Ecocentric

Anthropocene: Do We Need a New Environmentalism for a New Age?

We're remaking the very face of the world thanks to population and economic growth. Environmentalism is being challenged—and a group of dissident greens believe we need to rethink the entire project

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Jasper James

I advise you all to check out Keith Kloor’s piece in Slate on the “Great Schism in the Environmental Movement,” which I believe I spent most of last week debating on Twitter. The message is one we’ve talked about here: the Anthropocene is at hand and the sheer power of humanity’s presence and ambition means that pristine nature is no more—which in turn means that we need a new environmentalism for a new age. There are people ready to provide that new environmentalism: “modernist greens” like the thinker Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s and still very much in the game. Brand has given green insurgents the closest thing they have to a motto: “We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.”

Kloor agrees, and, like Brand, rejects the doomsaying that was common in the 1960s and is still so much a part of contemporary environmental research and reporting. New studies from conservationists like Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy back them up, making the case that nature—poor, threatened nature—is a lot tougher than we think. As Kloor goes on:

The modernist greens . . . don’t catastrophize. They are even optimistic about the future. Some, like geographer Erle Ellis, point out that “the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.” He thus suggests that “we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity.”

Another way of looking at the Anthropocene is how Mark Lynas puts it in The God Species: “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.”


(MORE: Nature Is Over)

That is true—give or take the occasional asteroid or other natural disasters. Kloor’s piece came in for a lot of criticism online—some of it deserved, most of it not I think—but that’s what happens when you dig at the fundamental assumptions behind an entire movement. I agree that the environmental movement could stand to modernize, and in fact, I think that process is already underway, perhaps more than even Kloor realizes. Mainstream green groups, especially in the U.S., are much more ready to cooperate with big business and big technology than their counterparts were 30 or 40 years ago.

They’re certainly more nimble than their ideological opponents in the Republican Party, who remain in lockstep against virtually any engagement on climate change—which most Republicans seem to doubt in the first place—and aim to roll back environmental protections whenever possible. Trying to find common ground is vital, but I’m not sure how the green movement is supposed to do it without reliable partners on the other side. For some greens, the conclusion—a not unreasonable one—is that they should simply push their own interests as hard as they can, hoping somehow to sidestep or marginalize a scientifically reactionary minority. That’s fine, but it’s easy for those of us who work in or report on the environmental movement to mistake that sense of assertiveness, coupled with the ever-growing green chatter on our  Twitter streams, for real influence. Want an example? See the battle over oil and gas exploration: as Abrahm Lustgarten wrote in a piece for ProPublica last week, the Environmental Protection Agency has done little to protect underground water reservoirs that are being used as dumping grounds for drilling. Why? Because, as one EPA employee tells Lustgarten, “nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium” in the U.S. right now. Even with a Democrat in the White House. So much for Twitter power.

But Kloor isn’t really talking about politics. Rather, I think, it’s how we conceive of the environment and environmentalism. 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.

(MORE: Urban Planet: How Growing Cities Will Wreck the Environment Unless We Build Them Right)

The realist in me thinks the modernist greens are right. There are simply too many of us, and we want too much, for our footprint on the Earth to get anything but bigger. And I’m cheered by the scientists and thinkers who suggest that we might be able to have it all—a huge, thriving human population, and an environment that can support it—as long as we plan right. What’s more, I’m very conscious that industrialization and globalization have largely been forces for good, expanding human access to wealth, health and longevity. There’s no better time in history to be human being. Industrialization is not going to be rolled back—and it shouldn’t be.

There’s also a larger social shift at work that’s altering our concept of nature. Today more human beings live in cities than live in the countryside, and that proportion will only grow in the future: by 2050, as many as three-quarters of the estimated 10 billion people on Earth will live in urban areas. This is a historic change—as recently as 1800 just 2% of the world’s population lived in cities—and it’s a sign that humanity, inevitably, is decoupling from nature. I suspect that’s true even of environmentalists, who are just as likely as anyone else to come into contact with what passes for wilderness these days more  in a managed park than untrammeled rainforest or woodland. For a lot of us, “environmental issues” increasingly have to do with improving urban life—think cleaner mass transit or access to organic food in farmer’s markets. As the writer Emma Marris argued in her book Rambunctious Garden, environmentalism needs to stop drawing simplistic lines between what’s natural and what’s manmade—with the former always good and the latter always bad—and learn to celebrate the biodiversity that’s in our backyards.

