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Who are we in the Anthropocene?

The raging debate on our influence over the planet comes to the Natural Capital Center.

By James Proctor

Today, there’s a robust debate going on about our place in geologic time. A lot of scholars and writers are suggesting we are living in a new era — the Anthropocene: It’s a scientific and popular concept of the world as fundamentally shaped by humans. First discussed in the earth sciences community as a proposed term for the current geological epoch (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000), the Anthropocene has now entered the popular imagination as well, with media articles and op-eds such as “Hope in the age of man,” “Spaceship Earth: A new view of environmentalism,” and “Anthropocene: Why you should get used to the age of man (and woman).”

These titles suggest two closely related questions: Have humans indeed become the dominant force shaping earth processes, and if so, is this a good or a bad thing? The former question is still unresolved among earth scientists (yes, it’s still the Holocene), and the latter has divided scholars as well: Some consider the Anthropocene a “planetary opportunity” (DeFries et al. 2012), while others consider it the pinnacle of hubris to imagine that humans do, or should, dominate the earth (Wuerthner et al. 2014).

Discussion surrounding the Anthropocene is relatively new, yet the good and bad spins being cast on the Anthropocene are unsurprising to anyone who has followed debates in environmentalism over the last five decades. What is often unacknowledged, however, is that this debate is not just about the earth; it’s also fundamentally about us, since it raises so many questions about how we ground our identities, moralities, and practices. For starters: What does it mean to dwell in the Anthropocene, if the earth has in many ways become a human creation? Shall we, the anthropos, celebrate or mourn this era? How shall we guide our environmental practices when notions such as the balance of nature and living within limits no longer fit this collective experience? How shall we move forward when the only choices we understand seem far behind us?

Those of you who follow the New York Times Dot Earth Blog  know that these questions flared into controversy last summer between blogger Andrew Revkin and others in the environmental community. The controversy followed a talk Revkin gave at an academic conference I attended in June. In response to his talk, Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tweeted “2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene,’ ” and Clive Hamilton wrote, “Grasping at delusions like ‘the good Anthropocene’ is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts.”

In this sense, Revkin’s juxtaposition of “good” and “Anthropocene” that raised so much ire (and which he attempted to clarify) is perhaps more fundamentally a statement about who we are in the Anthropocene, and who we will choose to be at this juncture in history. Oh no, you may moan, we have slipped from the realm of firm evidence (the current state of the earth) to the realm of flimsy opinion (our identities in the Anthropocene)! But, like all important environmental controversies, this one thoroughly mixes facts and values, description and prescription. How shall we find our way through a controversy that is not only big in scope but hybrid through and through?

For nearly ten years, I have struggled with this challenge in the practical context of teaching environmental studies at Lewis & Clark College. To some of our incoming students, environmental issues are as clear as black and white (let’s say green and brown). Yet as they realize these simple (if inconvenient) green truths have failed to successfully address the issues they care about, they gradually let go and learn to practice a more genuinely creative form of scholarly leadership.

Every year, our students at Lewis & Clark organize an annual Environmental Affairs Symposium, with creative scholarly leadership as their goal. Portland enjoys a surfeit of environmental events; our students work hard for Symposium to add value to this community conversation. This year, the theme is We the Anthropos, building upon the anxieties and possibilities raised above. The keynote event, to be held on Tuesday, October 14, starting at 7 pm in Ecotrust’s Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, features brief presentations and dialogue by two prominent geographers, Lesley Head (Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research) and Paul Robbins (Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison), followed by audience Q&A and a general reception. Symposium continues on October 15 and 16 with additional events held at Lewis & Clark College.

We look forward to your participation in Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Affairs Symposium 2014. For more information, see go.lclark.edu/envs/symposium.

References

  • Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” IGBP Global Change Newsletter 41:17–18.
  • DeFries, Ruth S. et al. 2012. “Planetary Opportunities: A Social Contract for Global Change Science to Contribute to a Sustainable Future.” BioScience 62 (6): 603–6. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.6.11.
  • Wuerthner, George, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler, eds. 2014. Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth. Island Press.

James Proctor is professor and director at the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College