Facing Up to the Anthropocene

By Keith Kloor | June 20, 2014 9:13 am

Several years ago, I wrote about about an insurrection in the environmental movement. A new group of greens–called eco-pragmatists–had taken on the old nature-centric guard, which still held sway but also had rendered environmentalism anachronistic and ill-equipped to address complex 21st century challenges, such as climate change.

It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. The latter, I wrote:

has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.  Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read Yale historian Paul Sabin’s “The Bet,” which chronicles environmentalism’s incessant warnings of imminent doom since 1968. (I recently reviewed the book here.) Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:

Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.

This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet. 

The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined:

Both [green] modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.

Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” which, as he explains, has quotation marks “around the adjective ‘good’ to stress that values determine choices.”

A number of people took offense to the notion of a “good” Anthropocene.

Kolbert was referring to this piece by Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic and writer, which he quickly expanded into an essay for Scientific American entitled, “The New Environmentalism Will Lead us to Disaster.” Whatever legitimate points Hamilton makes about humans being a novel force of nature are undermined by his ad hominem rhetoric, such as when he characterizes the techno optimism/economic growth-infused arguments of eco-pragmatists as “music to the ears of conservatives.”

Revkin counters that Hamilton (in his first piece)

doesn’t deal with the core argument of my talk (the need for a shift in goals from numerical outcomes to societal qualities) and instead focuses on my use of the word “good” in relation to an era he clearly sees as awful.

Indeed, it appears that many of Revkin’s critics (or those sympathetic to Hamilton’s critique) are objecting strenuously to the Anthropocene being described as anything but awful.

This doesn’t bode well for environmentalism, which is already saddled with a doom and gloom reputation. Even more unfortunate–if you are a progressive green open to diverse perspectives– is the hostile attitude towards The Breakthrough Institute (BTI), an Oakland, California think tank that challenges green shibboleths. Those who are most passionate (and outspoken) about climate concerns seem to be the most dismissive of eco-pragmatists and often try to discredit them as a legitimate voice, by suggesting they are part of the problem and not the solution.

It’s worth reminding folks that the contemporary green movement has a rich history of robust disagreement among its leading activists and theorists. Think Paul Ehrlich vs Barry Commoner (as nicely described in “The Bet” ) or Murray Bookchin vs Dave Foreman.

After my 2012 Slate piece came out, Bryan Walsh at Time magazine wrote a thoughtful, largely sympathetic critique. His interpretation of eco-pragmatism:

The message of the modernist greens is: in a world of 7 billion plus people, all of whom want (and deserve) to live modern, consuming lives, we need to be pragmatic about how we use—and how much we protect—nature. We don’t have any other choice, so we’d better start dealing with the realities on the ground.

But Walsh was torn about the implications of this:

I can’t shake the feeling that what modernist green movement represents what is essentially the negotiated surrender of the natural world against the forces of industrialization and globalization. Maybe there’s no other way, and maybe it’s best to face up to those realities as pragmatically as we can. But we may be surrendering something precious along the way.

Walsh is right. There is no other way, unless you want to wind back the clock to…go ahead, choose another time in history you would prefer to live in.

As for me, I’ll take the Anthropocene, with no regrets. I have a quality of life unprecedented in the history of humanity and I think everyone on the planet deserves to enjoy the same privileges and opportunities I have. This means much of the world has to still modernize for billions of people to enjoy higher living standards. You can’t wave a magic wand to achieve that. It’s going to require massive economic development and massive outlays of energy that is going to stress the planet. There is no way around that.

How we manage this challenge, how we meet the needs and aspirations of all of humanity while sustaining the planet’s ecology, is what the Anthropocene is all about. And I’m fine with that.

  • Richard_Arrett

    Nice post I agree with you 100%.

    In addition to massive economic development and massive outlays of energy, I think the future will also require massive innovation and invention.

    We really need to figure out ways to produce non-carbon energy cheaper than gas, oil and coal – which we have not done yet. We need to invent that and fund research towards those inventions.

    We need to invent really cheap solar powered stoves, desalination technology and water filtration technology for the 3000000000 people still cooking over open fires and with no access to fresh clean water.

    One nice thing about 7 billion people (soon to be 9 billion) is that there is lots of brains that can work on inventing our way out of our problems.

    Exciting times and lots of business opportunities.