The modern greens paint an optimistic picture, and that in itself is a welcome change from the relentlessly pessimistic scenarios we’ve become accustomed to —a pessimism, it should be noted, that hasn’t been all that effective in marshaling public opinion. But the optimism of the modern greens is conditional on two points: first, that we have the ability and the will—politically and perhaps even biologically as a species—to plan properly for the Anthropocene. (We may be as gods, but I see plenty of evidence to suggest that we’ll never get good at it.) Second, we have to hope that nature really will prove resilient in the face of pollution, growing human population and most of all, climate change, which we show virtually no sign of being able to slow in the near future.

(MORE: Visualizing the Anthropocene)

It’s that second point that, for now at least, is presenting problems. We just passed the 333rd straight month of global temperatures above the 20th century average. There’s a 99.99999999% chance that 2012 will be the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states. Arctic sea ice hit a record low this year, and could fully vanish—during the summers at least—in a matter of years. We’re in the midst of what may well the biggest wave of extinctions since the end of the dinosaurs. And meanwhile we remain largely unable to slow, let alone reverse, the rise in manmade greenhouse gas emissions responsible for this warming. Things may really be as bad as they seem, and getting worse.

In his piece, Kloor quotes the eminent conservation biologist E.O. Wilson, responding to Emma Marris on a panel in Aspen this summer, who was talking about expanding our definition of nature. “Where do you plant that white flag you’re carrying?” Wilson asked her. 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.

MORE: How Human Beings Are Downgrading Life on Planet Earth

28 comments
GenL
GenL

Change one thing at a time: the burning of any fuels including biofuels is pretty bad...  A billion cars on the planet doesn't help. E.V. cars are expensive because of the cost of batteries.  They don't go too far.  Standardise the battery measurements and fit all cars to take those dimensions. Any advance in battery development will keep to the same dimensions.

 Customers buy the car at lower cost by using a battery exchange loan scheme.  

Imagine a sign on the motorway saying, 'Battery Exchange Point Charged by (solar or wind energy or wave energy) Drive in.  The exchange will take less than 2 minutes.  Next Point of Exchange - 20 miles'

The cost of building aninfrastructure to supply houses with power is too expensive. Using alternative energy sites to store all the power they produce in battery form, could be the answer. Off peak electricity could be used where there is already an infrastructure. Also just provide the service stations and garages with the power. 

I'm sure the businesses involved could come up with a mutual deal - car and battery manufacturers, power providers, service stations.

Car manufacturers could also retro fit or provide electric motor kits for existing suitable cars.  The recycled metal from old engines can be recycled to make...Why am I thinking of electric motors and solar furnaces?

AngeloBonelli1
AngeloBonelli1

@giustiziaclima grazie dell'articolo e' un contributo molto importante

ki7wh1
ki7wh1

Oy yoy yoy!  In the throes of massive resource problems, species disappearing, glaciers evaporating, and populations (especially, the pious) exploding, we get this rosy-eyed view.  Fact is:  pessimists rule in the world of predictions (Malthus notwithstanding).  Between appeasers like Kloor and social environmentalists ("you can't let environmental concerns undermine our Liberal dogma), I am even less sanguine about humanities ability to stave off catastrophe.

CarolynG
CarolynG

I don't think what either you or kloor has put forward is particularly insightful or relevant as it relates to the environmental movement.  First, the issue is much better explained and contextualized in an essay by Paul Kingsnorth published in the Jan/Feb issue of orion.  If you cant be bothered to read this essay, then the cliff notes version is this---its the very NATURE of the problem that is why environmentalism has changed in tone, not the tone itself.  Climate change is happening faster and its impact is more detrimental than we were told back in the early 80's and later in the 90's as suggested by the models.  There are many primers out there aboutexplaining how close we are to a tipping point and point of no return are out there so I leave you to explore that on your own.  Anywho, when you understand the true nature of the issue you quickly see you have two choices, you can try and save people or you can save the biosphere.  Saving the biosphere at this stage in the game basically requires the collapse of civilization or the economy ( I direct you to the many talks by Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre and other for the basis for statement).  Not likely to happen, clearly. So then you have the terrarium people, or as you call them the eco-pragmatists.  They are the modeler types (Hansen, McKibben and most of the IPCC contributers) who  think we can can hold it to 450ppm and survive through what is basically  an ecological collapse as a result of climate change.  Maybe they are right, but I doubt it.  We couldn't figure out how to survive in biosphere 2 w/o supplemental O2 and I doubt we know enough about the biogeochemical cyclings of entire planet to make it a huge human terrarium.

ksuckling
ksuckling

When you say "But Kloor isn’t really talking about politics. Rather, I think, it’s how we conceive of the environment and environmentalism." I can't help but translate it as "Kloor is wrong in his description of what actual environmentalists really do, but it's a useful conversation anyway."

