Our Home in the Anthropocene

What do we call the age we live in? After realizing that humans had recomposed Earth's chemistry and overwritten its face, the chemist Paul Crutzen and his colleague Eugene Stoermer floated the label Anthropocene, or “the recent age of man." Minus the very deep trenches of the oceans wilderness of the world is largely gone in its "pristine" or "untouched" states. But even the chemical composition of the deep waters of the world are changing as the developed people of the world change the earth's surface and climate.

Over the last few years, more people are advocating shifting our epoch's label from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. From environmentalists like Vandana Shiva to mainstream publications National Geographic (image at right), the Economist, the New York Times, the term is taking off. It's even in the scientific literature.

But the merit of the Anthropocene is contested. To get a sense of why, you can get a rundown at Breakthrough Journal where Erle Ellis argues for it and others, like Bill McKibben, respond. There are some, like Ellis or Bjorn Lomborg who see the Anthropocene as an age of technological advance, discovery, and growth. They see progress. Ellis writes, "our unprecedented and growing powers also allow us the opportunity to create a planet that is better for both its human and nonhuman inhabitants. It is an opportunity that we should embrace." But McKibben and Shiva (who writes elsewhere) see unchecked technological advance and growth as the problem. There are limits. Shiva writes,
"If we continue to understand our role in the old paradigm of capitalist patriarchy based on a mechanistic world view, an industrial, capital centered competitive economy, and a culture of dominance, violence, and war and ecological and human irresponsibility, we will witness the rapid unfolding of increasing climate catastrophe, species extinction economic collapse, and human injustice and inequality."
Whether they like it or not, they agree that humans are the primary ecological force on the planet.

But what does it look like? The obvious answer is to just look around. The National Geographic story above has some artful pictures at this gallery. And here I include a short video clip from Globaïa's "Welcome to the Anthropocene" and a trailer for Yann Arthus-Bertrand's film Home.


Near the end of Home, the narrator calls for us to build a world using the principles of intelligence, cooperation, and moderation. The devil's advocate in me might say we've made a world with the first two. Yeah, a lot of people will say there's a lack of intelligent people in the world. But Noam Chomsky's reflection on Ernst Mayr comes to mind, that "higher intelligence" is very rare in evolutionary history and that our intelligence combined with our capacities to cooperate on some things has have created the interconnected technological, social, economic, political, and ecological crises. David Orr would call this an evolutionary wrong turn. Is higher intelligence ecologically stupid? Without moderation it might be.

What does a moderated economy and civilization look like? That might just be the question sustainability asks us and the real challenge of sustainable development.

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