    • http://www.emmaclowrey.com Emma Lowrey

      I agree with you, look forward to future inventions!

  • The Batman

    No, we need to live like Ewoks on vegan communes.

  • mem_somerville

    I am often bemused by the furious typing of the aged and well-fed, on their laptops and iPhones, which use reliable power generation, to hear how outraged they are that we aren’t taking a path to the 18th century. Or something, I couldn’t really tell from Hamilton’s screed what his solution is.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      “I couldn’t really tell from Hamilton’s screed what his solution is.”
      That’s because he didn’t offer one. His argument is philosophical, and like many in his camp, he willfully ignores the energy math and realities of developing world that wants to live and consume like America.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Actually, that energy math in the developing world is part of the worry of many of us non-pragmatists.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          So what’s your solution?

          • SocraticGadfly

            Carbon tariffs is the big part. Years before Krugman started talking about it, I said on my blog (same as my twitter handle) that the WTO allowed for carbon tariffs as long as an internal tax was at the same rate.

            Cap-and-trade is not enough. On the control/regulatory side, we have to have carbon tariffs to force everybody onto the same page.

            Around the edges, more?

            Cutting back on red meat in particular and meat in general, for both global warming and general environmentalism. More locally distributed power, not just in the developing world but the US. In the long term, as solar’s efficiency continues to improve, we’ll find that this is smarter than updating the current grid and trying to feed more renewable electricity into it.

          • JH

            Look at the world around you. Look at the underdeveloped countries that use no energy. They’re environmental disasters. Then look at energy intensive economies like the US and Europe. What do you see? Low birthrates, strong environmental protections. Right?

            Carbon! Hilarious. You’re the new anti-nukers, ruining the future because you’re too dim to see it.

  • Shredder

    Don’t forget the basics: number one is to reduce our emissions of GHGs. Whatever accomplishes that, I am fine with. In the short term, this means necessarily reductions of per capita energy use esp. in industrialized countries. We cannot invent our way out of this crisis in the short run. “Don’t worry be happy” is not going to cut it. The BTI glosses over this truth in its disparagement of traditional enviros. “The bet” and similar complaints are red herrings. Without telling the truth about what may happen if we don’t change, there is little incentive to change. I hope the BTI contributes to future solutions but their disparagement of those who tell the inconvenient short term truths about the need for energy use reduction is both technologically and politically counterproductive. Invention and investment is only one part of the solution, albeit a critically important one, and it is just plain stupid to ignore the more pressing short-term needs. The need for immediate and rapid reductions in emissions in the elephant in the room. Kudos to Obama for acting to empower the EPA while Congress twiddles its thumbs.

    • bobito

      “number one is to reduce our emissions of GHGs”

      This is certainly the goal. Expansion of Nuclear and Hydro will certainly help.

      Obama “acting” on coal doesn’t help unless we implement GHG free power to replace it. Solar and Wind are not up to the task of replacing the reliable power currently provided by coal.

      • Shredder

        That’s not accurate. We need to reduce the emissions from coal and other fossil fuel use, whether or not there is any “GHG free power to replace it.” If there is not, then we need to reduce our per capita energy use. Period.

        • bobito

          Reducing energy use would certainly be bucking the trend. How do you plan on selling that? Or are you happy with something that sounds good on paper?

          I guess we can takes steps to make energy more expensive… that way we can force poor people to reduce consumption and the rest of us can go on living our cushy lives…

          • Shredder

            That’s a ridiculous and ignorant argument, and the ad hominem is not helpful. Are you from the BTI? There is plenty of low hanging fruit – reducing waste is a big one, more efficient design (See: Bill Mc Donough) also, and more conservation, and the big kahuna of course is as you mention market solutions such as cap and trade or, my preference, a carbon tax which, if done as proposed by the Citizens Climate Lobby, would not penalize poor people at all but would absolutely be implemented in a way that is fair to all. many conservative economists support this including George Shultz who sits on the board of the CCL. See citizensclimatelobby.org and watch the news on this in the next couple of weeks. Bottom line is we have to reduce per capita energy use and we can do that without resorting to “sky is falling” arguments. This whole attack on traditional enviros is a complete, 100% straw-man.

          • bobito

            I technically asked how you would “sell” it, not do it.
            I don’t have a big problem with carbon tax, as long we implement taxes on imports from countries without carbon taxes so we aren’t just losing jobs here so the CO2 can be produced elsewhere.