Kloor is indeed simplistic, cartoonish and plain wrong about environmentalists. But unfortunately, it's not a harmless error initiating a good discussion. It's a fatal error which contaminates his reasoning and conclusions.

Environmental groups, for example, spend only a small percent of their resources on the designation and management of wilderness areas and parks. Most of their time is spent on restoring, protecting or improving management of lands which are subject to logging, grazing, mining and other uses. Why? Because such lands constitute the vast majority of the continent. 

The greatest wilderness myth is that people are obsessed with wilderness. It is propagated by pundits like Kloor, Kareiva, Marris and Ellis in order to make their own proposals seem "new" and "groundbreaking" when in reality, there is very little new there. In fact, there is too often very little there there. This is particularly true of Kareiva's very muddled thinking. See my longer response to him: http://thebreakthrough.org/journal/debates/conservation-in-the-anthropocene-a-breakthrough-debate/conservation-for-the-real-world

Another favored myth is that caring about wild places somehow leads to disliking or undervaluing non-wild places, Marris's rambunctious garden. Marris apparently has never been to an Audubon or Sierra Club meeting. Just who do you think passed all those bonds to establish urban parks? Who are those people pressing for cleaner water and open space in cities and suburbs? I'll give you hint, it's not the Chamber of Commerce or Exxon.

The end result Kloor's sloppy rehash of sloppy thinking is a near universal rejection by the actual environmentalists he is trying to influence.

Kieran Suckling, Executive Director, Center for Biological Diversity

wenstephenson
wenstephenson

@bryanrwalsh Wrong question, I think. If still obsessed w/ "environmentalism," then not facing our global crisis, which transcends it.

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

Like wow, Man..............It's like, wow - Deja Vu, all over again, man.................When I was a little kid in Seattle during the end of the 60's and getting up late in bed in the morning on Saturday...and they tell me on the radio, that I can't go out and ride my bike around and play because the "air isn't healthy" just really sucks big time. If I could see this need for a new conscience BACK THEN, why couldn't everybody else? Ah, so what??? if they weren't born hippies. What keeps them dumb is certainly something else. Just look at a leaf. If you've got it this conscience, you'll see the blueprint of your hand in it. 

rprince
rprince

I find this view of our environmental crisis bizarre. It is so much like the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. "See, if we put them this way, the listing doesn't seem so bad!" We made hard choices 30 years ago, 60 years ago, that we would pursue material prosperity rather than environmental reality. We got it. Unfortunately, there are natural laws that man in all his god like wisdom and power can do nothing about. Bring the dodo back from extinction. Or the tiger. Next time a hurricane comes roaring up the coast, blow it out to sea. Change the half-life of Plutonium 239 to 50 years instead of 24,000. There are very bad years ahead. We need to understand that and begin mitigation. Don't confuse that with the dawning of some glorious new age.

JKBullis
JKBullis

(second page)Under this new limitation, all need to rethink our basic assumptions on how things should be done. My approach is to be guided by the way people choose to live, meaning the notion that we all live in cities and ride public transportation is not the ideal system, though it sounds like you are espousing that. This is one of the key conflicts of the world. I work on ways to make personal transportation fit within tight energy limitations, and I mean really tight - - which does not mean pretending an electric car is efficient. One striking failure of many environmentalist zealots is that they do not understand the physics of electric energy.

I also prefer to limit population by birth control rather than the natural selection process of starvation. We don't seem to be there yet with birth control, but in the mean time we need to put a high priority on production of basic food. I work on ways to expand agricultural production, which includes expanding irrigation as well as developing equipment that will enable higher land use. We are quite an anomaly in the world for having the luxury of holding several hundred million acres of land for under-use or no-use, and protecting vast wastelands for the purpose of open-space environmentalist goals is policy that should be closely questioned, yes, with an idea of compromise, not eradication.

