The Anthropocene is a term popularized in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, referring to this geological epoch as “the age of man.” The core of the idea is that humanity as a species has become a major factor in several large scale earth systems: atmospheric carbon, the nitrogen cycle, land use patterns, extinctions of species, and that our actions are significant enough to register on a planetary scale. There are disagreements about the best definition of the Anthropocene and its start date, along with a solid chunk of people who regard the whole idea as dangerous nonsense, but I think the Anthropocene serves as useful flag to rally under. The conventional wisdom in the ecological community is that the Anthropocene is a disaster, a funeral dirge for rapidly disappearing nature, and then the deserving end of humanity as a species. To those who coined the term, the idea of a “Good Anthropocene” is contradictory nonsense. And yet, the dialog presents a clear vision.
Since the beginning, the core principles of the Breakthrough Institute have been that ecology doesn’t need to be depressing, that there is space for positive action, and that innovation, technology, and reasonable profit will be the keys to the future. The Ecomodernist Manifesto sketches out a broad vision of how this might happen: deployment of new energy infrastructure, with a key role for next-generation nuclear, to decarbonize industrial economies and literally empower the 3 billion people in the developing world, intensification of land use near cities to feed and house everybody with an awareness of impacts on earth systems and long-term sustainability, and the return of marginal lands to nature through rewilding programs.
Twitter has preserved a decent chunk of the highlights under #GoodAnthropocene, but I’d like to present my own more considered reflections. The program opened with Mark Lynas introducing ecomodernism much as I have above, and Clive Hamilton making the fascinating counter-argument that the idea is nothing more than secular theodicy; an apologia for the beneficence of God in a world that clearly contains great evil and suffering, and that it leads to both arrogance on the part of people who believe than can control complex and tightly coupled Earth systems, when their tools are at best nudges, and that it would lead to quietism on the part of those suffering most.
The robust criticism continued the next morning, with Bruno Latour proposing that ecomodernism was neither particularly ecological nor modern, but might represent a way beyond the fundamental modern illusion of a divide between nature and culture. Steve Fuller asked if there is any reason why the developing world would accept the very Bay Area “middle youth” that is a major stylistic component of the Ecomodern Manifesto. Jenny Price called for more historical and humanistic sensitivity to when things leave nature, say oil pumped from the ground which presumably crosses a threshold somewhere between geology and refinery, and what this means for rewilding. Compressing the ideas of great thinkers into a sentence necessarily entails some damage, but I hope this captures the essence of the diversity of views at the Dialog.
The policy and activism presentations were equally diverse. Some of my favorites included Joyashree Roy looking at air conditioning in Calcutta as the only way to mitigate many heat related illness. The success of Kruger National Park in South Africa as the world’s largest wildlife refuge, and an attempt to create a similarly –scaled wild tiger habitat in India. And finally the narrative ecology of Elena Bennett, who studies Quebecois communities planning for changing agricultural patterns, suburbanization, and a proposed wilderness corridor linking the Adirondack and Laurentian mountains, which revealed that the relative location and access of protected areas may matter more for their success than the their simple area.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the conference was my breakout panel, Anthropocene Opportunities, which opened with the provocative question, “We know that all animal species in a finite habitat expand until they reach the limits of their resources, and the recoil hard. What makes humanity different from all other animals, and how might that let us make a good Anthropocene?” The discussion was both deeply freewheeling and deeply informed. Humans are super-cooperators, capable of working in large groups for good or ill. Moreso than any other animal, we have the ability to plan, foresee years and generations ahead, to tell stories and weave facts into coherent wholes. Opportunity exists in better ways of muddling forward, and in distributed action. One scenario might see major cities coordinating their climate change mitigation and adaptation policies, extending their political and economic networks out in a few hundred miles radius to balance high intensity human habitation with wild areas. (I welcome more answers to this question in the comments).
The reason why the Breakthrough Dialog, the Good Anthropocene, and the Ecomodern Manifesto matter, is that climate change and the future of our civilization are as big as problems get, and the Good Anthropocene provides a way forward that includes a diversity of viewpoints and actions. There are many things that a reasonable person could disagree with: the Breakthrough Institute’s embrace of nuclear is an enduring sore spot with the rest of the Green movement; I’m not sure that intensified land use is compatible with a smaller footprint on vulnerable earth systems, even with better ecological sciences. But think of the alternatives. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, praises human creativity, but castigates a technocratic worldview based on dominance and exploitation and calls for a spiritual reawakening as its central point. I served as facilitator for the Worldwide Views on Climate and Energy forum as a lead-in to COP21, and the UNFCCC seems to know the weakness of its position from the materials presented and questions asked. Any agreement must arrive by consensus of the 192 countries of the international community, and be assented to by a democratic majority of their citizens. Real change, with deep cuts in carbon emissions and international wealth transfers for mitigation and adaptation, will require deals and enforcement power that the even the UNFCCC doesn’t have. Do these ideas seem realistic?
By comparison, in the words of my good friend and credible source Jesse Jenkins, “No one here believes that embracing technology means rejecting politics, or that ecomodernism is passive. All of us are asking ‘What is to be done?’” Ecomodernism and the Good Anthropocene is an open framework into which many smaller ideas and actions can fit, without radical alterations in human nature or a single point of technopolitical passage. Stories that recognize that humans and nature are inseparable, that human rights and the political process and economic growth should flourish, and that there are things that can be done to ensure the Anthropocene is a good one. No one sane denies that there is pain ahead. Even if we somehow shut off industrial civilization tomorrow, we are already in the midst of human-caused sixth mass extinction, and the Maldives will go underwater. The point is not to ignore the pain, but to treat it as a birth rather than a death, to provide a positive vision for humanity and wilderness to coexist and coevolve through deep time.
One of the perennial guests at the Breakthrough Dialog is Stewart Brand, of the Long Now Foundation, and the Blue Marble Photo, and the Whole Earth Catalog, and basically everything interesting or cool since 1965. His current project is de-extincting the Wooly Mammoth. For a while, I’ve thought this was neat, but basically distraction. Now I get it. Wiping out the mammoth was the first major ecological crime of our species; bringing it back would not erase all that we’ve done, all that we do when we flip a switch or press a gas pedal because, but it would mark a turning point. Symbols and stories matter, along with plans and technology. I agree with Clive Hamilton that the Good Anthropocene is a secular theodicy, but that might be just what we need, given how our historical traditions have melted away to air under the harsh lights of technological change and scientific knowledge.
Human beings have to believe in something. I choose to believe that we can be good.