            Also, a carbon tax obviously doesn’t create energy. Conservation and efficiency are ways to help, but there are more and more people on this planet wanting energy every day. Do you feel that by using less energy we can keep up with the additional demand? What is going to produce the base line power after we phase out coal?

            I suggested Nuclear and Hydro. You have suggested we use less energy and tax carbon.

          • Shredder

            Right, I am focusing on the demand side, you are focusing on the supply side. No one really seems to be paying that much attention to the demand side; there seems to be this attitude that the only way to solve the problem is to come up with alternative supplies and just forget about reducing our energy use. I think that’s a mistake. By the way I am not categorically opposed to nuclear – if the obvious drawbacks can be resolved. and your population analysis seems rather haphazard, without data-driven predictions pf precisely how much energy will be demanded in the future. That seems quite variable to me, and population control will go a long way to mitigating that factor.

          • JH

            “population control”

            Game over right there.

          • Shredder

            What, got a problem with condoms? We’re not talking about forced abortion here.

          • Jeffn

            Look, if you believe in catastrophic AGW, then you believe we need to reduce emissions 90% or more. How big a tax do you need to accomplish that and what are the chances it will pass?
            A tax is an either an incentive to get people to stop doing something (smoking) or to do something else. Old environmentalism is the effort to use a tax to stop the use of energy- which won’t happen. Modern environmentalism is the effort to use something else- which at scale with current technology means hydro, nukes and gas.

          • Shredder

            I dont think you have really considered either the problem or the carbon tax solution. From James Hansen to George Shultz, many serious people have endorsed the carbon tax as a way to put a price on carbon, which is the only realistic way to reduce carbon emissions. there is also cap and trade which by the way is not dead at all – done right, and that’s a big caveat, it can be quite effective. “nukes and gas” are not sustainable, although they might be good temporary fixes.

          • Jeffn

            I’ve considered both for some time. A carbon tax could only reduce emissions by either encouraging something new or preventing people from doing what they’re doing today.
            The greens’ preferred “something new” doesn’t work (windmills and solar panels), they reject alternatives that work (nukes and gas), and their attempts at changing lifestyles with a tax now has a two-decade record of failure.
            In short- you want a carbon tax structured only in such a way that it couldn’t work.
            And the argument that nukes in particular are “unsustainable” is basically unscientific at this point.

          • Shredder

            First of all you are generalizing way too much. There is no such thing as “the greens.” Some “greens” acknowledge the utility of nuclear, others do not, same with gas, etc. More fundamentally, you need to address the problem of climate change as what has been recognized as the greatest externality in the history of economics. The C-tax effectively re-internalizes the externality. This will cure market distortions and enable renewable energy to compete. When you say “their attempts at changing lifestyles with a tax now has a two-decade record of failure” I have no idea what you are talking about. Nothing remotely close to a C tax has ever been tried. And another thing – it’s not a matter of whether one “believes” in AGW – it is a fact. Bottom line is we need to reduce GHG emissions. First the low hanging fruit – waste, efficiency, conservation can make strides without compromising our standard of living. After that, we will have to make hard choices – but not doing that will be more costly in the long run, and our grandchildren will not appreciate it if we just say “It’s going to require massive economic development and massive outlays
            of energy that is going to stress the planet. There is no way around
            that” which is, IMHO, a cop-out.

          • Jeffn

            I love it when you answer your own question.
            Yes, I agree, nothing like a carbon tax has been tried despite the fact that greens have been pushing a carbon tax for over two decades. The accurate summary of that is failure of a policy proposal.
            Yes, “greens” are not monolithic- hence the original post. Some have wasted 20+ years shilling for policies and alternatives that don’t work, some are more pragmatic and care enough to push policies that do.
            As for the moral dilemma, here is Greenpeace commenting on the fact that it’s top executive commutes by airplane:
            “What kind of compromises do you make in your efforts to try to make the world a better place?”
            John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK
            http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/10920198/Greenpeace-executive-flies-250-miles-to-work.html