JKBullis
JKBullis

It is encouraging to know there are modern greens who realize the need to be pragmatic about how we use our environment.

There will be no real progress in solving the big problems when the debate is between environmental zealots and the righteous right.

There has to be at least recognition that there is a serious problem of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, and this fact has to permeate all of our thinking about solving other problems. This is a true new reality that seriously limits our choices. But it does not mean there has to be an end our prosperity.(more in next)

Kenai
Kenai

Dear friend, your signature can save lives!

http://organpetition.org/

Need your help!

Pls don't keep silence on a Crime Against Humanity!

0Sundance
0Sundance

We need more individuals like Keith Kloor speaking out against the irrationalism of radical greens and doomsayers.

sarbani_bajari
sarbani_bajari

@TIME Thr r plenty Envmt'l laws! but give me a c'ntry or a prs'n sincerely attached to it.Hw do u expect new laws w'ld be followed/ enacted.

mem_somerville
mem_somerville

Um, who is "more nimble than their ideological opponents" exactly? The problems are exactly the same fundamentalism, in fact.

Maybe you are looking at a different front line than I am, but on agriculture this is not the case. There is no major green group that wants to work to improve plant science with technology. Mainstream green groups want to move back to a time when yields were way down and much more land would need to be taken (a great way to remove even more natural habitat) to get the yields we need now. They refuse to accept that we might be able to improve nutrition which is also a huge benefit to the really hungry, not the well fed folks working up their kale chips from their CSA. And Greenpeace even mowed down the nitrogen-efficient wheat in Australia that would require far less fertilizer. 

And there is no common ground they are offering. It's their way or the highway on plant science.

Beau_fish
Beau_fish

@TIME move more people to the country side...stop building cities, if you better make them self supported with energy, utilities and food.

sora
sora

Welcome to the era of Spaceship Earth.  I used to dream about travelling among the stars as a child - Star Trek figured largely in what I thought our future would look like.  Then as I grew older, I noticed that rather than spending all that effort on recreating the planet's environment, so that we would have artificial air, water etc, it's actually much simpler to stay put on the planet where everything, including gravity was already ready made for my comfort.  Unfortunately, I also noticed how polluted everything was - and getting worse.

We need cleaner air - lets start by getting rid of every single cigarette on this planet.  They are absolutely foul and disgusting.  Would you allow someone to smoke in the enclosed world of a space ship?  Why in the world does anyone think that it's acceptable to smoke here and now?  There are 7 billion human being breathing in and breathing out - ick - we need a lot more cleaner air than ever before.  See how simple one particular solution can be?

Note all the additional benefits to getting rid of cigarettes - have you seen the disgusting cigarette butts left everywhere?  Not to mention reducing fire hazard, not to mention health benefits.  In Australia, the suggestion that we ban all children born from year 2000 from smoking cigarettes.  What a lovely idea.  Lets make it, all children in the entire world.  Especially in countries like Philippines where you have a 2 year old child smoking 40 cigarettes per day.

Human beings are seriously filthy.  I don't know why we keep maligning pigs so much - they're far cleaner than we are.  We should look at changing our environment by cleaning up first.  Clean the air.  Clean the water.  Clean the ground - currently our spaceship Earth is closer to garbage dump Earth.  Gross.  Notice that reduction of carbon emission is an automatic extension of this concept.  Cars should reduce noise, as well as gas emissions - change in power source would definitely help there.  We are also seriously noisy.  The constant buzz of noise is bad enough without adding on all the loud voiced cretins who insist on sharing their private business with the general public (ie mobile phones!), regardless of place or situation.  Ouch.  Star Trek really mislead me about the future there - to think, here I've been waiting for polite, well modulated, clear and distinct expressions of rationality and what do I get?  Loud screeching baboons!

In any case, my point really was that despite the dire warnings of this article, the thing that I noticed about all this discussion of our environment is how afraid people are of change.  In the first place?  I distinctly remember hearing about the dangers of Global warming back in 1970s - and remember how the main scientific community, never mind the public, used to pour scorn on those concerns.  So, it took those who should have known better over 40 years to admit that we're in trouble.  Wow.  No wonder the message is having a hard time going through to the general public.  In the second place?  What happens, will happen.  Either we change our attitude and behaviour - and note how hard it is to take away things like cigarettes (the only poison you actually pay money to ingest voluntarily) and guns (objects whose only purpose is to kill) from human beings.  Talk about self destructive.  Or we don't and we have to deal with the consequences - whether we like it or not.

