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.

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