          • Shredder

            Nice try. You can’t say the policy has failed if it hasn’t been tried. Thus your entire argument falls apart. 20+ years (or whatever) trying to get a policy passed does not equal the failure of the policy. In typical form you mis-characterize my position. Probably in order to avoid addressing it. And by the way, what greenpeace’s executive, or any other individual, does in the context of their own personal carbon footprint is obviously irrelevant to the question of what the government should do. (Reverting to that old trope really gives away the game.) I’m increasingly convinced that the entire argument against the obvious things that need to happen (price on carbon, reduction of emissions) is entirely a straw man. The markets can be utilized to deal with climate change. This is a conservative approach and I’d say that by now a strong majority of traditional environmentalists endorse it. It’s also a scientific approach because it starts with evidence and reaches a reasoned conclusion, as opposed to the “Don’t worry be happy” approach of those who have a vested interest in continuing to use fossil fuel energy at unsustainable rates. Mark my words: Regardless of what anyone might say, a significant price on carbon will happen. Know how I know? It is in the long range business plan of all the oil companies. Do some research and you will confirm this. The train has left the station, my friends. Get ready to get on, one way or the other.

          • Jeffn

            You are stuck in a field of your own strawmen.
            First, I didn’t write “policy failure” I wrote “failure of a policy proposal.” That last word is key as it negates your entire rebuttal. Face it, after 20+ years of trying for a carbon tax there isn’t one in existence, there isn’t one on the docket for congress, and the international push for them is going nowhere. If you want to call that a success, or even a neutral, by all means go for it.
            As for your proof that “a significant price on carbon” (whatever that means) is inevitable- please.
            Go back to my original point- a tax designed to reduce the use of a product has two ways of working- it can get you to stop using the product or an alternative (smoking tax) or it can get you to switch to an alternative.
            As long as greens deny functional alternatives and/or assume we can just quit using energy, their policy proposal will go nowhere.
            Mostly because switching to functional alternatives doesn’t require a carbon tax.

          • Shredder

            Talk about straw-men. “As long as greens deny functional alternatives and/or assume we can just quit using energy, their policy proposal will go nowhere.” No one said “quit using energy.” You ignore my point that many people support nuclear or clean coal or natural gas. Your argumentation consists of straw-man plus projection. Fail. And I guess I should listen to some guy on an internet board as opposed to all the planning departments of the major oil companies. Ho-kay. You continue to completely ignore my main point, because you have no rebuttal for it: it is a cop-out to say we can just keep on with business as usual and just boost supplies without worrying about the needed reductions in GHG emissions. That is 100% contrary to the science of climate change. Science, remember? But hey, by all means keep up with the hippie-bashing. It marginalizes your silly, irrelevant approach and that will bring us closer to a solution. So I should thank you. Best regards to ted, michael and the rest of the BTI crew.

          • Jeffn

            I addressed your point directly. I see reading comprehension isn’t your strong suit. Here it is again:

            “Mostly (the policy failure is) because switching to functional alternatives (gas, nukes) doesn’t require a carbon tax.”

            We went from zero to 20% nuclear in the 60s and 70s, how much of that was due to the carbon tax at the time? How big do you think the Bush carbon tax was that prompted the fracking revolution? We could, possibly, speed up adoption of alternatives with a carbon price- but that would require consensus on alternatives and the current status is that your team demands a carbon price while opposing fracking and nuclear.
            And the problem with a carbon price that we haven’t even begun to discuss is its regressive nature and geographically disparate impact. No doubt you’d love to pay yourself a “refund” of TinyTown’s carbon taxes while the residents of TinyTown wait for the nuclear reactor you already have and the electric tractor they’ll get around to producing some day. But TinyTown has representation in Congress too, so good luck.

          • Shredder

            Riiiiight, as if the business as usual energy approach is so fair and wonderful for everyone in the third world; you might want to check your sources on that one. If nuclear is so great why is it so uneconomical? Protests didnt hold back the industry, market forces did. (Besides, you may want to check with folks in Japan for the latest trends.) Like I said, I’d support nuclear if its problems could be addressed. And how’s that fracking methane leakage and aquifer contamination working out for ya? … But hey, when the straw man fails, resort to ad hominem and snark, right? Whatever, I have to go do something worthwhile with my time. Thanks for the dialogue, have fun with the hippie-bashing, and try to be relevant when you can. Cheers, I’m out.

          • Jeffn

            “business as usual energy approach is so fair and wonderful for everyone in the third world”

            The third world wants energy, just like the energy you enjoy.

            “If nuclear is so great why is it so uneconomical?”
            It isn’t uneconomical- France has some of the lowest electricity rates in Europe because it went nuke.