The age of Antropocene?  Has always been here since human beings existed on the planet.  Even the Aborigines (in Australia) were likely responsible for extinction of species - eg. it's been suggested that they're responsible for the extinction of 10 foot Kangaroos around 40 000 years ago.  I would suggest that rather than looking at fixing the planet or how we effect the planet - the first place to start is actually with us. We really need to do something about human nature first, since that is the cause of all our problems.  We need to do something about the self destructive behaviour of human beings, that insist on continuing with actions that are manifestly dangerous, not only to themselves but to others.  Once we do this, fixing (or if too late, learning how to adapt to) the environment should be a piece of cake.

So.  Starting with spaceship Earth.  Notice that we aren't able to share the limited resources that we still have?  Notice that we aren't able to eliminate violent, destructive / self-destructive behaviour?  Notice that we can't even talk about these possibilities without name calling or otherwise insisting on irrational arguments?  If we turned the amount of money and effort we spend on guns and cigarettes on food production and distribution, do you think we'll still have a billion people in hunger?  It's not that we can't fix these problems.  It's always been more that we won't.  

tnecnivdc
tnecnivdc

@TIME we should be part of that movement, it should be done daily.

iTsMyLiFeJB
iTsMyLiFeJB

@TIME I have faith that one day u follow me.I deserve it because I <3 your work too. U're the air I breathe.FollowMe #IBelieve

JKBullis
JKBullis

@rprince 

It all depends on what you mean by mitigation. 

The most oft heard kind is to prohibit use of the least expensive fuels in favor of heavy expenditures for equipment that will take a long time to pay off, and the payers seem to always be the public and the costs seem to be large. 

We could clearly change the way we distribute water, and with this change we could capture and sequester large amounts of CO2.  We could also provide much additional foodstuffs which could change the market prices and rebalance our imports versus exports.  The idea of expanding irrigation runs headlong into the false notion that we are running out of fresh water.  The only reason we are running low on fresh water for many purposes is that some think they should control vast amounts of that for the sake of environmental idealism. 

No, tromping on endangered species is not what I am talking about.  It is about priorities, and I do think that endangered lives need to be represented in the discussion of  such priorities.

StevenEarlSalmony
StevenEarlSalmony

@sora We need to do something different, something now, something that protects the frangible environs and finite resources of the planet we are blessed to inhabit.  And we have to begin making necessary behavioral changes with all deliberate speed..... while there is still time to respond ably

sora
sora

@StevenEarlSalmony @sora 

That's my point actually.  That what we need to work on is 'Necessary behavioral changes'.  In other words, we need to work on 'us' before the environment because it is our actions that is damaging the environment.  Trying to fix the environment without working on changing/improving 'us' isn't going to work, because the factors that produced the problems in the first place eg. rapacious, materialistic greed and willful ignorance, will simply continue to plague any efforts to save the planet.

It's kind of an egg/chicken argument really.  It's not that I'm against the efforts to save the planet - on the contrary.  It's more that I'm beginning to see these efforts as futile because we haven't addressed the real cause of the problem.   Our problem isn't the planet (it's amazing what Earth has been able to withstand really), our problem is really us.

I think that we're 'ripe' for social evolution - the kind that failed so miserably in 20th century for example.  What I noticed in the dialogue on environmentalism is the continuous repetition of the need to change our behaviour and attitude.  How we live, how we see the planet, what we can 'take' from the planet.   Rather than allowing the move to save the planet to hopefully change/evolve us, we should start realizing that the first change must start with us.

The very first place to start, that which is different is to realise that saving the planet is really about saving us.  In whatever form, the planet (provided we don't develop planet vaporisation level of technology - destruction of the upper crust is, luckily still not that stage) is still going to be here, as it was before humans existed on the planet.  The reason for the need for speed is because we want to salvage as much of the planet as it is, is so that it is fit for human habitation.  

So, I agree with the need for change.  And with the need for something different.  I just think that what we need is to change us.  Saving the biosphere?  That's just going to be a bonus that we can count on, if we succeed in the first.  Whereas if we focus only on 'saving the planet', we're probably going to have some idiots who'll ruin the whole shebang - as we always have had and still have.