist” Paul Shephard, developed the misanthropic notion that the whole of humanity should be ghettoized in cities, giving the rest of the planet over to a nature devoid of humans. Shephard wanted to resettle the entire human race into coastal regions and change their eating habits to bacterial products and algae. The only permissible way for people to travel into the inner wilderness of the continents would be on foot; this space “could be freed for ecological and evolutionary systems on a scale essential to their own requirements and to human synergetic culture.” Is this the ultimate goal of the Ecomodernist manifesto? What Shepard described was a totalitarian program, killing off tens of thousands of regional cultures and the deep connections between people and land that have grown over 12,000 years of post-glacial civilization. In the New Yorker, Michelle Nijhuis poignantly described why the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” is an intellectual Cul-de-Sac.
Another flaw in the manifesto is the way it mischaracterizes renewable energies and presses for building new nuclear power plants. To write this at a time when wind energy has become the cheapest form of newly installed electricity production and when thousands of people still can’t return to their homes in the Fukushima disaster zone seems quite bizarre. Thirdly, beyond prescribing quick techno-fixes that haven’t worked in the past, the manifesto offers close to nothing aimed at moderating consumption, societal values, economic rules and inequitable influence. While disguising itself as ecological, the manifesto tries to hijack the Anthropocene idea for the benefit of very centralized power structures like big ag and the nuclear industry. Finally, ending the manifesto with the vision of a “great” Anthropocene really is making nonsense of this precious idea. What is needed is more humility in the face of daunting problems, not more boastfulness.

Taken together, the manifesto is “modernist” only in the sense of a 20th century modernism that saw the American Way of Life as the ultimate solution to everything. This type of modernity died conceptually some time ago but keeps producing zombie landscapes and zombie economic practices around the planet.

There’s a desperate need for eco-postmodernist strategies that reconnect our ways of life with Earth and help to turn consumerist materialism into what political scientist Jane Bennett has called “vital materialism” or what Pope Francis has described as an intimate connection with all beings alive in his recent encyclical “Laudato Si”. Moving beyond anthropocentrism is a central challenge. An anthropocentric Anthropocene would be short, ugly and, in the words of E.O. Wilson, lonely.

In my book and in a talk I gave at the Royal Institution in London in March this year, I explore a “good Anthropocene” ¬based on conscious coupling, a renewable economy, bioadaptive technologies, decentralized power systems and a biocultural transformation.

There shouldn’t be only one “good Anthropocene”, however. The idea of a world with a homogenous eco-friendly lifestyle, a green version of Silicon Valley’s totalitarian Singularity ideology, is also a bit scary. What we need are millions of diverse and competing attempts to work towards good Anthropocene practices – and constant reminders that, at the moment, what we are heading for – because of a lack of deep economic, political, societal and technological changes – indeed appears to be some form of “dark Anthropocene.”

Christian Schwägerl is a Berlin-based journalist, author and biologist. He is regularly writing for GEO magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper, Yale E360 and other media outlets. Christian has written three books: “Menschenzeit”, published in German in 2010 by Riemann-Verlag re-edited in 2014 as “The Anthropocene” by Synergetic Press; “11 Looming Wars”, with Andreas Rinke, published in 2012 by C. Bertelsmann Verlag; and “The Analogue Revolution”, published in 2014 by Riemann-Verlag. His first book has inspired “The Anthropocene Project”, a three-year collaboration at Haus der Kulturen der Welt cultural center in Berlin, for which he has acted as a co-founder and board member, as well as the ongoing special exhibition about the Anthropocene at the Deutsches Museum, for which he worked as a co-curator. Schwägerl is head of the Robert Bosch foundation’s Masterclass on the “Future of Science Journalism.”

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