            “you may want to check with folks in Japan for the latest trends.”
            Okay. Japan recognizes that it needs the nukes unless it wants to give up emissions reductions (same with Germany).

            “And how’s that fracking methane leakage and aquifer contamination working out for ya?”

            Great, actually. Fracking means the US is the only developing nation actually reducing emissions these days and contamination turns out to be yet another “hippie” myth.

            “Cheers, I’m out.”

            Awww, and you were doing so well!

          • bobito

            And on the climate lobby proposal. There is a bit of a failure of logic. From the site “Revenue from that tax should be returned to the public as a monthly or annual payment to protect households from rising costs associated with the carbon tax.”

            So, we should take steps to make carbon more expensive, then give the money gained by making it more expensive back to the people that paid more. Thus, they now have more money to pay for the more expensive carbon?

            If Oil costs more, who is going to decide to heat their home less? Rich or poor?

            If gas costs more, who is going to choose to drive less? Rich or poor?

          • Shredder

            I think you need to think more in terms of macroeconomics and global investment. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the crucial part is utilizing market forces to send the correct signals to energy investors. As it is right now, we subsidize fossil fuels and (in some ways) penalize green fuels. that is backwards.

        • Matthew Slyfield

          “If there is not, then we need to reduce our per capita energy use. Period.”

          The only way to do that is to reduce our standard of living. You won’t be able to get any significant number of people to buy into that.

          If you are thinking of improvements in energy efficiency, past experience tells us that increases in energy efficiency don’t lead to net reductions in energy consumption. People simply spend the saved energy on other things.

          • Shredder

            If we don’t get significant numbers of people to reduce their standard of living, then nature will do it for us, and that is something I think no one really wants to see. Your fantasy is bumping up against reality. Relying on “past experience” is going to be futile in any number of ways. There is a “new normal” in case you hadn’t noticed.

          • JH

            “If we don’t get significant numbers of people to reduce their standard of living, then nature will do it for us”

            The old nature-will-get-us-back meme! Striking parallels to God’s retribution in the prophecies of the old testament, but not much of a basis in science.

          • Shredder

            Oh right, I forgot – there is an infinite supply of fossil fuels provided for humanity to enjoy indefinitely. Now back to your regularly-scheduled programming in “science.”

          • JH

            Oh, right, you forgot: gas hydrates. :)

            Now back to See What Happens When We Lower Our Educational Standards?

          • Shredder

            So we can burn away for 200 years or more and not go through our carbon budget? More basically – can we really solve the climate issue without reducing GHG emissions? Just full steam ahead? Is that what you are saying?

          • JH

            “Is that what you are saying?”

            If I didn’t say that it’s not what I’m saying. Right? But let me add a few things to clarify my view:

            A) asking people to reduce their standard of living is a dead end. If, in the end, nature does that for us, then it was unavoidable. But why should we reduce our standard of living because something bad might happen? We don’t know how destructive AGW will be. Estimates range from “somewhat” to “very serious”. But we do know that reducing standard of living is equivalent to accepting economic decline which is certain to be destructive.

            B) Nature doesn’t “get us back”. The fact that we have a high standard of living now does not generate resentment from nature that demands payback. :) If you believe that we’re “destined” to get some sort of “payback” from nature, you’re of course entitled to your belief but that’s a religious belief not a scientific fact or theory or hypothesis or scientific concept of any kind.

  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    Who gets to determine what’s pragmatic?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Is that something I should meditate on? :)

  • SocraticGadfly

    Good effing doorknob, you’re off the rails if you tout Breakthrough as being good.

  • Graham Strouts

    Makes me think of this quote from Woody Allen: “I don’t much care for reality- but it’s the only place I can get a good steak” :)

  • JH

    Ah, Keith, the “bad Anthropocene” people are selling it at every opportunity:

    “To think that we can avoid similar catastrophe today due to better technology is a dangerous notion” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140619125052.htm

    The quote is from a SciDaily article on human impacts on the Yellow River in China. It assembles a very believable narrative on how human tinkering with the Yellow River caused immense floods that eventually overturned the Han Dynasty.

    From a first pass there are several features of the article that suggest the sweeping conclusions step well outside the constraints of the data generated by the study. In the end, I suspect, the “lesson” that the researcher is selling is imposed by his “everything natural is safe” predilections, not by the data generated from his work.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »