Is the Anthropocene Doomed?

By Keith Kloor | January 29, 2013 3:10 pm

It’s not often that an aging social movement gets a chance to redefine and reinvigorate itself. Environmentalism has that opportunity now, with the Anthropocene, which National Geographic has dubbed, The Age of Man. What does that mean? As I recently wrote in Slate, the Anthropocene represents a

growing scientific consensus that the contemporary human footprint—our cities, suburban sprawl, dams, agriculture, greenhouse gases, etc.—has so massively transformed the planet as to usher in a new geological epoch.

This sounds like The Age of Man is bad for humanity and the earth. But that’s too simplistic. As The Economist noted in its 2011 cover story:

The advent of the Anthropocene promises more, though, than a scientific nicety or a new way of grabbing the eco-jaded public’s attention. The term “paradigm shift” is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real.

The question is, what would this new paradigm shift signify? Might it offer a fresh new lens to view the future? Or will it merely reinforce the bleak view that environmentalists have held for the past 40 years?

The answer to that rides on the narrative that emerges from the public discourse on the Anthropocene.

This is where environmental scientists, green activists and eco-minded writers come in. They are the ones that shape the meta-narrative, which the media picks up on and amplifies. By that measure, the chances for a re-imagined environmentalism are small.

As I said in that Slate piece, leading earth scientists

publish high-profile papers warning “that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth” to an irreversible tipping point. They issue reports from prestigious science societies warning about a finite planet being run into the ground. Some hold glitzy, international symposiums that put humanity on a mock trial for the global imprint of its civilization.

The common thread: The Anthropocene is an unmitigated disaster. Humans are planet wreckers. Time is running out for us. 

This was the general picture that Will Steffen portrayed in his keynote speech at the recent Anthropocene Project conference in Berlin. (I love that title; it sounds like a Robert Ludlum thriller.)

Steffen, to his credit, didn’t overplay the collapse theme. He didn’t say doomsday was knocking at the door. However, he did make it clear that he believed the ominous footsteps of peak oil, resource scarcity, runaway climate change, and the “sixth extinction” were edging closer and that we should not ignore them.

Steffen is actually much sunnier than the grim voices that tend to frame environmental discourse.

Like that of Chris Hedges, who, several years ago, wrote in the magazine that triggered Occupy Wall Street:

We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.

Or like that of Paul Kingsnorth, the British environmentalist who has retreated into his own private Edenic wilderness, where he lauds the Unabomber in the glossy pages of Orion magazine:

Unlike many other critics of the technosphere, who are busy churning out books and doing the lecture circuit and updating their anarcho-primitivist websites, [Ted] Kaczynski wasn’t just theorizing about being a revolutionary. He meant it.

He sure did!

You have to admit, it doesn’t sound as if people like Hedges and Kingsnorth are keen on the Anthropocene. Are they outliers or merely representative of a darker strain of environmentalism? Perhaps for a larger perspective we should turn to a respected elder statesman, someone with stature in the Big Nature world– like David Attenborough, who recently called humanity a “plague on the earth.”

Oops. Let’s move on.

Maybe the UK’s Royal Society, an august scientific institution, can inject a little sanity into this discussion. It just so happens that Paul and Ann Ehrlich have recently posed a relevant question in a paper the Royal Society published. It’s called,  “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”

That would be important to know. Let’s find out what they have to say:

Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely.

Damn. Maybe Kingsnorth in his Orion piece isn’t such an outlier, after all. He writes:

Our civilization is beginning to break down. We are at the start of an unfolding economic and social collapse, which may take decades or longer to play out—and which is playing out against the background of a planetary ecocide that nobody seems able to prevent.

At this point, you might be asking: Are there any signs of light in this dark and utterly depressing view of humanity’s future? Fortunately, there is, as I discussed here. I’ve also become enchanted with a group of young scholars at Stanford, who are not taking predictions of doomsday at face value. Bless their hearts, they even seem to think that “the narrative of apocalypse has changed in the shadow of the Anthropocene.”

If only.

[This is the first of a two-part exploration of the Anthropocene discourse. Part two will be posted tomorrow.]

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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