by Judith Curry
[H]ow we meet the needs and aspirations of all of humanity while sustaining the planet’s ecology, is what the Anthropocene is all about. – Keith Kloor
What is the Anthropocene and are we in it?
The Smithsonian has a short article entitled What is the Anthropocene and are we in it? Sub title: Efforts to label the human epoch have ignited a scientific debate between geologists and environmentalists. Excerpts:
Anthropocene has become an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000. This year, the word has picked up velocity in elite science circles: It appeared in nearly 200 peer-reviewed articles, the publisher Elsevier has launched a new academic journal titled Anthropocene and the IUGS convened a group of scholars to decide by 2016 whether to officially declare that the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun.
Many stratigraphers (scientists who study rock layers) criticize the idea, saying clear-cut evidence for a new epoch simply isn’t there. “When you start naming geologic-time terms, you need to define what exactly the boundary is, where it appears in the rock strata,” says Whitney Autin, a stratigrapher at the SUNY College of Brockport, who suggests Anthropocene is more about pop culture than hard science.
Some Anthropocene proponents concede that difficulty. But don’t get bogged down in the mud, they say, just stipulate a date and move on. Will Steffen, who heads Australia National University’s Climate Change Institute and has written articles with Crutzen, recommends starting the epoch with the advent of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s or with the atomic age in the 1950s. Either way, he says, the new name sends a message: “[It] will be another strong reminder to the general public that we are now having undeniable impacts on the environment at the scale of the planet as a whole, so much so that a new geological epoch has begun.”
Eco-pragmatism or doom and gloom?
Keith Kloor has an insightful article Facing Up to the Anthropocene that discusses the environmental movement and the idea ‘anthroposcene.’ Excerpts
It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists.
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.
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.
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. Indeed, it appears that many of Revkin’s critics 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.
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.
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.
Well, it will be interesting to see what the IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences) comes up with regarding the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch. Hopefully traditional stratigraphic analysis will prevail, rather than the perceived need to send a ‘strong reminder to the general public . . .” I.e. hopefully geologists will not fall into the same rat trap that climate scientists have.
Even if the Anthropocene doesn’t make it as a geological epoch, it seems here to stay as an environmental meme. As an environmental meme, it has some promise – the sustainability meme is limiting and rather stale. Eco-pragmatists seem to have a fighting chance at seizing the narrative.
About two months ago, I gave a presentation on climate change to a group of Georgia Tech alumni. Someone in the audience asked me ‘What did you do for Earth Day?’ I answered ‘Nothing. I think turning out the lights on Earth Day sends the wrong message – I want to see the lights go on in Africa.’ I guess that puts me in the Eco-pragmatist camp.
I think Keith Kloor sums it up superbly with this statement:
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.